Interview with Gopal Lahiri: Duane Vorhees

Duane Vorhees

- Duane Vorhees



Gopal Lahiri: I was born and grew up in Kolkata, India. Being an earth scientist, I have to travel a lot and watch life in the realms of nature. Maybe that helps me to break in if at all. I got the influence of nature early on and I still love that. I guess I love to watch and listen to the people in realms of beautiful earth -- how the world is and how the world ought to be. Maybe the wealth of reflections of everyday life that I collect in my mind and then I try to translate into words. Never really want to grab the readers by their frontal lobes and immediately snag their attention. It means so much in all my nine volumes of poems published so far in English and seven volumes in Bengali. I am basically a bilingual poet, writer, editor, critic and translator and widely published in Bengali and English. Recipient of the Poet of the year award in Destiny Poets, UK, 2016, I have been published on five continents. In addition, I have jointly edited one anthology of poems and published one translation work. I have been writing poetry, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so, for nearly forty years. But poetry is still my first choice. I currently live in Kolkata.

Gopal Lahiri
Duane Vorhees: Can you explain why you chose to write poetry?

GL: I can easily recall the reading of Tagore poems in my childhood and slowly I fell in love with poetry. In my early days fear was not any option and I was free to write. The answer was from my heart. I am a lover of nature and I have memories of writing poems on nature in a school magazine. As it happens, I am more enchanted by my surroundings with its smell, sound, fissures and lineaments and their intricate relations with people. It has been going on for nearly forty years. I don’t know when it started exactly but writing, especially poetry, is something which is absolutely essential for me. Poems that I’m creating are just part of me. I never fume in the lines and I feel comfortable with this.

DV: Are you primarily a traditionalist (strict adherence to matters such as rhyme, rhythm, meter) or more of a free spirit? How do you justify your aesthetic choice?

GL: I started writing poetry in a more traditionalist manner with a strong emphasis on meter, rhyme and rhythm. But later I realised that I really find my vein of expression only by coming out of the shackles of rhyme and rhythm. Perhaps it’s now a therapy for me. More and more I let my will-o’-wisp imagination find its course. I believe the poet should be a noticer of things unnoticed or unheard and the space offered by poetry allows the poet to unleash his imagination when he is a free spirit and the certainty of metre and rhyme is faintly blurred by the leisurely accumulation of images.

DV: In order to demonstrate your thesis, would you mind showing us an early example of your traditional poetry and one of your later poems, perhaps on the same theme? You could discuss how you think the leisurely accumulation of images improved the presentation.

GL: I am posting below two poems written twenty years apart. The theme is not exactly same but similar. Shadow is the focal point. As you notice, my older poem is based on a rigid structure with end rhymes. But the later poem is much more free-wheeling and images are leisurely and no-holds-barred! But, again it’s my perception and the readers can dissect (as you say on my thesis) in many different ways to check whether it improves or not.

Fear of Shadow (written in 1999)

A rustling voice, the tears, the frenzied cries
Something strange and fearful in lows and highs
Enormous tree with tufts of moss around
Not a breath of air, not a pin drop sound
Long curly hair and all that furtive zeal
A fear creeping on little by little
Broad valley and the strange color of mist
Under the foliage, the hidden beast
Of the solitude and the lonely soul
A stream of fireflies close to the large bowl.
Thick grass inundated by silver light.
And lay heavy on dusky skin, dark sight.
Clear sad night, yellow tint of moon grows
To write on the wall the fear of shadow.

Mountain Shadow (written in 2019)

Despite ringing their own verbal music and
unsung harmonies,
Shadows of various sizes
Converge in the humming of the
Silence in this unknown wetland.

Those bird cries, those voices of water
Losing to the rocks below,
Carry a truth more awful than lies,
An infirmary of flowers
Wither together in man’s grave.

Blue mountains creasing and rippling away 
To the limitless horizon,
Hemmed with green shrubs
The forest is reconstructed with the
Long runs of basaltic lavas.

Unspoken roads scroll past
With fierce abandon,
Patchy clouds are in search of address,
Memories swirl not to pass on a tradition
But to break its hold over us.

DV: I’m not sure whether it’s because of the formal/informal differences in structure, but I agree that the later poem is better. Maybe it’s the extra 20 years of practice? But the imagery is definitely sharper, and the subject less fuzzy. (By coincidence, the last two lines are particularly a propos to this discussion, don’t you think?) How do you go about the process of writing? Which seems more important to you, planning or inspiration?

GL: Well, as I’ve said, I love imagery in my poem and I find it difficult to generalize about how I go about the process of writing. I get an idea or something inspires me, I pursue it to see if it will work. Writing poetry is a passion for me. Sometimes if I feel the subject is important, I plan meticulously to make the idea come to something and that may take a matter of hours or days. It may happen that my attempts never come to anything or go in diverse directions. Some of the poems are written quickly; some seem to take longer. Some are short; some are really long. Some of my poems are influenced by nature. Others aren’t in any way. And of course a few come directly out of my personal experience. I am always excited about the process of writing. I do believe that that there is space for both inspiration and planning.

DV: Is there any discernible difference in the “how” you write in English or Bengali? What determines which language you use? Do you write in one language and translate into the other?

