Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Life of a Poet ~ Shaista Tayabali

LIFE OF A POETShaista Tayabali
by Sherry Blue Sky
Over the course of the last year, I became aware of a radiant spirit, living “across the pond” in Cambridge, England, home of the newly married Royals. Shaista Tayabali, of Lupus In Flight,  has the kind of spirit I most admire, one that transcends difficulty in a way that inspires all who know her. Shaista has a severe form of Lupus, is often in pain, undergoing treatments, vision affected, confined to bed during the worst times. Yet her spirit soars in everything she writes. Visiting her site is like walking through a sunny field full of  beautiful blooms. She lifts the hearts of her visitors. We are privileged today to be sitting down with this wonderful young woman. If you haven’t come across her yet, be prepared to fall in love! Pour a cup of Earl Grey tea into a lovely thin, porcelain cup, because it is High Tea in Cambridge!

Poets United: Shaista, so lovely of you to take the time to speak with us.  Would you like to tell us the story behind the name of your blog?
Shaista: A few years into the diagnosis, I wrote a poem called Lupus in Flight. I was a trapped butterfly skulking behind windows, hungrily devouring life through my spirited imagination. Here are the first lines:
Lupus in flight
on a hot and burning night,
Would I were the cool breeze,
the intangible dream,
gliding in and out of sight.

When I came to naming my blog, there really was only this – Lupus in Flight. I still skulk behind windows, but not quite as much.

Poets United: So wonderful, Shaista. When I read your work, I always see your spirit soaring free through blue skies, where the pain can’t touch the essence of you. Lupus In Flight reminds me of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – where the diving bell was the author’s body, that he was trapped inside, and the butterfly was his spirit. Have you read it? Anyone who does can never complain about writer’s block again – he dictated it by blinking his left eyelid as someone pointed to the alphabet – dictated the book one LETTER at a time. I would have a hard time, with no short term memory, would likely keep doing the same word over and over!

Shaista: Yes, I have read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It was published in 1997, the same year I was diagnosed with Lupus. I read it at university. A very painful, complicated time for me – I was young in age, living in halls, but utterly ancient and withered in spirit. I spent most of the hours of each day and night, a mass of fever, pulp lesions in my fingers and toes, a determination to excel and a body that would not comply. No one had any idea of the complexity of the disease raging through me, but they made me tons of sweet, milky tea. And there is nothing so grave that cannot be mended with a cup of tea. So yes, the flight of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s spirit spoke volumes to me.

Poets United: I can see that it would. Tell us a little about yourself. Did you spend your childhood in India? How old were you when your family moved to England? Where is Home, the one in your heart?
Shaista: I was born in Bombay when it was still called Bombay. We moved to England when I was fifteen. The night our parents decided it would be safer to move away from the religious rioting of that time, was probably the most traumatic moment of my life, spun out slowly over a longer period. Life divides itself into Before and After the Move. I have been asked this question for 17 years: “Do you miss India?” The question is asked easily, but there are no easy answers. How can you miss something that is a part of you? How can you not miss something when others cannot see or share that part of you?

Poets United: So true. Shaista, you have the most glorious family. Would you tell us a little about them?

Shaista: I live with two artists who happen to be my parents. Father is a doctor, but also a poet, philosopher and watercolourist. Mother is an oil painter, a portraitist, a Golden type – everything she touches becomes happier, thrives better, particularly plants, animals, Father and Self. I had a dog for a while Before the Move. She was a boxer. Her name was Carmel. She had a limp. She was heavenly. Oh yes, two brothers as well. Mustn’t forget them!! They live away, and dip in and out. They do the things I can’t do... like travel to Bali and India, Africa and China . They are very sporting. I hate racquets, and am extremely grateful my father had two sons to fulfil various sporting dreams.

[Me and Carmel in Bombay in 1993]

Poets United: Did you have as wonderful a childhood as I suspect you did? Any special memories?
Shaista: The brothers and I were never spoiled because my mother was both loving and strict. Dad just wanted to play. But we lived in a big family house, and were utterly adored by various aunts, uncles, cousins who visited from California, Heidelberg, Scotland, England. Childhood was simple and complex. It was school, Monsoon, holidays, Dad larking about, the smell of turpentine while Mum was painting.... learning to swim, learning to be good, kind, true and deserving of all that love.

