Nearly every poem in Indian-Welsh poet-dancer-author Tishani Doshi’s latest poetry collection Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods stands out, meticulously crafted and provoking a range of responses. With loss, wonder, fear, strength and more, human nature itself comes to the table in this work. Doshi spoke to Scroll.in on childhood and growing up, the makings of this collection, and where her poetry comes from. Excerpts from the interview:
What is your earliest memory of poetry?
I could make up a retrospective story, but I don’t remember poetry being a part of my life until I was an undergraduate at Queen’s University in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was reading Mark Doty, Mary Oliver, James Tate – and I think it had to do with encountering voices that were assured and bold and of the moment, and saying, really, there is nothing you cannot do in a poem. They entered my skin and set up tents. And then more poets joined the caravanserai. I still have those books. My nineteen-year-old self underlining the words, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” and the word YES in the margin. I’m still saying YES. And as you know, once you been got by poetry, you got for life.
Take me through your childhood.
I’m reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf at the moment, and there’s a line she uses to describe Woolf when she’s in her virgin, aunt, wannabe writer stage – “but to remain a child meant not to have a child.” The question of childhood and procreation are very much a part of this collection, and linked, I think. I certainly feel the territory of childhood as being within arm’s reach. For me, it’s an area of terror and beauty. The narcissism of childhood – this idea that the world has been created for you, the particularity of time – the hours and hours of compressed waiting – all this leaks into a writer’s life. I’ve never been one with visions for the future, and serendipity has played a large part of how things unfolded for me, but I did decide at 20 to become a poet, and it seems remarkable to me that I managed it.
Coming to your new book, what do the woods mean to you?
The woods for me are really a version of Dante’s selva oscura. I think of writing as standing in a dark forest, very much primordial, very much sacred. Almost in the way I spoke of childhood as a place of terror and beauty. So there is disorientation in the woods – wandering, imagination, intuition, danger, finding and losing one’s way. Writing the poem is a way of traversing those woods.
Whom did you work with to create the strong book cover?
That’s all thanks to the talent of Madhavan Palanisamy, a Madras-based photographer and filmmaker. There’s this luxurious aspect of poetry that is at odds with the gloom that constantly surrounds it, and it has to do with poetry’s inability to be commercial. Therefore it somehow remains untainted and invites great generosity. I’ve had wonderful collaborations with musicians, artists, photographers, and I see this as part of the ongoing dialogue that poetry allows.
A lot of the poems in the collection have a distinct sense of place. Is that an important element of writing?
One of the things about travel is that it dislodges everything – place, self, hierarchy. So, when you’re in a different place, it’s an opportunity to find out who you are again. And, if needs be, lose yourself. For most of my life, I’ve lived in and around Madras, and it has been the nucleus, the prism of my vision. Travel allows an easy alteration of that vision, but also the necessary displacement that is crucial to epiphany and understanding. And of course geography plays a part in poetry. Language is landscape. Heaney’s bog, Walcott’s sea, Bishop’s Brazil. I’m quite tied to the city of my birth, so I’ve become reliant now on this cycle of leaving and returning as a way of ensuring I can still see it, and myself.
Summer in Madras
Everyone in the house is dying.
Mother in an air-conditioned room
cannot hear as rivers break their dams
against her nerves. Father stalks verandas,
offering pieces of his skin to the rows of lurid
gulmohars. Husband tries to still the advancing
armies of the past by stuffing his ears with desiccated
mango husks. And brother? Brother is most lackadaisical of all.
He opens the door. Takes death’s umbrella. Taps it this way and that. Sings.
Through your descriptions, I see that you have an affinity for sound. How has the soundtrack of your life shaped up?
The level of jealousy I bear towards musicians is high. I worked for 15 years with the Gundecha Brothers, and I often think, if I could just open my mouth and make sounds like they do or play an instrument, how much easier it would be to get close to the nub of what I’m trying to say without the burden of language. For me to be interested in text, I need it to have a quality of musicality. I often listen to music on repeat for months – Nina Simone, Sheila Dhar, Leonard Cohen, Jacqueline du Pre. And of course, my Dirty Dancing soundtrack is never far away.
Does sharing so much of yourself in these poems make you feel exposed, or is it therapeutic?
