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Interview

In Conversation with Jared Carter

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all 
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." 
Ode to a Grecian Urn, John Keats, 1819 

It was a challenge to interview a poet who does not want to talk of his work or of himself. And yet, here was a person whose poetry moved me and from who, I was sure, we had much to learn. I am talking of an acclaimed poet from America, Jared Carter. He permitted me to introduce him with this: “Jared Carter is an American poet who has published seven books of poetry. His volume of new and selected poems, Darkened Rooms of Summer, was issued in 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.” If you are more curious about him, his achievements, education and awards, visit his Wiki Page.

Jared Carter

Carter’s poetry is remarkable in giving us glimpses of American life and thoughts, especially as he talks of the wind, the snow and cicadas, as he wrenches poignancy in the hearts of readers bringing out the cruelty in the slaughter of cattle. He draws from the life of common people and their work. At times, he could write of  changing a lightbulb and yet create a sense of wonder with his crafting. Despite his obvious Western outlook, he has written of the elusive Yeti – a most beautiful composition. He does tell us in the interview how he wrote it. One would also wonder why he selected to represent ephemerality with such a mythical creature from the East when most of his poems reflect life in America. The poem strangely captures the quality of elusiveness perfectly with extensive crafting.

For him, poetry is more than the first part of the Wordsworthian concept , “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. It is about working on the concept further “in tranquillity” and making it exquisite, like an artifact. We started this interview by reflecting on artifacts that impacted him. Despite his reluctance to speak of himself, Carter does tell us much about his Victorian upbringing and the impact it has had in making him who he is and writing as beautifully as he does.  And perhaps, we can also get a glimpse of why he wrote of the “Yeti”. Let us now step into the world of Jared Carter.

You are fascinated by certain artifacts from India and China. Tell us the story around those. Why do they move you?

I mentioned those two heirlooms — a chess set made of ivory, from China, and a carved wooden box, from India — because they provided my first introduction to those two great cultures, when I was a boy growing up in a small town in Indiana, a state near the center of the United States.

My father had purchased the chess set in September of 1945, in a pawnshop in Chicago, when he was on the last leg of his journey home from serving three years in the war in the Pacific. It was a set of delicate white and red figures, in elaborate costumes, the white side in Victorian dress, the red side in traditional Chinese robes, and on both sides, horses rearing and elephants carrying castles.

If my memory is correct, the attire of the pieces was the very embodiment of colonialism. I was told much later that the set was among several that had been made for the export trade in the nineteenth century.

As a child, of course, I had heard the word “China” and the country was mentioned in school, which I was just beginning at the age of six. But in those days, I had no strong impression of China, nor even much interest in it. In contrast, my father’s ivory chess set was a tangible object that I could look at and admire, and sometimes even be allowed to touch. It had traveled many thousands of miles, from the other side of the world, to be in our home, and was held in great esteem by my father and my older brother, who were both avid chess players.

Once a year, on my father’s birthday, as I recall, they would take down the set from the glass case they had built to display it and play a game of chess with those fantastic pieces. This was always a solemn occasion in our household, and a memorable one. In my young mind, it was an almost ceremonial way of being in touch with a mysterious land that lay far across the seas.

If today, almost eighty years later, I try to think back to my first awareness of China — what it was, where it is, what it might be like — I return to my memory of that chess set. I return to the sight of those delicately carved pieces, in their remarkable formality and fragility, arranged in rows on a chequered board. That image is suspended now, and outside of time, and yet in my mind’s eye, the figures are still waiting to be moved, in ways that will begin once more that most ancient and traditional of games. In this way I was first introduced to the very idea of China’s existence.

By our best estimates, chess was originally invented in India, although I did not know this at the time. In a way, as I look back now, perhaps my memory of the ivory chess set puts me in touch, even now, with something great and lasting about the contributions of both of those cultures.

The elaborately carved box from India had a similar effect on my young imagination. It was a box in which my father’s mother kept her few items of simple jewelry. Sometimes she would let me and my two cousins take it down from her dresser and examine it more closely. There were already a few books in my grandfather’s library about India. We were familiar with the name of that country, and we knew it was quite distant. But the box was an actual object that had come all the way from India, we were told, and that made it special.

The box had been given to my grandmother by her only brother, who was an artist, and who had purchased it sometime in the 1930s, along with a great many other art objects and artifacts with which I would become familiar as I grew older. But this box — again, something made in the nineteenth century — spurred my first awareness of India. I could peer into its carvings of elephants and monkeys and exotic plants and imagine that I was seeing into the heart of that mysterious, far-off place.

India and China of course constitute much, much more than what was suggested by those two objects.  But we are speaking of first impressions here, which are precious to a child, and which, in my case, have proved to be lasting.
      
You had an interesting story about your aunt being in India. Can you tell us about that?

The artist mentioned, my grandmother’s only brother, took as his second wife, in the 1930s, after the death of his first wife, a teacher of English literature, who taught for the Baltimore school system. She had been brought up in India and was evidently the child of missionary parents. 

