Interview: Arundhathi Subramaniam

MINSTREL BEHIND LYRICS: A LIT-CHAT BETWEEN ARUNDHATI SUBRAMANIAM AND GOUTAM KARMAKAR

                                    SHORT BIO OF ARUNDHATI SUBRAMANIAM
Described as ‘one of the finest poets writing in India today’ (The Hindu, 2010), Arundhathi Subramaniam is the award-winning author of eleven books of poetry and prose. Widely translated and anthologised, her recent volume of poetry, When God is a Traveller was the Season Choice of the Poetry Book Society, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. 

Arundhati Subramaniam is the recipient of various awards and fellowships, including the inaugural Khushwant Singh Prize, the Raza Award for Poetry, the Zee Women’s Award for Literature, the International Piero Bigongiari Prize in Italy, the Zee Indian Women Award for Literature, among others. She has written extensively on culture and spirituality, and has worked over the years as poetry editor, cultural curator and critic.

As prose writer, her books include the bestselling biography of a contemporary mystic, Sadhguru: More Than a Life and most recently, Adiyogi: The Source of Yoga (co-authored with Sadhguru). As editor, her most recent book is the acclaimed Penguin anthology of sacred poetry, Eating God. She can be reached at arundhathisubramaniam.webs.com. Among many other video links on herself, two have been given here: Video Links

      
                    QUINTESSENCE OF THE CONVERSATION


GOUTAM KARMAKAR: Hello Ms. Arundhathi Subramaniam. How are you, ma’am?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: Thanks, Goutam. I’m well.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: Although you have answered quite a few times about this question but one more time answer it for me. Will you begin the conversation by discussing something about your childhood, schooling, college days and educational background? Are there any childhood memories that you still cherish?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: I grew up in Bombay in an apartment with an enormous peepul tree at the window and the Arabian Sea in the distance. That was a defining view in many ways. I now see that my deep-seated affinity with harbour cities has much to do with having lived in one for most of my life. The whiff of ocean air at dusk, the smell of fish, breezes from foreign shores, polyglottal conversations, the distant crackle of mercantilism – all that and more is Bombay for me.
I went to the JB Petit High School, a well-known school in the Fort area of Bombay, and was grateful for its liberal temper, its high level of commitment to the arts (we had professionals of the calibre of Pearl Padamsee and Piloo Pochkhanawala teaching us drama and art, for instance), and the fact that a narrow focus on academics and competitiveness was not the priority.

Later, I went to St Xavier’s College where I did my BA in English Literature, and subsequently my MA at the University of Mumbai. That was an important phase. It was for me the opportunity to view the subject I loved not as passion alone, but as rigorous discipline.

After that came my years of involvement with the Poetry Circle of Bombay – essentially a forum where a bunch of people, similarly besotted by verse, met to talk and read poetry. In terms of my personal trajectory, this was particularly important because this offered a sense of community, and was an opportunity to engage with the workshop aspects of poetry, to engage with it as a form that calls for precision and strenuous work. It was here that I met fellow poets and writers like Jerry Pinto, Ranjit Hoskote, Menka Shivdasani, Masud Taj, Prabhanjan Mishra, TR Joy, Marilyn Noronha, Anju Makhija, and many others who have continued to remain involved with the form in their own ways.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: At what age did you discover your passion for poetry? And why have you drawn to poetry? Kindly elaborate.

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: It was the earliest verbal art I encountered, and I was hooked from the start. I was excited, like all children are, I imagine, by the energy and velocity of language in nursery rhymes and nonsense verse. And the act of releasing that to the human voice was a pleasurable one.

I believe that its energy, its charge, and its aliveness remained significant reasons for my staying engaged with poetry later on. When I say aliveness, I don’t mean ‘acting out’ or ‘performing’ a poem which is what so many people believe it is. I mean the heightened, pulsating experience of sharing a poem as spoken word.

And finally, of course, there is self-expression, but even more significantly, self-discovery. Poetry is the most direct verbal route to me that I know. It is a way of acknowledging the importance of that journey and the elation of making and finding the self all at once.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: Do lines and thoughts naturally come to you? Can you please tell the process of your revising and reworking more precisely how a poem is completed by you?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: Sometimes I arrive at a poem after doodling on the page. But most times, a poem begins for me with a line – a line that is enticing, provocative, unexpected, a line that demands to be followed. And it’s about obeying that beckoning, which can sometimes an imperious summons and very often the subtlest invitation. The crucial thing is to listen for that line, and not defer or dismiss the invitation. Ironically, the line sometimes is edited right out of the poem in later revisions, and may make its way to another poem later on. But the line is important, nonetheless, crucial really. 

