Interview of Vinita Agrawal by Nalini Priyadarshni

Nalini Priyadarshni
Nalini- Thank you so much Vinita for taking time to answer questions that I always wanted to ask you ever since I started reading your poems. Please tell us something about your early years. How did you become interested in Poetry?

Vinita- I lived and studied in many places as a child. I was born in Bikaner and raised in Gujarat for the first nine years of my life. After that we moved to Kolkata and I studied in St. Joseph's Convent in Kalimpong as a boarder. Later I returned to Kolkata and studied there till my twelfth. So you could hear me chatter in English, Hindi, Nepali and Bengali with equal ease in those days.

My interest in poetry started when I was really young. I wrote my first poem when I was five. It was about my doll. It was in English. I wrote constantly during my growing up years and had a pile of secret diaries.

Nalini- No wonder all those languages picked up and places you stayed in infused your poetry with a vitality that is unique. Your poems are marked with most fascinating use of language, unusual images and delicate feelings. In the practice of writing, of poem-making – can you say something about your relationship with poesies, language and imagination?

Vinita -Well, thank you! What sets a poem apart from another poem is not its subject or content. You'll notice that most poems are about similar topics. But what makes a piece stand out is the manner in which the content is conveyed. I try my best to engage with my readers using gentle language and vivid imagery. My love for words gives me newer ways to express myself. I enjoy using varied expressions. Imagination must marry the language in which it sprouts in order to be articulated well. I guess these things come naturally to a poet.

Vinita Agrawal
Ripe Red Fig

The wounds took me there
...into a red landscape of seeds
millet-white at the mouth
like the inside of a ripe fig
torn into half at its meridian.

Asymptote - why would anybody invent a word like that?
Was he staring at railway tracks?
Or at the sky ripped apart from the earth?
Or at the borders between hearts...yours and mine?

I finally got rid of the mole on my neck.
You'd held it in your eyes for so long
that it clung to me like a legacy you'd left behind.
Cryotherapy took care of it. Liquid nitrogen has its uses.

Beautiful roses in the garden today.
Mild sunlight, mild breeze, mild pink roses.
If I could, I'd pack all this into a card
and send it to you like a farewell gift.

And I know you'd stow it in that box of yours
where life gleams in moments and dies in years, where silence grows like a crack
and expands to a line between your lips and mine - asymptote.
Where soft tissues crumble to oat-like flakes beneath cardboard lids.

But of course I can't pack away a garden.
Like I can't pack away a beginning that didn't really begin
Like I can't pack away the sight of a ripe fig
gaping open like a fresh red wound, lying askance in spaces between us.

Nalini- Despite being multilingual, you chose to write in English. Many of us do that for whatever reason. However, to you personally, what does it mean to be an Indian writer in English? Is there a certain expectation or responsibility attached to it?

Vinita -Though many Indians write in English as opposed to their mother tongues, they represent a distinct, unified cultural ethos before the world. This ethos is essentially Indian. It exhibits Indian values, Indian sensibilities and Indian perceptions.

Look at Kamala Das's famous introduction poem for example:

I don't know politics but I know the names
Of those in power, and can repeat them like
Days of week, or names of months, beginning with Nehru.
I am Indian, very brown, born inMalabar,
I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
Don't write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don't
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions, it
Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is
Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and
Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech
Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of rain or the
Incoherent mutterings of the blazing
Funeral pyre.

I guess she speaks for many of us when she defends her right to write in English. She certainly speaks for me! The challenge, I guess, is to write poetry at par with international quality, un compromised by your use of language and yet allow your work to reflect where you belong.

Nalini -I think the extract from your poem The Way A Photo Speaks, is an excellent example of what you just said. It has such universal appeal that no matter what part of the world the readers belongs to they get the pathos these lines evoke.

I don't know why I have the picture on my wall
Don't know the woman's name
But I know she has sons out there
in the military junta
Every night she lights butter lamps for their return
begs the earth to yield not beans and asparagus
but peace, peace, peace.

Nalini -Though road to success for women writers anywhere in the world is not easy, we can’t deny that Indian writers often find themselves confronted with social and cultural challenges that are unique to Indian Subcontinent. Under the circumstances, how important is being an Indian woman in your own writings? Any challenges or epiphanies you'd like to share.

Vinita -Poetry is a transparent thread that connects me to my experiences. My poems represent my perceptions of life. They trace experiences of loss and grief, pride and joy, betrayal and pain, living and dying from a universal perspective. Over the years and it's many bitter sweet experiences, I have discovered that pain though acute has a penumbra of numbness attached to it and sooner or later, we veer towards this numbness. My poetry defines this invisible fine shift towards a state of stillness. Endurance, in any form, is at the core of my writing. My work engages with the spirituality lying dormant within us. My poems go to many places as they probe the delicate balance between the surface of worldly materialism and deep down humaneness. I derive all these perspectives from being Indian, from the way my parents brought me up and from the society in which I live.

