Interview with Chaitali Sengupta: Poet, Translator, Author of the Poetry Collection ‘Cross-Stitched Words’

Lopa Banerjee: Congratulations on the publication of your debut collection of poetry, Chaitali! In the preface to the poetry collection, you write: “Cross-Stitched Words is my first collection of poetry in a prose-poem form, it is a culmination of years of scribbling my thoughts in journals, fed by life experiences. It mourns loss, celebrates Nature, and empowers the readers to seek solace in self-discovery and introspection, reminding them of their moments of personal significance.’’

How did these prose-poems accumulate over the years as you kept writing in journals and newspapers? Was this culmination of your thoughts propelled only by personal epiphanies?

Chaitali Sengupta

Chaitali Sengupta: Thanks a lot, Lopa! Writing has been a life-long passion for me. My writing has its roots in all those bedtime rhymes, songs and stories that my maternal grandfather engaged me with. Also, I was, and still am a listener, and a reader, and I always had a care for words and language. I started taking writing seriously after a couple of my poems were published in The Statesman and in The Asian Age while I was at College. Throughout my college and till my university days, I wrote sporadically, trying out my hand as a freelancer. It kind of stopped once I moved to the Netherlands. Language was a barrier, and I took time to find out my path in a completely new culture and country. But even though I was not writing for the journals or the newspapers in those days, my scribblings in my journal continued.

Lopamudra Bannerjee

Although personal epiphanies are largely responsible for the thoughts expressed in my poems, but not all encounters are personal. Some aspects in our lives are universal. Negative experiences of your close ones can also trigger meaningful, positive lines out of you which readers can easily connect with. And sometimes writing is a “positive distraction”, taking you away from the cacophony of the world. 

 

 

Lopa: The title ‘Cross-stitched Words’ itself implies tenderness and nostalgia embedded in the lyrical microcosm of poetry. What are your own insights into it? How did the title originate?

Chaitali: The preoccupation with words has always been there with me. I guess most of my time has been lovingly spent with words than with anyone else. Words are important, words elevate, words inspire, and words also alienate. We’re the only species on this earth that have the blessing of words. The onus is on us to use words responsibly and civilly. In the hands of a poet/author, words become the doorways to glimpse the profound, essential human experiences and through the poet’s perceptiveness and compassion, the readers have a richer appreciation and a renewed awareness of the world.

The title surely has its seeds in these thoughts, other than of course the fact that I love making cross-stitch patterns. After relocating to the Netherlands, in those early years, I sustained myself by reading books and engaging myself with cross-stitch works. In my eyes, all literary works are in a way “poetic embroidery”, only it takes much longer to sew a poem on paper!

 

Lopa: In the second poem of ‘Cross-stitched Words’, ‘Tree Life’, you write the following lines: “There grows within me the limb of a tree, spreading its roots, winding deeper down, where my yesteryears are buried, fleeced in moss.” Would you say the diaspora poet in you is at work in a wistful way in this poem? The metaphors of the ‘scar’, ‘wrinkled barks’, roots and limbs of the tree are highly suggestive of your own psyche as an immigrant woman poet.

The very next poem ‘Roots’, complements the previous poem, and depicts your poetic self in a deeply symbolic way, reflecting on your childhood, and your quest to know your homeland and ancestral legacy. What inspired you to craft these poetic narratives?

Chaitali: Making a new home and carving a new identity in a foreign land is a continuing theme in the diaspora experience. Like any other diaspora writer, in me too, there is a constant oscillation between the land I left behind and the land that adopted me. When I reminisce, it is not merely thinking back about the past moments but it is also thinking about the homeland. My diasporic identity is never whole and mostly split. Poised between two cultures, with this notion of hybrid identity, my urge is to seek an anchorage, to find a sense of belonging, through nostalgia, through remembrance.

You’re right, in the poem “Tree Life”, the metaphors of ‘scar’,  ‘wrinkled barks’ represent that sense of despair in me, which perhaps is a common experience for diaspora authors. The poem “Roots” brings forth the migrant memories and is partly inspired by the real-life experience of a young ‘undocumented’ migrant whose case I translated from Dutch to English for a social work organization in the Netherlands. In my opinion, their sense of displacement and their attempt to deal with this complete identity crisis is more acute than ours.

 

Lopa: What does your Indian-Bengali landscape mean to you today, when you craft lines like “the stitches frayed; sputtering from her half-stitched heart” (Half-stitched heart-page 16), or “I separate the shades of past, searching for my childhood, spent in a nondescript home. it stood in a pitiless street, on life’s highway” (Decay-page 20)? How is Kolkata invoked in your creative writings as your muse, and how has your poetic persona been shaped by the physical and political landscape of your hometown?

Chaitali: Due to my father’s transferable job, we changed homes and cities several times, within India. My parents were quite open to other cultures, we celebrated Holi, Diwali, Christmas and Id. But they’re very committed to raise the children following Bengali culture and tradition. So, we had a very “bengali childhood”, which included learning Bengali, reading Bengali books by famous writers, learning to relish Bengali cuisine, among other things. My father was greatly influenced by Tagore’s works, mainly his songs and we grew up, even away from Bengal, soaking up his works, listening to his songs, discussing his poems. I can safely say that I didn’t lose my Bengali heritage or culture, despite my formative years, spent away from Bengal.

