Interview With Sudanese Poet Mutasim Alizerig

Interview With Sudanese Poet Mutasim Alizerig


  • Heritage is the entity of the Modern Poem.

  • The prose poem is inaccessible and only attainable to the talented.

  • The study of literary criticism is the light that discloses the ambiguity of creative writing.

  • The hegemony of ideology on literature has vanished.


KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - Sudanese poet Mutasim Alizerig has restored the rhythms and prestige of poetry and fashioned the poem with a sense of mastery and craftsmanship. Alizerig is not only considered as one of the poets who sustained the personality and spirit of Arabic poetry in Sudan but he is also a translator of poetry and a specialist in literary history namely a holder of an MA in this field.


Sudanow republished here an interview the reporter conducted with him earlier for the Qatari based al-Watan Arabic newspaper:


Q: You have spent more than two decades of expatriation in London City. What did it add to your creative experience?

  - Undoubtedly the years of expatriation profoundly benefited my creative experience in both quantity and quality. During these years the poem whose tittle (Melodies of Ismael the Rabbaba Player) was written there. In addition to that more than half of the poems enfolded within the collection were written in less than a year, while the rest were written in more than a decade! To this critic, Jabir Hussein expressed his amazement asking ‘’Why were the poems written in London more creatively matured and more qualitatively advanced than the others?’’ In my view, this is a result of a number of factors, mainly the availability of time, literary and cultural references. Above all is the everlasting confrontation between the self and the existential challenge exposed by expatriation against the human entity. In such case one is obliged to face the predicament of feelings of aridness and nihilism due to absence from homeland, family and friends. A poet, therefore, can only overcome these challenges with creativity; being the viable method to prove the contrary, employing those means the double-identity provides to promote and enrich the poet’s literary sensitivity.


During a period of two or three years, I was able to write two poetry collections. The first one to be published was: Melodies of Ismael the Sufi Rabbaba Player, the second: Muawia Nur on the banks of the Thames which is currently under publication. The third will most probably be published in not more than a duration of one to two years taking into consideration that a considerable number of the poems it shall contain have already been written.


This is in comparison to less than the poems of one poetry collection written in more than two decades! I dare say that years of expatriation are responsible for the maturity of my poetic experience, exemplified in writing, translation and empowerment of my cultural qualifications.                      


Q: You have experiences in employing Sudanese heritage such as that existent in the book of Al-Tabaqat and Folk Songs, this was exceptionally clear in your first collection, can myth be symbolically used in writing modern poetry?

 - Absolutely, I dare say it is the chord and entity of the modern poem and it is the framework upon which this poem is constituted shaping it as its flesh and blood, and as an axis around which its stages and features revolve. The myth or legend can also be observed in the modern poem as a sign or a hint that should be incorporated internally-not externally-within the experiment of the poem. Thus playing an important role in fertilising and enriching both content and form of the modern poem. Myth like a legend, folktale, folksong and religious heritage are all symbols that play a dominant and significant role in modern poetry. Obviously, we mean by these symbols the deep anthropological content of the human experiment as modern studies proved the great value of myth in the structure of the human mind. This was the green light for the introduction of myth to the world of modern poetry.    

His poetry books

Q: The prose poem is currently controlling the poetic scene. How do you look at it?        

 - I look at the prose poem as a possibility of writing poetry but of course not the sole one. It does not stand as a substitute to either the formal poem of the traditional metrical model or the modern form called: Tafila poetry. I have personally dealt with the prose poem on a very narrow scale when it is the best rhythm possibile for a certain poetic experiment. I have one poem in my first collection titled: (I never loved you as such) and two poems in the second collection titled: (A journey), the other titled: (I will not try).


The prose poem has a deceptive appearance that implies easiness to medium talented who are inclined to it but their adventure sorrily manifested in naive writings which cannot be ascribed to prose poem but rather only to prose. As for the prose poem, it is inaccessible but to those poets of real poetic talent whereas for the so claimed control of the prose poem, it is a matter of quantity that reflects the fragility of the world of reality that produced those writings. Namely the stultification practised by the media and the educational curricula, the thing that weakened the sense of creative writing, through which the metrical poem is written as well as the prose poem.                                            


Q: Your Master's thesis was in Literary History of Arabic Poetry in Sudan and that is related to literary criticism. What is the relationship between criticism and creativity, namely what is the effect of the study of literary criticism and the creative self?

