Born in the UK and raised in Minnesota, USA, and India, poet and writer Shikha Malaviya has a worldview that is those of unlike other contemporary Indian poets. She’s been writing poetry for over two decades, and what time and fine-tuning the craft has led to is a rather sensual and nostalgia approach to the subjects she delves into: home, culture, social change, monsoons, and, layered, within nearly every poem India.

Besides being a poet herself, with her debut poetry collection Geography of Tongues having received critical praise, Malaviya also runs The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a literary press she co-founded with two other poets, Minal Hajratwala and Ellen Kombiyil, to document, preserve and promote the legacy of modern Indian poetry and build a poetry community around it. With a new collection in the making, she spoke to about her love for verse, influences, and what it means to be a modern poet. Excerpts from the interview:

Describe your tryst with poetry.
I like that your choice of word here is “tryst”, for the act of writing poetry is a very private one and one of both selflessness and selfishness. You have to surrender yourself to that thought/notion that inspires the poem. And you’re shutting out the outer world to let the inner world emerge.

I’ve been writing poetry since I was nine years old. It started off as a school assignment. And then a few years later, my mother bought me a copy of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. I didn’t quite understand every word of it, but there was this lyrical, numinous quality about it which made me want to try and recreate that in my own words. Thirty years later and I still feel that thrill whenever I begin a new poem.

When a reader enters your poem, they enter a conversation between a poet and their subconscious. My hope is that my words are an invitation to the reader to come in, sit, cry, and sing; to lose herself a little in an alternate world and learn something new.

Who have been the major influences on your writing?
Too many to mention! In Indian poetry in English, though, it has to be Arun Kolatkar. His poem Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda just blew me away. It was/is like reading a symphony. His wit, grittiness, vulnerability, it’s all there for the taking. Though Kolatkar wrote these poems in English, his poems are so Indian!

In American poetry, I admire the imagists, especially William Carlos Williams. I love the pulsing poems of Latin American poets Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca. Elizabeth Bishop, TS Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, they’re all ghosts hovering in the poetic landscape of my mind.

Some of your poems, like Love Letters and A New Tune, are avowedly inspired by others’ works. In general, though, how do you begin a poem?
I guess it begins with a notion, a pulse of an idea that becomes stronger as I ruminate on it. It almost feels like an ache. I’m always interested in how one thing connects with another, the relationships we form with people and objects. And maybe that’s why I’ve been writing poems for so many years.

Love Letters, although loosely inspired by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s poem on a cave drawing of a bison, is ultimately a poem about how we’ve lost that joy and wonder of discovery, moving into the digital age, where everything is all tidied up for us and put on display. A New Tune came about after listening to Kanhaiya Kumar’s patriotic JNU speeches and hearing about how his life was being threatened for speaking his mind.

Love Letters

(After Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Engraving of a Bison on Stone)

The letters will be brief and colourful and leave a residue of spilt oil and blood. They will be an enduring sort, of wars that sand blew over, turning casualties into rock formations that look prettiest at dusk. Hundreds of years later, our children’s children will claim them and think they are just as beautiful as the wadis of Petra. The tour guide’s voice will move them along gently, like a herd of cows shepherded from one meadow to another. They will feel that ancient ache, the way our ancestors did stumbling upon the first cave wall drawings of bison, and they will weep knowing they aren’t the first, and it will feel like burning one’s hand while lighting a fire to stay warm, pain spreading from the fingers to the heart.

(First published in Mithila Review)

Wow. And what do you see as the poet’s role in the bigger picture?
American poet and writer Audre Lorde said, “Poetry is not a luxury.” Any serious, practising poet will tell you that this is indeed the case. Poetry is a calling of sorts and if you are writing poetry year after year, it’s a compulsion. In my eyes, poetry reveals certain truths that other forms of writing can’t. It’s like a diamond in which experience is compacted and polished till it shines. I think it’s the responsibility of the poet to tell the truth, to show others what the truth is.

So, to answer your question: poets are literary photographers/historians/witnesses documenting certain moments, as well as informers and reformers, all rolled into one.

