Author Interview: Sanjeev Sethi with Tejaswinee Roychowdhury

“I am the Poem”: In Conversation with Sanjeev Sethi, acclaimed poet and winner of the National Defence Academy poetry contest

Tejaswinee Roy chowdhury

Sanjeev Sethi

“It is like a part of my childhood has crawled back to me,” reminisces Sanjeev Sethi on a warm Sunday evening as he speaks of his recent win at the National Defence Academy poetry contest. I recall his lines in “Name” (This Summer and That Summer, Bloomsbury 2015): “Nanu. That is the real me. / Sanjeev is the frontal / part of my existence. / When you attach Sethi to it, / you are adding / the burden of many births.”

The literary community has known Sethi as an acclaimed poet with the kind of vocabulary that would put native English speakers to shame. Those who have spent evenings amidst his oeuvre, diving in instead of hovering above his verses, will inevitably smile at his wit and playfulness effortlessly woven into his poems which toy with everything caught between emotions and personal philosophies. Sethi’s work is like a river gushing down the Himalayas, seeking to both reveal and hide him, of which he muses: “Verisimilitude is ok. / Who wants all the truth?” (“In Twos”, Wrappings in Bespoke, Hedgehog Press 2022)

Tejaswinee Roychowdhury

If I were to describe him at the outset, I’d say Sethi is a precise conversationalist and a fine listener—a rare combination, if you ask me. And it is this that inevitably makes him one of the finest poets of our times.

But there is more to Sethi than meets the eye.

As I dive deeper into conversation with him, I realise Sethi has found and mastered his ikigai, the Japanese idea that one finds happiness and peace when they are aligned with their life’s purpose, which can be the simplest of things—for Sethi, that purpose is poetry. He writes aptly in Shangri-La (This Summer and That Summer, Bloomsbury 2015): “When words complete / all incompletion. / This is not vanity. It is bliss.”

Sanjeev Sethi has authored seven books of poetry. His latest is Wrappings in Bespoke (The Hedgehog Poetry Press, UK, August 2022). He has been published in over thirty countries. His poems have found a home in more than 400 journals, anthologies, and online literary venues. He edited Dreich Planet #1, for Hybriddreich, Scotland, in December 2022. He is the joint winner of the Full Fat Collection Competition-Deux, organized by The Hedgehog Poetry Press, UK. In 2023, he won the First Prize in a Poetry Competition by the prestigious National Defence Academy, Pune, during its 75th anniversary in the “family members category.” He lives in Mumbai.

I am immensely grateful to Dr Sunil Sharma, editor of the Setu Bilingual Magazine for giving me the opportunity to hold this wonderful and candid conversation. Without further ado, I invite you all to take a dip with me into the intriguing and brilliant mind of Sanjeev Sethi.


Please share your literary journey: the origins of Mr. Sanjeev Sethi.

I began writing poetry very young—twelve or thirteen. I have memories of writing poems in diaries, and they also started getting published in my school magazine. So, my poetic process, which began very young, has been a constant companion all these years—now I’m sixty. When I finished college in 1982, at the age of twenty, I began my career as a journalist. I was very prolific with my writing—both in journalism and poetry—publishing poems in every venue I could find. My first book, “Suddenly for Someone” was published in 1988 when I was twenty-six, and thus began my journey as an author.

Could you shed some light on who and what has influenced you as a writer?

I was a lonely child. My father was in the army and would get posted every two to three years. So, there were a new bunch of friends, and inherent in that was loneliness. Coupled with that was my urge to escape. When I was in the hostel during college in Chandigarh—an all-male college—these fellows were fond of cricket. During those days, they used to have these tiny transistors. Everyone had one of those, listening to the commentary constantly, and I used to hate that sound because I was never involved with cricket in any shape or form. So, I inevitably sought refuge in the library.

Fortunately, my English professor—my first influence and mentor—the late Professor R.P. Chadha, was in charge of the library, and he had a beautiful poetry selection because he was a poet. I used to cycle to his house on the weekends, where he would work on my poems. I was so weak at the time with my poetic capabilities I don’t know if he had much of an impact, but because of him, I read a lot. I moved on, kept writing, kept getting published, and then life took on. It is, of course, tough to spot an individual poet who has influenced me. As a voracious reader, the poetic process instead influenced me—someone’s lines, someone’s phrase, a particular poem, or even a series of poems. It is truly a collective that influenced me.

What goes into writing a poem? Please share your creative process along with the themes or styles you prefer.

Tejaswinee, there is no one stroke of genius. Sometimes, there is a word that strikes a thought. Sometimes, it’s just an idea. Sometimes, a memory. Or perhaps, someone else’s work, a painting, a film. You know, the impulse and the stimulus could be anything. I’ve been expressing myself only in poetry for the last decade or so. So, if something hits me, and it hits me strongly enough, a poem will be born of that experience. I submit myself to that energy, and I do whatever best I can do with it.

Additionally, emotions have a role, though, with age, emotions get distilled; thus, if you see my earlier work, there would be much more emotion in those poems. As one grows older, I think one dries up, so in the poems I’m writing now, even if it is a love poem, that choppiness is not there. 

Sanjeev Sethi

Many of your poems are personal. For instance, there is “Sunny Chacha” from “This Summer and That Summer” (Bloomsbury, 2015), “Loss and Other Lessons” from “Wrappings in Bespoke” (Hedgehog Press, 2022). Where does the person end and the poem begin for you?

