“Poetry is more akin to music than painting”, says Amit Shankar Saha: Author of 'Balconies of Time'
Balconies of Time’, the debut poetry collection of Amit Shankar Saha had reached my home in Texas, USA after quite a series of erroneous attempts of shipping the book long-distance. However, once I reached me, I looked at its simple, yet evocative cover portraying the intimate essence of a house, an emotional string that I had left in the unnamed alleys of my maiden home in Kolkata, India, and thereafter started my journey of reading the book cover-to-cover, reading each poem in the collection as a unique room, window, balcony, door of that ubiquitous house, which I might have never escaped from ever.
Being a friend and fellow poet of Rhythm Divine Poets, where Amit, the author is the co-founder, the instinctive and instant connection that we made with each other was through the device of poetry and words. Hence, quite naturally, when I finished reading his book, there were questions about its intrinsic theme, its complex yet endearing emotional nuances that were bubbling in my mind, and thus the seed of this author interview was sown, and eventually brought to fruition with a deft and critical analysis by the author himself, dissecting his work, triggered by my questions.
Lopa Banerjee: First of all, many congratulations, Amit, on the publication of ‘Balconies of Time’. The lines of the title poem in the collection echo in my mind with a lingering impact after I finished reading. “There’s a hollow in the forest/Which the night cannot fill/ And the sleepy blue ocean/Walks sleepy blue still. There’s a hollow in the strangers, Hollow in their glances/Lurking in the faded corners/With folded hemline of chances.” There is a lot of sensitivity in the lines, the depiction of emotive imagery, as aptly described in the foreword to the book by Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta, poet, academician and literary scholar. Would you say your poetry emerged from reading the classic romantic poets or the modern poets Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats et al?
Amit Shankar Saha: Thank you. The aim of the collection was to have a persistence of impact on the minds of the readers and I am happy that is what is happening. My poetry emerged from reading the classic romantic poets but I have been writing serious poetry for about twenty years now so it has developed with further readings of the modern poets though not exactly Whitman but Yeats, Eliot and others definitely. At different stages of my poetic career I have written different types of poetry under different influences. However, what comes out eventually is both an amalgamation of influences as well as originality. It is my individual voice now.
Lopa: Many of the poems in your debut collection 'Balconies of Time' have the essence of nostalgia of belonging, in relation to the feelings of home, places you have visited physically or metaphorically, objects that are both part of your inner microcosm and well as the greater visual, visceral reality. Would you agree to this observation, and if yes, how would you explain it in relation to your body and mind?
Amit: At a literary festival I once heard Anita Desai say that nostalgia is not good for a writer as it comes easy and makes the writer complacent. But you will not find the typical usage of nostalgia in my poems because the sense undergoes a metaphorical metamorphosis and thereby reflects what you aptly termed as my inner microcosm. People who know me superficially find it difficult to imagine that I am the same person who writes these poems. Sometimes I too search for that person who writes my poems.
Lopa: Before this collection happened, some of these poems you have mentioned, have been published in literary journals and e-zines. Tell us a few words about the birth of this compilation and what particularly inspired you to name the book 'Balconies of Time'. Has it been a deeply philosophical choice, or is it a name that tries to decode the intrinsic emotional meanings of the mélange of poems?
Amit: The compilation has poems selected from those mainly composed between 2015 and 2017. The poems were written during a very inspired phase of my life where there was a great upheaval of feelings. The title poem itself was inspired, as I have stated in the acknowledgement, by the words of my fellow poet Ananya Chatterjee. I had stated earlier somewhere that these poems chart an evolution of time from one state of situ to another. They bring in moods where the experiences of the poet become poetry. These emotional experiences are added with my travel experiences between Kolkata and Bolpur. Bolpur gave me new rustic metaphors whereas Kolkata always stood for urbanity from where I connected with the world, world where my friends travelled to. The private and personal mix with the public and social and become an aesthetic whole in my poems.
