Interview: For the Passion and Love of Poetry

A tête-à-tête with Shyam Sunder Sharma - Rashmi Malapur 

Lt. Col. Sharma
“Good poetry will always have a niche crowd; it is for good poets to keep them interested.”

1. What stirs you about poetry?

“If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger.” Muriel Rukeyser
Poetry for me is fuel for soul and mind. Some poems stimulate our mind, in that too as you are aware, a poem could tickle us or prick our sensibility- these are like scratching the surface, a few poems infiltrate deeper into our sub-conscious mind, these stay and linger. There is an odd poem that invades the unconscious mind and becomes a part of us. Meanwhile, there are poems that speak to our souls. In fact, every good poem should speak, even when one reads, we read aloud and a poem must talk or whisper. I love poems that whisper and I love poems that use pregnant silence between words, I love poems that convey much without saying much. I do believe less is more in poetry, so a single word or image or metaphor can pack in an entire story, which I feel is the beauty of poetry.

Rashmi Malapur
2. How has poetry changed you as a person considering the fact that you served the Army and have been more on the strategic and aggressive side / profession???

Well, I was always writing poems ever since childhood. Yes, I rarely ever shared them till very late, my childhood did not have social media, an odd one got published here and there. They were mostly silly, but as my personality evolved and also eroded, poetry has been around, often dormant for years, sometimes spluttering to get out. I survived twenty two years in the Army and the Army survived me. I chose not to reveal my poetic instinct during my Army days, except writing an epitaph for a War Memorial in North East once. My writing if any during Army days was limited to short witty stories. About strategizing and how poetry goes with it, even poets strategize and there are tactics involved; a poem is often meant to shock or if I may say lead a reader into an ambush. A poem is capable of maneuvers and outmaneuvers, it can attack or defend a viewpoint, a clever poem can have ruses and deception, you say something and mean something totally different. Strategy, I feel can be a poetic device and vice versa. Aggressive side? Well, it is the other way round, having witnessed so much of violence, most soldiers crave for peace. Soldiers are not warmongers; it is just unpleasant business that must be done. There are hidden poets; I feel it keeps them human, while we may kill the enemy without remorse; the human aspect for limiting collateral damage is always at the back of their mind. Else we would be depraved mercenaries.

3. Your poems traverse beyond the obvious, are subtle and highly introspective. You use nature (symbol) to reflect about the world within you and your feelings. Does this come almost naturally in a spur of the moment?

Your question partly answers itself. Yes, as I said earlier, I love subtlety in poems and even otherwise. Introspective, yes, quite a lot of it is soul searching or expressing my inner self but I avoid complex words. I keep it simple on surface and I leave it to the readers to fathom, to fish or just get their feet wet. Speaking figuratively or in metaphor especially with images of nature, I do enjoy that. Everything that is to be said has already been said a million times before, what’s new? Can I say something differently? This is important, otherwise we are only repeating or imitating.

4. I have a feeling you are in search of peace, almost always and see nature as the source of energy and peace. Correct me if I am wrong.

Everyone must search for peace, even create peace. Everyone hurts, peace is the order of the day; sadly it is not on the menu. Nature is kind and nourishing, we need to preserve, to respect, to conserve. There is no true peace for the soul though, that would be Moksh, I think my poem answers this better

5.  Tell us about your experience in the Army?

It was an interesting, educative part of my life, twenty two plus years, most of my youth, from a brash one to a mellowed middle aged man. Army did teach me a lot. I learnt how to command men in adversity and to lead them in combat. I was an Infantry officer, so my core expertise was managing and leading people. It taught me that human survival instincts go beyond our limits of physical and mental endurance. It taught me the value of life, while I killed a few terrorists, I could not bear the loss of even one of my own soldiers. Army taught me fidelity, esprit de corps and it taught me how to focus on the mission at hand. I travelled a lot all over India, served in border areas, even did a UN Military peacekeeping mission in Somalia when it was at its worst. It is something to cherish and be proud of. I am among the lucky few who have seen real action and come out as a winner, was decorated with Shaurya Chakra by the President and also awarded a Wound medal for getting shot in the same encounter. It is tough to sum up my experiences, it would take a book or two to write. "There is a wisdom of the head, and... a wisdom of the heart." Charles Dickens. I came out wiser in both respects is all I can say.

6. Could you reflect on why you chose the pen name (for Facebook) as 'Driftwood Ashore'. What does it signify? Has the below poem something to do with your name 'Driftwood Ashore'?
Mostly, driftwood has no roots, 
kind of obvious,
it has to be uprooted first
to turn into driftwood.

Mostly, driftwood tells nothing of its origins,
detached like an umbilical
that has served its purpose.
Yet, never oblivious of its origins.

Mostly, driftwood is just 
a torso devoid of a head or tail,
it tells no tales,
all its secrets 
it carries in its pulp within.

Sometimes driftwood is just roots,
beheaded, limbless,
just roots uprooted,
a mute testimony of 
once upon a time
life source.