A lot of your poems seem to be addressed to a “you”, which makes me wonder whom your poems are for.

Yes, my newer poems seem to be veering off into this more disembodied poetic space, where there is not a clearly defined “you”. I like having an aerial view of things in which the “you” is the poet as observer along with the reader. But in some cases, the “you” also refers to a group of people, as in the citizens of a country/town or a perpetrator. I think there are enough visual and verbal cues in my poems, though, that reveal who the “you” is. Sometimes, ambiguity can be a powerful thing.

But are your poems usually based on personal experience or stories about people you know/hear of or the world at large?
My poems are a combination of the above. I’ve always strived for connecting the personal with the universal through my poems, and I hope that comes through. My first book was extremely autobiographical, drawing from direct experiences involving family, culture, and living on two different continents. There was a certain vulnerability and fragility that came with Geography of Tongues and I’m grateful it was received so warmly. My second collection of poems, which is in progress, is inspired by personal experience, but is much more tangential and exploratory in its approach and in connecting with the greater world.

Speaking of living on two different continents, there’s still so much of India left in you, which is evident in your poetry. How do you strike a balance when it comes to identity? Who is Shikha Malaviya?
I was an Indian citizen for 22 years, despite having been born in England and having partially grown up in Minnesota. Things might be different now, but back in the 1970s and 1980s, if you looked different, you were. I was constantly reminded by my white, Caucasian peers that I was the “other”. Their ignorance bothered me but being the “other” didn’t. I embraced American culture as part of my being Indian in it. I have my parents to thank for this. They celebrated our Indianness and took us back home every summer. As a result, I identified more with being Indian and revelling in that knowledge.

As I got older, I realised I could be more than one thing, that there was this beautiful multiplicity in being part of more than one culture, one geography. That’s what my book Geography of Tongues explores. In 2014, I moved back to the US, after six wonderful years in Bangalore. While there, I felt the pain of trees being chopped, flyovers being built, traffic polluting the air. As a city, Bangalore adjusts and makes room for you, it welcomes you with open arms and cradles you. I left with the taste of filter coffee in my mouth and if you ask me right now, I’m more Bangalorean than anything else. I constantly imbibe the Bangalorean saying, Swalpa adjust maadi.

What’s your view of awards and honours to poets, living or dead? How does one even start to judge poetry?
Awards are a fine way for a poet to receive validation and recognition for the hard work they are doing. But that shouldn’t be the only way. There are so many talented, deserving poets out there and not enough awards to go around. I don’t really know of many poetry awards for Indian poets writing in English.

In The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a small poetry press I run with two other poets, we annually hold an Emerging Poets Prize competition and choose three manuscripts. We read all submissions blind and then shortlist five or six manuscripts, which are then forwarded to a guest judge. They also do a blind reading and only after the winner is selected do we reveal the winner to the judge. It all comes down to the quality of the writing. Obviously, judging poetry is a subjective thing, based on the qualifications/sensibilities of the judging committee. However, there has to be some level of trust and respect for those making the judgment and to accept decisions gracefully.

And what is your stand on translating poetry?
Translation is such a beautiful thing. It opens up doors into different worlds that were once inaccessible. We would not know Kabir or Meera Bai without translation, or Lorca, Neruda and Rimbaud. We would not know Tolstoy or Hugo without translation. There’s a lot of debate on what constitutes a good translation and whether a lot gets lost through translation. But for those who couldn’t see before, even glimpsing a new world through a keyhole is an opportunity to learn something new. And with all the languages we have in India, translation can only bring us closer!

Last one. If you were to personify poetry, how would you do it?
Poetry is a bleeding woman. I kid you not! I dreamt this a few weeks ago and wrote a poem about it.

Who Can Stop Poetry

Last night I had a dream
I was bleeding ink
not from a cut or a wound
but from that monthly shedding
of unmade child
and for a second it horrified me
this thick sticky blue ink
bruising my thighs
burrowing under my nails
the stench of half-written poems
mingling with oxygen