In this context, I'd like to share one of my poems written in October 2014, here:

Immersing The Deity of Language

Could you listen to your language like an outsider?
As if it were not your own...
Filter sounds from words
like fragrance from soil
like aura from face?

Sense illumination from beneath closed eyelids.
Watch lips tamp out words in a dialect you follow
yet not understand a word of what was being said.

Could you...          not comprehend
the words your mother blew into your baby ears like kisses
and allow only silence to bob in your larynx instead,
a silence golden with the harvest of meanings.

If you could, you'd read to perfection
the hunger in your lover's eyes beyond the gibberish of speech
the padded seductive language of fingertips drumming between hard phalanges
the unscarred territory of silence not broken even by a sigh

You'd know the bliss
of forgetting the way your tongue curls around your nationality.
The bliss of bringing on the Great Deluge of quietude
- uniting people with their minds.

The bliss of immersing the deity of language
into a pond of blankness and floating ashore with its soul.

Nalini -Here I would like to share an excerpt from one of my favorite poems from you, Girl to Woman.  It speaks to me as eloquently as it does to women world over. 

girl to woman
is a knock on hell's door
all things tender dissipating

the world's harshness
listening to your growing up
like the inner meat of a still tree

listening to leaves sprouting
like a caustic ,cruel wind
listening to soft buds blooming

preparing to wilt crush uproot.

And from the poem Breaking :
My scars run deep between faith and God
Right now, I don't even know how to love myself
I opiate between me and my distances
If you can, do only this for me;
Absolve me of being born a woman.

Nalini- Now a little about your creative process, how does a poem begin for you- with an idea, an image or a form? Let’s just say, what triggers a poem?

Vinita- With a word!

Ok...jokes apart, there's no set pattern to how a poem begins for me. There are many triggers. Sometimes it's an idea or an emotion, sometimes it's a phrase, other times it's inspired from something that I've read. Each poem is born differently.

Nalini -I am constantly amazed by the superlative poems you share on facebook. They are a source of delight as well as inspiration. One thing that I always want to ask all prolific writers and poets, is, do you get writer’s block or poetry drought? If you then, how do you deal with that?

Vinita -Yes. Very often. Sometimes I burn myself out by writing too much. Sometimes I feel drained of literary energy...nothing inspires me to write. Whenever I feel such a block, I just stop writing and wait for myself to back into gear again. Also, I've discovered that when you're unable to write then just sit back and read the works of your favorite poets. Sooner or later epiphany will strike and you'll be picking up your pen again.

Nalini- What’s your writing process like – an organic discovery or a methodical construction?

Vinita- To be honest, I've tried my hand at both. But only because I was curious about the end result from each approach. I have immense faith in the power of spontaneous poetry - in words that come straight from the heart. Of course every poem needs to be edited and revised but even so, spontaneous poetry is a joy to read and write.

The second approach, i.e. methodical construction is more relevant when writing structured poetry like a villanelle or a sonnet or a ghazal. It has tremendous power of form. That too is immensely enjoyable.

Out of the two, I personally prefer the organic approach. You just don't know how the poem is going to turn out. When it's finished, sometimes the end result surprises even yourself!

Nalini -I know writers who type out their poems as a facebook status and post it. And then there are others like me who keep chiseling for days sometime. How much time do you spend in revising or polishing?

Vinita -Well, I look at the end result closely for grammatical or tense mistakes, spelling errors etc. I believe in revising and polishing. My experience tells me that a good poem, after it is composed, is finally the result of the nitty-gritty revisions that occur at the last moment just before submission.

Nalini -Talking of facebook, facebook poetry groups are ubiquitous. I keep removing myself but still I must be in a million groups. Though I must admit they are great places to read, share ones poetry and interact with other creative minds. Poetry group, The Woman Inc Poetry that you run is one of my favorite for the powerful poetry it shares. How do you think internet and social media contribute towards well-being of the poetry?

Vinita -You know I've been asked this question a lot. I think that the internet and social media like Facebook and Twitter have played a strange role vis-a-vis poetry. On the one hand they have made almost everyone a poet because it's so easy to reach an audience using social media and on the other hand it has trapped us in mediocrity because with superficial Likes. Sometimes even an average poem gains the credibility it does not deserve. So, one needs to be watchful of the social media and not get carried away by its accolades. But used wisely, the social media is a viable platform to promote one's work. The important thing is to stay grounded at all times.

Nalini -And now a question that all those who write poetry ask themselves at some point of time- What does it mean to be a poet?

Vinita -I've never been asked that before! Thank you for asking. To be a poet means to express yourself through words. It means that you can actually indulge in self expression. I often tell myself that if it weren't for my poetry I'd feel terribly stifled at every stage of my life. Being a poet gives me the freedom to live creatively, it hones my perceptions and it gives me license to dream. I truly enjoy being a poet and consider it a luxury because unfortunately it's next to impossible to be able to make a living through poetry.

Nalini -What is your advice to budding writers?

Vinita -Keep writing. Don't be daunted by rejections. Write in your own voice. Your uniqueness will move your poetry forward.