 - The study of literature or literary criticism whether in the academic level or the conscious reading and meticulous following enlightens the dark paths and the ambiguities of creative writing. That is why it is reflected positively on the creative self. The Spanish poet Lorca rightly commented that a poet is like a clever hunter who must know where the hunt is. Literary criticism refines the poetic sensitivity of the writer or the poet so that he doesn’t only know where is the hunt but also the best of it.


Q: What about the application of the modern critical curricula in the Arab world?

 - Some say that it had parted between the reader and critical readings. This is absolutely true. The critical curricula had become complicated that it adds to the ambiguities of the creative experiment more ambiguity and abstruseness and renders the criticism as puzzling conundrums about which nobody knows but those who produced it, and a small number of academic researchers in the Arab world. Since the Arabic criticism had become consuming the western curricula and followed it’s footsteps, the few consumer-critics became the sole readers of their own product. This was the climax of the crisis. Neither the creative writer nor the lay reader could benefit from it. Here, a fundamental question is raised: what is the safe way to solve this dilemma? In my opinion, it lies in the return to the roots and origins of literary criticism in Arabic literary history. In this base of the literary heritage, development of literary criticism and curricula can be sought, benefiting from western and non-western methods, whatever in harmony with the literary personality. This is the narrow door and difficult formula if an independent literary criticism and curricula are to be established. Moreover, this is the only way to avoid being an echo of the systems of other nations. This results in restoring the national identity, aspiring for development and modernisation likewise. The obscurity witnessed in literary criticism is an infection of westernisation that led to the alienation of identity and rendered criticism a waste commodity.      


Q: During the seventies of the past century, poets: Mohamed Abdalhai, Alim Abbas employed long poems. Is the long poem still appropriate in the Third Millennium?

  - Yes, the long poem is definitely still viable in the third millennium and afterwards, but within certain requirements. First of all the theme and experiment should imply a long poem. Secondly, the length should be appropriate not only to every phrase, but every word no more and no less, without any unnecessary repetition that plays no role in the development of the content and structure of the poem. Whenever these requirements are observed, the long poem is accepted and acknowledged. Even some of the poems written by the prominent Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish suffer from redundancy and unnecessarily repeated phrases. If not for the cleverness of the poet, and his stimulating and enchanting metaphors, a poem could have been boring to the reader. However, it is not favourable to promote the long poem unless when it is a necessity. In this case, it is favourable that a long poem should have distinct constructive features and stanzas adaptable to its length. This length should not be just a poetic style, but rather a dramatic structure. The long poem, in this case, is expected to be built on parts that have a number of dependent units.        


Q: Vernacular writing has forcibly come back in many parts of the Arab world. How do you explain that?      

  - This is the result of the Arabic educational curricula, we already noticed, in addition to the taste decline manipulated by the media. We admit that there are some vernacular models of creativity maintaining a mode of expression and language constructions not less than the average poem based on standard Classical Arabic except for the absence of parsing. Such writings acquire the legitimacy of existence, together with the folklore original writings but triviality remains a triviality no matter the form it may take.          


Q: A debate had occurred decades ago, pertaining Sudanese identity. How do you value writer’s contribution in dealing with the conundrum of identity?      

 - The dilemma of identity remains still unsettled, and not yet crystallised in a distinct base of thought, although general features of the object handling are plain more than many may presume. This issue was raised during the thirties of the last century within the pages of (Al-Fajr) periodical. Prominent contributors who tackled the issue were: Mohamed Ahmed Mahjoub, Hamza al-Malik Tambal and others. Mahjoub was focusing on the spectre of heritage, Islamic values and social traditions, whereby Tambal was aspiring towards new forms that could manifest Sudanese identity mainly in poetic images. Poetic images that reflect the native environment of Sudan among other countries.


During the sixties of the twentieth century as well, the term: (Forest and Desert) emerged in the hands of young poets such as Mohamed Al-Mekki Ibrahim, Al-Nur Othman Abbakar and Mohamed Abdulhai. The expression forest and desert was to be encountered in their poetry either directly or in symbols that indicate the two faces of the term. The forest stands for the African face while the desert stands for the Arabic face. That dual-face is meant-combined together-to constitute the Sudanese identity. However, the term forest and desert wasn’t developed in a true and adequate effort that encompasses the issue it is invented to resemble and should express all it’s dimensions, whether in theory or in the poetry text. The term or expression confines the identity to the geographic dimension which is too narrow and limited to stand for identity. Where are the ethnic, the ethical and social phenomenon? One would ask. There is another more embarrassing question: What would be the case if we are met with this geographical factor in other countries where there are forest and desert, just as countries of Latin America or elsewhere? Would these countries be incorporated within the Sudanese identity?! These are the challenges that face this formula, which requires a search for the interior facts of thought and morality of a multi-cultural semi-continental country like Sudan? I myself have dealt with the issue of identity in the poem (Melodies of Ismael the Sufi Rabbaba Player) If we follow the development of the poem we would discover that it revolves around the axis of this issue. The climax is observed when the conscience of the speaker answers the question of the nightingale (representing poetry) saying:


My homeland o’nightingale is but a journey, but crying.

My homeland is mere presence and absence.                                  

I am an Arab but a Negro,                                  

I am a negro but an Arab,                                                                          

I don’t know why I ignite between myself and myself the war,            

Why do I make alienation for me a career?        


Q: What is the correlation between literature and ideology? Has the time of ideology gone by?                                      

 - The connection between ideology and literature has always been troubling, from the very time it had manifested itself at the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century and afterwards when the negative effect was almost obvious. The view calling against the dominance of ideology on literature and art gained momentum maintaining that ideology should distance itself, giving way to the aesthetic face to be the essence of creativity. So writers distanced themselves from ideology and a current under the name (magical realism) had emerged. Despite the contradiction between the two sides of this term, it was accepted as a suitable alternative to ideology so that realism could be able to fly freely. If ideology is to be still observed, that will only be behind an aesthetical mask.  

My own experience with the dilemma mentioned above may be an entry to my endeavour with poetry and literary criticism.                

In the years of my early youth, I was fond of the leftist trend of literature and art but I was a little reserved on the concern of the relationship between literature and ideology. I wasn’t inclined to any of the terms of (Art for Art’s sake) or (Art for the society) A texture from both sides I guess would have been more appropriate. Art is expected to respond to the dreams and worries of man while observing the aesthetic conditions. If Art is inseparable from its aesthetic conditions it is as well inseparable from the human cause. So my intellectual orientation guided me to the study of realism in the Arabic poetry in Sudan. I was glad when I found this outlook in the writings of writers of the leftist trend of structuralism. Dr Jabir Usfur (May God extend his age) who was an examiner of my thesis, told me when I visited him at his home that what I had written tells of a writer enriched of cleverness and craftsmanship. A writer who is able to conceal his vision from whoever not informed of the modern literary critical trends. But Dr. Usfur never ceased polemic hoping to infuriate my ability to reply but I had enough of his gratification on my behalf that I was unwilling to respond. He was deprecating my critical curriculum which was a computational approach in his view as applied by Lorca. This comparison-contrary to his aim-pleased me to be put on one scale with the great critic and philosopher. However, my supervisor Dr Abdal Mohsin Taha Badr (May God have mercy on him) was not pleased taking on account my ability of defending myself, so he addressed me saying employing the Quranic verse ‘ as if you have vowed a fast (To the beneficent Allah) so that you shall not speak today to any man)’ Hearing this from him, I very fluently defended my curriculum, telling him that I have a computational approach just like Lucas but the thing he wasn’t able to observe that there is a chapter titled (Structure) where both form and content are dealt with together in the organic unity of the poem. This was followed by a loud applaud from the attendance including some of my friends. My thesis was awarded an excellent degree. This moderate stance benefited greatly my style of poetry writing appreciating the urge of the discovery of the world of man while observing the aesthetic value of poetry. Later on, I was affected by the aesthetics of (Sufism) in creativity but without fully adopting the thought of Sufism, faithful to the aesthetic dictum and the outward and inward of the world of man.


Q: You have experiences in singing and melody composition. In addition to the study of music. To what extent did this benefit your poetry writing?  

 - The study of music and the knowledge I’ve gained in melody composition has definitely refined my sense of music and rhythm in both music and poetry. This knowledge combined with the study of the critique qualified me to know prosody which is viewed as an obstacle by many critics and students of poetry and even for some poets. However, a poet is not in dire need to know prosody if his sense of music, rhythm and creative ability is mature but in due course, it will make him more precise and conscious of the least absurdity and will make him able to amend it and reconstruct the whole musical structure of the poem. We may find an obvious reflection of my knowledge of music and singing especially in my collection (Melodies of Ismael the Sufi Rabbaba Player) where there are indications to many songs exploited to be a part of the poetic image. 




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