[Being Little- me reading Enid Blyton to my younger brother, Irfan.
My brothers, Irfan and Rizwan, are exactly 3 years and 3 days apart]

Poets United: Sigh. How wonderful! If you wish to, might you explain how old you were when you were diagnosed, how that impacted and impacts your life and how you have managed to keep such a radiant and inspiring spirit?  I  admire you so much, Shaista.  You really shine.
Shaista: I was nine when I had my first real flare of the disease – high fevers, swollen painful joints, mouth ulcers, but Systemic Lupus Erythematosus was not diagnosed until I was 18. Pain is pain. Entire universes exist inside of it. Perhaps I won’t write too much about Lupus here. I think I say a lot without saying a lot, because those who read me are so perceptive and understanding.
Poets United: Well said, Shaista. Have you always written? Do you remember writing your first poem?  
Shaista: One of Ma’s earliest memories of me involves me coolly tearing out pages from her Gardening Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Mum was horrified! Had I no understanding of philology?? Mum still has the torn book. And I still tear pages out of magazines (not books!) to accompany my writings in my books. But other than such desecration, my love of words is more respectfully expressed in writing, of any sort, which I have done since childhood. I wrote little stories, with drawings, about elephants and butterflies and little girls and time machines... The first poem I distinctly remember writing was about loneliness, and alienation. I had only been in England a short while, it was November, bitterly cold, grey and terribly unsmiling.

Poets United: A big change for a teenager, for certain. Did you always know you were a writer?  Did you receive recognition in school for writing?
Shaista: We had a subject at school in India called English Grammar and Composition. I composed with alacrity, and yes, received recognition and prizes for literature; although my equal passion was for drama and elocution. I loved being on stage. I once broke my arm during a Karate competition and performed a character role with my arm wrapped in cast – I was playing a mother-in-law. I had a walking stick, and used it to wallop my poor son-in-law. Can’t remember why now!

Poets United: Hilarious! What is it about poetry that makes you want to write?
Shaista: The sound of language in my mouth, on my page, dancing inside my eyes; the sheer music of it. Rivers running wild, storms gathered, daisy chains, colours, water, suffering transfixed by joy. Oh, everything is poetry, eventually.

Poets United: You even speak in poetry! What style of poem do you write the most?
Shaista: Once, in my seventeenth year, in my passion for Keats, I attempted an Ode in the style of The Grecian Urn and Nightingale. It was fairly dire, and I have never attempted to imitate a poet again. I like echoing other poets unknowingly. I studied poetry at university that was terrifically clever and heavily laden with meaning, so I am neither intimidated by such poetry nor unnerved by the fact that my own poems are often light as a feather. My mother calls them soufflés.

Poets United: How do you know a poem you have written is good?

Shaista: It writes itself. I have a first line, almost always. And the rest rapidly follows, a bit like Harry Potter with a magic quill. Quite fun really, capturing without intending harm. Like this:

The Greatest Achievement
Of My Life
Is That No One Else Can Tell
When I Am In Heaven
And When I Am In Hell.

Poets United: Awesome! I so love that! What, most often, triggers you to write?
Shaista: When I was younger, emotion drove my pen. And a powerful abstract sense of Romance. Then pain, both physical and spiritual. Now, simplicity, understanding the interconnectedness of it all. This is that, that is this. Everything is everything, and nothing at all.
Poets United: Beautifully said. All is connected. What nourishes your creativity?
Shaista: Freedom. My parents.

[The Parentals. Sitting in the conservatory upstairs,
where I have been re-potting all the plants.]

Poets United: Shaista, your whole family shines!  Do you have a process you use in writing your poems? Do you re-work and revise your work, or does it come as it appears on your site?
Shaista: I don’t type poetry. It is always handwritten on scraps of paper, napkins, in journals. I like the loop of handwriting, the personal look of letters. I write on handmade paper, so I am careful as I write, careful with each word, because it is precious, and because I do not like to revise or edit. I like to distil the moment through pen on to page.
Poets United: So well said. I always feel there is a flow, writing in pen, that is lacking on the keyboard, though now I do most of my writing there. What is your take on poetry and the internet? Too much poetry? Great exposure for unpublished poets?
Shaista: Too much poetry?? Sacrilege! Excellent source of equality is what I think. Blogs are a terrific teacher of disciplined creativity. We are compelled to create new and original works; journalistic and poetic, visual and historical, accurate, honest, relevant. Nerve-wracking and rewarding in inspiring ways. Poetry was always meant to be read or sung aloud to an audience, shared and learned.
Poets United: I so agree! When do you write the most?  Where do you like to write? (So we can picture you!)
Shaista: I have no writing routine. I write perched anywhere. In rooms and on bridges, in fields, under trees, and of course, in hospital!