Now, root or shoot
Driftwood is uprooted wood,
a storybook of displaced origins,
sojourns and voyages,
finally ashore

maybe a home for birds,
waiting to decompose 
into nothing.

I wanted a kind of anonymity on social media; it sounds self contradictory does it? Before Facebook , there was Scribd, a social media platform for writers, I used it actively and shared my works there as Shyam adrift. Driftwood is a favorite image, seen plenty, every driftwood carries stories. The name Driftwood Ashore comes from an older poem. This poem, the one you mentioned is recent and is off a prompt (on social media) on Roots, Driftwood is wood bereft of roots. Ha! Ha!

7. How did you get attracted to poetry and when did you discover the treasure of poetry?

Difficult to put a timeline, I guess I started writing at the age of 11, when I joined a hostel for schooling. I never shared my poems then. I got into reading poetry later and was surprised to discover that many write what I wished or tried to write, and many write it much better than I do. I ditched Science after school and took English literature for graduation. Until then I had been a below average student. English literature woke me up. When I read Eliot, in my final year of college, I tore up all my poems and made a bonfire, I felt my writing was nowhere. Though I was the editor of the college magazine and started sharing a few of my poems, poetry was a private exercise and I was my worst critic and harsh to my own self.

There is so much more to discover. I did join the Army but never left literature, soon after joining the Army, I enrolled myself for Masters in literature through distance learning but had to ditch it as the life of a young officer is hectic. I never gave up the dream and did my Masters in literature in 2007-08, as a private student while serving in the Army without even taking any study leave.

8. Do you think people are moving away from the art of writing poetry, and poetry lovers are diminishing in numbers or they live in a closed community? If yes, why?

People were always moving away from poetry, it is poetry that has to keep going to people. As poets, we have to take poetry to people. Poetry is more or less a pure art; it is not really a commercial exercise and is not likely to earn money. If people write for money, they should choose other genres. As the world moves faster, Twitter is fading and Snapchat is in, poetry needs to keep abreast and it is not an easy task because, a lot is happening. About numbers, well, personally I believe in quality, good poetry will always have a niche crowd; it is for good poets to keep them interested. It is not an exclusive club, we need to attract more people but not over the cost of quality.

9. Please share with us your experience at Fermoy Poetry Festival at Ireland?

This would take too much space. To sum up, great fun and extremely educative. I skipped the workshops though, I learnt more while watching brilliant poets perform and exchanging informal notes. The Irish are warm hearted folks. I made some good friends. It was a wonderful opportunity to read before audience in all kinds of settings from a bar, to a bank, to a barbershop.

10. What are your future plans in the field of poetry?

I intend to compile and publish. I have been mostly repeatedly writing and revising. I run a vibrant group, Poets, Artists Unplugged with likeminded friends; we promote poetry, art and even encourage poets and artists to collaborate. We encourage meeting of languages and did a book with English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu poetry, all illustrated with art and photographs; rather tough feat. It did not sell much but there was immense creative satisfaction. To be meaningful, poetry and art must give back to society and attempt to change mindsets towards universal humanity at large. To this end, we did an anthology ‘Colours of Refuge’ that was dedicated to the cause of refugees. We collected Rs One Lac from sales and donated it to UNHCR. I also believe we must encourage young writers to publish along with seasoned ones. Our next venture is an anthology themed on Reinventing Myths, an interesting and challenging subject.

11. Can you share something about your personal life, family and friends? Do they inspire you while you pen poems?

Personal life would take an autobiography and they are so boring. One genre, I never read or plan to write. Yes, I pick snippets from life, from my daughters to my two dogs, to my maid who had a funny name Basanti; they are often my subjects. The serious ones I reserve for my ageing father or departed mother. Birds to trees, my boss in my current corporate job or the Yamuna I cross daily, the list of subjects is endless.

12. Many people write poems/ stories but, hesitate to publish them. What would you advise them?

I would say, do reach out, if not solo, then share your works on social media first, attempt to get honest feedback; a lot of it is mutual admiration club but, avoid that. Submit to good anthologies, journals; online and in print. Take rejections in your stride. Read more than you write, this is how you grow. As you learn the ropes, publish. Do not expect to earn much, but yes aspire to be noticed.

After these excellent and apt suggestions we wind up with one of his beautiful poems:

he unfold the undulating map,
spots the spot, he seeks,
there it is,
just out of reach.

Beyond the mounds and their bounds,
across the lines that crisscross,
there it is,
the spot called detachment.

He bleeds that spot on the map.
Hush, hush,
He tells his pulse;
come this far
on impulse.

Allowing the blood to clot,
he holds his palm upwards,
offering it to be ploughed
by the big dipper, and then,
letting the Sapt Rishi
re-align his bearings.

Hush, hush,
he reminds his pulse,
come this far on impulse.

Moksha must be
somewhere across,
after we cross this horizon
of detachment!
- Shyam
Lieutenant Colonel Shyam Sunder Sharma, Shaurya Chakra ( Retired), interviewed by Rashmi Malapur