Vidyan Ravinthiran, Seni Seneviratne, and Shash Trevett’s Sri Lankan poetry anthology, Out of Sri Lanka, brings together for the first time, Sri Lankan and diasporic poetry written since the Independence. Featuring more than one hundred poets writing in English, or translated from Tamil and Sinhala, the anthology aims for readers to better understand the migrational poetics and the poetics of atrocity.

Poets long out of print appear beside exciting new talents; works written in the country converse with poetry from the UK, the US, Canada and Australia. Poems in traditional and open forms, concrete poems, spoken word poems, and experimental post-lyric hybrids of poetry and prose, appear with an introduction explaining Sri Lanka’s history.

Some poems explore critical events in Sri Lankan history: the Marxist JVP insurrections of the 1970s and 80s, the 2004 tsunami and its aftermath, and recent bombings linked with the demonisation of Muslim communities. The civil war between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers is a haunting and continual presence.

The editors spoke to Scroll about finding the poems for the anthology and why Sri Lanka ought to affirm a '“national literature”. Excerpts from the conversation:

Putting together more than 400 pages of poetry is an incredible feat. My first question, naturally, is how did you zero in on the poets and the poems that you wanted to feature?
It took a lot of reading! We had just begun talking about the scope of the book when we hit lockdown. Suddenly we had the time to read and digest material at leisure. We began with the poets: we read anthologies, journals with a special focus on Sri Lankan poetry, individual collections by poets, and academic articles on the politics and poetics of Tamil and Sinhala poetry, all the while noting down names that kept cropping up. Soon we had embryonic lists – one for each of the three languages – which we sent to poet and academic contacts we had, asking them to add any names we had overlooked. We also decided to initiate a call out to poets based in Sri Lanka and the diaspora, which brought to our attention some excellent and as yet unpublished poets. From there we began to search for the poems themselves.

Our original lists were enormous! But there was natural wastage: some poets had not been translated into English and therefore had to be removed. Some had been translated but we weren’t happy with the translations. Similarly with anglophone poetry: if we didn’t find poems we liked for a poet, we put them aside. We had a lot of discussion about which poems to include and which to leave out. The poems were, and are, the main focus of the book and in many cases, they booked their own place onto the pages.

How long does it take to conclude a project such as this? Additionally, does a project like this ever come to an end? I believe that it encourages more and more editors to carry forward what you three might’ve started.
Indian poetry has been anthologised several times, with editions really entering into conversation with each other. We hope the same will eventually be true of Sri Lankan poetry. We also hope to create a website showcasing recordings, of poems spoken in their original languages, and to create an online network of Sri Lankan poets who can get to know each other’s work better and also meet monthly on Zoom.

In many ways, we see this book as making a start on an ongoing project which will be carried on by others who come after us.

When I read the poems, I had a feeling that I was peeking into the Sri Lankan conscience, travelling into their homes and lives. But the book is very interestingly called Out of Sri Lanka. I want to know the thoughts that went into the title.
It is a play on “out of Africa”, capturing – it was Vidyan’s wife Jenny’s idea – two ideas. On the one hand, many diasporic poets refuse – because of atrocities, trauma, governmental corruption – to identify as “Sri Lankan”, and our book features many poems written “out” of the country, as in, authored in the UK or US or Australia or Canada. But “out of Sri Lanka” can also mean, “emerging from Sri Lanka”, which covers the poets living there too!

