Metamorphosizing Problems into Potential through Poetry

Jhilmil Breckenridge in Conversation with Shelly Bhoil

Jhilmil Breckenridge
About Jhilmil Breckenridge

Jhilmil Breckenridge, poet, editor, research scholar, and activist, lives in India and UK. Founder of Bhor Foundation, a mental health charity, she works in the area of mental health, domestic violence, and trauma. Jhilmil is currently working on a PhD in the UK. Reclamation Song, shortlisted for RL Poetry Award 2017, is her debut collection. 

Shelly Bhoil (SB) - When and what was the trigger that prompted you on the journey of writing, editing, translating, MFA degree and more? 

Jhilmil Breckenridge (JB) - I think in my case, there was always a latent writer within. I remember being age 10, writing my first poem about my grandmother. I used to read Enid Blyton and Ruskin Bond and my poem probably was inspired by the writings of those two early influences. My grandmother kept that poem with her for years and gave it to me in my mid 20s when I was firmly in the midst of a consulting career and had no time for poetry! After twenty years of consulting, training, a marriage, four children, life suddenly threw me off kilter. My marriage ended disastrously, my children were kidnapped and taken to the US by my ex-husband, and I was suddenly living in poverty, often on the streets, sometimes in an urban ghetto in New Delhi. It was an attempt to rebuild my life, reclaim myself if you will, that I embarked on an MA in Creative Writing at the age of 47. And life changed forever.

Editing work — I got into editing while I was living in poverty as a means to fill my belly and those of my three huge dogs. Because at the age of 44, as I found myself jobless, childless, money-less, it is difficult to suddenly get a job — especially if you have always done your own thing, your CV is not very appealing to employers — you are considered overqualified, entrepreneurial, and not good employee material. So I started teaching yoga, baking cakes and food commercially, and through some kind friends, got some freelance editing work to edit school textbooks. 

Translating came later as I discovered the joy of poetry and threw myself into various websites and communities where I was engaging with world poets — one day a British poet reached out to me to translate a poem into Urdu and I said yes. This can-do attitude has got me many assignments and jobs because either I am foolish or fearless, but whether or not I have done it before, I just say ‘yes’!

Shelly Bhoil
SBI was heart-broken when I read the opening poem from your book – Tress have empty arms/like lamenting mothers/weeping for lost sons. Your sons must be proud of you today! As a mother and fellow woman, I am invested in your story. We tend to lose our financial independence to raise our kids and support the career of our spouse unaware of the vacuum that awaits us at uncertain curves. Jhilmil, two questions — did society, women in particular, support you in this phase of transition in your life? Would you endorse writing and editorship as a self-sustaining career; if yes, what tips would you have for aspiring writers?

JB - My sons are indeed proud; I am in touch with my elder two, and our relationship is growing, thriving, maturing, and that’s a very good thing! Of course, the first 2-3 years were very very hard. I would cry easily, considered suicide several times, tried IVF and even adoption as my entire identity, for years, had been a mother and to suddenly have that taken was very very hard, as you say. 

Indeed so pertinent, your observation that we give up our financial independence for various reasons; in my case, I used to earn more than my ex-husband when we first met. I even lent him money so many times before we married. But after we married, he wanted to control our earnings and I relinquished control without even a thought that one day the tide could turn. To answer your question, did society, women, family help me — I was completely ostracised and so, the easy answer is No. As a woman abandoned by her husband, given the tag of ‘pagal’ or crazy, no one cares if you live or die. There were days I picked up food from the streets. If I was being supported by well-meaning friends or family, this would not have been the case. For example, at this very moment, a close friend of mine is going through a similar situation, a difficult divorce; she finds herself penniless, etc. But in her case, her mother and sisters have taken her in, they are helping to pay for the legal defence and helping her rebuild. This would have been the kind thing to do in my case as well. Alas for the two years that I lived in poverty, I had no recourse to family support or societal help, although parental support came eventually and I am now reconciled with my parents. I started from scratch and forged new friendships in the ghetto; one of them is a close friend to this day, her name is Monika. Although we come from totally different social strata, friendship and love and the solidarity of shared hard times remains.

