Episode 3

Eggs

by Mimi Khalvati

Mimi Khalvati reads ‘Eggs’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness

This poem is from:

Afterwardness by Mimi Khalvati

Afterwardness book cover

Available from:

The Publisher: Carcanet Press

Bookshop.org: UK | US

Amazon: UK | US

Eggs

by Mimi Khalvati

From the first egg I ever drew, brown, speckled,
and pasted on a screen in kindergarden,
through all the eggs I ever ate, fried, scrambled,
boiled, poached, etc., down to this broken

yolk on a plate under my nose, my love
of eggs, in any shape or form, has grown.
Take the form: the prolate symmetry of
a spheroid, weightless when an egg is blown;

the air sac that expands with age and grades
an egg or backlights when you candle it
a blood red embryo; the sun-yolk shades

from marigolds the hens were fed at dawn;
the albumen: water out of which spirit
and embodiment, double-yoked, are drawn.


Interview transcript

Mark: Mimi, where did this poem come from?

Mimi: Mark, it came literally from when I was eating a fried egg, and I was sitting outside a cafe, which is where I often work, and I’d ordered, I don’t know, fried eggs or something, and I was eating it. And I’m lately being struck by how incredibly orange the yolks of eggs have become, so I was sort of vaguely wondering about that and marveling at it. And then it took me back to this memory of childhood, when I drew this boiled egg, I think in an egg cup, and then I had to cut it out, and then it was glued onto a cardboard screen in my kindergarten at school. And I thought, ‘Yes, this could possibly become a poem that would fit into my book Afterwardness, because the whole book is looking at the aftereffects of that early displacement, or you could even call it a kind of trauma, I think, when I was sent at the age of six from Tehran, where I lived with my family, to the Isle of Wight.

And this egg incident, of drawing this egg, I think must have been when I was still about six, so I wouldn’t have known any English. And I couldn’t remember Farsi. I was forgetting it. And I still remember that sense of slight bafflement and hesitancy, because I was never sure what I was supposed to be doing. And I actually do remember thinking, ‘Am I supposed, sort of, allowed to draw an egg? Is eggs all right?’ kind of thing. Anyway, so, that was the genesis of it. So I started with that egg image, and then carried on from there, hoping that it would become a poem, because of course at that point, you don’t know, do you?

Mark: One can only hope!

Mimi: Yes, exactly.

Mark: So you were sat there, and you were looking at the actual egg, and then that triggered this memory, which sounds like, from what you said it’s like a place between languages. You were losing Farsi and hadn’t quite acquired English.

Mimi: Absolutely, yes. And I’ve often tried to actually remember what that was like, but I can’t remember it. I can only remember tiny isolated incidents where I’d come across a word that everybody else knew and I didn’t. I wrote a poem once about the word crabapple, which struck me as so strange, because I knew the word crab, and I thought this must have something to do with crabs, and I couldn’t make sense of it. So I remember little moments or incidents of feeling a bit at sea, or not having the words. I think actually at the time where I was drawing this egg, I probably didn’t have the words to ask the kindergarden teacher, ‘Excuse me, Miss, can I draw an egg?’ So I just did it.

Mark: Right. Right. And so, where did you go from there? What was the next step in writing the poem?

Mimi: In writing the poem, well, of course, in a sense, you kind of follow the words, the rhymes, what is, because I had no idea where this poem was going to go. And now, of course I was a little bit hesitant I suppose, thinking…because I knew it would be a sonnet because all the poems in this book are sonnets, thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be an egg sonnet’. And part of me thought, ‘Is that going to be okay? Is it going to actually be a sonnet?’ And the other part of my head was thinking, ‘Yeah, great, egg sonnet. I like that’.

Mark: And so, just for context, this is part of your latest book, Afterwardness, which is all sonnets, right? So, does that mean that when the idea came, it was predestined that this was going to be a sonnet?

Mimi: That’s right, Mark.

Mark: Am I allowed to ask? Is it a chicken and egg question?

Mimi: [Laughter] It is a chicken and egg… Absolutely. Well, in this case we know which came first! Because often, with a form, you don’t know what form the poem will take until you’ve written a draft and then you sort of plough it for clues as to what form it might be, and then hopefully you discover the optimum form. And then you develop it with the form in hand, as it were. So form and content go forward hand in hand. So, in this case, though, I already had the form I knew. It was, as you say, predestined to be a sonnet. So, then the form calls forth its corresponding content. And because you know what the form is already, you have some idea of its shape, certainly of its weight, of its length, definitely, of the size of that content.

Mark: Yeah, it’s not going to be an epic.

