My career story: “I left law to become a poet”

Mona Arshi is a prize-winning poet and former human rights lawyer. She recently won the Forward prize for best first collection. 

Mona Arshi

You began your training contract at JR Jones in the same week that Doreen and Neville Lawrence instructed the firm on the murder of their son Stephen. How did that time influence the rest of your career?

That was an incredible time; I was there for four years. I was very young, and it was a real learning curve and a great place to learn how to be a lawyer, and also how to be a compassionate lawyer, which I believe I was.

I learned a lot from the Lawrence’s lawyer, Imran Khan. He was wonderful, a force of nature. He’s brave and a risk taker. You have to be like that if you’re going to do cases like that. I set in the same room as him for years. It was incredible.

[read Lawyer 2B’s extended interview with Imran Khan]

I had always wanted to do humanitarian work, either in this country or abroad. It is absolutely fine that people go into the City, if that’s what excites them, but I always wanted to do litigation and I wanted to be in court. I didn’t want to be sitting in an office, pushing papers and doing contract law. I wanted to be talking to people. I met such amazing people and my clients were, on the whole incredible people and I felt honoured to represent them.

What prompted you to move in-house to human rights organisation Liberty?

The Human Rights Act (HRA) was coming into force in 2000 and Liberty was very much the architect of drafting that legislation. They were looking for lawyers who were willing to go out there a bit and find test cases to make the moral argument for the HRA.

I did a lot of cases for charity Dignity. My area was human rights cases that involved dignity issues. Some of my cases were really sad; I acted on a couple of cases of families whose family members had died in custody.

I had to learn how to deal with the media and manage client expectations. That is something I learned at Liberty – our cases were not just about winning; they were about campaigns. We worked hand-in-hand with the campaigns team – I cannot think of anywhere else you can do that.

When did you decide to leave law and start to write poetry?

I have always written things odd things; I didn’t really know what they were. I have always kept a journal too. Though it’s a bit highfalutin to call it a journal – they are just diary extracts. Occasionally I write something that happened in the day, or odd bits of prose, or describe images.

In 2005 I gave birth to twins and was confined to bed for many months. It was hard because I’ve always worked and loved my job. It was a seven-day-a-week job. And the suddenly I was just at home and told to relax and put my feet up.

Someone happened to send me a collection of poems by Alice Oswald, and also poems by someone called by Darjit Nagra, an Indian poet. I suddenly felt so connected to language again, and read and read in those months. When my daughters came and I couldn’t sleep that’s what I did. I had a scrapbook and wrote notes and that’s when the poems came – though they weren’t really poems – it was for my own sanity that I wrote them really.

Why did you make the decision not to return to Liberty and to instead start a Masters in poetry at the University of East Anglia?

I did try to go back to Liberty but it was part time and I realised I wasn’t really doing anything properly: I wasn’t looking after the children properly; I wasn’t doing the job properly. As a litigator at Liberty you need to be properly engaged.

By that time I was writing poetry and it was really a leap of faith. I was really, really lucky. I won a prize when I was on the course, the Magma prize for Hummingbird, and that made such a huge difference; it gave me a big confidence boost.

I was the only person on the course who had children and I was the oldest. I think I was the only one to have had a career. And the course is an incredible one. Writers like Ishiguro have come out of it. And I was very naïve; I didn’t quite know what was expected of me. I went to this interview and they basically said I was a diamond in the rough. But I was really disadvantaged, as I hadn’t done a literature degree so they told me to go away and read. And that’s what I did. For about a year, it’s all I did. I wrote very little but I decided that you don’t write in a vacuum.

We have a wonderful heritage, and I think you can’t just pick up a pen and start writing without knowing that you stand in the shoes of other poets. You have an obligation to know what went before. I just read. I stopped reading any prose. Apart from Angela Carter I only read poetry.

I also learned about form, studied versification and what underpins a poem, what a poem is, the possibilities of a poem. I am starting to learn about how poem can be in free verse, or it can be sonnet, or a ballad, or a terza rima, or a pantoum. It is all craft. That is something else you realise early on: you have an imaginative obligation to consider form. As well as everything else. Your subject matter is important but a poem won’t work unless it’s found its form.

You wrote the poem Ticking about your former client, right-to-die campaigner Dianne Pretty. Can you tell me a bit about that process?

I met her many times. The last time I saw her it was really sad. She had lost her case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and she wasn’t really able to communicate very well but she was really grateful for everything that had been done.

She knew she only had a matter of months to live and I think she was really scared about what kind of death she was going to have. I think it was coming home to her because she had been hanging onto hope all this time and we’d been from the High Court to the House of Lords to the ECHR and at every stage they had said no. And I think she realised that there was no other place to go. And I think that is when she started facing her death, and the practicalities of it. It was a really bad time.