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: I have gone through your line that you like the process of writing poetry to be play rather than work. So what are the unique poetic features that differentiate you from the rest of the Indian poets writing in English? Is it the lyrical pattern for many of your poems are lyrical in nature?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: I am drawn to poetry as a lyric art because the lyric poem is the most immediate, urgent verbal entity I know. It’s an intense distillation of a moment where thought meets feeling, where body meets spirit, if you will, in a way where the two are inextricable. There may be narrative elements, certainly, but the lyric poem for me is recognizable by its musicality, its imagistic suddenness, its electric charge, its capacity to feel startling and inevitable all at once.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: Are you aware of contemporary Indian English poetry and Indian poets writing in English? Who are the poets from whom you have taken inspiration for your writing?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: I’ve been nourished by different poets at different times in different ways. I grew up in Bombay at a time when several senior practitioners of poetry were around – poets who took their art very seriously indeed. And I owe a great deal to the active encouragement of poets I admire like Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel, and later, Imtiaz Dharker and Keki Daruwalla. Long before that, there were poet Eunice de Souza whose lectures in English literature at St Xavier’s were stimulating. Subsequently, at the Poetry Circle, conversations with fellow writers (from Ranjit, Jerry, Marilyn and Menka to Taj, Prabhanjan and Joy) and engaged academics (Shabnam Mirchandani and Abhay Sardesai to Jatin Wagh and Mangesh Kulkarni) provoked new and fresherways of thinking about and looking at poetry.

The poets whose poems have mattered a great deal without my ever having interacted with them are Arun Kolatkar (whom I’ve met but never really talked with at any length), and more recently, AK Ramanujan.  I admire Kolatkar’s exactitude of image and tone, but more recently AKR’s poetry (its intellectual and spiritual curiosity) and his wonderful translations of Bhakti poetry (from Nammalvar to Akka Mahadevi) and of Tamil Sangam verse has become particularly significant to me. He interests me more and more.

And perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that we didn’t meet! There’s a lovely line by Eunice de Souza: ‘Best to meet in poems’. That’s absolutely true.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: Now-a-days people are segregating poets as good reputed poets and bad poets who write only for getting attention. Why do we discriminate the poets like this? Do you agree with me? And what are the parameters or the touchstone method for you for a good poem and a badly written piece?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: I don’t know if that is a new segregation or demarcation, Goutam. Certainly one cannot adopt rigid criteria to slot a poem one way or another. And I do believe there is a lot of clunky, heavy-handed criticism that attempts to categorise poetry on the basis of its politics alone, for instance, which is a woefully myopic way to read verse.

But I do believe it is possible to make a distinction between a good and bad poem. Not in any dogmatic way, but in a way that acknowledges the historical particularity and provisionality of one’s assessment. And it helps to make that distinction because every utterance is not a poem. A poem takes craft and attention, in pretty much the same way as cooking a meal takes work.  And we do make distinctions between a good meal and a bad meal, don’t we?

Every utterance is not a poem. But at the same time, every time one makes a judgment it is important to be prepared to be surprised. It is just when you arrive at a definitive idea of ‘good verse’ that you suddenly encounter a poem that challenges it. That’s the joy of being a reader of poetry.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: You travel a lot and even when I have contacted you have told me that you are travelling. So how are you benefitted by this extensive travelling? And do you even write poems in time travelling or you need certain place and space for your creative works?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: I do travel a lot. I grumble about it sometimes – the bureaucracy attendant on it, from visa hurdles to security checks. But I realize that I do need it, because it brings fresh breezes, fresh perspectives. It offers, above all, a new way of looking at the old. As a Greek essayist, Anastassis Vistonitis, once put it, when you return home, you realize that all you really wanted to do was to shift the angle of your armchair just a little. But you needed to make that long journey to discover that!