Mimi: Yeah, exactly. And I think the main… We’re talking about form, and in the poem ‘Eggs’, it was when I actually used the word ‘form’ that the poem started taking off, if you like. When I said, you know, ‘My love of eggs in any shape or form has grown’. And because I’m writing a book of sonnets, obviously I’m all the time thinking about form, and the sonnet form in particular. So it sort of pulled me up, that word, and then suddenly the phrase ‘take the form’ came to me. You know, that was one of those givens, where something just comes to you from you don’t know where. And then I ran with that. And then, of course, I had to research eggs, because I didn’t really know anything about eggs.

Mark: So, research is allowed in poetry?

Mimi: Yes, absolutely. So then I just sort of developed more programatically, I suppose, going through the various attributes of an egg, some of them, hoping that they might resonate in some way, or even become metaphorical.

Mark: Well, you know, you do have some very interesting egg facts in here. So, we’ve got the prolate symmetry, which I had to look up. Does that mean, kind of, not circular? It’s kind of distended?

Mimi: Yes, it means one end is thinner than the other. And of course, that struck me that’s very like the Italian sonnet, that is proportioned eight to six, so it’s top-heavy. The Italian sonnet I always think of as being top-heavy. And if you turn the egg that way round, with the fat bit up…

Mark: Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah. I see what you mean.

Mimi: Do you see what I mean?

Mark: Yeah.

Mimi: It’s also top-heavy in a sense.

Mark: All right. So, for any listeners who aren’t familiar with the distinction between the Italian and the English sonnet, I think everybody knows the sonnet has 14 lines, usually. But what’s the distinction between the Italian sonnet and its proportions and then the English one?

Mimi: You mentioned the word proportions, and for me, that is the key factor. I think a lot of people first look at the rhyme scheme, which can be confusing, because, as I have done, you know, people quite often use hybrid rhyme schemes. But if you think of the sonnet as a proportioned mental space, so, it’s a mental space that comes in certain proportions, and therefore the thought, or the feeling, or the experience, that is drawn to meeting it has to bear those same proportions. So, the Italian sonnet comes essentially in two parts. You have your first eight lines, which is the octave or the octet, then there’s a turn, then that’s followed by six lines, which is the sestet. So you think of the Italian sonnet as the octet, turn, sestet, top-heavy, like an egg. Without the, of course, eggs don’t have turns as far as I know.

Mark: Well, then but maybe that’s where you cut it.

Mimi: Maybe!

Mark: I will never look at a Petrarchan sonnet again without thinking of an egg!

Mimi: Yes, and then, it’s impossible not to talk about the classical rhyme scheme as well, because that’s very much part of its qualities, I think, is that the Italian sonnet, in the eight lines, you can only use two rhymes, which is very little. Very little change. Therefore, the first eight lines tend to be rather static, because the rhymes don’t move, so anything within them doesn’t move that much. You have a quality of stasis, bit like a tableau vivant or something, like your ladies on pedestals. Then you have the turn, which can be a turn in a thought, but it also can be a little bit, in my mind, like somebody suddenly saying, “Action!” And then all these still figures suddenly move, and the whole thing is animated. They come off the stage and waft past you down the aisle. Very Petrarchan, that. And that’s because in the sestet, which is your six-line part, you have three rhymes. So they move very quickly, CDE, CDE. So, suddenly, there’s a lot of movement. So, in terms of images, I think the octet in Italian sonnets always sort of reminds me of a tall stand of still trees, somewhat gloomy, possibly and all standing close together.

Mark: Poets like gloom!

Mimi: And then you have the sestet, you go CDE, CDE, CDE. So it’s like some little babbling brook at the feet of these trees.

Mark: Oh, how lovely.

Mimi: I mean, you can think of lots of images. Or the shape itself. Think of anything that’s an eight to a six, so it could be a leaf to its stem. I think a lot of organic things have that proportion, or the hand, it could be the palm to the fingers, if you have fairly short fingers. Or a wine glass, you know, the bowl of the glass to the stem.

Mark: So sonnets are everywhere.

Mimi: Sonnets I think are everywhere, Italian sonnets, I think, particularly in the natural world, to my mind. Of course, this is just, I use images for forms and things that are helpful to me if I’m trying to write the form, but it’s not that I’m sort of theorizing about them or stating general truths.

Mark: Well, that’s what I like about your approach, is, you know, you kind of take the forms out of the library and into the workshop, and say, ‘Well, here’s how you actually make these things’. Which is what I’ve got from you over many years. So, for the sake of completeness, could you just give us, by contrast, what the English sonnet proportions are like? And then we’re going to come back to your sonnet, particularly the sestet.

