Azerbaijani culture in Diaspora: A conversation with Nigar Hasan Zade

Below is the first in the series of interviews Azerbaijan in the World has recently conducted with leading figures of the widespread Azerbaijani diaspora on the state of Azerbaijani culture abroad.  This first discussion, which focuses on literature, is with Nigar Hasan Zade, a distinguished Azerbaijani poet living in London.  Among the top ten foreign poets based in London as rated by the British Library, Mrs. Hasan Zadeh was recently honored by being invited to read her work to the closing session of that city’s Poetry Parnassus international festival.

Azerbaijan in the World:  How did it happen that you became a poet?  Was it a rational choice of conscious mind or the spontaneous pursuit of what you felt was your calling in life?   

Nigar Hasan Zadeh:  I started crafting poetry at the age of four, a development that probably had something to do with a child’s delight with rhyme.  From an early age, I loved tales in verse, as well as poetry in general, that members of my family would generously read to me.  As a result of their efforts and my interest, I learned a range of poems by heart back then.  I could not read, nor could I write at that age; yet I would often talk to myself trying to rhyme together different lines of thought and croon some lyrics.  Indeed, I would often speak to the wind and sun in verse.  At a professional level, I engaged in poetry already after adolescence, when my first poems appeared in Moscow journals like Pioner and Koster.  

AIW:  How has the subject matter of your poetry evolved?

Hasan Zadeh:  A writer, indeed any artist, is inevitably influenced by the particular context in which she finds herself.  At the same time, however, there have been poets and writers, who though never exposed to a locality broader than the one into which they were born nonetheless managed to create art transcending the limits of their location.  As for me, my childhood poems focused on animals, birds and firebirds, as well as princes and princesses, a natural reflection of the stories I heard.  Later, as an adolescent and while we still lived in the Soviet Union, I wrote civic-minded poetry, again not especially surprising given the context and that I was a good student and active Pioneer.  At still a later stage, my poetry took on a lyrical character, a focus which lasted until recently and the reason why most people know me as a lyric poet.  However, over the last few years, I have begun to move away from pure lyrics and focused instead on broader spiritual themes, not departing from lyric poetry as such but taking an even wider view; a development that was a function of my personal evolution and a reflection of the personal experiences through which I have gone over the last several years.  

AIW:  Where do you see your poetry going next?

Hasan Zadeh:  I have no idea and frankly don’t want to know right now, for it will be a long time before the spiritual stage in my poetry exhausts itself; and I do enjoy being where I am today in terms of the character my poetry assumed and have no plans of moving away from it any time soon.            

AIW:  You mention both context and your inner growth as key factors in the evolution of your poetry.  Could you name some specific poets who have affected your journey?   

Hasan Zadeh: Certainly, yes!  The first collection of poems I read was a Russian language translation of the distinguished Azerbaijani poet Mirza Shafi Vazeh.  I was six at the time.  Then I gradually turned to Russian poetry, which left a deep impression on me and still affects my poetry, as my regular and loyal readers are well aware.  Among those who have played a particular role are the Russian poets of the Silver Age, such as Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetayeva, the last of whom in particular being my favorite poet and, in my view, the best poet of the XX century.  For me, Russian poetry stopped in its Silver Age.  

AIW:  You are Azerbaijani, yet you write in the Russian language.  Have you ever attempted to write in Azerbaijani?

Hasan Zadeh:  I did, but I do not feel I have the right to speak with verses in Azerbaijani.  For while I am Azerbaijani, the conjunction of events during my lifetime was such that it is Russian, not Azerbaijani, in which I mastered my craft.  

AIW:  Can you feel you represent Azerbaijani poetry then? 

Hasan Zadeh:  I would rather say that I am a poet from Azerbaijan.  That means my origins are from this country and are rooted in the history and culture of its people; a reality that added an Eastern tinge to my poetry, even though I write my verses in Russian.  Indeed, I am always introduced as a poet from Azerbaijan.  I am certainly proud to represent my country and hope that I can serve as an introduction to it for many people.  Yet at the same time, I cannot limit myself and my poetry to the confines of my national origins. 

AIW:  In this case, what do you think you represent as poet?

Hasan Zadeh:  I represent the Word.  I strongly believe that a Word masterly used by an artist—by virtue of the specific energy it has and regardless of the national origins of its master and the language in which the verses are produced—will inevitably reach the hearts and minds of its readers.  Thus, by saying I represent the Word, I refer to a particular way in which I have come to use the word and a particular energy by which I endow it when crafting my verses.  

AIW:  Does that mean then that your verses have no nationality?  

Hasan Zadeh:  Indeed, they do not have, and are not bound by, nationality.  Instead, they have a character particular to them, I believe.   

AIW:  Have there been instances of collaboration between yourself and other poets from Azerbaijan or indeed elsewhere?

Hasan Zadeh:  My poems have been translated into Azerbaijani by Azerbaijani poet Vahid Eziz whom I met in Azerbaijan’s Writers Union.  I have also closely interacted with another Azerbaijani poet Ramiz Rovshen.  The first case of international collaboration, in turn, happened 12 years ago when I partnered with British poet and translator Richard McCain who translated into English my first collection of poetry.  Just recently, the translation of my poetry into Turkish has been completed, and currently, I am working with a partner in Spain who is translating my work into Spanish.       

