Poet Agha Shahid Ali taught at Hamilton for only five years, but in that short time he established lasting connections and friendships at the college. For this reason, the Agha Shahid Ali Literary Trust donated his collection of manuscripts, letters, and other writings to Hamilton after his death in 2001. This summer, Will Newman ’14 is working with Burke Library’s Special Collections to organize the materials so that they are accessible to scholars, ensuring that Shahid’s legacy at Hamilton lives on.
Agha Shahid Ali was born in New Delhi, studied at the University of Kashmir, and received a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University. He gained widespread recognition as a poet in the 1980s with his collections, A Walk through the Yellow Pages, The Half-Inch Himalayas, A Nostalgist's Map of America and The Country Without a Post Office. Shahid became renowned for blending multiple influences, drawing on his Hindu, Muslim and Western heritages. Rooms Are Never Finished, his last volume of poetry, was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award.
In all, he published 10 collections of poetry and was an instructor at nine colleges and universities during his career. He taught at Hamilton from 1987 to 1993, earning a reputation as a beloved teacher. Shahid also formed lasting friendships with a number of Hamilton professors, including Edmund A. LeFevre Professor of English Patricia O’Neil, to whom he dedicated a number of his poems.
Newman, whose work is supported by the Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi), Burke Library's Special Collections and the English Department, is going through all of Shahid's writing and organizing it so that scholars can easily find primary sources to study. The materials include manuscripts of Shahid’s poems and books, personal correspondence and teaching materials such as lesson plans. Among the materials are a letter and postcard from Salman Rushdie, a note from Bill Clinton, as well as correspondences with the famous Palestinian intellectual Edward Said and renowned poets such as Mark Strand, WS Merwin, James Merrill, Christopher Merrill and Galway Kinnell.
Newman has the rare opportunity to read through all of Shahid’s writing. He remarked, “It’s an intensive and personal way of getting to know the way a poet writes, what a poet finds most important about his or her own work and what he or she thinks of other people's work. Ultimately sometimes it feels like a post-humous apprenticeship.” Newman believes that as the project moves forward Hamilton faculty, in addition to scholars from other colleges, will be interested, particularly as some of the letters to Shahid were written by his colleagues at Hamilton.
Newman is also working with the DHi to publish the majority of the materials online. He is learning about digital archiving techniques and meta-data so that he can preserve the documents online when the time comes. Through the organization of the collection and the website, Newman believes more people will be able to gain insight into Shahid’s work and life. Newman credits his supervisors/staff advisors Pat O’Neill, Christian Goodwillie, Mark Tillson and Janet Simons with guiding him on the project.