We read Sinhala and Tamil poems in translation along with those written in English. I searched online to see what other languages are spoken in Sri Lanka and found that there’s a tiny percentage of the population that speaks Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole and the nearly-extinct language called Veddah. Are there any literary outputs from these languages, especially as poems, songs, or folktales?
We are poets, not linguists, and in the case of the Veddahs, their language and literature are beyond our expertise. Having said that, given the preoccupation with ecopoetics at the moment (which also encompasses languages and cultures nearing extinction) we hope that someone will soon turn their attention to this area. We feature quite a few Burgher poets in the anthology, although not the language itself (whether from Portuguese or Dutch roots) as they write in English. Burgher writing has its own distinctive flavour and preoccupations which we think we represent well in the book. The only group of people we failed to include in the anthology were the Malayaha Tamils from the Hill Country. We could not find any good translations of their poetry and it was also hard (during lockdown) to get hold of texts from Sri Lanka. Given the hardship this group of people are currently facing in Sri Lanka, we hope someone will soon shine a light on their rich traditions and cultural output.

In this context, I’m also curious to know whether Sinhala and Tamil in Sri Lanka particularly is seen more as a language of poetry or prose. As in, is more poetry written and published than let's say, fiction?
It’s true to say that both languages carry a certain musicality which lends itself beautifully to poetry. All art forms are flourishing at the moment, but when the island was seeking to assert its own identity post-independence, it was poetry that led the way. In the case of Tamil, modernist poets from the 1950s were not just wanting to elevate the language over the language of the coloniser, they were also seeking to break away from the hold of Southern India. Later, during the civil war, poetry seemed an incredibly apt vessel with which to contain the trauma and grief of the Tamil population. In the case of Sinhala, it wasn’t just the poets but also the lyricists who were leading the way.

For thirty long years, Sri Lanka was engulfed in civil wars and yet when you read the Sinhala and Tamil poems, you realise how similar the concerns are, how painful the anguish is. Despite everything, these poems show a shared humanity between the two ethnic groups that were embroiled in fighting. When you were reading/discovering these writings, were you struck by the same realisation? Do you think about how perhaps the war could’ve been put an end to if perhaps the groups were allowed to have certain conversations with each other?
It’s perhaps insensitive to exalt “conversation” in the abstract as the solution to entrenched conflicts to do with inequalities of power. But the very structure of our book, mingling Tamil and Sinhala (and English) poems rather than segregating them, bespeaks, we trust, a sort of hope.

It is also encouraging that the younger generation of poets are collaborating across the language divide, translating each other’s work, and reading at events together. It would be lovely to believe that poetry had the power to change hearts and minds assaulted by centuries of trauma and prejudice. Unfortunately, a political and societal change needs to be forthcoming for a long-lasting mutual understanding to take place.

In what ways is English poetry different from the ones being written in the native languages? Do you see a shift in themes or styles?
Many “Sinhala” poets write in English too, so there is an overlap. When it comes to Anglophone poetry written outside the country, we found a strong interest in post-lyric, hybrid, experimental writing that often includes prose. This has become a racialised endeavour in the US in particular.

Sri Lankan fiction has created its niche thanks to Michael Ondaatje, Shyam Selvadurai, Shehan Karunatilaka, and Arun Arudpragasam. They are big names. Where would you say Sri Lankan poetry – especially English poetry – stands in this context of global recognition?
Not many people read poetry (although to be honest, the audience for fiction is shrinking too). We wish more did: but there is also something to be said for minority art forms. Narrowcasting allows in some cases for more nuanced thinking. Our hope is that this book will enhance the global recognition of Sri Lankan poets and affirm a national literature that has never been adequately read and studied. The book has brought together existing translations from Tamil and Sinhala as well as newly commissioned translations and combined them with Anglophone poetry to create the first true anthology of Sri Lankan and diasporic poetry. At all our launches so far we have included recordings of poets reading in Tamil and Sinhala as well as English to showcase their work to wider audiences.

The anthology is already out in the UK and now the Indian subcontinent, what has the response been like thus far?
In the UK, the book received arguably the highest award available for anthologies, a Poetry Book Society Special Recommendation; it was also a Book of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement.

We have had engaging and enthusiastic audiences at all our launches and we are being booked by festivals and literary organisations by poets who are genuinely supportive of the work we have done. People also tell us that the book was a very good Christmas present to gift to friends and family!