AIW:  Has the Writers Union of Azerbaijan—as the largest institutional embodiment of the country’s poets and writers—played a role in your evolution and growth as a poet?

Hasan Zadeh:  I would rather say that my meeting with Anar, head of the Writers Union, played a truly key role.  He was the first to read my verses there, and he was the one to bless them into a book.  Indeed, the foreword to my first book was written by Anar.  And later, in 2001, I became the youngest member of the Writers Union.        

AIW:  How did you arrive at the decision to leave Baku and base yourself in London instead?

Hasan Zadeh:  After my first book Wings Over the Horizon was published in Baku in 2000, I decided to leave my job as a translator and devote myself full time to writing and travel.  It is then that I realized I had to relocate myself in space to let something important to happen.  I spent several months in Paris before I came to London later.  And there, while walking along the street, I saw an announcement that Richard McCain, an English poet and translator who had translated Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Nikolay Gumilev, was to read Akhmatova’s poems in one of London’s famous poets houses.  I attended, met McCain, and exchanged books with him.  A delightful personality and one of the best English language translators of Russian classic poetry, he called me a few days later to ask whether there was anyone translating my poems into English.  Having learned no one was doing so yet, he committed himself to taking on that job.  I in turn decided to extend my visa and have remained in London for far longer than I had planned.  In 2002, the English language translation of my book Wings Over the Horizon was released in London, and I began to receive invitations to read my poetry.                        

AIW:  In addition to being a poet, you are also a most talented artist.  What influences have affected you in that capacity?

Hasan Zadeh:  From childhood, I loved drawing and even studied in an artists’ circle and later was involved with the studio of the late Vagif Yusif ogly in Baku where I got to know many remarkable artists of Azerbaijan.  Then I became a friend of the Absheron group of artists, such as the late Udzhal Ahverdiyev, Aytan Rzaguliyeva, Sabina Shikhlinskaya, Mursal Elyar, and so many others.  I am pleased that I have never given up my painting and many of my works have now been exhibited and sold to private collections in Europe.  And I remain very grateful to artist friends in Baku who have displayed so much love to art and to me and helped me polish my taste.  

AIW:  Do you think of yourself as a poet who paints or an artist who writes poetry then? 

Hasan Zadeh:  Certainly, a poet who paints.  

AIW:  There has been much attention on the part of Azerbaijani government to promoting different strands of culture and arts, such as mugham, for example.  Do you feel that poetry is receiving its due?    

Hasan Zadeh:  Unfortunately, poetry represents a dying genre of literature, a form that is less intelligible by a mass audience than music, a reality that perhaps explains why the Azerbaijani government has thus far devoted less attention to it.  Moreover, there is a growing demand for ethnic music around the world, but there is clearly no similar growth in demand for poetry. 

AIW:  The government’s interest in mugham reflects, among other things, its effort to mold a post-Soviet model of Azerbaijani identity.  In that, mugham represents a key component.  Is there a way in which you believe poetry by Azerbaijani nationals could help in these efforts to craft a specifically Azerbaijani national identity?  Still more importantly and in view of your belief that poetry should not be bound by national confines, do you think poetry should at all try to help in this way or would this rather go against its very nature? 

Hasan Zadeh:  I strongly believe that a poet is an individual figure, not part of a crowd.  By definition, poets are loners.  I personally don’t know of any true—and truly sincere—poet whose poetry would have a mass character.  While there have indeed been some genius poets whom masses would follow, this was a function of the information that such a poet’s work could bear rather than a product of the poet’s desire.  Before there was television, poets had a tremendous responsibility, for information in those days would be passed verbally from mouth to mouth.  Consequently, poets in those days were among the rare sources of information of either spiritual or political nature.  They no longer are, and poetry today doesn’t have as large an audience as in the past.  This, coupled with the fact that poetry is increasingly less national in character, makes contemporary poetry less suitable than music as a component of any effort to mold a unified national identity for a young post-colonial nation.  

AIW:  Have you ever engaged in any projects with any government agency in Azerbaijan?

Hasan Zadeh:  This has been limited to five charity events I gave in Baku at the initiative of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture.   

AIW:  What forms do you think the government’s support for literature in general, and poetry in particular, could assume? 

Hasan Zadeh:  It is well known that poetry is not a funded business and the honoraria a poet receives for her published work is far from enough to sustain life.  A government, then, could provide funding to support poets and allow them to write rather than work to keep themselves going.  Such assistance could come from a special government fund that would provide stipends on the basis of expert assessments.  That would be a good thing because poets, even though their work is not limited to their nationality, are nevertheless cultural ambassadors of their countries, often speaking to those who may be learning about their countries for the first time.   

Apart from this, we must attract and pay more attention to translations of our literature, to use all opportunities to bring our literature, including poetry, to the international reader.  We must go to festivals, organize meetings with our foreign colleagues, and do everything possible to bring poets and their readers into contact throughout the world.  We must learn to support one another, to help our colleagues and co-workers to discover the opportunities they deserve.  That too will help us overcome existing barriers and achieve new heights of success.