In many of my books, from Pilgrim’s India (the Penguin anthology of essays and poems that I edited) to When God is a Traveller (my most recent book of poems), journeys have been significant. Many journeys are present as tropes in the poems – from Shakuntala’s journey from forest to court (and her inability to belong to either) to the young Muruga’s journey around the world to claim the fruit of knowledge. The idea of a young impetuous pilgrim travelling the world to seek knowledge when his parents are none other than Shiva and Shakti interested me hugely (as does the prodigal son story in the Bible), and that eventually became the title poem of my collection.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: On January 2015 you have won the inaugural Khushwant Singh Memorial Prize for ‘When God is a Traveller’, a book where you have encountered with the real like Mrs. Salim Shaikh along with mythic figures like Shakuntala. So what do you want show by this type of encounters and contradictions? And do you really believe that there lies a mistrust of dogmatism whether it is secular or sacred?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: What Mrs Salim Shaikh and Shakuntala have in common is essentially that they are travellers – one is a passenger in a contemporary context (an Indian Railways experience, as it were) and the other is a more archetypal questor. They interest me because they alter my perspective of things in their own ways – Mrs Salim Shaikh by her cheerfully naïve but deeply restoring common sense (that refuses to be hijacked by agenda-driven political and communal rhetoric) and Shakuntala in a deeper way because she refuses to splinter the world into simple polarities of flesh and spirit, secular and sacred, forest and court (or at least that’s how I see her in the poem).  In their own ways, they challenge dogmatism because they don’t allow their worlds to become conceptually fragmented. Poetry is, in any case, always antithetical to rigid categorisation, to dogmatism. It has to be, because it is a celebration of the imagination – that wonderful, chaotic, churning, disruptive, startling, mysterious, illuminating inner world.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR:  You have edited an anthology of contemporary Indian Love Poems namely ‘Confronting Love’ along with Jerry Pinto. So what is your definition of ‘Love’? I can memorise what Mr. Daruwalla says regarding your poetry. Allow me to quote him that “Subramaniam’s poetry is one of illumination. She flashes a pencil-torchlight on a subject, and suddenly you feel you are richer for it. What defines her verse is its subtlety and angle of vision from which she sees life.” So your readers want to know how and in which way you have seen ‘life’.

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: There seem to be two questions here: one on love and one on life. But perhaps the two are linked. Both life and love are both full of unexpectedness, capable of sly twists and turns, of paradox and joy. I cannot think of life without love. And because it is such a deeply energizing experience, I suppose one cannot think of love without life.

I don’t know if there is any single angle from which I view life, Goutam. Each poem – indeed, each moment – requires another angle. The angle is adopted not for effect, but is suggested by a deep attentive ‘looking at’ or ‘being with’ something. The reason we all turn to poems, even as readers, is for the same reason, I believe. Poetry can create subtle but surprising shifts in the way we view life. But for that, you need to be willing to adopt the lens and angle that the moment demands. If you adopt the same lens again and again, you turn rigid, stale and predictable. In fact, you run the risk of what we spoke of earlier – turning rigid. That is the very antithesis of life, because life is never -- absolutely never – rigid, capable of stillness perhaps, on occasion, but never static.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: Your spiritual guide Jaggi Vasudev has left a lasting influence on you and your ‘Sadhguru: More Than A Life” proves it. So have you succeeded to understand the inner life of Sadhguru, a yogi and mystic? And after your encounter with Sadhguru what have you discovered in you- mysticism or scepticism?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: Sadhguru has certainly impacted my life as my spiritual guide in very fundamental ways. And no, I certainly haven’t succeeded in understanding him fully. But then I don’t think one ever understands anyone fully, and less so a mystic whose inner life is unimaginably complex. More Than a Life is a book that adopts a tone of wonder but also of enquiry to approach this phenomenon. But it doesn’t claim to be a complete or comprehensive picture, because I don’t think that’s possible anyway. I think it’s probably somewhat unusual in that respect: it is neither a hagiography nor an exposé.

What are the significant ways in which Sadhguru has impacted my life? Probably in helping me make my peace with uncertainty. (Poetry does that too, but a spiritual practice helps you do that more deeply. That is also why any authentic spiritual tradition can never be dogmatic, incidentally.) And another important impact is this: because he has never asked me for belief, for uncritical obedience, for weak-kneed adoration, he has, in fact, helped banish for me the rigid divide (that the world so often sets up) between the mystical and the sceptical, the magical and the logical.

