Jeet Thayil waited until an hour before we were scheduled to meet to decide on a location. When he called he offered four options, each accompanied by a description of which of their specific spatial qualities were conducive or detrimental to an interview.

We settle on a restaurant in the gulley that runs the perimeter of the green tank at Hauz Khas, always a couple of degrees cooler than the surrounding city. Our table is in a far corner; on the tape, light pop music, incongruous at times, lilts behind our conversation.

Thayil received broad recognition for his 2012 debut novel, Narcopolis, which won the 2013 DSC prize, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize the same year. He has also been a consistent figure on the music scene, as guitarist and vocalist in bands like Atomic Forest, Sridhar/Thayil and Still Dirty.

More covert is Thayil’s career as a subtle and accomplished poet. On November 19, Aleph Book releases his Collected Poems, which comprises his four extant books of poetry plus new and previously uncollected works. The volume spans almost forty years of practice and bears witness to a perception honed through sensitive observation of the minutiae of daily life in the midst of transformation; these poems pause upon moments like moths, pollinate by the night of the depths of the mind, bioluminescence.

Thayil orders a double espresso and downs it in two tilts before we even begin to talk. The interview questions are in stacks of coloured cards on our table. I order Monsoon Malabar. “Have your coffee,” he says, as I turn over a green.

Who are you?
On my good days, I’m a writer. On my bad days, I’m nothing. On the other days, I’m nothing. Or I’m just another Joe, with money worries and family worries and car worries and existential worries.

What do you do?
I write. I play music. I repair things that are broken. I try not to drink too much and I fail. I resist therapy. I try not to fly.

For whom?
I wish more for myself. That’s my wish for me, when I grow up, to do more of that for myself.

How is what you do necessary?
Oh no, there’s no question that it’s not necessary. It’s unnecessary, in any real way; I know that every day. I wake up in the morning and I look at the news, or I make the mistake of looking at television, and seeing that bearded face dripping grammar, and I know nothing I write could ever be necessary, or relevant, or could ever make a difference, to them. Poetry makes nothing happen, especially in India.

What changes because of what you do?
When you ask that question I can’t help but think about the writers returning their national awards. I’ve been asked, several times, to appear on those atrocious television shows, where six people scream their heads off at each other, several times, to talk about this, and I’m glad to say I haven’t succumbed, and I’ve said “No” so far. But I do have opinions, and I do have something to say about it.

I did win a Sahitya Academy award.

For These Errors Are Correct.
For These Errors Are Correct. The reason I’m not returning it is because, for one, it wasn’t this government that gave me that award: there’s no one in this government who would be able to recognise an exceptional book of poems, as These Errors is. (I’ve written bad books of poems, but that is a good book of poems, and I know it.)

Why should I return an award that is deserved to a government that didn’t award that award? And why on earth would I want to give this government the money that I got for that award? I don’t want to give this government a penny, because I know they’ll use it for the wrong reasons.

Especially considering how miniscule the money is. But even then it’s money, you know? I think I can use it more than the Prime Minister can, or his henchman. I think I deserve it more than he does. I don’t have machinery paying my bills. I support and admire the fact that finally Indian writers stood up for themselves and did something, especially when so many of the writers who have returned those awards were associated with the government: they are Delhi writers, who have been fed by the government, for years, and have grown sleek on the government, for years. For them to do that’s an extraordinary moment, and I’m glad I was able to witness it.

I’m not going to make myself popular by saying these things. We’re stuck with this government for another four years, but meanwhile I don’t think we should encourage them. I see the returning of the award or the money, or even that old pedicled shawl that I received (which I actually gave somebody, or somebody stole from me) as a way of encouraging this government, as giving them something. And you mustn’t give this government anything. You must starve it, if possible. I think the way to respond is to do what a writer does, and that is write about it. That’s the only way to deal with it. At least that’s my position, and I have been writing about it.

We no longer live in a time where you can say these things irresponsibly, so I want to say that I’m saying these things very responsibly, of sound mind: it’s one in the afternoon, we have not been drinking, we are sober, the sun is shining: I’m saying this absolutely compos mentis. But you also know that you are opening yourself up for god knows what kind of chaos or violence. The thing is, if you allowed them to dictate your writing or your speech or your action, you’re dead; you might as well give up. So it’s a choice. Who knows if it’s the right one. We’ll see.

