Mona Arshi is a poet and novelist from London. She is one of two new Fellow Commoners in the Creative Arts at Trinity. Here she writes about the transition from lawyer to writer, and why ‘you have to stalk a poem really.’
Please tell us a little about yourself
I have a slightly unusual background. I initially trained as a lawyer and worked as a human rights lawyer for a decade before I started writing poetry. I have published two books of poems, Small Hands and Dear Big Gods and more recently published a novel Somebody Loves You.
What plans do you have for your time here?
I have three writing projects. The most pressing is the third collection of poems where I’m trying to imagine and recreate ancient female voices which were on the peripheries, and breath life into the minor characters in the Greek play. I’m also working on some lyric essays and trying to grow the seeds of a new novel whilst I’m here.
Beyond an income and place to live, what does the role of FCCAs mean to you?
Living in Trinity and being afforded the time to write in such a protected space and is a real gift. Because I write in different genres – poetry, novels and essays – the walls between them are quite thin and porous. I always feel that we are sometimes so focused on ‘outcome’ as writers that we so rarely have opportunities to rest in the uncertainty of not knowing.
The poet Wislawa Szymborska sums this up when she says, ‘Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know”.’ Being untethered from a particular destination is a unique kind of freedom for a writer and I think about this a lot when I float into the Wren Library or sit with colleagues at Trinity with interests and passions very different from mine.
Who inspires you?
There are always ghost mentors in the room when you are writing and who these people are change all the time. At the moment it’s the work of Louise Glück and Lorca.
I think it’s the unexpected encounters that inspire me most. I find almost anything, even a small peripheral thing like a scrap of a conversation on a bus might ignite something. I was writer in residence at a bird sanctuary in Norfolk last year and what excited me most were the less obvious things than the birds, the sounds there really woke up the ear and so I ended up writing poems that were wrapped up in the sound of the place.
Similarly, I recently went to a Francis Bacon exhibition and some of his paintings and his ideas around the blurring between the human and beast travelled into an essay I was writing about the condition of the migrant now.
What are you most proud of?
I think the big leap in the dark from moving from being a lawyer to becoming a poet and then several years later pivoting to writing a novel. Poems come from a very different space to prose, they emerge out of the peripheral space, the inattentive space and dislike being handled (you have to stalk a poem really). Going to prose felt very different, it needed attending to and of course there’s lots more to think about in voice and character and form.
But the hardest thing and one I’m probably most of proud of is ensuring that the novel and poetry were talking to each other in some way; language and how we use language and what it’s for are intrinsic concerns in my work.
Read about Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts, Dr Padraig Regan.