He is my guide for several reasons. But one important reason is this: he has helped me embark on a journey where I don’t have to cease to be a sceptic in order to be a seeker.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: Your ‘Where I Live: New and Selected Poems’ centres around the question of belonging and unbelonging and your poem ‘Home’ expresses your quest for a place of your own. So what is your definition of ‘Home’? How have you overcome the sense of alienation and existentialism in your life?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: It’s important here to say that Where I Live was about unbelonging on many levels. But it was not about the kind of ‘alienation’ that people believe Anglophone Indian intellectuals suffer from. So, I should say here that I have never felt alienated from India. I am grateful to be heir to its great and bewildering cultural and spiritual legacy (which is full of many messy inconsistencies that are sometimes deeply disturbing and oftenutterly fascinating). I see English as one more Indian language – one with unfortunate antecedents in a colonized country, but nonetheless, one that is indisputably ours today.

Where I Live was about another kind of unbelonging. I often say that Where I Live was about trying to bridge the gap between where I live and where I belong – where I am and where I want to be, as it were. It explored this gap on different levels - personal, physical, cultural, political and existential. I knew where I lived. But I wasn’t sure, however, of where I belonged.

But with the new book, there is a definite shift: I know less about where I live, but I certainly know where I belong. I don’t mean ‘belonging’ in terms of geography. (I lead too much of a peripatetic life to have a single address anyway!). I mean ‘belonging’ in terms of a deeper sense of inner anchorage, of residence in the self. I am grateful for that.

You are asking about my definition of home? It would be akin to TS Eliot’s ‘still point of the turning world’. Or as I say in the poem, ‘Home’, it’s the place that is ‘so alien when I try to belong, so hospitable when I decide I’m just visiting’. Or as in another poem (‘Strategist’), I see it as about learning to ‘inhabit the verb’.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: When have you started your spiritual journey? And how far does this spiritual journey shape your creative impulse?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: The sense of quest was around for as long as I know. But it assumed a certain intensity in the late ‘90s, and grew more focused and committed when I found spiritual guidance in 2004.

How does it affect my poetry? In innumerable ways, I suppose. Just as it affects everything else I do, but not in terms of the content of the poetry. Most people believe that ‘turning spiritual’ means turning vapidly pious or becoming a believer. I don’t do that in my poetry. Even the poem, ‘When God is a Traveller’, is about Kartikeya or Muruga as an archetypal seeker, not as god in any conventional sense.

But I suppose the most important way in which the spiritual shapes the creative is in terms of process. It makes the process more alive, more uncertain, more porous, more open to surprise. Craft matters to me and always has, but I am more open than before to trusting the poem, to following its lead. That honing of receptivity is what the spiritual journey is about. And that’s what both the spiritual and the creative have fundamentally in common: they are both invitations to listen – to listen deep and hard and attentively to the world around and within you.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: Your ‘Eating God’ is all about Bhakti poetry. So how have you developed your interest in Bhakti poetry? And how far your reading of other poets’ works and translations regarding Bhakti poetry influence your writing?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: The Bhakti poetry anthology happened thanks to the suggestion of an editor at Penguin, Kamini Mahadevan, and Ravi Singh who was the head of Penguin at the time. I was delighted when they proposed it because it resonated deeply with a personal preoccupation. These are poems that have offered me sanctuary, companionship, illumination and signposts on what can often be a singularly lonely journey. They’ve rescued me in some of my darkest moments.

So the anthology essentially aims to be a compilation of some of the finest devotional poets down the ages, from Nammalvar to Tukaram, from Basavanna and Akka Mahadevi to Janabai and Soyarabai and so many more. I thought that they would be excitingto read in polyphony. And so, the book is not organized on the basis of language, region, gender, caste or sectarian affiliation, but on the basis of tone, from the yearning to the enraged, from the erotic to the despairing, from the ironic to the ecstatic. That, I believed, could be the basis of a new kind of anthology. And I think that is the unique feature of the volume – one that, I was grateful to find, struck a deep chord with several readers.
How does it affect my own writing? Probably in more ways than I know. From the fierce directness of tone to the intimacy and irreverence of the address to the divine, from the refusal to separate the erotic from the existential to the deep need to seek personal answers to ultimate questions – all these aspects of these poems have percolated into my life, as into the lives of so many in this subcontinent. And so, they have undeniably shaped my poetry as well. Many of the poems in When God is a Traveller have epigraphs from poets like Nammalvar and Tukaram, for instance. And I’m sure they have moulded my work in a host of other insidious ways that I’m not aware of.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: The titles of your works are somewhat different. ‘When God is a Traveller’ and ‘Eating God’ these two titles are somewhat different. So can you please tell the journey and whose journey it is in ‘When God is a Traveller’? And where lies the importance and significance behind your taking a line from Nammalvar’s poem for your title of ‘Eating God’?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: I think I’ve answered this earlier. ‘When God is a Traveller’ is a poem based on the travels of Muruga around the world. We sometimes need to travel far away from home in order to return, recognize and reclaim our personal inheritance for what it really is. And so, this is a poem about quest, about the fact that we sometimes need to make external journeys even while knowing that the truest answers lie within. This journey from innocence to experience is a trope we find in mythology from across the world.