You mustn’t trust the person in my poems except for the integrity of her emotion. Of course I feel exposed. To put work into the world, to step on to a stage – all of it is drawing attention to yourself and saying, hello, I have something to say. But to look for biography in poetry or fiction is a mistake because it’s not simple transmutation. As Salman Rushdie once said to me in an interview, “Don’t we know that Stephen Dedalus isn’t Joyce, that Herzog is not Bellow, that Marcel is not Proust?” I certainly stand in the mud of life and take from it, but between life and the poem, there is a large lake called imagination. As for therapy, I’ve found the things that work best for me are the spa, khow suey and a strenuous weep.
What was the process of elimination for you?
I’m quite rigorous, although I allow for some wild cards. Sometimes it’s the poems I’m least fond of that get picked up to be adapted for this or that, and sometimes you recognise a “greatest hit” from afar. But the process of editing poems, particularly with a collection where the poems aren’t bound by any sequence, is really quite organic. There will be a central core of poems, and then around the periphery poems that either make or don’t make the cut. I’m also very amenable to being edited, so I’m not clinging too closely to my darlings, and take advice from editors I work with.
Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods
Girls are coming out of the woods,
wrapped in cloaks and hoods,
carrying iron bars and candles
and a multitude of scars, collected
on acres of premature grass and city
buses, in temples and bars. Girls
are coming out of the woods
with panties tied around their lips,
making such a noise, it’s impossible
to hear. Is the world speaking too?
Is it really asking, What does it mean
to give someone a proper resting? Girls are
coming out of the woods, lifting
their broken legs high, leaking secrets
from unfastened thighs, all the lies
whispered by strangers and swimming
coaches, and uncles, especially uncles,
who said spreading would be light
and easy, who put bullets in their chests
and fed their pretty faces to fire,
who sucked the mud clean
off their ribs, and decorated
their coffins with brier. Girls are coming
out of the woods, clearing the ground
to scatter their stories. Even those girls
found naked in ditches and wells,
those forgotten in neglected attics,
and buried in river beds like sediments
from a different century. They’ve crawled
their way out from behind curtains
of childhood, the silver-pink weight
of their bodies pushing against water,
against the sad, feathered tarnish
of remembrance. Girls are coming out
of the woods the way birds arrive
at morning windows – pecking
and humming, until all you can hear
is the smash of their miniscule hearts
against glass, the bright desperation
of sound – bashing, disappearing.
Girls are coming out of the woods.
They’re coming. They’re coming.
Has your poetry been included in literature curricula anywhere? If so, what’s it like knowing your poem is being taught by teachers, each with their own understanding of your world, of your words?
It has and I get a lot of questions from students in India and the UK and, more recently, from South Africa. And while it’s not always easy to explain why you wrote what you wrote and what it means exactly, it is thrilling to know that a poem of yours is being read and internalised and discussed in some part of the globe. I’ve had beautiful emails from young women who tell me that a poem of mine changed them in some way, and so while we poets keep banging on about how poetry has changed our lives, it’s quite wonderful to hear that your poetry is doing exactly that.
With this book finally published, what’s next on your mind?
You mean what’s on my mind other than possible world annihilating by madcaps? I’m working on a novel, and much of my day goes into thinking about dogs.
I agree to turn my skin inside out.
To reinvent every lost word, to burnish,
to steal, to do what I must
in order to singe your lungs.
I will forgo happiness,
stab myself repeatedly,
and lower my head into countless ovens.
I will fade backwards into the future
and tell you what I see.
If it is bleak, I will lie
so that you may live
seized with wonder.
If it is miraculous, I will
send messages in your dreams,
and they will flicker
as a silvered cottage in the woods
choked with vines of moonflower.
Don’t kill me, Reader.
This neck has been working for years
to harden itself against the axe.
This body, meagre as it is,
has lost so many limbs to wars, so many
eyes and hearts to romance. But love me,
and I will follow you everywhere –
to the dusty corners of childhood,
to every downfall and resurrection.
Till your skin becomes my skin.
Let us be twins, our blood
thumping after each other
like thunder and lightning.
And when you put your soft head
down to rest, dear Reader,
I promise to always be there,
humming in the dungeons
of your auditory canals –
an immortal mosquito,
hastening you towards fury,