Interview: Poet Anu Mahadev - Author of Neem Leaves

Anu Mahadev
[Interviewed by Lopamudra Banerjee]

“Are you a creature borne out of fire, earth or water?
I flicker like an ephemeral blunder this night.
We are found, sculpted, immaculate, seared in moonlight
In an act of final surrender, Anu, this night.”

In a poetry collection that starts with a lunar poem, ‘This night (A ghazal)’, such intense, elemental lines of yearning fabricated by the thoughts and emotions of an Indian diaspora poet is bound to not only inspire, but also to bewitch with her poetic prowess.

In her richly evocative collection of poetry, her second poetry anthology titled Neem Leaves (AuthorHouse, January 13, 2015), US-based Indian origin author Anu Mahadev weaves a searing emotional tapestry that ceases to be merely musings of a lovelorn, grief-stricken soul and transforms into a treasured panorama baring open the human psyche. She attains catharsis through an inward journey into hitherto uncharted terrains and brings out some heart-rending poetic epiphanies and truths with her almost mystic, surreal usage of language and imagery. Written in the year of the tragic demise of her mother-in-law, Neem Leaves is a dedication to her overpowering memories, her eulogies to people and places that have been central to her emotions and her existence. In an in-depth interview, the author/poet shares her journey with the poems of this collection and her inspiration behind writing the book, among other things.

Lopamudra Bannerjee
Lopa Banerjee: Hello Anu, Neem Leaves is your second book so far. In your first collection of poems, ‘Myriad’ (AuthorHouse, January 18, 2013), the blurb says: “First time poet Anu Mahadev brings you Myriad - a wonderful collection of poems that paints a vivid and brilliant picture of life. Her poems soulfully bring out the contrast in the beauty and ugliness of the world around us and transport the reader through a roller coaster ride of emotions.” How would you say you have evolved as a poet in your second book where again you deal with the same elemental human emotions which are seemingly as raw and visceral as the ones portrayed in your first book of poems?  

Anu Mahadev: Hello Lopa, and thank you very much for this interview.

In all honesty, Myriad (2013) came about purely out of desperation, after decades of incubation. Post-childbirth, and the loss of identity that followed, combined with a diagnosis of severe clinical depression led me to turning my childhood passion into reality. We all go through certain experiences that define us as people and Myriad was the result of all those buried stories that came to life in this very unplanned venture. There was no intention of a book, until a close friend suggested that I collect all my poems and publish them. When I look back, what I see is raw emotion, with no special technique, but a simple narrative that readers could connect with instantly.

Neem leaves (2015) on the other hand, was a very careful deliberation. At this point, I was an MFA student at Drew University (Madison, NJ) and was trying (not too hard) to infuse some craft into the poems I wrote. Underneath though the emotions were the same, the aim was to channel them in a more sophisticated manner. Halfway through the project, a personal tragedy struck. Sometimes you never realize what a person means to you until they’re gone. Cliché, I know but looking at disease and death in such close quarters left me utterly helpless, and with no other way to express myself, I started writing, more as a catharsis, without a second thought as to how they would turn out, or how they would be perceived. I’ve always loved beautiful words, and vivid descriptions of places, people, scenes and so I combined the two to create the imagery prevalent through the book. I probably paid more attention to detail and punctuation, line breaks and the general tone of the poems, but quite honestly, they wrote themselves.

LB:  Do share with us a few words about how the poems of Neem Leaves took shape in your mind. In the title poem, the central image of the neem leaves, to my understanding, becomes an abiding metaphor of the memories you hold close to you “like folded laundry, warm skeins of silk.” Did you weave the rest of the poems in the collection keeping in mind the riveting call of your memories which might have torn you apart?