The person does not end; I am the poem. Sanjeev Sethi is the poem. There are add-ons, and the poetic license is used for the sake of craft, but the poem’s essence is me. I think this would be the case for most poets if not all, but in my poetry, the beginning and the end are me—and if this sounds vain, so be it. ‘Essence’ is the operative word; the kernel of the poem is my truth, my core. Being authentic to ourselves is the basic essence of creativity, and it is essential to surrender to one’s voice and let it take over. That is supreme; that is divinity. One shouldn’t play around with that.

When you write, do you think about what will become of your poems, or whether someone, a sweet century from now will connect with your work? And as such, are your philosophical insertions as in “Distich” and “POV” from “Strokes of Solace” (Classix, 2022) intentional?

I don’t burden myself with what will happen to whatever I write, even ten years from now. For me, it is just the power of the moment that I am celebrating my existence on earth, documenting my reality, and leaving it at that. Since I have not been a literature student—I have done economics and history—the historical perspective of poetry does not burden me; I am responding to stimuli in the best manner possible. I am merely floating with ideas—I navigate the path; whatever energies join me, I let them. I don’t bother with whether I am writing a philosophical, political, or personal poem. I enjoy the poetic process and have been enjoying it for so many years that I can be locked up in a room and write for sixteen hours. I hope this bliss never deserts me. I am at peace with myself when I am inditing. It is fulfilling, and I don’t search for more.

That said, the poem should be firm on technique and poetic grammar; it should stand the test of poetic rigor—that, for me, is the only parameter. There is a difference between writing something for your diary and writing a poem or a public document. People are going to be reading it. So, to the reader, it has to offer something. It has to go beyond the personal. Yes, the personal is the beginning—that is the edifice on which the poem is created, but after that, whoever reads it, must get a glimpse of something of their life through that poem. That, I believe, is good poetry.

You have a poem in “This Summer and That Summer” (Bloomsbury, 2015) called “After Reading a Young Poet”. It ends with the lines: “Should I embrace or exile you / from the kinship of my quirks?” How do you feel after reading a young poet?

Look, this poem came from a specific experience, and it was some fourteen-fifteen years ago, so there’s no point in talking about it! But let’s speak about the more significant issue. When I read younger poets, they energize me. How I relate to a poem is not so much the thematic quality but how strong the technique, the craft, and the strength of their poetic grammar. If the younger poet has those qualities, I enjoy their work, even if I don’t relate to their content. I don’t compromise on the craft. 

As a poet who’s been publishing for a long time and worldwide, what are some of the changes you’d like to see in the publishing industry, specifically in the poetry publishing scene in India? Additionally, what is your advice to young poets starting to navigate the publishing industry?

This is the time to celebrate the fact that so many options are available. Because of the internet, the whole world is your oyster. I don’t think there is any reason to crib and cry. Once you are ready with your poetic process, everything is available to you—be authentic to yourself about whether you are prepared, but once you are and you will know when you are, write, send it around, and if your work gets rejected, don’t let it bother you—keep working at it as somebody will publish you, and it will be gratifying. Let the process of creating and publishing be magical—don’t look for anything bigger than that. When a poem is published, celebrate that moment, and move on to the following poem. Creating a poem is establishing a connection with the cosmic.

You are an established poet and have garnered much life experience. If you were to travel back in time, what advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t take life so seriously! Don’t be so anxious; everything pans out fine. Just keep working, with a clean heart, with focus, with attention, and don’t be so stressed—I think I’ve been overly stressed all my life. I’d ask my younger self to be slightly chilled to use a more contemporary language! I don’t think I have ever been! Every day felt like the end of the world for me, but that’s not how life is—the universe gives you whatever you are ready for.

“Poetry is born / of unsettled scuffles” are lines from “Distich” published in “Strokes of Solace” (Classix, 2022), and in your recent interview with Kitaab, you said, “Poetry is an impulse.” Thus, I am urged to ask you one final question: what is a poem?

A poem is beyond definition. When you are in the presence of fine lines, their essence will reach you, you will be able to connect with them, feel the emotions, feel elevated, and you will know this is something beautiful, something special. And that is a poem.


Poet’s Bio: Sanjeev Sethi has authored seven books of poetry. His latest is Wrappings in Bespoke (The Hedgehog Poetry Press, UK, August 2022). He has been published in over thirty countries. His poems have found a home in more than 400 journals, anthologies, and online literary venues. He edited Dreich Planet #1, for Hybriddreich, Scotland, in December 2022. He is the joint winner of the Full Fat Collection Competition-Deux, organized by The Hedgehog Poetry Press, UK. In 2023, he won the First Prize in a Poetry Competition by the prestigious National Defence Academy, Pune, during its 75th anniversary in the “family members category.” He lives in Mumbai, India.

Twitter @sanjeevpoems3 || Instagram sanjeevsethipoems

Interviewer's Bio: Tejaswinee Roychowdhury is a Pushcart-nominated writer and poet from West Bengal, India. She also dabbles in the occasional art/photography. With her interview episode on The Nuts & Bolts of Writing Podcast with Imelda Wei Ding Lo featured in Arizona State University's Superstition Review blog, Tejaswinee's work spanning across genres has been curated in eleven countries. Her publications include Muse India, Taco Bell Quarterly, San Antonio Review, Setu, Driech, miniMAG, Amity: peace poems, Borderless Journal, Kitaab, and Paddler Press, among others, and has been featured in the Pandan Weekly Newsletter. Tejaswinee is the founding editor of The Hooghly Review, a lawyer, and can be found tweeting @TejaswineeRC.  

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