Lopa: As a scholar of English literature, many of your poems in this collection and also your other published poems have deeply nuanced language and imagery embedded in their core. For example, in the poem ‘Silverfish’, you write a poetic fable: “As I lie on my bed/And the night eats me up/A silverfish comes to my rescue…A long lost thought that lies/folded in the cupboard/Seeks a sudden breath of fresh air”. Again, in the poem ‘Gyre’, you write these lines which depict your passion for the beauty of the abstract: “Today I sit to write/the last poem of the year. Words queue to climb/the anthill of poetry. They mate with each other/to give birth to meaning.” Would you say poetry as a medium of art/expression derives its essential strength from the subtle rubrics of strong, distinctive imageries?
Amit: I believe poetry has to do simultaneously with imagery and sound. Even when a poem is read in the mind and not aloud, the sound of the words that depict the images has to leave a persistence of memory. Poetry is more akin to music than painting. When you see a painting you usually see the whole of it at a time, whereas you listen to only a part of the music at a time. Similarly, you read a poem only in parts – words, one line at a time perhaps. Often I forget the first lines of poems of some length with abstract imagery while reading because they don’t have persistence of memory of the lines in my mind because the sound of the words is not lingering. I try that does not happen with my poems. Poetry is definitely strengthened by distinctive imageries but those imageries have to be sustained in the minds of the readers through appropriate sounding words.
Lopa: It would be very interesting to know what inspired your introductory poem of the book 'Awadh' where you pay a tribute to Mirza Ghalib, the Urdu-Persian bard. Did the lyricism of Urdu Shayari and the Ghazal form entice you as a poet? We poets often say that poetry writing is a cathartic experience for us on the emotional plane. Do you think the catharsis is stronger in the Urdu Shayari genre of poetry, or does the complex emotional nuances of English poetry let us explore catharsis more strongly?
Amit: When I was compiling the collection, I had first thought of putting the title poem at the beginning, but then I put it in the middle and decided to start the collection with ‘Awadh’ since it goes back in history and time. It harks back to a different era of poetry and defines an age that is no longer there – an age of the bards of Urdu poetry that was overrun by the Empire. Moreover, the poem is one of the first poems that I recited at a poetry meet organized by Rhythm Divine Poets. So, it justifies itself as a precursor in more sense than one. I am definitely enticed by Urdu Shayari and Ghazal. My poems have both the influences of Indian as well as Western tradition of composing poems. As for being cathartic, poetry is cathartic irrespective of the traditions. It depends on the poet. We are privileged to have access and understanding of both the traditions and that enrich our poetry greatly.
Lopa: I sense after reading your poems on certain places and landmarks of Kolkata, including Some Place Else, Park Street, Gariahat, Southern Avenue that Kolkata, the city becomes a metaphor for remembrances and an intrinsic sense of emptiness, like a drink in which you, the poet drowns, to “swim with loss.” In the poem ‘Gariahat’, emblematic of the bustling street of Kolkata, you write: “That day we flew over the island of Gariahat./ The flyover licked us/and we were lifted up in incredible lightness/of being in love.” In these lines, we find the urban semantics, the post-modern imagery that embraces the physical landscape of the city and your metaphorical realities in very minimalist, yet strong poetic expressions. What would you say about this observation about Kolkata as your muse?
Amit: Kolkata has been a witness to my happy times and sad times, so naturally it finds a place in my poems. The city gave me urban metaphors – so many places are associated with remembrances. Every moment that has gone past leaves a certain sense of emptiness. I can revisit the same place but not the same moment and hence the sense of loss which is good for a poet, for it leads to the quintessential postmodernist philosophy of presentism. But I link it with Keatsian struggle between transience and permanence. A poet is a person who is caught between paradoxes, stranded amidst dilemmas, momentarily immobilized by predicaments. Kolkata as a muse has given me the semantics to explore such emotions.