She may actually have been born in India, and most likely left it in about 1923, to attend an American university.  She lived until 1959, and I was taken to visit her on several occasions, and when I was old enough to drive, I would ferry my grandmother down to visit her, in a summer studio located in southern Indiana. She spoke with a British accent — perhaps the first I had ever heard — and preferred tea rather than coffee. After the artist’s death, in 1946, she would speak knowingly of his own works of art, and of the various items and artifacts he had collected during his lifetime. 

Those things were from many cultures, many eras — a handsome 15th-century refectory table from Italy, a pair of large, nineteenth-century ceramic jars from China, an unglazed wine vessel that may have been Etruscan, a variety of pieces in English pewter, and so on.  The spacious, high-ceilinged, two-story building had been a lodge hall before it was converted into the artist’s studio by my father and grandfather. It was utterly chock-a-block with beautiful objects and gorgeous paintings.

On a number of occasions I was allowed to wander through those rooms on my own, and to consider those different objects. There was no teacher, no guidebook, except for the widow’s occasional comment about where this or that artifact had come from, or when he had acquired it. I simply looked at what was there. This was a part of my informal introduction to art, and exotic places, a tutelage that had begun with the chess set and the carved box.  If nothing else, the experience may have made me into a lifelong museum goer, especially when museums of art are available.

But you asked about my Aunt Carolyn, as we called her, and her origins in India. She sometimes referred to that Indian childhood, although unfortunately I remember little of what she said. I do recall her speaking of a time in the early 1920s when she witnessed a crowd of Indian nationalists demonstrating in a non-violent manner. Raj policemen carrying lead-weighted wooden cudgels waded into the crowd, shattering the kneecaps of the demonstrators with their clubs. The authorities knew, she said, that a broken kneecap was not a mortal injury, but that it would render a demonstrator unable to walk for months on end, thus preventing that person, for a time, from joining future demonstrations. To say nothing of discouraging him from joining any demonstrations at all. Aunt Carolyn seemed to have a very low opinion of the British.

Are you familiar with Indian and Chinese literature?

Only as a reader and an amateur. In about 1961 a younger sister brought home from college, as a houseguest, an Indian student she had met. He was very polite and serious, and generously gave me a copy of a translation of the Gita, which I still have, and which was my first introduction to the classic literature of India. I’ve been sampling that literature ever since, reading essays and an occasional book, attending a lecture or two, taking in a traveling exhibition. So, I have a layman’s understanding of subcontinent history and culture, but it is no more than that, and I am far from being well-versed.

My introduction to the history, art, and culture of China came slightly earlier and has been a bit more extensive. As an undergraduate at Yale, I studied history of art with the scholar Nelson Ikon Wu. It was an introductory course, but he placed special emphasis on landscape paintings of the Southern Song, and with that influence, in later years, I seem to have gone on to develop an interest in many things Chinese, especially art of the T’ang dynasty.

Also while an upperclassman at Yale, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a young graduate student from Clare College, Cambridge, named Jonathan Spence, who subsequently became a well-known scholar of Chinese history and culture. Over the years, my conversations with Jonathan, and my having read his numerous books, have formed an important part of my informal education.

For two semesters in the 1980s I served as a visiting writer at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where I met and talked with Professor Sanford Goldstein, the eminent Japanese scholar and specialist in tanka, who for many years now, following his retirement, has resided in Japan. Thanks to Professor Goldstein, and one of his students with whom I am still in touch, and not immediately, but gradually, my awareness of Japanese literature in translation has increased, along with my curiosity about haiku and tanka in English.
I have published a few haiku and tanka, and have corresponded with other scholars in that field, such as Professor Bryce Christensen, who is only recently back from a year of lecturing in Taiwan. By virtue of my acquaintance with these talented individuals, I hope I have developed a better understanding of both Japanese and Chinese literature — especially the poetry of the T’ang dynasty, in translation, for which I have a great liking.

Do you read translations? What is your opinion on the role of translations?

Without translators and translations, we would be utterly lost. For example, whatever I am privileged to know about the poetry of Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770, also spelt as Tu Fu) and all of their marvelous contemporaries, I know their poetry only because they reach me through various translations. So, I have accumulated a small library of translated works by the major world poets — Sophocles through Dante, Basho to Neruda. Every serious poet does this. I would like to think we are perhaps the wiser for it.

Any poet writing in English is immeasurably indebted to Arthur Waley for his masterful translations. Another translator I might mention is the American, Kenneth Rexroth, who happens to have been a fellow Hoosier — which means he was born in the state of Indiana. Rexroth emigrated eventually to California, where after World War Two he became an eminent poet, scholar, and translator of poetry from both the Chinese and Japanese traditions.

