Speaking in Tongues is a debut collection of poetry emerging from a polyglot’s pen. The book is written in four diverse languages. The multiple languages used by Kiran Bhat correspond directly or obliquely to the cultural milieu of the country of origin of that language. Yet, at its heart, this book is about confronting the self. From grappling with his homosexual identity during adolescence to coming face to face with a more mature dimension of his personality, Bhat’s poems amalgamate the trajectory of his travels with his own self development.
His poetry is versatile and unabashedly confessional. As a reader one enjoys “journeying” through the book – starting from the raw, blistering outpourings of a young man to traversing a more sedated road affording wisdom and life-lessons. It is almost as though one is tracing one’s own path in life even though the exact nature of incidents might be vastly different for each one of us.
Bhat has clearly put in a great deal of thought in putting this collection together. He offers his readers the vast spectrum of culturally specific folklores, philosophies and tales through his verses. Yet, given all of that, his poetry is contemporary and vibrant written with an incisive mind and an ageless heart.
Speaking in Tongues is a multilingual collection of poems. The first and the most obvious question to present before you is about the four different languages in which the poems are expressed in your book. The poems are in English, Spanish, Turkish, and Mandarin. What made you want to express yourself in these particular languages?
When I was in my twenties, I was a world traveller. I would spend all of my time hopping between various parts of the world, spending a few months in one country, and then a few months in another. There were some places I happened to live for just a little bit longer, for about a year. That would be Madrid (I was studying abroad there while I was an NYU student), Istanbul (I fell in love with the city and decided to live there while I taught classes online), and Shanghai (where I was an English teacher at a college).
I guess Melbourne in theory was another place I lived for a little bit over a year, but they speak English, so I don’t think that counts. These three cities are the only places outside of India and the United States where I have lived for a decent amount of time and where I was exposed to a very different sort of culture that actively challenged my conceptions of the world. While my Mandarin has dwindled, and I rarely use Turkish and Spanish as I now live in Mumbai, I have a fondness for these three particular languages, and I am glad to share that fondness by choosing to express myself in these tongues.
As for the English, well English is my true first language. While I was reasonably good enough in these languages to attempt to write in them, I had to constantly refer back to English, whenever I couldn’t figure out how to phrase a certain thing, or when my vocabulary was too limited and I needed to put an English word in the midst of writing so as to not interrupt my flow. For almost all of these poems I would try to uninterruptedly express a feeling or thought in that language, using English when I needed to. Then I rewrote the poem in English – that would turn out to be fairly good in a first draft with little need for revision. I would go to the dictionary, try to find the right words or phrases, and then I would send both drafts to a friend who was a native and would then correct my phrases or word choice.
Therefore I would say Speaking in Tongues is not a pure representation of someone who is a master of various languages showing off, but a foreigner’s very clear attempt to write in a language that person doesn’t know well, and using that attempt to learn.
You’re a well-travelled person and a polyglot. Poetry is often an assimilation of one’s experiences. Would you like to tell us how all these lands and languages have informed or shaped your poetry?
So I have lived a very different life compared to most other people. Since I was 18 I haven’t lived in the environment in which I was born and raised (Clayton County, Georgia). A lot of this had to do with it was tough to be an LGTQI South Asian person in the 1990s and early 2000s in Georgia; I just never really felt like I belonged in Georgia even though that’s where I grew up. I went to NYU, studied abroad in Spain, and then never stopped travelling; my country count is to about 150 now, and I’ve lived in 25 really unique cities all across the world.
I am a poet but I am also a novelist. For me both forms are of utmost importance as we transition to a more globally unified and conscientious way of being our identities. I want to make more people think about the world and feel more connected to planet Earth. In my fiction, I take this goal very literally. I employ style and structure very purposefully to make you feel like you are being shoved into foreign cultures and ways of thinkings without the time or space to name it, box it, border it. My fiction is very much an endeavour to challenge the way we try to give spaces and cultures a placement, and to interconnect tribes and regions and mentalities that are normally not associated with each other in unconventional ways.