Lopa: The sensuality of erotic poetry also finds ample voice in your poem ‘Discovering Guilt’. “Your body I peel like an orange/And your eyes an inflorescence split in two,/ Your breasts I suckle like a hot day/And your breath I take in kisses askew..” What is your take on the element of eroticism in English poetry and how do you think has it evolved over the years?
Amit: Usually I struggle to write erotic poetry but friends and fellow poets help me to achieve some measure of success when I attempt it. It is very important for a poet to get constructive feedback especially from those who have been successful in that genre and I have been fortunate in that regard. As for eroticism in English poetry, I have been influenced by the sensuousness of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, Keats’s ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. Eroticism in English poetry has definitely evolved from the bawdy verses of Earl of Rochester to the stark realities of modern times. But there are other languages too where erotic verses have flowered considerably.
Lopa: Let me ask you about my most favorite poem in the collection, ‘Double Helix’. You write: “I have my mother’s genes, /I am not a poet/And this is not a poem. /At the crossroad this will not pay for my coffee./It is still the seventies/And we are still unborn.” The lines juxtaposed against each other in the poem depicting a ruthless narrative of the seventies which merges with our own postmodern realities. Was this particular poem born out of angst or the tyranny of nostalgia?
Amit: This poem is a perfect example of multiple layering of meanings in a poem. I composed it after a fellow poet posted her mother’s poem in Facebook. I delve into the circumstances of my mother who never got an opportunity to write a verse, being too surrounded by household duties as a housewife. So this is a feminist poem. But it is not only that. It is also about me when I contradict myself by stating that my poem is not a poem. It is just a statement of hard realities of life. So it is a deeply personal poem. But the poet that I am, is also a product of his times being born in the late seventies at the end of a turbulent decade when my peers too were born and grew up. So the poem transcends the personal and goes into the social sphere. Towards the ending, the poem becomes almost political in raising questions of right and left spectrum of political ideologies. The poem was written at a time when there was this controversy of the Bengali poet Srijato’s poem which was deemed to be not in good taste by a certain political class. This poem was my response to the right-left conundrum. But despite this political angle, the interrogation is from a very personal point of view where I go back to my mother and my fellow poet’s mother and query which of them will now become a Naxalite. History has given us enough evidence of repercussions of rising extremism. But the layering does not end there. Apart from these immediate contemporary and historical realities there is this whole look into the business of a poem. The poem was written after World Poetry Day which is celebrated by many coffee shops around the world where you pay for your coffee with your poem. So it also interrogates the purpose of a poem as a non-utilitarian creation of imagination which comments on social, political, historical, as well as personal and private realities of life with an aesthetic consciousness. Poetry is art and through my conversation with my fellow poet in this poem, I am delving symbolically into the genesis of it – the genes of art within the double helix of artistic creation. There are many other layers which perhaps the reader will discover further. No doubt it is your favourite poem and also mine and whenever I read it in gatherings, I am appreciated.
Lopa: On the other hand, there are poems like ‘Suicide Bomber’, “The Wilderness of Binsar’ and ‘Silhouettes’, ‘Aleppo’ etc. where several human images convey the essence of the multi-layered politics of the world of our times, the world in a state of flux, of turmoil and turbulence. How would you say the personal and political collides with each other in your collection of poems?
Amit: Exactly the point I am getting at. The personal is political and the political personal. When I am writing about love I am also commenting about a political situation and vice versa. Love and politics intersect and the turmoil of the world reflects the turmoil in my mind. So each state can be interchangeably used linked by poignant metaphors. A poem should yield to multiple interpretations and this is how through metaphors it is embedded with meanings.
Lopa: In the foreword, Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta very engagingly elucidates the ever-expanding domain of Indian English poetry and how poets like Parthasarathy, Kamala Das, Nissim Ezekiel et al had employed the English language in their poetry as a means of liberation of their poetic selves by indulging in cultural pluralism, that resulted in “a cultural bridge between the home and the world.” We would like to know how you envision this entire process as a poet belonging to the domain of Indian English poetry.