It’s also a testament to the power of words, that they can rile people.
Especially if you’re a poet and you’ve spent so many years of your life knowing that nothing you say could ever make a difference because nobody reads it. It’s a heady thing.

Why read?
I can think of no other pleasure as exquisite as sitting on a chair or lying on a bed with a book open on your lap – a book gripping enough for you to be able to lose yourself in that book and lose your mind and all the things that you think constitute you and be able to immerse yourself in somebody else’s head: I honestly can think of no other pleasure quite as acute as that pleasure. People who don’t know that pleasure – and there are many among us who don’t, especially in this fractured time of social media – I don’t know how they get through their day.

As someone who uses social media, I’m constantly putting myself out there: I’m saying where I am and what I’m thinking at any given moment. How is that different from poetry?
Because you’re saying it in a hundred and forty characters, and it’s necessarily half a thought, or one thought. When you’re saying it over three hundred pages it is a proper immersion and you come out of it, and if it works, and if it’s good, you come out of it changed. I don’t think you come out of a Tweet changed. No. No way. You come out sometimes smiling, you smile for two minutes, sometimes you think for four minutes, but after that you’re on to the next tweet. How’s that going to change you in any way? A book can.

Is a poem a fix?
A fix? Absolutely. A good poem is physical. It touches your body. It touches your head. Who said that? Emily [Dickinson]: she said she knows a good poem when she feels the top of her head lift off. What she was saying is it’s a physical thing when you hit up against a poem, a real poem. It’s an immovable object – two immovable objects.

There are people who say that they don’t “get” poetry, that they’re unable to understand it. What is it to understand a poem?
I think people who say that, and my father used to say that – in fact he used to take some pleasure in saying that to me – in fact many people take pleasure in saying that to me, and they take pleasure in saying that to poets. Why don’t they say that to prosers?

Or accountants.
Or brain surgeons. Or doctors. Tell a doctor, “You know, I don’t get poetry,” he won’t give a shit. Why do they tell us that? I think, actually, them’s fighting words. It’s a way of attacking us because they know that we’re having more fun than they are.

How do the following sounds taste? We’ll start with “Ah”.

Yellow. No no no. Purple. Yeah. Purple. Omega. This is a bit Rimbaudian, isn’t it? Purple. Omega. Tastes lush and bitter at the same time. And as if you’re opening yourself up for violation from the world.

Animal fat. Feral. Like a pet who could turn on you, and bite the hand that feeds it. Unpleasant. Not a taste I want to taste too often.

Tastes like the baby – or like the children – that you’ve never had. Not that you want to taste your children.

Babies have that smell.
Babies do have that smell. It’s also the vowel sound that the wind makes.

Which wind?
The wind that somehow manages to find its way in through the nonexistent cracks in your house and aim straight for your head.

What’s in the fridge?
Interesting. At the moment, nothing, and from this interview I’m heading to do some grocery shopping.

What’s on the list?
Tomatoes. Number one.

Are poems a form of payment, an appeasement?
Yeah, absolutely, they are. They’re a form of payment, although the payment doesn’t work, cause the interest keeps rising as you’re paying. And of course the appeasement doesn’t work either. And also they’re a form of honour and prayer. A kind of prayer.

Like offerings.
Prasad. Exactly. They’re offerings to the gods. That’s what they are.

The last line of the last poem in the book is, “Even the sun steps like a thief”. People speak of “borrowed time”. Is the time of poetry, and this book as a whole, stolen time?
When I look at this book and I think of what transpired from the last poem to the first in my life it absolutely feels like the book was stolen, the entire book was stolen from time, and it has no reason to exist, that really it should not exist, and it’s a thief’s miracle.

This book begins with New and Uncollected poems, among which there’s a series called Chocolate Saints. Would you talk about that project?
I’ve been working on a novel for about four years now, and the novel was supposed to end with a book of poems, called The Book of Chocolate Saints, by one of the major characters in the novel. As I came back to work on the book I realized it was really self-indulgent, and I just wanted to separate the poetry from the prose, so I deleted the poems. But I liked the poems, and I thought that even as a separate book it would stand on its own, so I included it here.