I remember leaving her house in tears and thinking about what an incredible, powerful woman she was. This case was not just about her. It was about a principle she felt very strongly about. She didn’t think other people’s views should be imposed on her. She felt she needed help and it’s strange because, ten years on now, after the case after the case, the law has moved on. We have had Purdy and new Crown Prosecution Service guidelines and I think she was part of that.

I was on the train and I was mentally sketching something about her. Then the poem really found itself and its form when I was on an Arvon retreat and I really felt it was time to write that poem for her. We were arguing Article 8, the right to bodily integrity. The law had not really developed been around it. Now it has. And we were one of the first cases to test it.

Did you feel that the law let you down in her case?

No. It [the law] didn’t [disappoint me]. I don’t blame the judges for their decisions in the House of Lords or the ECHR. We just hadn’t developed enough in term of our jurisprudence. I have faith in our legal system – it helps millions of vulnerable people every day. I never felt that it disappointed me. I have always been an advocate for it.

Have you written about any other cases?

There is a poem in the collection that’s a ballad and it’s in response to an honour killing, the murder of Shafelia Ahmed. I wanted to write about what had happened to her. And I don’t normally write these sorts of poems but she was 17 and wanted to be a lawyer and I remember thinking very vividly after the trial that she didn’t have anyone to speak for her.

I started to write this poem and it just wouldn’t land. It wouldn’t work. But when I tried it in ballad form it wrote itself in one night. That very rarely happens. The ballad is very subversive. It is an ancient, traditional form, which people used to use before printing presses to espouse stories and tales of morality. I loved the fact that the subject matter of this modern ballad is incredibly brutal but the music of ballad carries the poem.

What is your writing routine and process?

I am really disciplined. I have been professional about writing. The flow is so important. Even if I only write a word a day, I have to write something. I think that is part of not losing connections with language and with your thoughts or the kind of images you have stirring around in your mind when you know there is a poem brewing and you don’t want to lose it. In terms of the graft of writing, I take my children to school; I get back, sit down at my desk and either write, read or edit something.

I think poems are different from prose in one way. You stalk a poem; it flits around in the corner of your eye. It’s a very, very delicate exposition involved in trying to unravel where that poem has to go. If you impose yourself on the poem too early it is always flawed. The best poems are the ones you give time to and tiptoe around and then get your net and capture it. Then the hard work begins and you need to think about form. The worst thing you can do is rush it.

What advice would you pass on to more junior lawyers?

Especially when you are young and working out your career trajectory my advice would be: don’t be seduced by the money. Really, really choose something you love doing because you’re going to be doing it for a long time. Having said that, there are endless possibilities. For me, being a lawyer and doing art on the side was incredibly useful.

And what would advice would you give to poets?

You become very obsessed with ‘what is my voice’ but you have to trust the poem. When you begin writing a lot you realise, almost subconsciously, that your voice emerges. The more you push your voice, it always goes wrong. You have to write lots, pursue it, and your voice will just come. It is very strange. You write five or six poems and now that they are identifiably yours. And you don’t know why. I don’t even want to go there and interrogate it.

It’s like Ted Hughes said, he believed in the magic in poetry. I think are mystical, magical, mysterious and I don’t even want to interrogate them. I just trust that they’re there. Having said that, I might wake up next month and never be able to write a poem again. I do believe that once you start writing it just emerges.

Ticking

i.m. Diane Pretty

They lead me (nervous and suited) to the

living room. She’s all peachy toed and rimmel-red

mouthed smiles. Machines grind and wink, but

if you listen with care you can hear that her body
is ticking, then cracking and oozing out her liquid

life, onto the carpeted floor. She is now an interpreter

of silence, can read the walls unease, reveal why the

silvery sounds of dawn rasp just for her.

She is aware that she is being edited, imperceptibly

nibbled by tiny fish, and contracting down to this

verse, this line, in the papers “I am Diane-Help me.”

Lion

How unstable and old he is now.
Lion, like God, has snacks sent up

by means of a pulley. Although
you can never master the deep language

of Lion. I am made dumb by the rough
stroke of his tongue upon mine.

Nowadays I make allowances. We lie
together and i hear the crackle of his bones

and when I bring myself to open my eyes
he weeps, his pupils resembling dark

embroidered felt circles. Sometimes
I think all I am is a comfort blanket for his

arthritic mouth. But many evenings he’ll sit
twisted behind the drapery solving my

vulgar fractions with nothing but his claws.
Lion and I break bread; I tend to his mane and

he sets a thousand scented fuses under my skin.
He starts undressing me under the sweetening stars.

Please girl, he mews; this might be the last time
I will see how the thin light enters you.

All poems are taken from Arshi’s first collection, Small Hands, and are published with kind permission of the publisher, Liverpool University Press.