I first met Zaffar Kunial through his poem ‘Hill Speak’ – a prizewinner in the 2011 National Poetry Competition. As one of the three judges, I found it an intriguing, beguiling and arresting poem – and as a great poem does, I found I couldn’t help returning to it again and again. I knew from that first meeting he was a poet of consequence. You can hear him read Hill Speak here.
Since then, he’s gone from strength to strength – A Northern Writer’s Award in 2013, chosen as one of the Faber New Poets, and since January 2014 Wordsworth Trust Poet in Residence, which means he’s ensconced in beautiful Grasmere, and following in the illustrious footsteps of such poets as Paul Farley, Matthew Hollis and Helen Mort.
I think what particularly attracts me to his poetry is how he uses the exactness of language to describe, or rather to circumscribe family, and his father in particular – Kunial’s father is Kashmiri. In Hill Speak, and in three poems from the most recent The Poetry Review, (‘The Word’ ‘Q’ and ‘from Empty Words’) he returns to a close examination of his father’s language, and his handling of the English language:
‘“Whatever is matter,
must enjoy the life.” He pronounced this twice.
And me, I heard the wrongness in putting a the
before life. In two minds. Ashamed. Aware.’
Kunial’s gift is to examine language in a clinically precise manner to measure belonging, distance and love. But this is much more than intelligent, playful and insightful poetry, by employing that easy precision and delicacy in his writing he produces moving, lyrical poems that remind me in a way of the early Paul Muldoon, as when he muses on the Urdu word for love, ‘ishq’, though he has ‘no call to speak it’:
‘and she’s prodding me to explain my short falling
answer – giving the nod, when she asked me If… and Whether…
she swears that at the end of my assent she heard me whisper
On 23 October 2014 John Glenday and Zaffar Kunial will be reading at the Scottish Poetry Library – a unique opportunity to hear both poets. Book your tickets here.