It’s written by a character who is trying to correct the misrepresentation of Catholic saints as white saints, from Jesus on. Jesus was Palestinian. He was certainly not white, blond or blue-eyed; he was a swarthy, dark-haired, dark-skinned, dark-eyed man. From Moses to Saint Nicholas, to Saint Augustine, he is trying to correct that misrepresentation, and that’s what these poems do. Of course, many of the saints in the book are invented saints, but there are also genuine saints, and it’s all mixed up, just to confuse the reader.

A recurrent issue in English is being a foreigner in language, writing in the language of an oppressor, language itself being oppressive. What is the relationship of the poem or the poet to exile, and what is your relationship to language these days?
You know I was at a movie last night, a Hindi movie, and before the movie there was a quotation – full of typos – from Macaulay, about how he had travelled the length and breadth of India and found wonderful people, top-notch people, and the only way to destroy these people is to give them English, and to make them think and speak and read and write and dream in English. That was the only way “We”, the Empire, will be able to enslave these people, because they take their identity and their bearing from their culture and their society, which is so sophisticated and so ordered. In a way a very astute political comment for a man to make, but the way it’s been quoted now by our government before you watch a Hindi movie; they are trying to say that English is a foreign tool of domination.

What they’re missing is that it is now our tool for domination; it is India’s tool for domination. And if you switch to Hindi, as our Prime Minister has done, because he can’t be bothered to speak in English, because his English is not good enough, or his accent isn’t good enough, whatever reason he feels he can’t speak in English – and, of course, that’s politically a great manoeuvre, because the Chinese don’t speak in English; they speak in Chinese.

The point is, if you use English as well as or better than those who oppressed you with English, that is the true revenge; that’s the way to get them. And it astonishes me that our government doesn’t recognise that. The huge power of India in the 21st Century is that so many of us speak English so well. It’s a joke. We go abroad and whichever country we go to they say, “Wow, how do you speak English so well?”

Even speaking in Hindi as a government official is a type of colonialism, because there are so many regional languages in the country as well.
Speaking Hindi, in fact, in the south of India, is probably akin to shooting yourself in the foot far more than speaking in English.

We are fortunate to be at a position in your public life where you have done the biography interviews already, but I just want to touch upon the fact that the poems in Apocalypso and Gemini were written while you were using.
Yeah, which is why especially some of the poems in Apocalypso had to be rewritten, they were so bad.

How was that process of rewriting these?
Really strange, because I have to say Apocalypso isn’t a favourite book, and I really did my best not to look at it in the intervening years, but I had to when I was putting this together. I belong to the Robert Lowell school of insane editing – thank god not to that extent – but I think that you’re allowed to edit your own poems. Thankfully, that book is out of print, so this is the only record, and I’m very glad to say that the few poems that I deleted that were beyond salvage, that could not be rescued, I hope will never be seen by anybody ever again; and the few poems that could be rescued I did, I rewrote, as you can see in the preface, extensively rewrote; and some actually stayed the same.

Are they still the same poems?
They are the same poems, but they are what the poems yearned to be and couldn’t, because they had been stunted by their gardener, because their gardener was so neglectful, and by some miracle they had a chance, and twenty years later they were allowed to finally flower and bloom the way they were meant to all along.

The first line of poetry is, “Your lips go from sunnyside to suicide in a single click”. Is there a relationship in your mind between poetry and self-destruction?
There has been, right through from when I first started to read and write poetry. I think less now than there was when I was younger. Maybe in my mid-forties, late forties, I got over that idea, I hope. And the great thing about getting over it is, I think my poetry improved, enormously, because laboring under that delusion, that poetry and self-destruction are somehow intertwined, and that you can’t have one without the other, can lead to some bad writing, because it’s a full-time job, self-destruction; you don’t have time for writing. Simple. That kind of life is 24 hours. You can never let up. It becomes so consuming and so obsessive that what your head should be full of, which is lines and words, are fumigated and instead you’re just finding new ways to fuck yourself up.

The switch happens with a click. Is that a camera?
Yes, because, among other things, the poem switches registers right through, like this book. The book switches registers throughout. You can go from a piece of comedy to something very, very sad, to something absolutely imaginative, to a completely invented world, within a page, and sometimes within the same page. Because you don’t have to write only tragedy or only comedy. In our lives we laugh and we cry in the same hour. And that poem, it switches registers within one page, because the book does, and because the person it’s written for does, too, as do we all.

Zachary Bushnell works across mediums such as poetry, prose, theatre and performance. He currently teaches writing and critical theory at a university in Delhi.