‘Eating God’ is a line from a Tamil poem by the 10th century Vaishnava poet, Nammalvar, that I love. It is a sentiment echoed by other poems by Bhakti poets: in Janabai’s poem translated by Arun Kolatkar, for instance, or in Kabir translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. These are poems that articulate a great, unabashed, passionate appetite for the divine. They invoke the spiritual journey not as some anaemic bloodless aspiration, but as a deeply sensual desire that implicates both body and the beyond.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: If you are told to select some of your poems for the anthology where poets all over the world will contribute then which poems will you consider and why? And what are the possible areas of poetry that you should be explored of your poetry by the critics, readers, scholars and academicians?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: I’d select a combination from all four books. Perhaps ‘Prayer’, ‘Winter, Delhi, 1997’, ‘Vigil’, ‘By Thirty’ and ‘5.46, Andheri Local’ from the first. ‘Where I Live’, ‘Madras’, ‘To the Welsh Critic who doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian’, ‘Another Way’ and ‘The Same Questions’ from the second. ‘Leapfrog’, ‘Sharecropping’, ‘Epigrams for Life after Fifty’ from the third (which was a New and Selected). And ‘Eight Poems to Shakuntala’, ‘When God is a Traveller’, ‘I Speak for Those with Orange Lunchboxes’, ‘My Friends’, ‘Six about Love Stories’, ‘Where the Script Ends’, ‘Transplant’ and ‘Poems Matter’ from the most recent.
I’m reluctant to prescribe to anyone what they should look for in my poems. But I would hope to find a reader who is interested at some point in an immersive reading of the poems, and open to exploring tropes like belonging, city, relationship, quest andtravel– all of which have been important preoccupations in my poetry.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: You have translated Tamil poems, Gujrati poems and some poems of Abhirami Bhattar for your ‘Eating God’. So do you think that while translating the translator’s thoughts are fused with the original piece? And do the translator and the author need and get equal attention and focus after the recognition of the translated work?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: I believe we choose to translate poets whose work resonates in some way with us. So, I chose Abhirami Bhattar, for instance, because he’s a Devi bhakta – a fascination that I share -- and I was keen on bringing in the Divine Feminine into the Bhakti anthology.

Translation is a challenging but exciting business. Like the writing of a poem, it entails a profound act of listening. But it is an even more rigorous listening, because it entails tuning into the voice of another – listening to a very specific timbre and tone and aspiration which can sometimes be at variance with one’s own. Translation has been described in various ways – as a séance (where you turn medium and allow another voice to speak through you) and as ventriloquism (where you throw your voice and use another poet as your channel). For me, it’s a mix of the two. But even while it is an act of re-creation, there’s a certain hubris in claiming that role of ‘co-creator’ too easily. Without the initial act of deep, respectful listening, no translation is possible in the first place.

I have no problem with the author getting the lion’s share of the attention. If my translations can stimulate someone to go back and read more of the Abhirami Antadi, I would consider myself successful. But yes, of course, it is true that the translator’s role shouldn’t be side-lined or trivialized. I think specifically of translators like AK Ramanujan, Dilip Chitre, David Shulman and several others, and how a tremendous heritage of poetry is made available to us, thanks to their efforts.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: What is your opinion regarding the future of Indian English poetry? Now readers are interested in fictions, short stories and dramas. And poetry becomes neglected and hardly a few buy poetry collections. So what are the possible suggestions and solutions you want to give for the betterment of the future of poetry in general?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: I used to be deeply concerned about the marginalized position of poetry in the scheme of things. I confess I am much less concerned now. It is true that poetry is peripheral to many, but it is equally true that poetry cannot and will not ever die out. There may be few takers for it, but they exist, and always will.