My upbringing and my culture are an immense part of my being; it influences my writing rather deeply. When I say “...lone evenings, shared umbrellas,/ waiting tram-lines…” I visualize Kolkata, “a city drenched, like a watercolor, on an artist’s wall.”  (Lines from Broken Tryst) The city, with its vibrant lifeline, is not only present as a backdrop, with its sights and sounds, throbbing with its own heartbeat; in my short stories, based on cross-cultural consciousness, I do employ themes, languages, customs that are very culture specific. I do regret deeply, however, that growing up outside Bengal in my formative years, I had no formal training in Bengali and hence I could not make Bengali my language of work.

 

Lopa: While reading the poems of your debut book ‘Cross-Stitched Words’, one might tend to feel that the mystic, surreal use of language in poetry in its most abstract form is the culmination of a magical world that only exists as a stream-of-consciousness form in your own mind.

For example, you begin the poem ‘Forever is Born’ with these lines: “Sometimes, the words slip and slide off the mind, scatter on the floor, scratch on the paper, gnaw at our soul and shiver into meaning. Then, a poem is born.” Do tell us about the abiding metaphors you hold close to you in poems like these.

 

Chaitali: I’ve always admired the visuals in poetry that lead us to intellectual insights. It is a journey, albeit a silent one, which begins with a metaphor, and enables us to ‘see a poem’. This is precisely what I’ve tried to do in the poem ‘Forever is born’. The role of metaphor here is not merely to describe the reality, but also to reveal how we perceive reality. In fact, if we think deeply, metaphors act as bridge between the literal and the symbolic. I like to engage with expressions and words that stimulate a visual-sensory experience in my readers. In my opinion, that too, becomes a durable part of the poem. Also, I feel that the words are at their best alive when I’m creating imagery. However, the metaphors in this collection also strengthen the theme of the verses.

 

Lopa: Nostalgia and pathos are the two predominant strands that color the consciousness of every sensitive, modern poet whose works we read today. Added to that, we find the lyrical representation of the existential crises and angst originating from the deeper elemental understanding of human life. We see a lot of such lyrical representation of universal human conditions and a refined sense of nostalgia and pathos in your poems. What are the literary and real-life influences that has carved your voice in these poems?

Chaitali: While I do believe that the best writing is always personal, I also believe that writers are not only motivated to write because they want to write about themselves. Writers write because they want to tell the truth. Personal writing does not always mean sharing your own experiences. Writing about what fascinates you, in your own unique way, from your heart, is also personal. Personal, social, political experience influences me majorly to write, but then, inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere. There are ideas everywhere. I get my inspiration mostly from Nature, from a word that I probably picked up, from the news items that I translate from Dutch to English, every week in my role as a volunteer journalist. And you’re right, the remembrance of time’s passing, the nostalgic construction of a moment bygone, the pathos of the joy lost in an irretrievable past, runs like a thread, connecting the poems in the book.

 

Lopa: 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 originating out of your inner microcosm in ‘Cross-Stitched Words’, and your other upcoming collections of poetry? What are your thoughts about your contemporary poets who are making their foray into poetry publishing, how do you perceive their poetry in the light of these lines?

 Chaitali: In a way, yes. The verses are rather introspective in nature, trying to translate our mundane encounters into words, that tend to celebrate greater connections. The idea is to let the verses inspire the readers to contemplate upon life’s deeper meanings. A journey to self-awareness, I would say, a prolonged voyage to find our own ‘answers’. It can be difficult, but I’d like to take my readers along on this journey where each discovers their own meaning to humanity.

There are many contemporary poets whose work I read, admire, and can connect with. They all have revived a love of poetry in their own way. Arundhati Subramaniam’s lyric poems, based on the themes of identity, or loss of it, love, urbanization appeal to me a lot. There are also many fabulous authors writing on various social media platforms and I love reading those assured voices as well.

 

Lopa: Apart from a published poet, you are a translator too. Your English translation of Bengali author Susmita Saha’s poems in the volume ‘Quiet Whispers of our Heart’ comprise of blank verses, prose-poems and more, bringing out the immediacy of human experiences while retaining the emotional urgency of the original Bengali poems. How did this volume of translation happen and what is your primary force that urges these initiatives? Do you have any favorite translator whom you consciously or unconsciously imbibed?

Chaitali: “Quiet Whispers of our Heart” happened quite by-chance. Through a book reading group, I was in touch with Susmita Saha who is a prolific Bengali writer. Her works touched me deeply.  The poems existed in Bengali and I translated them in English for the National Poetry Month in the year 2019. A reputed Book club platform carried those out and the readers appreciated our joint work. It was basically on their request that we decided to bring out that bi-lingual book. Some of the world’s finest literature has originated from the lap of Bengal. Ashapurna Debi, Satyajit Ray, Mahasweta Debi, Premendra Mitra, Sunil Gangopadhyay, among others are astounding writers, but not many of their glorious works are translated. I strongly believe that their works must be made accessible to world audiences through quality translations. This is what drives me to translation, although translation is a rather challenging task.