GL: Even though I was born in a Bengali family, the two languages Bengali and English are constantly spoken and used in my familial space. The writing in these two languages were quite natural for me and it’s just a matter of time before I became a practising poet both in Bengali and English. There is a basic difference in the syntax of Bengali and English language that lies in their word order. English language has a pattern of SVO (Subject, Verb, Object) while that of Bengali language has SOV (Subject, Object, Verb). The variations in tone, rhymes, rhythms and cadences are also there. In my early days in Kolkata, I used to write a lot in Bengali. I was uprooted from Kolkata almost thirty years back so I write much less in Bengali, because of lack of Bengali readers and also for the desire to write for my readers in English. Yes, sometimes it becomes a hard task but I choose the particular language if I feel comfortable to express my feelings and do justice to the theme of the poem. I never write in one language and translate into the other. Ideally, I should dream first, work on quiet reflections and then think of the medium, but in real life it doesn’t figure out that way! And honestly now I dream more in English than in any other language. Is it due to my rootless settings? I really don’t know the answer. But what if some poems aren’t meant to be dreamt at all? Recently I came back to my roots in Kolkata and started writing more in Bengali.

DV: Do your poems come to you in dreams?

GL: Sometimes, yes. Poetry comes in my dream and stays to give birth to a poem. It doesn’t stay always unfortunately. But poetry comes more easily when I am awake. It may come while I am travelling in a train, in a bus, or sitting on a park bench or standing on a tram stop and the like. Now Mobile note is very handy for jotting down poetry immediately while I am in transit.

DV: There are so many languages in India – how do Indian readers keep abreast of their nation’s literary scene? Or is it just a maze of regional literatures? For example, linguistically you are Anglo-Bengali – do you have reading literacy in Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, etc etc. etc?

GL: India is a vast country having 22 scheduled languages, written in 13 different scripts with over 720 dialects. Yes, you are correct. It’s a maze of very rich regional literatures. Many of the Indian readers know Hindi (national language) and English (widely spoken) in addition to the regional language which is their mother tongue. I was familiar with the world of English and Bengali since my childhood but with the passage of time, Hindi has become an important part of my reading and writing literacy. For all other languages, like Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam etc, I have to depend on translation for reading. It’s true that the majority of the Indians can at least converse in either English or Hindi.

DV: When I taught in Seoul, one of my better students told me that her personality and thoughts changed depending on which language she wrote in – in English she was freer in attitude and expression than in Korean. Do you also experience that phenomenon?

GL: No, not really! Even though the world of poetry is diverse and manifold in Bengali and English, I feel comfortable in writing in both the languages and always excited to the poetic process! Never felt any change in my personality or in attitude! The change over is quite seamless!

DV: David Norris claims that his poems are not really his, that they come to him from some other realm, and that he is just a receptor. Is that the way you would describe your experience?

GL: No, I never feel in that way! It’s true that poetry doesn’t run in my family! I got inspired by reading other poets! In fact, all of me is always engaged in writing poetry and there is no invisible helping hand! I enjoy chasing words, images, and metaphors in my own way!

DV: I know that some poems seem to “write themselves” with very little mental agony or revision, and others have difficult births. But how would you describe your “typical” creative process?

GL: I rarely experience my poems writing themselves! As I said earlier, I am a lover of words, images and metaphors! I can work on my poetry for days! No doubt mental agony and stress are there in revision till I satisfy myself! But that’s the way I write poetry and everything else is secondary at that point.

DV: Do you maintain a writing schedule or routine? Do you have a quota or schedule? Or are you guided by inspiration and spontaneity?

GL: I do write everyday, specially in the late evening but not always poetry. I have been on the panel of some journals for book review! Sometimes I do translation work or pen articles on travel or any other issues. Remember, I have to switch on or off to two different languages as and when some commitments are there! Right now, I am focussed in writing poetry on a regular basis but not always for publishing! Inspiration and spontaneity are there and trigger to write better at times!

DV: I see. You’re very assiduous! What about your work as an earth scientist? Does that entail much writing as well?

GL: Yes, I had been busy with my professional work for the last 35 years but I have never taken a break from Literary writing! I have recently retired from service and do consultancy work if asked to! I have written sixteen technical papers which have been published globally! I have also written popular scientific articles as well!

DV: You must have some Earth Science poems. Am I right? Can you show us one or two?

GL: I have written a very few poems on Earth Science and that too long back! One poem was titled ‘Lapis Lazuli’ but I have lost it! I can’t recollect much. I’m posting a few Haikus written a while back!

tribal history 
engraved 
in batholith 

continents
drift apart 
wrench tectonics 

soft sediments 
piling up
for million years 

mother earth 
bleeding 
molten lavas

orogeny 
waltz now and then
mystic mountains 

west winds sweep across 
tears on your granitic face
sky filling with chimes

soaking 
in the green
basalt country 

DV: Wonderful! I never thought I’d read poems with batholiths and orogeny as their topics! (Although Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus wrote endless poetry about botany. And it was well-received by the public!)

GL: Glad you liked it! I am humbled!

DV: This seems like an opportune time to close our conversation. Thank you for your time and patience.

GL: Thanks for listening to me!

2 comments :

  1. Loved going through the detailed interview. Kudos to both Gopal Lahiri and Duane Vorhees. Thanks to Setu Team for bringing it to is.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, It was a riveting experience! Glad that you enjoyed it!

    ReplyDelete

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