Suggestions? To potential readers (and that includes everyone except those who are already reading it), I’d say, poetry is meant to be enjoyed, not feared. And to teachers, above all, I’d say, find a way to create excitement around the experience of a poem. Once you do that, the battle is won. Don’t paraphrase it. Don’t be in a hurry to make conclusions or express an opinion too easily about a poem. Allow it to breathe in the classroom; allow students to inhale it and make it their own. After that, you have a reader of poetry for life.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: There is an evolving poetic maturity as seen in your poems. You are not the same who has written ‘On Cleansing Bookshelves’. So how will you describe this poetic maturity? And what will your readers get from you in the future years-more changes in thought process?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: The first book was a varied compilation of poems – and I see it as a happily varied book in terms of theme and style. The second book was an exploration of the theme of belonging. The third – a New and Selected – deepened the exploration, also probing the frontiers between the sacred and secular. And the most recent book, When God is a Traveller, examines journeys of various kinds – mundane and metaphysical.
I don’t know if I can predict the primary concern of the next book, but I find the poems returning to the question of time and ageing. The tone is not elegiac, however, but somewhat reflective, sometimes even upbeat. 

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: What should be the actual role of a poet for this society? And do you think yourself as a social reformer for what your poetry give does to the society and its inhabitants?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: The poet’s role is to be true to herself or himself, first of all. Authenticity and artistry – we need both for any book to hold.

I have no issue whatsoever with social reformers, but that is not how I see the role of the poet. The role of the poet is to be true to her or his perspective of life. To combine that integrity of perception with verbal relish and dexterity – that is poetry.

In the process of making or reading poems, change certainly happens – not in terms of immediate social transformation, but in subtle ways. Poetry transforms the way we look at the world, and the way we map our reality. It transforms our interiority because of the way in which it aligns beauty and truth. And that is the only profound and subtle shift that endures. It is never measurable, never quantifiable, but it is undeniable.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: I know that you can memorise your poems very well and you love poetry reading sessions. So what are the pleasures you get which reading your piece? And what kind of readers do you expect for your poetry?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: The pleasure of reading a poem aloud, as I said earlier, is the sheer sensual delight of following its contours – its every grain and syllable and pause. The ‘live’ quality of that act appeals to me. Even as a child, that was the charm of poetry – that it appealed as much to the tongue as to the eye. It ached to be spoken, to be celebrated vocally.
What kind of reader do I like? The kind that is willing to listen attentively, that is willing to enjoy the poem as a sensual experience, and is not in a hurry to extract a singular message or air a conclusive opinion about it.

I say this because I see poetry as a wonderful reprieve from opinion. And given that we’re obliged to have opinions all the time in the world we live in, it can sometimes get exhausting. I often get tired of it! Poetry is a way of knowing that frees you from obligation to be certain, to bristle all the time with conclusion. It reminds you that there are other deeper ways of understanding ourselves and our worlds.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: Who are the new voices of Indian English poetry whose works you love to read? And what will be your advice for the new poets and the amateur ones?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: There are many younger contemporary poets I enjoy – not all of them younger than me chronologically (although most are), but in terms of publishing history. I thought Karthika Nair’s last book was remarkable. There are many others: Ravi Shankar, Anjum Hasan, Sampurna Chattarji, Mona Zote, Sridala Swamy, Rohinton Daruwalla, Tishani Doshi, Sharanya Manivannan, Meena Kandasamy, Anupama Raju, Sumana Roy, Goirick Brahmachari, Michael Creighton, to name a few. I’m sure there are many others I’m leaving out.
I don’t think new poets need advice. Or want it! So, I wouldn’t presume to offer it. Every poet has to find her or his way to make the journey. But perhaps the only suggestions I offer to those who ask is this: don’t be in a hurry to arrive. Take your time before putting your work out there. And merely publishing a book (or books) isn’t proof of proficiency. Allow work to simmer and gestate. Don’t be in a hurry to put it on the page. Don’t allow yourself to turn glib: make sure you don’t mistake fluency and facility for the real thing. And finally, I’d say, watch literary fashion, enjoy the headiness of craft, the passion and urgency of political engagement, but make sure your creative process is deeply linked to the journey of growing into yourself. In short, don’t compartmentalize poetry and life. Allow the two to leak into each other and enrich each other. That is the only way the journey makes sense.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: How far do you see yourself as a feminist poet? And what is your opinion regarding contemporary Indian Women poets writing in English?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: I’ve discussed this at length in articles and interviews as well. I’m not embarrassed by the word ‘feminist’. It has helped me in many ways to understand myself and the contexts that others and I inhabit. It has, in short, been a marvellous tool. But does that mean some cast-iron identity, some ideological straitjacket, and some doctrinaire position that admits of no inconsistency? Not at all. I am a work in progress, and I see feminism as a great resource of self-understanding. I haven’t arrived. I don’t believe anyone has. Feminism is a journey; not a destination.
There are many fine women poets in India today across all languages. In fact, some of the best poets writing in the country today happen to be women. I find myself returning to their poems often – from Savithri Rajeevan (Malayalam) to Pratibha Nandakumar (Kannada), from Anamika (Hindi) to Tarannum Riyaz (Urdu), including all the other Anglophone poets I mentioned earlier.