There are many notable translators whose works I have read, however, I admire Aruna Chakravarti’s translation a lot.

 

Lopa: I loved to read ‘Kumar Bhimshingha’, your English translation the short story penned by Rabindranath Tagore’s sister, the famous novelist and short story writer Swarnakumari Devi, who was also part of the illustrious literary, cultural heritage of Bengal’s famous Jorasanko Thakurbari (published in Borderless Journal, 2021). Was there any particular reason why you chose to translate this historical fiction by the author who was perhaps the first among the very famous female litterateurs of her times?

 

Chaitali: Thanks for reading that, Lopa! Swarnakumari Devi was not only Tagore’s elder sister, but she was also one of the first outstanding women writers of her age, first female editor of Bharati. Many consider her to be first woman novelist of her times. In 1879, she composed the first opera written in Bengali, called Basanta Utsav.  As I said before, I believe that till today several works by prominent Bengali writers remain untranslated. It was to bring Swarnakumari and her works back from history and oblivion that I decided to translate one of her short stories “Kumar BhimShingha”. Besides, I was simply impressed by the historical perspectives present in her works.

 

Lopa: You have also translated some songs composed by Nobel laureate of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore in Gitabitan.com and also his story ‘Bolai’. What according to you is the relevance of Tagore’s literary works, his philosophy in our contemporary world? Do you think his lesser-known literary works should be translated into English as well?

Chaitali: In our world today, where we witness the ‘clash of civilizations’ almost on a frequent basis, there is even greater need to absorb Tagore’s ideals. The need to review afresh his take on issues relating to education, environment, religion, politics was never more acute than now, as our world gets a little more divided every day under rampant discrimination of every sorts. His writings address the needs and crises of our age too, and these would not allow him to lapse into irrelevance. Having said that, Tagore is quite a complex author, and his literary oeuvre, especially his poetry, is almost untranslatable. Yet, I would say that his less famous literary works should also be translated into English. His works need to flourish across the world. Tagore is mostly known in the West, even today, for his Gitanjali. But he’s much more than only Gitanjali. The western readers, I feel, have been rather selective in reading him.

 

Lopa: Finally, as authors, artists, poets, we all are products of a volatile world of socio-political upheavals. What do you think about the role of creative arts as a medium of gender, caste, class sensitization, living in such a world today?  

Chaitali: First of all, people must realize creative art is not to be relegated to the footnotes. Creative art of any kind is a valuable voice in relaying the injustices prevalent in our volatile society and highlighting a narrative that probably is rather unknown. Simply put, the role of creative arts is two-fold, in my opinion: it makes us think critically and through the arts of reciprocal aesthetic experience, it also helps us to cope with such injustices. Creativity, as expressed through poetry, music, and arts can address current pressing social and environmental issues. There is an increasing need to harness this power for bringing positive changes in our society.  

 

Bios:

Chaitali Sengupta is a writer and a poet by passion, a financial analyst and a language teacher by profession. She’s a translator and volunteer journalist, based in the Netherlands. Her literary & journalistic articles have appeared in both Dutch and Indian media houses. Her debut book of prose poems “Cross-Stitched Words” has been published in 2021 (Setu Publication, USA). She has translated two works from Bengali to English “Quiet Whispers of our Heart” and “A thousand words of heart” (Orange Publishers, 2020 & 2021, Kolkata). Her works regularly appear in print and online journals like, Muse India, Indian Periodical, Eindhoven News, NPO.nl, Borderless Journal, Setu Bilingual, The Asian Age, Different Truths, Verse Visual. She has co-authored for numerous anthologies, most recent one being the prestigious international anthology The Kali Project: Invoking the Goddess within, (Indie Blu(e) Publishing, USA, and Earth, Fire, Water & Wind anthology (Authorspress, New Delhi.)

 

Lopamudra Banerjee is an author, poet, translator, editor with six books and four anthologies in fiction and poetry. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her family, but is originally from Kolkata, India. She has been a recipient of the Journey Awards (First Place category winner) for her memoir ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’, and also a recipient of the Woman Achiever Award (IWSFF, 2018), the International Reuel Prize for Poetry (2017) and International Reuel Prize for her English translation of Nobel Laureate Tagore’s selected works of fiction (2016). Her nonfiction essays, fiction and other writings have been published in various journals, e-zines and anthologies in India, UK and USA. She is also a consulting editor for Blue Pencil Publishers, India. Recently, she has been a featured poet at Rice University, Houston and her poems have also been featured at Stanford University’s ‘Life in Quarantine’ project recently. She has co-produced the poetry film 'Kolkata Cocktail' directed by Shuvayu Bhattacharjee, where she has also featured as one of the lead actors. Her works are available on her website www.lopabanerjeewrites.com and also in Amazon.com and Amazon India.


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