Zaffar Kunial is a Hebden Bridge-based poet whose impact on the UK scene belies a small – so far – published output. His scope is wide, and his poems are dense with tone, imagery, technique, rhyme, and colour. Kunial arrived fully fledged into the public consciousness, when his poem ‘Hill Speak’ won third prize in the National Poetry Competition in 2011. It is a subtle and surprising poem, reflecting on his father’s native oral dialect and his own relation to it.
Zaffar Kunial was born in Birmingham to an English mother and a Kashmiri father (who now lives in Lahore). His mother was a primary school teacher, and his father a factory worker. Kunial's interest in language goes back to his early childhood; although by his own admission he only became interested in books at university, he remembers being fascinated by Edward Lear's The Quangle Wangle's Hat, among the picture books his mother would read to him. One of the core themes in Kunial's work is the way in which things are made up of other, disparate, things, how elements come together and separate, how something can crop up in a tiny space between two other things. Often this is a word, or a way of using language.
Kunial studied politics at the London School of Economics, and later sporadically attended the poet Michael Donaghy's influential evening classes at City Lit, one of London's adult education colleges. Given Donaghy's love of paradox and virtuosic penchant for wordplay, this was a lucky coming-together; his influence is discernible in Kunial's rhetorical wit, his care for detail, his effortless blending of intellect and emotion, and his unerring sense of the prismatic nature of language.
By 2011 Kunial – by day a full-time 'Creative Writer' for Hallmark Cards – had been working for some time with a group of Leeds poets led by the equally virtuosic Ian Duhig. 'Hill Speak' was the first poem Kunial had ever sent out. Written in free verse without a rhyme scheme, it nevertheless employs its sonic effects deliberately, creating a patchwork tapestry of English and Pahari (or Hill Speak) sounds:
His dialect, for a start, is difficult to name.
Even this taxi driver, who talks it, lacks the knowledge.
Some say it's Pahari – 'hill speak' –
others, Potwari, or Pahari-Potwari –
too earthy and scriptless to find a home in books.
His poetry is not showy or surface-oriented, the criticisms often levelled at poets who use wordplay. Kunial is a modest writer and his poems are often very quiet on the surface. The meaning and music are part of one another and they repay repeated readings, or resurface hours after the poem has been read.
From the awards ceremony, which was Kunial's first ever public reading, he has been an astonishingly assured reader - or rather, reciter - of his own work. This is possibly another legacy of Donaghy, and one not every poet can easily achieve. John Glenday, one of the judges of the 2011 National Poetry Competition, later wrote of Kunial's work:
"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'":
answer – giving the nod, when she asked me If... and Whether…
she swears that at the end of my assent she heard me whisper
In 2013 Zaffar Kunial received a Northern Writers' Award, and in 2014 he was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust. In the same year, his first pamphlet was published as part of the Faber New Poets series. He was also commissioned by The Poetry Society, along with Denise Riley, Warsan Shire, and fellow Leeds poet Steve Ely, to write in commemoration of the centenary of the First World War; these poems were premiered live at the Southbank Centre in London on National Poetry Day 2014, and published in an anthology titled The Pity.
This was the first poetry Kunial had published since 'Hill Speak', and was written partly during the Wordsworth residency. The first in the series, 'The Poppy', uses an interrogation of the history, etymology and mythology of the flower to build a highly emotional rhetorical structure. It starts out slowly:
No, this is not enough.
Who crops up where acidic ground is neutralised – in Belgium
blasted bones and rubble added their twist of lime
turning the disturbed earth red …
But no, 'this is not enough'. The poem swiftly takes us back to 'where seeds lay buried, dormant' – 'like history, raising a hand, a head …/No, this is not enough.' Kunial, having shown us three instances of the poppy almost emerging, now starts to trace its history in word and image. So, 'the first script, on a Mesopotamian/tablet: Hul and Gil – 'joy flower' …' The poppy goes with us from the beginning, through opium wars in China, Arab 'father of sleep', Persian and Urdu flower 'of love's martyrdom'; found on King Tutankhamun and on Herod's coins, 'fringing the banks of Lethe/ after Troy; who bridges forgetfulness and memory'. And so it goes on, bridging the unbridgeable, on, through Coleridge and Shakespeare, the 'drowsy syrups', morphine that links the mother and child during birth, 'Mother' the 'last word' […] 'as heard by the last Tommy, the last link to living memory – /spoken for now, like the countless millions// of mouthless dead'. And so, 'the black dot of the beginning':
This is you. Wake up…
Faber New Poets 11. Faber, London, 2014
The Pity. The Poetry Society, London, 2014
Kunial's profile at The Poetry Society
Kunial in conversationwith Poetry Review editor Maurice Riordan
Profile of Kunial by John Glenday for the Scottish Poetry Library
Profile of Kunial by the British Council
Review of Kunial's Faber New Poets pamphlet by Geoff Sawers for Magma Poetry
Kunial's Faber New Poets pamphlet mentioned by Jackie Kay in The Herald's Books of the Year 2014