I am less sure if I am so purposefully artistic as a poet. Factually I am not trained as a poet. I’ve never studied metre or lyric or stanza, and I have never taken such things seriously well. My relationship to poetry is much more direct. I place something into language, I get a set of ideas on how to make a set of such structures that would make for an interesting collection, and then I go out and do it. Because of my international life and mentality I am sure that some of my vision as a fiction writer incidentally spills over to my poetry.
However I would also say that I am just not as meticulous or as judicious when I approach poetry. My poetry is probably more intimate, more raw, and just more open. I think it can be approached by people who largely just want to see my take on the world, which also happens to be influenced by various cultures and languages.
They told me to grab my things,
and to pack, they were kicking me out.
When I protested, they took me,
forced me to sit in a chair
and I could not move.
I was supposed to sleep in that chair for five
hours, I could not.
In the “Autobiografia” section of your book, you’ve dedicated one poem to each year of your life. The opens read like a veritable confession, an outpouring of your life into words. Why did you choose to structure the poems in this fashion? And was it difficult for you to delve into your past?
“Autobiografia” – the first section of Speaking in Tongues – was born out of a conversation between me and my therapist. Basically I was sharing early incidents from my life which had deeply scarred me – related to growing up as a gay South Asian origin person in a very Christian Neo-Antebellum South environment. My therapist told me that my early life was fascinating. This was not my life as a traveller living in random parts of the world. This was just my life being a kid trying to survive in a conservative society. And she said it would make such an interesting book. She definitely felt that people would read it.
I pride myself on being an experimental writer, and I don’t like to make things just for the sake of finding an audience. I saw a lot of value in writing about my early years just to make peace with myself. I suffered a lot for being gay in a time in which homosexuality was socially stigmatised, and I know a lot of people have had to deal with that. At the same time I wanted to do something that was avant-garde.
I decided two things. One is that I would write the autobiography in the form of poetry rather than prose. I’d give each year of my life a poem, and try to collapse as much sensation, feeling, and atmosphere that a year could have in a small space. I wanted to really practice my skills of compression and immersion. I felt that this would be a good way to challenge myself and my technique.
Second was to write in Spanish. Spanish is one of the languages I am better at. I’ve spoken it for many years and have a fairly good understanding of the language. I can write in it, and more-so, I don’t have to feel immersed in my own feelings while writing in it. Writing in Spanish gave me the ability to write down about events which really hurt me, but without having to feel hurt while writing it. I like that aspect of writing in a foreign language. You can approach language almost like how a mathematician approaches formulas, using words to sculpt out your ideas and feelings, rather than actually in the part of yourself that is trying to express something in language.
but, I, the pervert,
the deserter, the vagabond, the traitor to
tradition, the resister to remorse,
After my two semesters of Spain I travelled all over Europe froze my bones off in the blizzards of the Baltics ate the cheesiest boreks in Serbia hitchhiked from Romania to Moldova to Ukraine. My life didn’t feel empty...it felt most fulfilled.
Cyril Wong observes in his note to your collection that these poems bridge “…lyrical confession to koan-esque self-questioning and the personification of whole nations…” Would you like to expand a little on the stylistic and literary tool of disclosure, admission, and acknowledgement in poetry?
As I think I said earlier, poetry is much more direct than prose. One can’t help but interpret in such a fashion. In poetry we are not necessarily trying to tell a story or construct a plot. We are facing a page, and spurting out words, in the hope that in their collision we will create something of meaning.
I have no shame in being myself. I’m glad that poetry gives me a chance to confess even when I’m not in the act of confession. I am merely writing something on the page, and in just that sentence I am sharing a representation of my very essence.