Mimi: Well, where for me, the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet is… perhaps lends itself more to inhabiting a dream space, perhaps it’s a little bit more malleable and more permeable. It seems to me the edges of Italian sonnets can bleed into the white space. Whereas the English or Shakespearean sonnet, for me, is very much more hard-edged. It really has its presence on the page, and its borders. It’s more solid. It’s more clearly defined. So perhaps where the English sonnet has power and drama, the Italian sonnet has plangency. It’s a bit Jungian in my mind. Which doesn’t mean to say all Italian sonnets or all English sonnets would betray those qualities, but just as a sort of generalization. And the English sonnet in its form, the proportions are strange. Essentially, it’s a 12 to a 2, which raises the question how on Earth do you balance 12 with only 2?

Mark: Yes.

Mimi: And of course, the two is the famous rhyming couplet at the end of the Shakespearean sonnet. So, the 12 are divided up into 3 quatrains, 3 four-line stanzas. And so, I have said on occasion that this reminds me of a chest of drawers, that each quatrain is a drawer. But I think the essential thing is that they’re not all in the same place, because that would be very dull. So, between each quatrain there’s a movement, it’s like a turn of the screw. The intensity is tightened a little bit. And after the second quatrain, more, and after the third quatrain, which is before your couplet, it’s been so tightened that something has to give, something has to be released.

And that of course is the couplet, which, to my mind, ideally, should fall by itself naturally out of that intensity and tension. Of course, other people think of it more as a clincher, and it of course can be very much an epigrammatic kind of clinching of everything. Or it can be a stepping to the side to the sonnet, so it subverts everything that’s gone before. You know, it says, ‘Here’s my first statement, first quatrain, and here’s a bigger one, second, and here’s a more persuasive one, third, and now, forget all that, I’m going to say something else’, you know, kind of thing, crudely. So, very different in feel to the Italian sonnet. I remember I once wrote a heroic crown of sonnets, in Shakespearean sonnets, and for the first time, actually, I was able to express emotions or parts of myself that I’d never been able to express before. Things like sarcasm, anger, vitriol, if you like.

Mark: It’s good for that.

Mimi: And that was the form, the English sonnet, allowing me to do that. In fact, not allowing me, but pushing me to do it.

Mark: Yeah, and, you know, if you look at Shakespeare’s sonnets, they’re not a bed of roses, are they?

Mimi: No, they’re not. Certainly not. They’ve got thorns.

Mark: Yeah, there’s quite a lot of thorns there. Anyway, thank you, Mimi. That is really helpful. I’m really glad we could share that analogy, because it’s helped me so much over the years writing different types of sonnets. So, back to yours, and let’s go and have a look at the sestet, because you’ve set up this egg, and very often in the sonnets in this collection, I think I’ve said to you before, the sestet is the part that kind of takes my breath away, because you set something up, and then you do a little…almost like there’s some kind of magic trick you do in the sestet, with the syntax and the meaning and stuff, and I’m like, ‘Where did…? How did…?’ I have to do a double-take sometimes, and this was no exception. So, I’m curious about what’s your experience of writing the sestet of this sonnet, and particularly that extraordinary ending, because I would never have guessed you would end up there, from where you start with scrambled eggs.

Mimi: Oh, thank you, Mark. That’s so lovely that you say that. And it’s also interesting to me, because I think of the sestet as something essentially that has to write itself. Or my, if you like, authorial intention really has to be moved aside and out of sight. It just has to leave the room. And for me, you know, if you’re thinking how do you do that, I don’t know how, because all I have is the knowledge or feeling in my mind that, ‘Here’s the sestet. It’s just got to come, somehow by itself. It’s got to be a given, rather than me constructing it’. So all I can really do is try and get myself out of the way. And of course, it either works or it doesn’t. And the other side of that is the willingness to throw away lots of sestets that don’t work. So, it’s a bit like, you know, Picasso did that exercise where he did the line drawing of the bull, and he never took the pencil off the page, and he had to just get it in one. I think of writing the sestets like you’re trying to do that, you’re trying to just get it in one, and it either goes or it doesn’t. To keep it or ditch it.

Mark: So there are…you know, this isn’t just necessarily the first take. You have a go, and you have several goes at it if you feel you haven’t got it the way you want it.

Mimi: Sometimes, yes, on occasion. On occasion, I’ll have a little tussle with it. But that’s usually because it’s come, and I know it’s there, but grammatically, or the syntax or something is a bit dodgy, so I have to iron it out a little bit. So it’s not as though I never edit it. But the essential thing is all there, and probably the rhymes are there. So I might just sort of edit it a little bit. Or, I might ditch it altogether, in which case I probably ditch the whole poem.

Mark: Oh, really?

Mimi: So I’m very unlikely, if the sestet doesn’t work, very unlikely to keep the octet and try a different sestet, I’m much more likely just to say, ‘Oh, forget that one’.

