meet the poet

What can a poet have to say about female-identified and the feminised body in cinema? A lot

Poet Ranjani Murali’s debut collection ‘Blind Screens’ navigates the lives of women, desire, and power.

Ranjani Murali’s first book of poems, Blind Screens, was published by Almost Island at the end of July 2017. Her second book of poems, Clearly you are ESL, will be out from The Great Indian Poetry Collective in February 2018. Murali grew up in Mumbai and Coimbatore, before moving to the United States to study and teach. She won the Srinivas Rayapol Poetry Prize in 2014, the inaugral Almost Island Manuscript Competition in 2015, and the Editor’s Choice Award from The Great Indian Poetry Collective in 2016. Murali currently teaches literature and composition at Harper College. She spoke to about writing Blind Screens, which draws heavily from Tamil and Hindi cinema to explore the ways in which we navigate women, bodies, desire and power in films. Excerpts from the interview:

The dedication reads, “for amma who always saw the words written in water.” Can you tell us a little about that?
My thoughts on the female-identified and the feminised body in cinema evolved through discussions I had with my mother, since we watched a lot of these films together when I was growing up.

I did not pursue this project initially because it felt rather silly. But I remember having a conversation with her once while watching a film scene in which text is inscribed on sand and then is washed away by the waves. I remember registering the metaphor of the poem that is written on sand (the page) and is carried within the water (the white space, or the medium).

Tamil films are a central preoccupation in the book. I was intrigued, in particular, by your poems on how working in films can mean small roles, stalkers and exploitation for women. I really liked the poem where a B-film actress is waiting for a kurinji flower that only blooms once in twelve years and says, “But remember: you and I/ are yet to flower...”.
The process of writing the book and, in some ways, articulating the experience of violence by way of language, gesture, and tropes in Tamil films was pretty organic right from when I began writing the book at the Vermont Studio Center. I arrived at my writing studio and my music player landed on a song from Agninatchatiram, where an otherwise B-grade actress is seemingly given agency; she (absurdly, to guilt the hero) fakes a pregnancy. The landscape in the song, as I remembered it, came back to me – the song is set on a beach, and the woman is wearing an elaborate sun dress and wide hat.

I was already thinking about the metaphor I referred to in the earlier answer, and in addition, the familiar but strange artifice of a woman lounging around, almost dispassionately romancing the hero, and the subsequent opportunity for her to resist the narrative of objectification by feigning a pregnancy, amused me.

I stopped to make a note of similar characters who, I believed, subverted the gaze, and this lead me to the first sequence of poems.

How long did you work on Blind Screens?
I started in August 2011 and finished a preliminary draft by 2013. After that, I put the project aside consciously, and came back to it after becoming a parent. Themes such as a yearning toward disembodiment, saturation with and by sensory experience, and the constant consideration of the mind-body divide all really came together for me between then and 2016, when the book was selected for the prize.

What were you reading when you wrote the book?
I was reading Susan Howe because I was fascinated by the notion of the material text, and the presence or the rewriting of the female-identified body, particularly one imbued with political or spiritual power, navigating its own complications through the text of the poem. Howe collages a lot, is invested in what I always felt was deeply political, well-researched poetry, and I wanted to emulate that.

I think I must have re-read Gary Snyder’s Myths and Texts because I remember thinking about the function and the implied complications of landscape in poems, how it insinuates itself particularly into movie scenes where the heroine is assaulted or admired. (All those blushing gulmohars and magnolia blooms juxtaposed against women’s faces to express desirability!).

There is also a poem with an epigraph from Frank O’Hara, and while I wasn’t invested in a similar style, I felt that the poems were basically ekphrastic and should be in dialogue with what wasn’t considered high art.

I was also teaching a lot of visual argument analysis, and was reading Susan Sontag, and exhibiting her work to students. Finally, I think, I read some prose by Ashis Nandy and Selvaraj Velayutham on Tamil cinema, and I felt that my meditations on female agency should continue to be near-academic even in the context of poems.

Will you talk to us about the title?
I struggled with that a bit. While editing the book, my editors and I had a discussion on my preoccupation with who the viewer is, versus what is being viewed, and how the placing of these specific desires and characters on a “white” screen is mirrored in poems where the characters emerge out of the text and are navigating the negative space on the page, or are reminding us of the agency of imagination – how familiar it is to project our obsessions on a screen, how blinding the artifice of viewing our own desire or repugnance or ambivalence is.

So it struck me that these movie screens themselves seemed to be neither completely blank nor completely occupied, and after writing the poem on the blind movie-goer, I knew that the illusion of being the viewer (or the one with agency) needed to be cracked open for the reader. We are neither completely passive nor completely engaged when we watch these films – we are often blind to our own projections of self into these narratives. We think we are watching but are being watched.

Your poems speak in many, many different voices in Blind Screens. When working on a collection like that, how do you ensure that the poems end up speaking to one another?
I think the idea of the cinema-research-based persona poem kept me grounded during the initial writing period. Towards the end, I wrote a poem that married the concerns of several, if not a majority, of the female characters in Tamil and Hindi films – popular ones. The powerless blind wife of a terrorist in Fanaa; the woman whose yearning for love is thwarted by a husband who seeks an ascetic life in Rajinikanth’s film on Swami Raghavendra; the character played by Kareena Kapoor in Kurbaan whose erudition is challenged by her blind faith in love and marriage, and consequently, domesticity, all seemed to engage in dialogue.

Soon after, I went back while ordering the poems, and felt that the structure was dictated by the dialogue between other such personas within the poems. Hopefully this is working, especially where poems are placed side by side with the hope that these characters are literally in each other’s blank space!

What was it like, winning two major awards for poetry in quick succession?
I was and am humbled, of course, primarily, since both my book-length projects and the poems from them, with their very specific concerns, were appreciated. Beyond that, I am simply thankful to the people who picked my work for affirming that these poems were deserving of closer reading and appreciation.

You have two books of poetry coming out within six months of each other. How does that feel?
Overwhelming, in a variety of ways. My second book was written first, while I worked on my MFA, and has more language/concrete poems. Both books contain close reading of external texts (including cinema and sources I collaged from, respectively) so that’s a lot to work with.

But the process of physically sorting through and arranging poems, and then repeating it within a few months for the next project is both very fulfilling. I would recommend this kind of creative urgency; it feels simultaneously organic as well as planned.

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