Saikh Md. Sabah Al-Ahmed, unraveling the verse-maker

From penning down the subtle nuances of city life to being an internationally acclaimed poet, Saikh Md. Sabah Al-Ahmed is a versatile poet, lyricist, columnist, freelance journalist and is counted among the prolific litterateurs from Assam. His narratives have a powerful attraction to overturn a mundane state of affairs into compelling thoughts and expressions that keeps the readers hooked.

The Guwahati-based poet is a recipient of the Reuel International Prize for Poetry (2019) for Best Upcoming Poet from North East India. He was also awarded the ‘Certificate of Excellence’ by the United Nations Association (UNA) – Assam for his ‘outstanding literary achievements in the field of poetry and journalism’. He is the author of the poetry collection Tranquil Musings and has two non-fictions under the titles – Contemporary Chronicles – Polity, Society & Culture; and Past of the Present – A Historical Quest, to his credit. His popular monthly column titled ‘Urban Musing’ published in The Assam Tribune chronicles the subtle nuances of the city of Guwahati. Of late, six of his poems has been published in the Indian Literature, the prestigious bimonthly journal of the Sahitya Akademi.

Ahmed is a visiting guest faculty at Cotton University, where he teaches ‘poetry and creative writing’. He presently teaches English and Social Sciences at his alma mater – Don Bosco School, Guwahati.

His debut poetry collection was reviewed by eminent litterateur and Jnanpith awardee Dr. Mamoni Raisom Goswami and released by legendary (former) BBC South-Asia Correspondent Sir Mark Tully at the Asia International Literary Festival (2010). Dr. Mamoni Raisom Goswami in her review had said: “After going through his poems, I felt that an outstanding poet has arrived on the banks of the Brahmaputra.”  Keki Daruwalla, one of India’s foremost poets calls him as “A young poet with promise.”

MUMENINAZ ZAMAN In Conversation with Saikh Md. Sabah Al-Ahmed

When did the art of compilation ignited your curiosity and when was it that you have identified yourself as a poet?

Well, I guess it was in 1989 as a class 9 student that I suddenly felt an urge to pen down a few lines in the style and form of verse. It may not have been a work of brilliance, but I knew that I could write poetry after ‘feeling poetry’.

What motivated you to keep going on the journey of verse-making?

It’s my sheer love for the art of verse-making that has kept my pen flowing for more than three decades now since 1989. Not even for a nanosecond did I think that poetry wouldn’t fetch me any ‘royalty’.

 

From scribbling to publishing your first piece of work- share your experience.

I vividly remember the date: May 1997, North East Sun, when my first published poem saw the light of the day. A few months later, on September 13, 1997, The Assam Tribune in its Horizon supplement published my first poem – The Bleeding Soul. I was just 22 plus then and it was an overwhelming experience for me as an emerging poet.

 

Over the years how you have evolved as a writer?

Writing has given me an outlet to share my inner thoughts and pent up feelings, not only with my readers but also (to) myself and then open up. Writing has also made me happier and contended from within, now that after three decades of my work, especially my poetry has received both national (Sahitya Akademi) as well as international (Italian translation) acclaim.

 

Give us a brief about the selection of your poems in the Sahitya Academy journal. 

Six of my poems have been published in the November-December issue of Indian Literature, the prestigious bimonthly journal of the Sahitya Akademi. Grandma’s Lullabies and Happiness Days rewinds the clock back to those good-old carefree days of yesteryears, The Stink of Aroma and Numb are dark self-introspective poems, Solipsism echoes human egos and self drum-beating, while the last poem Where? has an element of mystic Sufi romance in it.

Is there any specific genre that you follow, or you go with the flow?

As I said earlier – “I feel verse.”

How do you deal with writer’s block or not knowing what to write?

I then don’t force myself to write, as nothing would come out or at the most some sub-standard or low quality work would emanate. So better leave if for that day, have a good sleep and come back the next day.

Who are some of the biggest influences in your poetry?

My late Abba, Alhaj Malik Hafizur Rahman, an accomplished Assamese novelist himself, and then, of course, Rumi, the 13th century, Sufi mystic poet. The bold poetry of Kamala Das and Gulzar’s poems (translated into English) also fascinates me. Pablo Neruda’s poems have also had a great influence on my verse making journey.

What do you see as the role of a poet in the modern-day society?

A poet’s verses should be a reflection of his honest and passionate thoughts on paper. A modern-day poet must be a judicious mix of both a dreamer as well as someone who is attached to his roots (society).

You have also been a journalist, enlighten us about your stint as a journalist.

Apart from writing for The Assam Tribune from 1997 onwards, I am a regular columnist of this premier daily now since 2013. In between, I joined NE TV (North East Television), the first satellite news channel of the NE on September 1, 2005 as a news coordinator in the English news desk and again The Sentinel as a sub-editor on the Edit page on August 1, 2007.

If given a chance what would you choose – poetry or journalism?

Of course, POETRY, as that’s what I can do best, and that’s what I continue to do till today.

You are a PR, teacher and poet, how do you juggle between these three versions of yourself?

I believe in what Plato used to call “functional specialization” – and that’s what I follow in harmoniously carrying out these three roles to the best of my ability. Having said that, poetry comes to me naturally – I just need to observe and then visualize a theme or a subject for my poem.

What are you currently working on? Also, what are you reading at present?

This year, 2020 would see two of my books being published – Urban Musings-Musings on Guwahati and more (a collection of all my hitherto published articles in The Assam Tribune) and a poetry collection- The Stink of Aroma.

At present, I am reading The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, Selected Poems (of) Gulzar, translated by Pavan K. Varma, twenty love poems and a song of despair by Pablo Neruda and Selected Poems by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.

Your message to book lovers, readers and connoisseurs of literature.

Writing for me has been the panacea for all my lows in life. It’s like an escape route for me whenever my heart and mind are at its lowest ebb. I can think of nothing else, except writing.

Although I dabble in many forms and genres (of writing) like features, editorials, middles, book reviews, film reviews, etc., but the one that has always been close to my heart is verse-making or poetry. This is where I reach the zenith of my literary satisfaction. I could feel poetry, even in the dull and drab things of our mundane life and put them on paper as if I had given them a new lease of life.

So keep the writer in you all alive. Jot a line or two, maintain a small diary or even a pocket-sized writing pad and pen with you as your perennial accessories while you go out. Who knows a sudden idea might immediately strike you like lightening (on the road) and you then immediately jot it in your palm sized writing pad and develop it further on your return. In most cases, you may not recollect the original idea as you reach home.

Read and order a lot of good books that you love from your favourite authors and try to maintain a small and clean library at home. Seeing the loaded shelf makes you happy every morning and that may be your favourite corner. Keep reading! Keep writing!

Ahmed’s poems have been translated into Italian by noted Italian poet Giorgio Moio in Frequenze Poetiche, an Italian magazine published from Naples, Italy. Moreover, his poems have also been published in the Asian Times, a Canadian monthly news magazine published from Edmonton, Canada; International Journal of Poetry Kritya; online art and poetry group East India Poets, and national dailies like The Telegraph, and regional dailies like The Assam Tribune and The Sentinel.

He was invited by the Sahitya Akademi for the All India Young Writers’ Meet held at the Guwahati Book Fair, December 29-30, 2018. Recently, he was invited as a delegate at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF) Adda, where he deliberated on the session –  In or Out: Northeast India and Questions of Belonging. He was also invited as a panelist at the Mystic Kalinga Festival – February 8-9, 2020 at Kalinga, Odisha.