I think part of the reason why the confessional sub-genre of poetry has received such a welcome response from readers in the last century is because it takes a genre like poetry which a lot of people approach from the perspective of wordplay and fuses it with an emotionality that beckons a response from people who might not be interested in writing for writing’s sake. In the case of my particular poetry collection I think that my work is a unique blend of both. The themes of the poems are very much confessional, and are meant to pathos from the reader. But because I am trying to frame these thoughts in a foreign language and then much eloquently putting them into English and then retrying to write them again, I think that the combined reading of the two versions of the text (in the source language and in the native), and then the comparing of how differently the two texts read (for better or for worse) gives Speaking in Tongues a fairly unique argument in the space of multilingual poetry writing: to not write as a native towards a more prominent global language, but to purposefully write in between various languages, in the hopes of expressing something language normally cannot capture in just one.
The poems in the Mandarin section of your collection, mostly relate to folklore, spirituality and philosophy. Some of the poems here, are penned in the third person – as in “Kiran says…” Is there any particular reason why you have used the third person voice in this section? And your comments also on the choice of content in the Mandarin section. Is it linked to the language in which the poems were written?
In the poems in 客燃脑说 (or Kiran Speaks), which is the second part of my poetry collection Speaking in Tongues, I framed a collection of some twenty plus poems by having a speaker ask a question to Kiran (myself in third person), and then having myself in third person, or Kiran, respond in an emotional and philosophical imagery. The style is a reference to how Confucius would answer questions in The Analects, though this self-referential style is also used by famous Bhakti writers such as Tukaram.
At the time I was learning Chinese and being influenced by classical Chinese writing, so I wanted to make reference to that, and fuse it with aspects of Bhakti poetry that I also deeply appreciate. It is interesting to consider whether the content of the poems and the language they were attempted in are linked. Certainly in Chinese there are ways to express that can only exist in Chinese, and some of the poems absolutely have that. The language is also very simple and to the point.
Since I wrote the poems in Chinese first and Chinese characters tend to be very conceptual, when I wrote this back into English it made the sentences seem direct and staccato. That created a flavour of poetry that might read odd in English, but makes sense if you consider them as representations of thoughts from Chinese.
In Seyâhatnâme, your poems are in Turkish and are themed on travel. Could you elaborate on the correlation between Turkish and travel poems?
The Seyâhatnâme is a book of travels written by the Turkish travel writer Evliya Çelebi. Back in the Medieval period there were so many interesting Middle Eastern travel writers going around the world and writing their impressions of it. I wanted to pay homage to this tradition but in a language I can manage in: I’m very bad at Arabic (only able to communicate basically) whereas I have a competent knowledge of Turkish. I picked the 18 countries I have stayed in, and I thought how I would express them if I were to personify them in a poem.
Çelebi’s writing is obviously more thorough and robust, but I think the poems of my Seyâhatnâme modernise and personalise my relationship to the countries in a way that provides the poems a unique sort of resonance. The Turkish poems and their English representations are also quite different in flavour, as the manner of structuring a thought in both languages is quite different, and what sounds like a poetic ending in Turkish sometimes makes no sense in English, and vice-versa.
smoke from the boat
pomegranate chips under my nails.
Memories are always passengers and we are the
space they traverse.
Under this road
is a mosque-coloured gold and houses covered by
wine, and they go up and down alongside the coast
How we pray to the river and yet the river claps on
blue, grey, moss-green tears, sweat, aching
Last but not least, I’d like to quote the title of one of your poems – “A Stranger on the Bus Asks what do You Love the Most?” Do share your answer to that question.
You mean in regards to what I wrote in the poem back then? Or what is coming to me now? You know, it’s boring to just reflect on something I wrote back in 2016. Let me share what I love the most.
I love waking up in the morning and feeling like I am alright with the world. I love waking up and thinking, it’s okay. No matter how successful I end up being, at the end of the day, I’m okay. I love elaichi bananas and the mushy way the flesh curdles against my teeth. I love the song that I will sing to myself when the planet is dust and I am no more, and yet somehow, I can still sing.