AM: Around the time I was writing this book, I was also reading a lot of poetry, and was struck by the extensive use of metaphors in some of them. I’d probably not been consciously aware of them until that point, but I began appreciating them even more, and was able to constantly draw parallels between a particular situation and a magical world that existed only in my imagination. I know that it would perhaps benefit me to write everyday but honestly some days I come up empty, and some days I am greatly inspired by a thought, a word, an image or an event. I believe that is how the book evolved – there was no way of knowing what the journey was going to be like, but I let it take me wherever it was going. The progress of a disease from its inception till the end, brought a lot of pain in undiscovered places and the knowledge that these were her last few months made me urgently want to capture the turbulence inside me, as well as what I saw pass between mother and son, wife and husband as a third-party observer. Suddenly here is a person, and then suddenly there is a void. Snatched too soon, her absence made my world cold, very cold. The only solace was my pen – because time was certainly not a friend at that point.

LB:  Apart from many poems in Neem Leaves which speak directly to humane dreams, passions, churning from an unswerving bottomless pit of pain, some of the poems, I felt, stem from a hidden core where an imagined yearning bubbles up, scalding the poet in you till its crescendo. For example, in the poems ‘Nishka, my unborn daughter’, ‘The dancing girl of Mohenjo-daro’, ‘Traffic Monsoon’, you blend the surreal and the imagined reality so seamlessly and effortlessly that they become fragments of your palpable urban persona. Would you say there is magic realism in these poems, and if so, what inspired you?

AM: I am generally a dreamer (which poet isn’t) and I find my thoughts wandering to impossible, imaginary scenarios in the midst of a humdrum routine life. There is beauty everywhere, depends on how you look at it. The very definition of beauty differs from person to person. Things which are obviously beautiful, that is, generally considered as such by the world, need no introspection. On the other hand, I believe that it is the ordinary, the commonplace, the things that are often ignored and overlooked, the people who are forgotten are the ones that make up for a beautiful world. That is how I view it. Often I find myself associating a place to a memory, either something that has happened there, or something that reminded me of someone or something else, or just simply the way I feel about something. I find it fascinating to meld these together and make these associations that aren’t readily obvious. Yes, a lot of these do stem from my own ideas and experiences, but I find myself projecting these onto other people in a way that makes them sit up and say “Aha!” because it was something that wasn’t visible to them before. I try to make these connections because that is what ultimately binds us together – the underlying emotions behind every action, every word, every event. Urban landscapes attract my attention as much as the rural, but being a city girl, born and bred, I have learned to find beauty everywhere, even in an unfinished skyscraper.

LB:  Also, some very important poems of Neem Leaves are inspired by your poetic vision of places crucial to your personal journey. For example, ‘Saturday Afternoon, Old City, Ahmedabad’, ‘Stanley Park, Vancouver BC’, ‘Yellowstone’ and some other poems, you depict some fragmented scenes and images central to the places and turn them into your own emotional landscape. Again, in ‘Peshawar’, the ruins of a city and its people devastated by outrages of terror forms the emotional nucleus of your poetry. How would you describe the feelings and the process behind writing these poems?

AM: I have always been a sincere student of geography, and this has fueled my interest in various places, people, cultures – in other words, I am a constant traveler. This doesn’t mean I am on an airplane constantly, rather I let my mind wander without any physical boundaries restraining me, example – “I dream of Bariloche”. The poems and places you mention above, however, are places I have either lived in or traveled to, and while at the time they did not seem significant, I found myself discovering nuggets of emotions and information upon random ruminations. The words pretty much wrote themselves, but I remained very much grounded, not letting the abstractions cloud the concrete descriptions of these places as I tried to bring them to life. I am not of the belief that one has to dig very deep and write flowery stuff to call it poetry, most of the times, it is right there, staring at you in the face, unaware of its own impact. I also like to write in layers – there is always a hidden emotional map, a motive behind describing a place, although it is not evident to me when I’m writing it. It comes forth by the time I am done with my work, and I am glad to say that it evokes the same feeling in the reader as it does in me.

LB:  In some poems like ‘Indian Summer’, Kurinji’, ‘Moonstone Sunrise’, there are these very raw, visceral earthen images with a strong synesthetic effect. In ‘Kurinji’, you write about the flowers “Stitched across these rust-red valleys/streak the earthy soil, will the rain, and spring to be patient.” Would you say you are inspired more by the Indian, ethnic sensibilities in your lyrical representations or you are more of an erudite cosmopolitan poet blending some of your Indian experiences into a largely diasporic milieu?