[Me in hospital, receiving an infusion of monoclonal antibody therapy.
Writing poetry.]

Poets United: And radiantly smiling, even there! How does your environment impact your writing?
Shaista: Poetry is ever about observation, not simply visual, of course. The sounds of where I am are always important. Things people say.  Like this (the words are my mother’s, exact and true):

If You Look Outside The Window
You Can See A Blackbird
Washing Itself
In A Puddle;

Come Quick!

It’s Gone.

Poets United: So lovely! How do you feel about writing? What do you hope to accomplish by doing it?
Shaista: Writing saved, and continues to save my life. Perhaps I am even nothing without it. Who knows? I don’t want that particular belief to be tested! My writing gives others pleasure, and so I am content for this to be my legacy.
Poets United: It not only gives us pleasure, it is a gift to us! What poem, written by you, do you like the most and why?
Shaista: I like ‘The Year of Yes’ andCrossing Borders’. I like several poems I have written for my father like ‘Crocuses’ andThe Shadow in the Stone’. What I like best about all my poems is that they exist! They are my library, and I pull one out every now and then; a leaf from the trees of my life so far. Oh yes, I remember, so that’s how it was then. Funny, I feel just that way now.
Poets United: I love that: a leaf from the trees of your life. Do you have a favourite poet?
Shaista: John Keats, Kahlil Gibran, Jelal-al-din Rumi, Pablo Neruda, e.e.cummings, Wendy Cope, Alice Walker, Maya  Angelou, Suheir Hammad, A.A.Milne... for me poetry is also Tolkien, J.K.Rowling, Georgette Heyer, Eva Ibbotson. I cannot have favourites. I need them all, all the time.

[Browsing bliss in a bookstore called Books, Actually, Singapore. I wanted to find a Singapore poet.
I found
‘The Space of City Trees”, by Arthur Yap, who has a droll and linguistically playful style.]
Poets United: Have you ever been published? Is online feedback satisfying enough, if you don’t publish?
Shaista: Published. Yes. Here and there. But I like this world of writing specifically to an audience that are living and breathing with me now, holding my hand through the sticky temperamental days and nights of Now. My poems are already in books, albeit my own. My parents’ friends read me. My brothers are proud. My friends respect and admire me. Strangers say the most extraordinarily kind and deliciously complimentary things. What more, I ask you?? What more?

Poets United: What more, indeed! What is your favourite type of music?
Shaista: I do have a small and deep library of regrets. Not ever having learned to play or read music being quite high on the shelves. But what a wealth of music we have immediate access to today! I am quite old-fashioned in my tastes. I like songs with recognisable words. Eva Cassidy, Edith Piaf, A.R.Rahman. I also love to dance, so anything with a good beat, particularly MJ or Beyonce, and I’m dancing. Anywhere. Especially in hospital. Even if I am only dancing in my head.

Poets United: Even your words dance! If you could be or do anything in the world, no limits, what would it be?

Shaista: I would be Queen Rania of Jordan, Audrey Hepburn in Ethiopia, Mother Theresa and Lady Diana meeting in Calcutta. I would be doing what my elder brother is doing, travelling across nations, working with social projects, NGOs and transforming lives. I would be with children. I tend to befriend children just by making faces at them. I understand pain. One day, there will be no limits.  I am living many dreams already. Freedom is the true dream of all human beings. And my life is already free, in many ways.

[Queen Rania in blue scarf]

Poets United: You have such a lovely soul, Shaista. Truly. If you could have dinner with any famous person, who would it be?
Shaista: Dr Maya Angelou, Queen Rania and Ellen. We would meet in the Palace in Jordan (naturally), eat something traditional using our fingers; rice, yoghurt, dates, olives, hot mint tea. There would be poetry recited aloud (Phenomenal Woman by Maya), I would learn lots and laugh even more!

[Maya Angelou in White Head-dress]

Poets United: Now, that is a conversation I would love to overhear!!! What other poets in the blogosphere do you like to read or visit most?
Shaista: I love reading Ruth, at synch-ro-ni-zing and Terresa at The Chocolate Chip Waffle. Also, I consider Jeanne-ming, the artist at Wu Feng Road, to be a poet.

Poets United: Lovely choices. When you are not writing, what other interests do you pursue? Are you also an artist?
Shaista: It is quiet and green where I live. Gardening is very important in England, don’t you know. So I potter among plants, I teach English or work part-time when I can. I try my hand at calligraphy and life drawing. I study languages. I amuse my parents. I practise Buddhist techniques of mindfulness in the practise of Thich Nhat Hanh. I smile.