Writing for a passion is a hard choice of career; it may not be self-sustaining to begin with. For example, if I were just to write poetry, I think I would be on the streets again! But editing, for sure, can pay the bills, and a writing career can combine things like teaching, editing, working in Corporate Communications, and writing for your own passion on the side. In addition, these activities that I mention, editing, teaching, etc., continue to hone your skills as a writer so while they may not be terribly stimulating, they are all good and a step in the right direction. My biggest tip for aspiring writers is read, read, read. You cannot write if you don’t formulate a reading habit.

SB - Keki Daruwalla mentions in his illustrious introduction to your book that it has “a tranche of poems on psychiatric care.” He points out the poem ‘Staring’ for its haunting quality — Because your fingers shake when you write/ Because the words like Ritalin, Prozac, Depakote, Lithium/Have started sounding like poetry…/Because you start to say words they want to hear. Can you share some of your most intense experience with writing to overcome trauma? Also, how have those prison inmates and asylum patients responded to the therapy of poetry whom you administered during your activism in this area? 

JB - There were a few years in the middle, particularly around 2014/2015 when I was trying to rebuild my life desperately, and was tired of the labels and my past surrounding me like a cloud. Particularly in India where stigma surrounds anything to do with the mind, coupled with the labels that her husband left her, and she does not even have her children — people talk. I remember even going for a job interview to a play school and they asked me oblique questions about mental health; it was obvious they had googled me and wanted to confront me, but wanted to do it slyly. A lot of work needs to be done around changing public perceptions around mental health and of course there is the issue of many people in distress self stigmatising themselves. So I went through that for maybe 2 years, where I wanted to carve out a fresh new identity, unbesmirched.

That was not possible and a time came when I just decided to embrace it all again, particularly when I founded my charity, Bhor Foundation in 2016. In addition, I was the subject of a documentary, Come with Me, which continues to be shown around the world and I shared my story candidly in the film. I believe once your story becomes public, it sets you free in many ways.

In addition, I used to blog about my marriage through the hardest years and used to find it very cathartic. I did not understand the science around it, just that it used to make me feel better if I wrote about it. I would always find that when times were the hardest, I would get up and write about it, feeling better as I did. I now speak at several international and national venues about the nature of writing towards wellbeing and poetry as medicine. There is a lot of research around writing as a tool to recovery and wellbeing and I use this research when I pitch my work to institutions that have allowed me to work with their inmates/ service users. For example, in the UK where I am currently living, I have recently completed an intervention at a secure mental health facility — a secure mental health facility is like a cross between a prison and a psychiatric institution. The work with the service users there has been extremely powerful; we were blown away by the power of their words. And the participants claimed to be looking forward to Thursdays the most; our classes were held on Thursdays; and staff also reported that the participants kept asking all week whether the classes were definitely on — something unheard of until now. I will be now working with a group of women in prisons who hear voices and I am really looking forward to working with them.

SB - Let’s talk about your experience with the publisher and writers’ community, especially in India. 

JB - I as very wary of the publishing process and it took me some time to choose my Indian publisher, just as he must have had his own method of choosing me and whether he wanted to work with me. Red River Press is a new and vibrant poetry only press and Reclamation Song was only the sixth book they produced. For me, decision making is always instinctual and that’s how it was; a common friend, Madhu, presented me with his book, which I exclaimed over as I loved the combination of art with poetry, Madhu mentioned Dibyajyoti and set up an email intro, I think, and that was it. A coffee date at the Habitat, me nervous with a manuscript of poems, not knowing if I was a ‘real’ poet or not and whether he would see through me! Bas that’s how it all began. It took one year of back and forth and many drafts and redrafts, mostly on email, and I was delighted with his process. Dibya is an editor and publisher who can give you space and time but also gently guides and nudges you along. There were poems I had added and in his gentle way, he gently suggested removing them; in the end, the process was painless, delightful, although exhausting, mostly because I am a tough taskmaster on my own self, and I keep pushing myself to improve, edit, restring the poems into the order you read them in now.

The writer community, to me, has always been very welcoming and inclusive, so I can only say good things. However, there are politics and cliques, and I am aware of them as I gently avoid falling into them, simply because I am too busy and have really no time or space in my life for negativity or hate.

SB - Most poems in Reclamation Song are written in confessional mode, while there are some that engage with world politics. In the ‘Letter to Liam,’ you attempt to measure your immeasurable love for your son taken away from you when he was five – Dear Liam, I love you…/Like the wonder of the /sea that cannot be contained. Like the whole world magnified/ through a dewdrop. In ‘Alternate Realities,’ the reader is held by the scruff of their neck with reverse action — Junaid rolls over, shaking off grave dust/ and starts walking home to his Ammi,/ adjusting his skullcap. Tell us something about it – the whole oscillation between the private and the public in your poems, and the balance you achieve therein.

