meet the poet

‘I like the process of writing poetry to be play rather than work’: Arundhathi Subramaniam

The poet is as interested in how she writes as in what she writes.

Arundhathi Subramaniam, one of India’s best-known contemporary women poets, has a most natural prowess and elegance with which she brings verse to life. A poet as well as a cultural curator and critic, she also explores spirituality and relishes the contradictions and complexities around her in her verses.

With four published books of poetry, alongside contributions to various anthologies and journals, this lyric poet is an important presence on the map of Indian poetry in English. Excerpts from an interview:

You have four published books of poetry – the themes ranging from relationships to god, from love to urbanisation. Is there a recurrent theme you keep returning to?
The first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves, contains in germinal form many preoccupations that developed in later books: the city, relationships, gender, home, love, quest. The next book, Where I Live: New and Selected, circled the question of belonging – or unbelonging – as a source of unease, rage and celebration. That intensified into a kind of dark elation in the new poems in Where I Live, where the poems are erotic and existential all at once.

And in the most recent book, When God is a Traveller, the central focus is journeys. Journeys of all kinds – real and mythic, with images of past and present, colliding all the time. There is an encounter with Mrs Salim Shaikh on a Mumbai local train as well as encounters with archetypal figures like Shakuntala and Kartikeya. There is a fascination with personal gods or ishta devtas as well as a deep revulsion at the religiosity of modern-day Varanasi. Basically, while there’s a fascination with the sacred, there’s a mistrust of dogmatism on both sides of the sacred-secular divide.

So what has stayed the same is a relish of contradiction, the textures of ambivalence. Poetry is a place where a moment can mean many things all at once. That’s always drawn me to it. It still does.

I love that you view yourself as a “lyric poet”. What attracts you to this form over others?
When I look back, I realise that what excited me about poetry as a child was its capacity to soar and dive, skate and swivel, be terrestrial and aerial all at once. All those are qualities of lyric poetry, aren’t they? A lyric poem is a place where language can be unexpected and startling, where language longs to be unstarched, untethered, unbound – free of the staid rhythms of everyday prose; of the tyranny of beginning, middle and end; of past, present and future; itching to defy gravity and yet capable of obeying it with a certain wonderful inevitability. It’s language at its most heightened, its most alive. It’s that mix of defiance and alignment that makes a lyric poem what it is – a buoyant compound of sound and sense and silence.

Who are some of your biggest influences in your poetry?
My influences are as varied as Wallace Stevens, TS Eliot, Adrienne Rich, Basho, Tukaram, Akka Mahadevi, Sangam poetry, Denise Levertov and Neruda! I admire AK Ramanujan as poet and as translator, and Arun Kolatkar as well. And there are many poets whose work I enjoy, who are too numerous and varied to name from John Burnside to Savithri Rajeevan and Manglesh Dabral!

What is the state of contemporary poetry in India?
Contemporary Anglophone poetry in India seems to be bristling with activity. There are lit fests, poetry competitions, performance poetry sessions, spontaneous addas, and quite a flurry on the internet and in social media, in particular. Something’s definitely in the air. And that’s to be celebrated.

Of course, when a form is suddenly on the upswing, there will be a fair amount of indifferent verse as well. That’s inevitable. There do, however, seem to be several distinct, self-assured and skilled voices that have emerged on the scene and that’s exciting.

On another level, it takes time for even the most assured voices to truly become themselves. For craft alone does not make a poem, and neither does mere inspiration. There’s a particular mix of innocence and experience, of assurance and bewilderment that is integral to a creative process – and that takes a long time to arrive at. Probably a lifetime. It’s part of the much larger journey of growing into yourself.

“Give me a home
that isn’t mine
where I can slip in and out of rooms
without a trace”

Does knowing that your poems are published and out there in the world validate your being a poet or are you content knowing they’re out of your system?
Well, having the first book published in 2001 certainly was an important moment. And later, when certain forms of affirmation came along – responses from certain poets whose work I admire, for instance, or being shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize – they definitely helped. So, there’s no doubt that a measure of external validation helps. But with poetry, more than any other literary form, where the external validation is low-key and muted, the primary gratification is the process itself.

How much of your poetry do you “receive”, especially being the spiritually inclined person that you are?
I was always riveted by poetry. And so I made sure I never strayed too far from it. It was as simple as that. You merely hang around the places that excite you, isn’t it? I think most of my learning in all spheres of life has been by following a hunch about where to hang out. And I’ve learnt best by simply being around, observing, listening, inhaling.

Craft is important to me. Rewriting, reworking, forgetting, retrieving – these are rhythms that matter to me. They are part of the joy of making poetry. I don’t see the inspiration and the perspiration as oppositional categories. They go together.