Amit: There has always been cultural pluralism and history has proof of it. No one except those who are still stuck in primitive time warp can escape cultural pluralism. Just as no poem can have its meaning alone, no culture can have its meaning alone. I have been influenced by both Indian and Western tradition of poetry and it is a great advantage. This advantage needs to be exploited to produce good poetry. English is the language in which I am proficient and it is the language of my imagination. But that does not mean I don’t use words from other Indian languages. Cultural pluralism gives Indian poetry that richness.
Lopa: As a co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets, a poetry and arts collaborative based in Kolkata, you have been engaged in curating and conducting many poetry and literature events in the heart of the city. Kolkata has had the privilege of being the cultural capital of India since many moons now, and poetry and art has been at the core of the city a long time before the birth of this new generation of writers and artists who inhabit the city now. What are the most fascinating elements of the poetry revolution in Kolkata currently that you would like to share?
Amit: Rhythm Divine Poets (RDP), co-founded with Sufia Khatoon and Anindita Bose, has created through sustained efforts a sort of revolution in the poetry scene of Kolkata. It has given Kolkata visibility in the poetry circles of the nation as well as the world. The events that we organize round the year give local and visiting poets a platform in the city. We have been appreciated by many people. But it could not have happened without the support of senior poets like Sanjukta Dasgupta and Sharmila Ray. Now there is also Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library (IPPL) which has joined the bandwagon and we look forward to even more poetry related events and promotion of the art form. What is most fascinating about this poetry revolution in Kolkata is the enthusiasm of poets like Ananya Chatterjee, Joie Bose, Nikita Parik, Ruth Pal Chaudhuri, Kushal Poddar and others in participating in the cause and promoting the art. It is very encouraging and positive. Also we have been very receptive to collaborations locally, nationally and internationally. RDP believes that integration and autonomy can exist side by side and we can always be open to better alternatives through out-of-the-box thinking.
Lopa: What message would you like to give to young aspirant poets, university students, young professionals from diverse sectors in India who want to dive into the world of poetry publishing? Would you tell them that in spite of many claiming otherwise, poetry is there to stay as a timeless aesthetic art form?
Amit: Poetry is definitely there to stay. It has been there even before the birth of language in the music of birdsongs and it will outlive all of us. My advice to young poets is two-fold: first the practical one – write, choose and then publish. It is a long process and unless you have written enough it is foolhardy to publish a book of mediocre verses for a serious poet. Start by getting published in journals and magazines. RDP runs the Poetry Chapbook Contest and so does many other organizations outside India. Participate in those competitions and get noticed. The second advice is that since the poetry scene is now very vibrant, you have to work really hard if you want to belong to the contemporary poetry scene. Don’t adopt unfair means but rather invest yourself in the study of traditional as well as contemporary poetry. Don’t seek instant success else you will end up just being a flash in the pan. Aesthetics require cultivation. If you are good, and to know that it will take time, you should have the sense that you will be among the poets for posterity.
|Amit Shankar Saha|
Dr. Amit Shankar Saha is a faculty member in the Department of English at Seacom Skills University. He did his PhD in English from Calcutta University in 2010. He is also a researcher, a short story writer and a poet. His research articles have appeared in journals and anthologies nationally and internationally. His short stories and poems have been published in periodicals and books both in India and abroad. He has won prizes at a number of writing competitions which include Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature (Short story-2015), Wordweavers Prize (Poetry-2011, Short story-2014), The Leaky Pot - Stranger than Fiction Prize (2014), Asian Cha – Void Poetry Prize (Commendable mention-2014), Reuel International Prize for Poetry (Shortlisted-2016). Dr. Amit Shankar Saha is also the co-founder and coordinator of Rhythm Divine Poets, a Kolkata-based poets group dedicated to the promotion of poetry.