JB - An old feminist saying by Carol Hanisch is “the personal is political”. I use this in my work extensively as it rings true to this day, despite having been written in 1970 when I was 2 years old! Just this morning, a friend, Aiman, called to say how moved she was with Reclamation Song, which she is reading now. That I write from experience turns the work into art else it’s just posing. I believe there is some truth in these observations and when you write from a space of witnessing, of truth, you write with more authenticity. That is why the work of confessional poets Anne Sexton, Ellen Bass, Sylvia Plath speaks to me so much. That said, I always say, you should be able to write on demand and write on anything, should that be needed, so good creative writing should be so seamless that you can’t tell what is real and what is imagined. Reclamation Song indeed comes from a place of witnessing, of having lived the horror in the asylum, for example, in the poem you pick up, Staring, which has now been translated into French, Spanish, Italian and Hindi and been performed in plays around the world! Poetry as passion, poetry as resistance continues to engage me, and in my work as a political activist, trying to change the world, I believe I am uniquely placed as I combine my politics with my writing.

Of course there is another poetry genre, the poetry of witness, and Carolyn Forche is a master of that. The poetry of witness, which Brecht also did, is the poetry that comes from witnessing horrible crimes, for example wars, depravity and more. It is my opinion India, and indeed the whole world, needs this now, urgently, more than ever because in these times of extreme hatred, right wing divisive politics, rapes, murders and more chilling crimes that you wonder whether we are human any more, poetry has the power to make you stop in your tracks and ponder. And that is my intention with my poems like ‘Alternate Reality,’ which was converted into a video poem by The Quint. I believe in the power of poetry, of love, of change, and I hope my poems of witnessing can make a difference. And of course, that I have lived through trauma, violence, poverty, rape, and more, and still hold my head high, and continue to operate from a place of love, allows me to reflect upon my own life, that of the times we live in, and as a poet, we are able to witness and not take our gaze away. I don’t quite know how I achieve this balance, but somehow I do!

SB - That you have included your translation of Amrita Pritam’s Punjabi poem ‘Today I call you, Waris Shah’ in your debut poetry book, I reckon she is a seminal influence on your poetry. Who are your favourite authors and how might they have inspired you?

JB - Indeed, Amrita Pritam is a favourite, I was watching an old clip by her just today. Her authenticity, her voice, that I can age like her is my dream! My favourite authors and I will try and stick to poets here are, in no particular order, Faiz, Kahlil Gibran, Ellen Bass, Naomi Shihab Nye, Bertolt Brecht, George Trakl, Fatimah Asghar, Warsan Shire, Kim Moore, Pablo Neruda… the list is endless, but these are some of my influences. If you see this list, some poets are living and alive and writing now, and some are not quite as active, but mostly I am influenced by contemporary work and contemporary themes, although nature poetry also speaks to me a lot, and a name I forgot to mention when I think of nature poetry is Mary Oliver. I like the accessibility of language of most of these poets, that they don’t deliberately try to sound “scholarly” or “smart”. I like the simplicity and the immediacy of their work, and that is what I believe I try and emulate in mine too.
SB - What’s next from your poetry stable?

JB - I am currently working on editing a version of Reclamation Song for the UK market; it has been accepted by a poetry publisher, and I am working on tightening it up, adding some work, perhaps removing some very India-centric work, which may not speak to a global audience. In addition, I continue to write and read constantly. There are two themes I may try and put a collection together for soon — one is a collection of my nature poems, and the other is poems that reflect on the theme that can you be a mother if your sons are not around, that does the absence of children stop you from being maternal or being a mother. I worry about this theme and it influences and informs my writing. Let’s see which collection may develop sooner. Besides poetry, I am writing a non-fiction memoir, which is part of my PhD, and while I am not thinking of publishing ideas yet, I do know, that book will receive interest and I will probably adapt it into a book for publishing, perhaps even a film, after my PhD. So there is a lot happening in this writing stable, on this writing desk!

About Shelly Bhoil

Shelly Bhoil is a Brazil-based writer and independent scholar. Her areas of interest include poetry, culture and travel. Her forthcoming publications include an edited volume Resistant Hybridities: New Narratives of Exile Tibet (Lexington Books 2019)

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