But in more recent years, I do feel there is a change in the way I write. Not what I’m writing about but how I do it. I’ve relaxed a little more into the process and trust it to lead me. I’ve realised the process is wiser than I am.

Do you think you were meant to be a poet?
Nothing so grand, certainly! But I’m definitely a good listener – and my understanding of verbal texture and timbre, of image and pause, my ability to detect dishonest notes and clunky constructions comes from years of listening to poems. That probably helps me as a practitioner as well.

Can you work anywhere or is there a certain space and quietude required to write?
Since I travel a great deal, there isn’t a single place anymore. Airport lounges, flights – those are good places to scribble random lines. And my bed is a good place to revisit those lines and work with them. I like the process to seem as undoctored as possible, so that it feels like play rather than work, doodling rather than penance. So, no desks for me – that would be too formal, too deliberate. You need a studied carelessness to write a poem. A kind of lazy guile. And ball point pens and books that allow me to scribble in the margins – that’s my thing. Many of my poems have been birthed in the margins!

Quiet definitely helps. I need a lot of it anyway, more than most people I know. But on occasion, a bustling café can offer just the right mix of dynamism and stillness. While others are busy leading their lives, you can quietly follow the course of your poem. That’s fun!

Since you do poetry readings often, what is the relationship between your speaking voice and writing voice?
I enjoy reading poems out loud. I am conscious of the poem as a spoken utterance even when I’m writing it – I hear it as I make it. So there is a certain pleasure in sharing it with listeners and allowing it to rebirth itself in sound after its earlier incarnation in ink or print. The pleasure is in vocally following its contours, settling into its pauses, aligning myself with its rhythms, and rediscovering its architecture each time I read it out loud.

What do you see as the role of poet in modern-day society?
What it has always been: to offer the reader the sheer pleasure of living language, reclaimed from the frozen world of cliché – language shivering between sense and no-sense, between meaning and no-meaning, sound and pause. And in the process, to offer insight, consolation, companionship, sanctuary, recognition, epiphany, awareness.

Of course the poet has to be sensitive and alert to the world around her – its history, its politics, its ecology, its culture, you name it. But poetry is born when all that she has absorbed has been so deeply internalised that it is an utterance that arises from her marrow, her bloodstream.

Poetry is verbal magma. That’s why it’s so explosive, so magical, so incredibly alive, and has to be handled with such care. It’s language that’s subtle and dangerous all at once.

“It’s taken time
to realise
no one survives.
Not even the ordinary.”

How does one even begin to judge poetry? Is there some yardsticks that help you define a “good” poem from a not so great one?
For all its subjectivity, it’s certainly possible to evolve criteria to assess the effectiveness of a poem. And that’s because a poem is a verbal entity. For instance, it’s not the emotion that makes a particular love poem successful, but how the emotion is expressed. There are ways of working and refining the “how”. That’s the craft of poetry, which can be as exacting as the work of a weaver or goldsmith.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Yes, I often do imagine a certain type of reader when I write – my version of the ideal reader. Sometimes this might resemble a friend or fellow poet I know. At other times, this might be a person I wish I knew. Basically, this is my idea of a subtle, attentive, fine-tuned listener, asahrudaya. If I’m certain that a poem has been fashioned with a measure of care and rigour and honesty, I stand by it. If it doesn’t find a sympathetic reader, I might simply grow more protective of it!

What is your stand on translating poetry?
Well, I’ve been editor since 2004 of the India domain of the Poetry International Web – a website largely devoted to making quality translations of contemporary Indian poetry available to a wider readership on the net. I often think of the vast wealth of world poetry – from Homer to Bhasa, Omar Khayyam to Dante, Akhmatova to Rilke – that wouldn’t have been available to me without translation. Translation is a necessity – a desperate necessity, a way by which the world becomes a more intimate and vastly richer place.

I’ve translated contemporary Tamil poems (with Ambai or CS Lakshmi) for an anthology on Chennai, and some contemporary Gujarati poems (with Naushil Mehta). Also some poems by the 18th century Tamil Bhakti poet Abhirami Bhattar for the anthology of Bhakti poetry that I edited, Eating God.

But can a translated work truly do justice to the original poem?
Much may be lost in translation, but much is also gained. And a curiosity about other voices from other contexts is essential if you don’t want to inhabit an insular and self-absorbed literary universe. Above all, translation is an exercise that makes you a better listener and often a better poet. It’s excellent sadhana, besides being a great deal of fun!

What are you currently working on? Also, what are you reading at present?
I’m working on poems, but it will take a while before a book is ready.

And I’m reading eclectically, as always – Tamil siddha poetry, revisiting Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to GH, poems by George Quasha, a commentary on the Yoga Sutras.

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