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: What role does poetry do for you- a liberator, a medium of expression, a way to deal with life or a way to connect with the society and the self? You are among those few poets who capture contradictory impulses in such a good way. And how far ambivalence, contradictions, uncertainties mould your thoughts and imaginations while writing poetry?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: Poetry is the most direct and pleasurable route to the self, as I said earlier. But it is not some intellectual process alone, although the intellect is implicated. And it is not some emotional process alone, although the emotions are implicated. There is no poetry without aliveness. The hallmark of a good poem is one where it feels you’re encountering language in its most nascentstate – the very ore or magma of language, as it were. That’s why poetry can give you the naked wire experience – the sense of suddenly being in touch with something electrical, magical and heightened. So, even while it starts with the self, a good poem is never a solipsistic exercise. It connects with the world, with nature, with culture, with everything really, because the self is never separate from any of these.

About ambivalence and contradiction, it isn’t something I consciously try to achieve in my poetry. In the process of looking hard at something – anything really – you see its many facets, its many contradictions, and that’s what I find fascinating about most things, anyway. For example, I’ve sometimes been asked why I hate Mumbai, and that surprises me. I don’t hate the city at all. It’s just that any relationship of intimacy involves a complex welter of emotional states. Where there is love there is bound to be intensity. I don’t have a tepid relationship with Mumbai, or with any place or person or object that I love. Where there is intensity and voltage, there is bound to be vibrant complexity, not insipid blandness.

Do you think that now-a-days many poets are trying to self-promote herself to establish his/her identity? Suddenly I have remembered what you have said regarding the use of first person singular in prose and poetry by women poets. Can you please elaborate this once again before your readers?

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: To answer the first question about whether poets are self-promotional today: well, I think the poetry scene today reflects the times we live in, and there is a certain anxiety about PR and marketing in the general world we inhabit, isn’t there? Not surprisingly, that ethos has infiltrated the literary scene as well.

In a recent poem, I wrote about growing up in an age of misanthropic poets and then finding myself in an age of market-savvy poets. I don’t feel particularly comfortable with either! But to be fair, let me say this: I have no problem with poets who want their work to be heard. I only have a problem with poets who forget that the art of poetry is much about listening than about asserting, much more about self-exploration than self-advertisement.

Regarding your second question, that’s about an entirely different notion of ‘self’. I think your question alludes to the essay I wrote for The Hindu last year. I was writing here of the unfortunate impulse to dismiss the ‘personal’ as narrow, navel-gazingautobiography in poetry criticism. We seem to have forgotten how to read poetry, unfortunately. If we aren’t able to extract sermon or sociology from it, we’re frequently dismiss it. I was also talking about the many biases involved in critiquing poetry authored by women – labelling the use of the first person singular as apolitical, for instance, which so often overlooks the explosive radical potential in it.

(The readers can find more about this question in this article)

GOUTAM KARMAKAR: Thank you Ms Arundhathi Subramaniam for being so cooperative with me.
ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM: Thank you Goutam. God bless you. Best of luck for your anthology on selected Indian poets writing in English.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Goutam Karmakar
 Goutam Karmakar is currently working as a PhD Research Scholar in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, National Institute of Technology Durgapur (NITD), India. He is a bilingual poet, critic, editor, book reviewer and interviewer. His articles and research papers have been published in many International Journals and edited books. He has taken interviews of notable Indian poets writing in English. His poems have been published in many international journals and anthologies. He seeks interest in Indian English Literature, Postmodern and Postcolonial literature, gender studies, queer theory, ecocritical studies, dalit literature, folklore and culture studies. He can be reached at: goutamkrmkr@gmail.com

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