“Poetry is like sculpture – language is a medium that resists, welcomes, thwarts, presents knots, and calls for artisanal surrender, just as wood, stone, metal, or cement would do, in a sculptor’s studio.” These are the words of the Mumbai-based poet, cultural theorist, curator Ranjit Hoskote – one of the most subtle contemporary wordsmiths of the country, who has dedicated his life to words, languages and the arts. Hoskote spoke to Scroll.in about his inspirations and influences, the synaesthetic life of a poet, the democratisation of the poetry scene in India, and the many projects he’s juggling. Excerpts from the interview:
Do you wake up each day eager to write or is life more challenging than that? Where does your inspiration come from?
I wake up each day wanting a cup of mint tea (and cappuccino when I’m travelling), which gets me off to a good start. It’s rare for me to let a single day go by without having got some writing done – even if it’s just a couple of lines, a note, the outlines of an image, or sometimes, a sketch or diagram that will later be translated into words.
I’m constantly preparing to write. But my writing day doesn’t have an invariable shape or neat thematic divisions. Some days find me working on a monograph about an artist, or a curatorial essay for the catalogue of an exhibition I’ve put together. Other days, it’s a theoretical essay I’m working on for a journal, or an archipelago of meetings. On days I wish would never come, it’s the obituary of a fellow poet or an artist that needs to be written swiftly, even as I’m coping with the loss.
There are, of course, blessed periods when I am fully focused on the poetry. Looking through my archive, making notes, working on draft after draft. When the momentum kicks in, with a heightened sense that the sequence of images and the cadence is coming right, it’s a very happy feeling. Part relief, part celebration.
Do you make time for reading?
There are days devoted to reading – which sometimes explodes out of the disciplined hour or two set apart for it in the day and becomes, once again, the all-consuming passion it was in childhood. It might be Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, and Ramon del Valle-Inclan, as it has been recently. It might be a book-by-book pilgrimage through the work of John Berger. Questions of craft and design are pivotal to how I see the world, so I return to Richard Sennett constantly – The Craftsman and Together – and to Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. And I have my daily companions - Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, Agha Shahid Ali, Amy Clampitt, Eugenio Montale, Ruth Padel, George Szirtes, Yves Bonnefoy, Charles Simic, all watching over me from the cabinet above my flyleaf desk as I write.
A busy man like yourself also has other cultural commitments, correct?
Yes, life embraces a variety of organisational and curatorial commitments. For the last five years, I’ve co-curated the Literature section of the Kala Ghoda Festival, which means designing the sessions, thinking of long-standing connections and possible encounters. Over the years, I’ve developed the format of a “long evening of poetry” on the Wednesday of the Kala Ghoda week. It’s called Hope Street Poets – 18 poets from various languages, reading in three sessions, from 5pm to nearly 10 pm.
Recently, I guest-edited an edition of the online poetry platform, Poetry at Sangam, which was a most enjoyable experience. And there are my transcontinental commitments in the world of the visual arts and cultural theory – I’m on the foundational advisory board of the Bergen Assembly, a new triennial in Norway; also, I’m on the advisory board of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, one of Berlin’s most fascinating international cultural spaces; and I’ve been a contributor to the long-running Former West project initiated by BAK, a research institute in Utrecht where I’ve been researcher-in-residence.
There’s also travel. I spend a fair amount of time in Europe every year – mainly Germany and Austria, and also, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy, France. My poetry is deeply informed by my inter-lingual experience. In Germany, I sometimes catch myself thinking in German first as I write, and translating back into English.
Take me through your childhood, how poetry entered your life, your early attempts at verse, and how you became the wordsmith you are today.
Poetry didn’t enter my life, I entered a life of poetry. It was already copiously present in the family into which I was born. Poetry surrounded me at home, in the family, growing up. My mother, who studied English Literature and Sanskrit formally and read Urdu by herself, would read to me from Ghalib and Keats, early on. We had Arberry’s anthology of translations from Persian poetry. My father introduced me, early on, to that haunting poem, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and to the Augustan and Romantic poets he had read as a student. Soon enough, I happened on the family Shakespeare. At the age of around 12, I discovered my parents’ copy of TS Eliot’s Selected Poems. It blew me away, even if it didn’t all make sense then. It still sits on my desk.