Mark: I’m much more precious, if I’ve got an octet I’m going to be determined to use it somehow. And so, you end up, with the end of this one, I mean, you’ve got your list of the prolate symmetry. The air sac. Candling the egg, that’s another thing I had to look up. Is that where you put a light behind it or beneath it so you can see inside the egg?

Mimi: Yes, that’s right.

Mark: And then the sun yolk shades from the marigolds. And the albumen, which made me think of alchemy. And then, this extraordinary ‘water out of which spirit and embodiment, double-yoked, are drawn’. Can you, I mean, obviously you can’t paraphrase it, but is there anything you want to say about the process of writing that or what that meant to you?

Mimi: Yes, I can say something about it. Once I’d come to that phrase, ‘take the form’, so then I knew I was going to talk about the form of the egg, and that phrase, as I said, just came to me out of the blue, so I sort of thought, ‘Okay. Why not? We’ll take the form. Let’s see what happens’, kind of thing. And I had the various attributes of an egg in my mind. Of course, the word ‘the form’ suggested to me the sonnet, so while I was writing the sestet, I was in fact also thinking about the form of the sonnet. But this is not something I would expect a reader, you know, to read this poem ‘Eggs’, and say, ‘Oh, it’s really about the sonnet’. But for me it was.

And I think that’s why I came to that ending, because I was actually thinking about, you know, when it says, ‘Water out of which spirit and embodiment double-yoked are drawn’. So I think within the sonnet, it is the spirit and the embodiment that becomes manifest, or is drawn out of language in some way. It’s like reason and vision circle each other within a sonnet. It’s that doubleness. At the same time, of course, I was thinking of the actual egg, and an egg sort of fertilized and not fertilized. So, obviously, you could have new life coming out of an egg, or not life. So the egg also has that doubleness, for me. It’s hard to explain it, but I was actually concentrating on being very accurate about the attributes of an egg, at the same time, in my mind, hoping that they would have some kind of metaphorical relationship with a form of the sonnet.

But I could only see that in retrospect after I’d written it, if you see what I mean. So it’s not as though I could steer it. All I could do was write about the egg and keep my fingers crossed, and hope that it would. And then I thought, well, yes, for example, if you candle a sonnet, if you backlight it, if you bring a light of apprehension, understanding, intuition to a sonnet, through the words, you could see the embryo in it. You can see, or sense the pulsing heart, the heartbeat, if you like. Or you have the shades of… I love this thing about marigolds, because that’s how I discovered that’s why egg yolks are orange, because the hens are literally fed marigold petals.

Mark: Really?

Mimi: Yes. Along with the corn and everything. Isn’t that wonderful? I love that, yes. And then that could, for me, stand for the figurative language, the color, the imagery that you use, and so on. So, I mean, I could, if you like, extrapolate equivalencies, but I don’t want to really make a meal of it. Sorry, no pun intended!

Mark: Well, and talking of puns, I can’t help remarking on the wonderful pun at the end, the ‘double-yoked’. And if you’re listening, it’s, Y-O-K-E-D, not, Y-O-L-K.

Mimi: Yes, I suppose because of the water, I had vaguely an image of a well, drawing something out of a well, or the oxen, with their double yoke, drawing something.

Mark: Marvelous. Thank you, Mimi. I think you have taken us on a little odyssey through the world of the egg, but also through the world of the sonnet. So, thank you very much. And I think it’d be very nice to hear the poem again.

Mimi: Thank you very, very much, and thank you for inviting me as a guest, Mark.


Eggs

By Mimi Khalvati

From the first egg I ever drew, brown, speckled,
and pasted on a screen in kindergarden,
through all the eggs I ever ate, fried, scrambled,
boiled, poached, etc., down to this broken

yolk on a plate under my nose, my love
of eggs, in any shape or form, has grown.
Take the form: the prolate symmetry of
a spheroid, weightless when an egg is blown;

the air sac that expands with age and grades
an egg or backlights when you candle it
a blood red embryo; the sun-yolk shades

from marigolds the hens were fed at dawn;
the albumen: water out of which spirit
and embodiment, double-yoked, are drawn.


 

Afterwardness

‘Eggs’ by Mimi Khalvati is from her latest collection, Afterwardness, published by Carcanet Press, which is a book of the year in The Sunday Times and The Guardian.

Afterwardness book cover

Afterwardness is available from:

The Publisher: Carcanet Press

Bookshop.org: UK | US

Amazon: UK | US

Mimi Khalvati

Mimi Khalvati portrait photo

Photo: Caroline Forbes

Mimi Khalvati was born in Tehran and has lived most of her life in London. She has published nine poetry collections with Carcanet Press, including The Meanest Flower, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize 2007, and Child: New and Selected Poems 1991-2011. Her awards include a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors and a major Arts Council Writer’s Award. She is the founder of The Poetry School and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of The English Society.

MimiKhalvati.co.uk

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

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