SETU Exclusive: Goutam Karmakar

Poetry Reading, conversation with Debjani Chatterjee and Book Launch of her Smiling at Leopards at the Kimberlin Library, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK, on 22nd November 2018

Debjani Chatterjee has been called a poet 'full of wit and charm' (Andrew Motion). She grew up in India, Japan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, and Egypt, before settling in England. She has worked in industry, teaching, community relations and arts psychotherapy.  An international poet, children’s writer, translator, Olympic torchbearer and storyteller; her awards include an MBE, Sheffield Hallam University's honorary doctorate, and Word Masala's Lifetime Achievement in Poetry Award. A former Chair of the National Association of Writers in Education and the Arts Council's Translation Panel, she is a Patron of Survivors Poetry, a Writing Project Associate, and Royal Literary Fellow at Leicester’s De Montfort University. She has held numerous poetry residencies, including at Sheffield Children’s Hospital, the Ilkley Literature Festival, London’s Barbican Centre, and various universities. Her 65+ books include: Namaskar: New and Selected Poems, Animal Antics, and Do You Hear the Storm Sing? More at


Goutam Karmakar: Hello! Debjani-di. Thanks for inviting me to De Montfort University. I am extremely happy to meet you in person.

Debjani Chatterjee: Welcome to De Montfort, to Leicester, and to England on this chilly November evening, Goutam! After corresponding for some years, how good to meet you face-to-face.

(Captured while this conversation is going on, at Debjani Chatterjee’s office at De MontFort University, Leicester, UK)

Goutam Karmakar: This exclusive section is for our SETU: A Bilingual and Peer-Reviewed Journal of Literature, Arts and Culture (Pittsburgh, USA). You know that Dr. Sunil Sharma runs that journal. He has published you also in e-zines. SETU has published many contemporary Indian-born British poets. Don’t you think that more journals like SETU should come forward to give space to new voices?

Debjani Chatterjee: Literary magazines and journals exist for the sake of their readers, and readers deserve the best and most exciting literature that editors can present. Editors also have a duty to writers; they are like literary gate-keepers in their role of selecting the work of some writers and rejecting that of others. Editors who only open doors for an exclusive and limited group of writers who are perhaps their friends, are short-changing both their readers and the talented writers who are denied publication. So, yes, I do agree that new voices should be given a chance. They should have a chance also to have their work sit alongside that of established writers. But of course editors have their own tastes too and know what kind of literature they like. Though I would hope that they can be open and flexible, a certain amount of subjectivity in their choice is inevitable.

Goutam Karmakar: Today here at Kimberlin Library we have thoroughly enjoyed the poetry reading and the discussion of Diaspora and Indian Poetry in English. What kind of importance does the poetry reading hold for you?

Debjani Chatterjee: I do enjoy poetry readings – both listening to others and reading my own work. Every reading, I feel, should be a celebration of poetry. I am glad that, complementing the launch of my latest pamphlet, you too could read a selection of poems from the new anthology that you are compiling. Occasions like today’s event, in which the reading is to listeners who have not heard British Indian poetry before, is so important. It is important because it gives poetry lovers, and even those who may be unsure about poetry but are curious, an opportunity to glimpse new literary delights, new perspectives and insights into human experience.

                             (Captured while the poetry reading session is going on)

Goutam Karmakar: Let us move on to your new book Smiling at Leopards. I am fortunate enough to find myself participating in this book launch at DMU. The title of your publication appeals to me. What is the reason behind choosing this title for it?

Debjani Chatterjee: Smiling at Leopards gets its title from a poem of that name. It is a poem in which I poke gentle fun at myself and others who practice mindfulness meditation. I hope that readers will find the title intriguing and will wish to explore further.

                                        (Front cover of Smiling at Leopards) 

Goutam Karmakar: Only six poems are there in this slim chapbook. Hedgehog Press (UK) have done an excellent job of the production. Do you have any particular reason for publishing this?

Debjani Chatterjee: Hedgehog Press bring out a book-length poetry magazine and also a series of small poetry samplers, which Mark Davidson the commissioning editor calls ‘Sticklebacks’ after the tiny fish of that name. Out of the blue, I received an invitation from Mark to submit poems, both for the magazine and for Stickleback IV.  I had just been putting a collection together and was wondering where to send it. A small pamphlet was not what I had in mind, but I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth! I could always send a small sampler, I reasoned, while still considering a publisher for my latest full collection.

Goutam Karmakar: If I ask you to choose one poem from this booklet, then which poem would you choose, and why?

Debjabi Chatterjee: It’s a difficult question as I purposely made sure that my sampler would have very diverse poems – both long and short. ‘Smiling at Leopards’ is probably my favourite piece in the pamphlet. But I’d choose ‘Pub Angelica’ as a more representative poem. It has a tightly knit structure with couplets that use a refrain – not, as you would expect, at the end of lines but at the beginning of the second line. The subject matter of mortality is one that many poets have addressed – and I tackle it in this final one in my sampler and also, to some extent, in my opening poem ‘Choice’. My interest in Sufi lore and poetry is evident from ‘Pub Angelica’. In fact, an incident that I refer to from the life of the Persian poet Hakim Sanai, is also one that I’ve retold in an earlier prose book: Sufi Stories from Around the World (HarperCollins India).

(Holding ‘Do You Hear The Storm Sing?’, another beautiful poetry collection of Debjani Chatterjee)
Goutam Karmakar: Poems like ‘Heirlooms’ and ‘Purple Harvest’ show Indianness in a vivid way. How far has Bengali culture, norms and Indian ethos influenced you while composing these pieces?

Debjani Chatterjee: Actually, ‘Heirlooms’ and ‘Purple Harvest’, like most of the poems in this pamphlet, reflect the cultural influences of both East and West. ‘Choice’ is the most explicit in describing ‘a fusion’: ‘Multiple personalities are mine,/ and Joseph’s rainbow coat – and his brothers’./ Both Rama and Ravana possess me./... I am a poet, I choose to choose all.’ The women who inspired ‘Heirlooms’ were people whom I met at a workshop in Firth Park, a very multi-ethnic part of Sheffield, women who originated from places as diverse as Scotland, Iran and Pakistan. ‘Purple Harvest’ describes my Sheffield garden’s ‘luscious clusters’ of blackberries each summer. I pick the fruit and my Ma makes chutney – Bengali-style - and my husband Brian makes jam and crumbles. I am lucky in that I get to enjoy all these delicious gifts of East and West!

(Captured while I was receiving the gifts (Poetry collections of Debjani didi) from Debjani Chatterjee)

Goutam Karmakar: Didi, it’s already 7.30 p.m. - let’s start walking. Thanks for this conversation with all its insights into your poetry, and special thanks for gifting me signed copies of many of your poetry books. Hope we’ll meet again. Stay safe; and do keep enriching us.

Debjani Chatterjee: Yes, the De Montfort staffs need to clear this room. And you must be hungry. The Shivalli restaurant is just nearby - its masala dhosas are as good as anything in India. We must celebrate our first meeting and the success of this evening’s poetry event. I too hope we’ll meet again – in England and in India.
(Before leaving De MontFort University… And ‘the masala dhosas’ are waiting for us at The Shivalli restaurant)

About Goutam Karmakar

Goutam Karmakar is currently working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Barabazar Bikram Tudu Memorial College, Sidhu-Kanhu-Birsha University, West Bengal, India. He is also a PhD Research Scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, National Institute of Technology Durgapur (NITD), India.

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