Only Way Up is Down: The Poetry of Nabeel Mohan

May 09, 2021


It’s the idea that wherever I end up, the suffering along the way was an essential part of the journey. 

Poetry lovers of this generation can comb the internet for talented poets. But when in comes to pure gem, look no further than the brilliant artist and poet, Nabeel Mohan. I've had the privilege of tricking for an exclusive interview one of the most prolific writers of today, thanks to the power of social media. In his poetry collection, titled Only Way Up is Down, Nabeel stripped naked the inner workings of human society with a piercing humor paired with an undaunting genuineness, in a style almost so rare in contemporary literature. Edited by the lovely Rahani Buenaventura, whom I've had the pleasure of meeting here in Kuwait, as well, the collection also features whimsical illustrations scribbled by the poet himself. The book is now out in major retailers worldwide.

Tell us about your journey as a poet and artist. When did you start writing? What inspired you to make art?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I was lucky because my schooling placed an emphasis on music, reading, creative writing, and drama. I wrote poetry for primary school stage performances and later, for school publications. But I think I started taking it more seriously in my teens when my angst and hormones were at an all-time high. It seemed the best way to express myself in a totally honest way. And besides, no one but me was reading. 

Nowadays, most of my art is inspired by world politics and my ongoing journey towards mental health. Unfortunately, my OCD leaves me with long periods of zero productivity and once I come out of that funk, what I’d just been through seems the most pressing thing to express. At that point, I can write non-stop for a week or two and even experiment with new topics and styles. Still, it would be lovely to reach a point where I feel free enough to write about a wider array of subjects, consistently.

Why write poetry? Any poet or writings that had influenced you, so far?

I do enjoy poetry but honestly, I prefer reading it to writing it. What I do love is songwriting. But putting a quality song together is much harder work and more expensive. Poetry gives me a portion of that product, and much more quickly. Ideally, somewhere down the road, I’ll either meet someone that wants to do the work of putting my words to music, or I’ll have to finally sit down and study music production.

Tennyson’s work was probably some of the first poetry I read at school. From there I read Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath. Most of my inspiration, though, comes from songwriters and I’m particularly drawn to the lyrical content of Pink Floyd (for political incisiveness), Meatloaf (theology combined with romanticism), and Nirvana (stream of consciousness). Stage musicals like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, even The Book of Mormon and Hamilton, are great for learning interesting rhyme and rhythm techniques, and I’ve actually learned a lot from the way Eminem writes and delivers his lyrics, particularly his freedom to ‘bend’ words to rhyme with each other. He demonstrates a freedom with the English language that I honestly have not found anywhere else, though I don’t believe it’s trendy to say so nowadays. 

I am also heavily influenced by the poets I meet in person and on social media, PLUMA being a primary example. Additionally, I draw inspiration from anthologies and poetry books from the different places I’ve travelled to and the different cultures I’ve experienced. 

What topics do you enjoy writing about the most or feel important to you?

I think mental health, especially when you’re having a good day, is important to write about because I’ve had readers derive a degree of comfort from some of my work. If poetry is making you feel better in any way, I’m all for whatever topic gets you there. Unfortunately, most of the time I’m only expelling mental junk, so while that feels necessary and important, it’s not as enjoyable. 

I actually enjoy writing poems about nature, mysticism, myths, monsters, food, romance... and I love capturing a moment in time, much like a photograph or a haiku might. I need to get a lot more practice at what I enjoy though.

What is "Only Way Up is Down" all about?

It’s the idea that wherever I end up, the suffering along the way was an essential part of the journey. That means in this life, after this life, or whatever other destinations mark my way. It’s not an easy belief to hold onto but it does seem true. The cover of the book tries to convey that idea – the figure on the staircase, is he ascending or descending? What about his shadow that walks underneath the staircase? Whether we are getting better or worse, or progressing or falling behind, It’s all a matter of perspective.  

The book is also about politics and warfare… both internally and externally. 

Tell us your experience or challenges while writing the book.

Writing the poetry itself wasn’t too difficult. I just worked at my normal pace and then compiled the poems in a way that made sense. Transferring my artwork from the tiny drawings on Instagram to the larger page was challenging, though, thankfully my wife did most of that. Then, the entire self-publishing process… so many tiny things to get right – what format is this? What font is that? What file specs should I use? How do I transfer from this software to that one? Covid-19 meant proof copies sometimes took a month to arrive. The whole process is a steep and frustrating learning curve but honestly, once you’ve gone through it with your first book, the second time goes by so much quicker. 

What is the book's takeaway?

That’s a good question. Hmmm… usually, my intention with writing is to simply transfer what’s in my head onto paper. In high school and university, my teachers and professors urged me to put readers totally out of my mind and just write what I authentically feel. Sometimes that means a poem leaves people scratching their heads – but that’s alright. It’s the written equivalent of ‘dance like no one’s watching.’ I guess I write like no one’s reading. Although hopefully they will, eventually. 

But if there’s a message I’m trying to convey, it would be the idea that we should all be taking care of ourselves and each other. Ultimately, there’s nothing more important – not even poetry.  

Any future publications we should expect from you?

Oh, yes. I’m working on a book of short stories called “Book of No.” It’s really niche writing though and unless a reader is into grim, not particularly optimistic snapshots of surreal life, it’s probably not something they’ll want to pick up. God, you can tell that marketing and publicity aren’t my strong suits, can’t you?

There are also two other poetry books in the works – one exclusively about food, and the other about my political beliefs. Their working titles are “Sexy Lemons and Other Snacks” and “The Revolution will be Lobotomised.” I think they’ll be very interesting reads, especially if the topics themselves interest you. I’ll definitely let you know once they’re available. 

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