Poetry also came into my life, as a child, through music – as the elusive, protean, shape-shifting bandish, as cadence, beat, tempo, resonance. My parents’ taste was eclectic, embracing Hindustani, Carnatic, and Western classical music, as well as the global music of the 1960s and 1970s. Their collection of vinyls was a treasure-house for me – here I discovered Bade Ghulam Ali Khan-saheb, Abdul Karim Khan-saheb, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Vilayat Khan-saheb, Ali Akbar Khan-saheb, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Siddheshwari Devi, and Ahmed Jan Thirakwa.
Alongside these figures were Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other maestros from the European musical canon. And there was radio, that long-forgotten medium, with its 7:30 am invitations into the world of Hindustani music and its late-afternoon selections from the Western canon.
My unswerving conviction that the life of a poet is synaesthetic – that it is distributed across word, music, visual image, and translations smuggled across the borders of language – springs from these childhood experiences.
So as a poet, where do you stand on the Nature versus Nurture argument?
I was nurtured as a poet at home, not at school. While my literature teachers at school in the 1970s and early 1980s were a nice lot and meant well, I learned little about poetry from them. They were far stronger on prose, on the essay and fiction. As far as poetry was concerned, they knew their Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron. None of them had the slightest idea what a modern poem was, or what it did. This was a school that was proud of its colonial-era pedagogical legacy. Pair such a teacherly reluctance to engage with modernism with the destructive idea of reducing poems to a positivist or factualist “reference to context” approach, and you have a recipe for lifelong disaster. Most children tutored in this manner flee in haste, as adults, at the merest mention of poetry.
What does it mean to be a “contemporary Indian poet”?
Mine is a hybrid practice. It is a collage of practices – writing, curating, editing, art-making, listening, and other forms of cultural production – in which poetry is a thrumming, compelling, insistent, incessant centrality. My life as a poet, as a writer and curator, as an independent cultural producer, is a journey from one gig to the next – with a set of abiding theoretical and visceral continuities, conceptual and affective persistences, to hold the whole circus together.
Stemming from that, what are the distinct changes in Indian poetry since when you began?
When I came into the world of Anglophone Indian poetry as a 17-year-old in the late 1980s, it was a much smaller scene, with far clearer centres of influence, almost all of them in the metropolitan centres, and far looser networks of practitioners, spread across the country. The scene came together in journals, at conferences and reading circles, in academia, and through official institutions such as the Sahitya Akademi. Inclusion and acceptance were premised on what I like to think of as a principle of apostolic succession.
You were in the circle of Nissim Ezekiel at Theosophy Hall, or of Dom Moraes at Sargent House, or of Adil Jussawalla at the offices of whichever publication he was working with at the time. Or you were part of Dilip Chitre’s caravan. Or you joined Arun Kolatkar at his weekly afternoon session at the Wayside Inn or a succession of Irani cafés. You were blessed by the presence of one master or another, or of several. Despite the generosity with which that world of poetry admitted entrants, its structure was vertical.
Today, the scene is far more diffused and horizontal. The internet, with the unprecedented and unpredictable degree of access and connection that it enables, has revolutionised the structure of the world of poetry. Not only have the possibilities for publication – or even presence and sharing, for poets starting out on their quest – increased, but so have the social habitats for poets. Various kinds of poetry, spanning page and stage, spoken word and printed avant-garde, classical and experimental, now enter into intriguing adjacencies with one another. I welcome this expansion and this relative democratisation of the poetry scene.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working with my editors – Rajni George and James Byrne – on preparing, respectively, the India and UK editions of my next book of poems, Jonahwhale. It’s due next year from Penguin Random House India and Arc, UK.
I’m curating a lifetime retrospective of Sakti Burman, In the Presence of Another Sky – the title comes from a lovely poem by Yves Bonnefoy, who really should have won the Nobel. It opens October 17.
I’m working on an exhibition that reflects on the relationship between locale, language and landscape, called Anti-Memoirs, which opens as part of the Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa, on December 15.
Meanwhile, I’ve designed a set of academic platforms – lectures and panels – for an ambitious project, India and the World, developed by the CSMVS Museum in Bombay, in collaboration with the British Museum and the Getty Research Institute.
And, as an underground river running beneath all these, is a translation of three Sanskrit poets of love – Bhartrihari, Amaru, and Bilhana – that I’m working on for the Penguin Classics series.