Poets United: Lovely. Thay is a favourite of mine as well. Have you ever lived a great adventure?
Shaista: Just today! I activated an alarm in a famous National Heritage House in England! On purpose! Well, not exactly. I just wanted to touch the bed of King George III. And it was inches away, separated only by a braided rope at my feet. I’ll just leap over, sneak a touch, and leap back, I thought. I nearly had a heart attack when the alarm sounded, and apparently so did the volunteers in every room. No One Had Ever Done It Before. My mother pretended not to know me.

Poets United: Hilarious! I love it! It is wonderful that you visit all of the cultural offerings London is so famous for. Like walking back in time. Have you traveled to other countries?
Shaista: France, Hungary, Italy, Canada, United States, Singapore, Indonesia. In the library of regret: Japan, where my younger brother lived and taught for three years.

[Freedom. Me, walking into the waters of Nikoi Island,
Indonesia, where my brother's wedding took place.]

Poets United: The recent earthquake must have been especially devastating for him. It's wonderful that you have experienced several other countries. Do you have a dream you hope to make come true?
Shaista: Oh far too many to name. I live them all deeply in my head, in my imagination, in my writing. Well alright, true love would be nice. More than nice. That’s the real dream. Someone to have a giggle with, everyday, who isn’t my parent!!

Poets United: I so hope he arrives soon, Shaista! He will have to be very special, to be worthy of you! Do you have a favourite quote that you use often, or live by?
Shaista: “Get a grip Shaista.” Not a quote, but that’s my motto (for myself I mean!!). That is what I tell myself, most days. And when I am being gentler, “Hold on. Hold on hold on hold on hold on...”

Poets United: Yes, hold on.........
Is there anything else you would like to share with Poets United ?

Shaista: No, no more!!! You know it all now. I would love to have been the mysterious type, but alas, that was never meant to be.

Poets United: It has been so lovely getting to know you better, Shaista. I know our members will really enjoy learning more about you. Thank you so much.

See, kids? Isn’t she lovely? The people behind the pen are some of the most interesting people around. Each poet has such an amazing story. Check back and find out who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


  1. Brilliant! Shaista's light shines through her work and is evident in every line of this interview. She is a special one. Thank you for allowing her, through this written conversation, to illuminate me.

  2. This is such a beautiful post about a very beautiful writer. She is such an inspiration!

  3. Shaista, perhaps within your story is a powerful story about us all, the shine, the tenacity of the human soul, the sizzling talent that abounds within us, the radiance that is in our eyes. Through you I can stare down the fieriest ray of the burning sun. You are a Child of Hope.
    Thank you Sherry Blue Sky for making this possible.

  4. Sherry, this was a wonderful and depthful interview of Shaista, whose blog I had not experienced before your interview. Shaista, you are an inspiration indeed, and your poetry is beautiful. One wonderful thing about Poets United is meeting so many fine poets from all around the world!

  5. Shaista,
    So nice to meet you; I enjoyed learning about you n' your family! I now wonder if I am British, lol; I love plants n' tea. I love how through your words and Sherry's questions, we sense sunlit fragments of your soul. I don't know your struggle, but can relate. Your words are so poetic and there is so much beauty in your story. Pain seems to attract it, gives one insight to what is essential. Your words light up the page and your smile inspires hope! Great interview Ladies!

  6. What a beautiful young lady and the smiles warm the globe here in everyone face. Truly enjoyed the interview and the best to Shaista in all she does and writes.

    Sherry just love your selection in interviews spanning the world mining all its poetic gems like Shaista...bkm

  7. Inspirational and beautiful interview, about a lovely poet.


  8. Kim, Annell, Salem, Mary, Ella, bkm, Flaubert... thankyou so much for your lovely lovely comments. Sherry makes me look good ;)
    Extraordinary how the blogosphere holds depths within depths for all of us. And light.

  9. Shaista, this was the best birthday present ever for your biggest fan! How I love you!

  10. Sherry does make you look good, Shaista, it's a fantastic, loving interview. But you are good, and your goodness comes to me like honeyed light that keeps me following you like a bee. I thought of Anaïs Nin when you talked of your first poem, feeling alienated in your new home. Your words are beautiful witnesses to to your fragrance, and I love knowing you hand write them. I could go on and on, and I do in my heart. Thank you, Shaista, for being, and thank you, Sherry, for this thorough and very special interview.


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