AM: I was born in India, and I will always identify with the sensibilities of anything Indian, even if I have lived abroad longer than I have in India. As American as I may be in many of my liberal values, there is a tug towards the country of my birth and something very comforting and something very familiar, since I spent most of my growing, impressionable years there. But at the same time, I realize I belong everywhere and nowhere all at once. Even within India, I did not reside in my native state, and so the displacement is something that is not novel to me. I don’t start writing with an agenda – that this poem will be about something Indian, and this will be about something else. Poetry in my mind, is immune to languages, cultures and boundaries of any kind. All these identities swirl in a kaleidoscope in my mind, and that is what emerges when I put pen to paper.

LB: In Neem Leaves, there are also some very intensely emotional personal poems including ‘Mother’, where you write: “My birthmarks containing your cells, weep, shed you today.” In ‘Ice’, when you write these lines: “They take her away. Her last journey. I melt. Someone wipes out the last traces of me. Mixed in with her”….the stark portrayal of pain resonated with me not only as I remembered my own experiences of witnessing the death of my loved ones, but also as I felt a sisterhood in the ink dipped in your own oozing blood from which the poems originated. Would you say this poetic depiction of pain comes from a deeper elemental understanding of human life and the connections forged on the way?

AM: Certainly. As we grow older, the magnitude of the hurt/pain we feel only gets larger, but the beautiful thing is so does our heart’s ability to withstand these tribulations. Until this untimely death of someone so close to me, I never imagined I would feel what I felt, or that I would express myself so eloquently. I strongly believe in the human connection – the way our lives are joined together in this intricate web. Everyone’s time here is limited, and ultimately what we leave behind are these bonds that strengthen over time. I am, by nature a hermit and do not go around making connections aggressively, so it takes me a while to open my heart out to new people, but when I do, I do not take them lightly. Such was the case with my mother-in-law. She became a part of my life so seamlessly, that her departure left behind a big void, one that can never be filled. I am certainly more grateful for the family and friends that I have, and in general have become more willing to forge new relationships.

LB: In an NPR conversation with Arun Rath, Jane Hirschfield, one of the most celebrated poets of the US and a Guggenheim fellow had remarked that “some poems have a way of, sometimes literally, looking out a window.” Those poems, she meant, look into a small microcosm by portraying a scene, but in the immediacy of the experience, the field of the poem becomes larger. I had this exact feeling while reading some poems, including ‘Coral Necklace’, ‘Housewife’, poems with their striking portrayal of womanhood, where the personal becomes universal. In ‘Housewife’, you write, “And sometimes/she hears the shadows speak in stolen moments, when her voice isn’t muffled, her existence taken for granted.” What would you say about this observation of mine, in context with these poems?  

AM: As we live, we realize that when it comes down to it, humans are the same everywhere and need the same things. But societies and other factors demarcate them into various categories, and not everyone gets the same nature/nurture equation. The poems you mentioned above – my subjects are usually the people I know, but when I look at life through their lens, it becomes clear that these are not the experiences of one person alone. I often try writing from the view of an inanimate object such as a couch or a postcard, but that turns out to be a window into someone’s life as well, which then translates into a larger audience. I do tend to dwell upon women and their insecurities, the challenges they face and their struggle to balance so much in life. And I am sure that is something many in the world can relate to.

LB: In your poem ‘Adi paints a Peter Max’, again, you again depict an endearing moment of your son immersed in his idyllic world of scribbling, coloring, ‘scattered clouds’ and “makeshift desk, cutting, shaping, gluing”, which you portray almost with a philosopher’s edgy, explicit analysis. Are these two binary worlds, on one hand the painful solitude in your poems, on the other hand the world of tranquil love and beauty consciously blended in the collection, or did you just go with the flow of the moment as you wove each poem around the elemental feeling nurtured within you?

