For a man who started writing poetry at the age of 19, eight volumes of poetry written over a span of 45 years have captured not only his own journey of life but every experiment with style, technique, and theme. At 64, Goa-based poet Manohar Shetty has now released Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems – a body of work that celebrates his life and love for poetry, one that leaves the reader gripped from one phase of his journey to the other as he witnesses the chronological evolution of a poet.
Over the course of the book, you watch him scale new poetic landscapes while making space for the domestic and the mundane. You are amazed by his flourish with personification and how effortlessly he lends his voice to his characters – from scarecrows and mannequins to emotions and the creative spirit itself. Most importantly, you face your inner demons and reflect on the weight of each word written by a man whose ability to make verse relatable is unparalleled in the Indian context. Excerpts from an interview:
This collection has poems from eight volumes over 35 years. What made this the right time to compile and publish these?
The moment seemed right partly because there were now enough poems to compile a Collected Works, and partly because I’m beginning to wonder at my age of 64 whether I have any more poems left in me. There have been poets who have flowered – or re-flowered – late in life but the earth beneath me seems to have dried up. But, who knows, a poem or two may still take root.
When did the urge to start writing poetry arise?
I began writing poetry, poems like Fireflies, when I was around 19 after I discovered the contemporary poets in a bookstore in Bombay, notably the Penguin Modern Poets series. Each volume contained a selection from three poets, mostly British. I also bought the individual collections of poets like Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Sylvia Plath, and Thom Gunn – besides translated works of poets like Neruda, Antonin Bartuzek, Paul Celan, Charles Baudelaire and several others. I was struck by the contemporary tone and construct of the poems. Till then, I’d only read the usual stuff taught at school – Shelley, Keats, Byron...I found them somewhat effeminate. Among the Indian poets, I’ve always admired the work of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Eunice de Souza and Adil Jussawalla.
Outside, they were flashing streamers.
But straying indoors like wavering lanterns
Into widening shadows thrown by excited
Nets of caps and blazers, we caged them
In grass-crammed bottles, the tops
Punctured for air, and watched them
Stare like luminous dials.
I had imagined burning crystals
Or tips of emerald embers,
But found a softer substance –
Soon dimming – the insects, worried
By coarse hands, the walls of glass
Baffling their tiny wings,
Wilted to lifeless specks.
I had felt nothing then,
Only a small pang for the loss
Of a schoolboy’s ornament. But now,
Travelling my daily groove
In the hunt for food and habitat,
I remember their trapped blank lights.
What is the role of poetry in your life?
Poetry serves as a means to bring some order into my life. It’s an inner stabiliser. Having said that, it’s not some self-indulgent exercise. Craft is essential to the art of poetry and it needs to relate to a wider world. It’s a sharing of both anxieties and moments of equanimity.
Define poetry, and your relationship with it.
It’s a curious relationship, intimate yet detached. It is as if once you’ve written a poem, it no longer belongs to you. It has a life of its own. You are only some kind of a medium, a transit point. To quote from one of my “Cameos”: “the hand that/Writes it is incidental.” When I look at my poems, especially the older ones, I sometimes wonder who wrote them.
Tell me a little about your own practice, where you write, your routine.
I don’t sit at my desk, which is a complete mess, waiting for inspiration. It’s nice when a new sentient line or image emerges from the back of my mind at any odd time. I make sure to jot it down in longhand. I have several old diaries filled with drafts, even a few yellowing typed pages – do you remember the typewriter? I stopped using my old portable years ago, but I remember describing their keys as “the seats of an empty stadium”. I just can’t write poems directly on the computer.
There’s something tactile about a poem. I need to feel the scratch of pen on paper. And the most mundane objects and situations can be elevated to poetry. The familiar can sometimes be disconcertingly unfamiliar. Prose is horizontal while poetry is vertical. Poetry looks the predatory hawk in the eye.
In your editing process, does the poem speak to you or is it a mental conversation with yourself or is it purely based on the craft element of writing?
I like the way you put it – the poem speaking to you. But the craft is essential to impart that tension both in the structure of the poem and the emotion you invest it with. If either is lacking, then it remains a mere technical exercise.
It’s interesting to see different poems with the same title at different points of your life – like “Last Rite” in 2010 versus 2016. Do you let go of a poem once it’s written or keep returning to it?
No, I don’t keep returning to the older poems. As I said, poems are living entities with lives of their own. They may mean different things to different people. Once the poem is done with, it is free wander off on its own, though, yes, I couldn’t resist tinkering with a few of the older poems. But they were minor changes, a little dab of makeup here and there. And that last “Last Rite” (2016) should have been “Last Rites”. A small glitch, but thanks for your close attention.
Having been raised in Mumbai and made Goa your home, what effect does place have on your work?
I moved to Goa from Mumbai in 1985. Though Adil Jussawalla’s Xal-Praxis did publish my second book in 1988 and then OUP in Delhi did a selection from the first two books, along with a few new poems, I went through a protracted dry spell. It was only 16 years later that I had enough poems for a new book called Personal Effects.
Goa itself was not an inspiring presence but after I wrote a poem called “Stills from Baga Beach”, that dry spell was broken and I wrote a few more. I don’t think I’ve written more than a dozen poems related directly to Goa. Considering the number of poems I’ve written while I’ve lived in Goa, it’s not a high percentage. But then I don’t think I’m a poet of place; more of inner spaces and of trying to fill a vacuum within.
What are the changes you have gone through as a poet over the past 35 years?
I think I’ve moved out of my shell. I’m freer with my lines though they have always needed to sound right and authentic with inner rhythms and the interlocking of words. But I’m always unconsciously on the lookout for the startling simile and the juxtaposition of unexpected elements. For instance, the crocodile as a “kingsize gecko”, the owl as a “monk”, the stork as “a leggy model”, “oilslicks/Washed ashore like/Smudged mascara”; or “The collective italics/Of windswept grass/Or devotees in a mosque” and “A city skyline at night/In the barcode of a book” or snakes mating in “crisscrossing plaits” and the yogi described as an “ampersand”.
A few things he’ll leave behind
To no one in particular:
A gold necklace from his mother
Melted into a wedding ring;
Two first editions with broken
Spines that may fetch
A small fortune, but too late
To pay the bills; a box
Of expired pills; a gold-nibbed
Fountain pen he refused
To write with; an Olivetti,
Its keys the seats
Of an empty stadium;
And clothes worn thin – he
Loved the comfort of old
Things: old letters, stopped clocks,
The patina in sideboards,
Fading photographs and paintings;
And, last, musty notebooks
And diaries empty of
Mythical poems and important