AM: This is one of my favorites. My son is into art and art history and one day he came home with a painting modeled around the style of Peter Max. The colors were so vivid, and his enthusiasm so infectious, I couldn’t help but write about it. I think most of us will agree that children and their innocence take us sometimes off guard and make us reflect upon life in general. In a way, that makes us all philosophers as we grow older and catalog our own life experiences. Personally, I have concluded that I find that kind of unbridled joy in very few things, and my child’s admiration for art is one of them. Most everything else is peppered with the wisdom of a lesson behind it. I guess I find that pain is not the only factor that kindles my writing – I am also an unabashed romantic and want to believe in the goodness of things and people, even if that good is hard to observe at first. Very rarely does a situation present itself when the good is almost a 100% present, and that kind of joy makes me rush to the writing desk as well.

LB: I would now like you ask you about your poetic journey following ‘Neem Leaves’. What are you working on currently, and how do you see yourself as an Indian diaspora poet in today’s global scenario of literary publishing? Any particular insights that the readers can carry home?

AM: Post ‘Neem Leaves’, I had a few readings here and there, and began working on my third manuscript, which is centered more towards womanhood, and celebrating what it means to be bad, brazen without any compunction or regret. It is quite different and aggressive from the first two books, and most of it was written while I was in Kerala, God’s own country. It happened to be the monsoon season at the time, so a lot is woven around that as well. I’m sending out poems to journals and anthologies and I hope this manuscript will be published soon. Other than that, I am co-editor of two online journals, the Woman Inc. which focuses on women and their issues, and Jaggery Lit, which is a South Asian online magazine for the Indian diaspora. I have also been recently appointed as board member for the Quills Edge Press based out of New Jersey – this press is all about works from women of age 50 and above. As far as how I view myself, I am of the firm belief that one should be true to oneself and the rest will follow. There is no readymade place for anyone in this literary world, and no one wants to be slotted in a particular category because everyone believes that their voice is unique. In order to do that, I am of the opinion that one should be faithful in their writing. Nothing should be doctored because a fake voice can be spotted from a mile away. Just my 2 cents for readers.

LB: The famous veteran poet and Beat publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti has famously written about the poet’s world: “The poet, like an acrobat, climbs on rime to a high wire of his own making.” Would you say this coinage is true about your poems in Neem Leaves and your other upcoming collections of poetry? And what about your contemporary poets who are making their foray into poetry publishing, how do you perceive their poetry in the light of these lines?

AM: I think it is safe to say that anyone who wants to create something understands that somewhere along the creative process, he or she has to take a risk and that might either pay off or not work at all. Creating something out of nothing isn’t easy, especially when a poet wants to infuse the language with something fresh and new. The poem may be about a lampshade or a field of tulips, but either way, trying to write something that hasn’t been done before several times is a challenge, one that may succeed or fail with the reader. I basically took the leap knowing fully well that not everything will resonate with everyone. But at the end of the day you hope that the reader takes something out of it, something that only he or she may feel, since art is subjective and there is no one correct interpretation. A poem will mean different things to different people, based on how they view it. I think nowadays many poets are experimenting with new forms and new subject matter with the full belief that it will appeal to someone if not everyone. But I think ultimately you have to create for yourself, because you have something to share, something to express – come what may. What happens to it at the end of it, is not in your hands.

Anu Mahadev is a left-brained engineer turned right-brained poet, based in the Greater New York region. She is a 2016 graduate of the MFA in Poetry program from Drew University. She is part time editor for the Woman Inc. online and Jaggery Lit online, and in addition is a board member for Quills Edge Press, based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in several journals and anthologies.

Lopamudra Banerjee is an author/poet/translator based in Dallas, Texas, USA. She is the author of ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’ (Authorspress, 2016), a Journey Awards 2014 recipient (hosted by Chanticleer Reviews and Media) and also received Honorable Mention at the Los Angeles Book Festival 2017. Her works have appeared in various journals, e-zines and anthologies and she has also received the International Reuel Prize (translation) instituted by The Significant League, the literary group in Facebook for ‘The Broken Home’, her English translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s magnum opus novella ‘Nastanirh’.

1 comment :

  1. Wonderful read! Honest evocative answers by Anu to soul stirring questions posed by Lopa.


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