Du Fu.
Courtesy:Creative Commons

I possess a number of Rexroth’s books, and thanks to them, and to other translations by many different hands, I have come to have a great admiration for the T’ang poet Du Fu. He is my favourite, perhaps the poet that I return to, most frequently, in my own reading. In the following quotes, Rexroth, in a book published in 1971, employs a transliteration of the poet’s name different from the one in general use today. Rexroth alleges that Du Fu is

in my opinion, and in the opinion of a majority of those qualified to speak, the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet who has survived in any language. Sappho, for instance, can hardly be said to have survived. He shares with her, Catullus, and Baudelaire, his only possible competitors, a sensibility acute past belief.

I agree with that, except the part about his competitors, since there are a few more who might be mentioned. But the remark about Du Fu having “sensibility acute past belief” — surely that is apt. And for me, as for Rexroth, there is even more to Du Fu. It is something almost personal. Rexroth attempts to sum it up:

Tu Fu comes from a saner, older, more secular culture than Homer and it is not a new discovery with him that the gods, the abstractions and forces of nature, are frivolous, lewd, vicious, quarrelsome, and cruel, and only man's steadfastness, love, magnanimity, calm, and compassion redeem the night bound world.  It is not a discovery, culturally or historically, but it is the essence of his being as a poet.

Rexroth goes on to say how Du Fu’s writing has affected him as a person, an admission with which I happen to agree, and have found to be true in my own life:


I am sure he has made me a better man, as a moral agent and as a perceiving organism. I say that because I feel that . . . the greatest poetry answers out of hand the problems of the critic and the esthetician. Poetry like Tu Fu's is the answer to the question, "What is the purpose of Art?"


What writers do you read? Why?

 As a young person, in university and later, dreaming of becoming a writer, I read a great many novels and short stories, and was initially drawn to the work of the American novelist, William Faulkner.. The world he created seemed recognizable to me, and authentic. I hoped to create a similar world. Other American authors I have admired, and tried to learn from, have been Sara Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, and Sherwood Anderson. But there are dozens more, and dozens more European and world writers whom I admire.  

I have been fortunate, too, in having known Joseph Love, a  prominent historian of Brazilian history, and author of a splendid study of a remarkable  moment in Brazilian history, The Revolt of the Whip.  He and I were undergraduates together (he was at Harvard), and I have known him ever since, and through his many gifts and thoughtful recommendations, I have been introduced to a great deal of the literature and culture of Central and South America.

In the last few years most of my reading has been in history. I am a great admirer of the British historian Richard J. Evans, whose history of the Third Reich is unrivaled. Another of my favorites is John Julius Norwich and his history of the Byzantine Empire. I am extremely fond of Shelby Foote’s history of the American Civil War. And at the moment I am reading the late Tony Judt’s Postwar, a history of Europe from 1945 to the near present and am finding out how little I knew about that period, even though I lived through it.

These days I spend much more time reading history than either fiction or poetry. I have a large bookcase full of nothing but books about classic Egyptian history and art, and I have a smaller group of books about Meso-American prehistory and culture, and particularly Mayan art. I am simply curious about such matters.

Which are your favourite poets? Why?

I would have difficulty naming even a few. I have attempted to read them all, which of course is impossible, since new ones appear every day, and one is constantly discovering earlier ones. It has never seemed acceptable to me to list the names of poets who “influenced” me or the way I write. There are a few poets whose work I keep at my bedside, and whose books I still read. Two in particular are poets writing primarily in German, Rilke and Hölderlin. Among Americans, Frost. Among the English, Hardy and Larkin.

What do you learn from these writers? Do they impact you in any way?

I really don’t know. They’re just writers that I particularly like, and find myself re-reading, over the years. Kafka is another. So is Flaubert. I continue to read Henry James and Turgenev — all of those persons on whom, as James pointed out, “nothing is lost.”

Why is it you are reticent to talk of your work and poetic sensibilities?

I seem to be naturally reticent, even introverted. As a child I spent a certain amount of time with my grandmother and with a great-great aunt, both of whom were born in the 1870s. Both were thoroughgoing Victorians who exemplified the traditional virtues — thrift, honesty, industry, steadfastness. And perish the thought of anything vainglorious. I think a bit of that rubbed off on me.

I’ve done a little talking about myself in this interview, but only because you asked. My parents, too, taught me that one should avoid talking about oneself to others. It is also a professional attribute — physicians and attorneys traditionally do not advertise or promote themselves — and although I do not consider myself a professional in that sense, I can understand the reasoning. Professionalism in any undertaking is not a matter of office, title, or entitlement; it is a standard to be lived up to.

At university, it was explained to me that in polite society one does not discuss politics, religion, or how one earns a living. Ezra Pound says somewhere that you can always spot the bad critic if he focuses on the poet and not the poems. Add all of that up, and I seem to have little to say about myself or what I do.


I really loved your poem “Yeti”. You had said that while writing “Yeti” you disposed of a number of lines and picked a few. Would it be possible to share this part of your poetic process with us?

Well, again, “poetic sensibilities,” “poetic process” — I am not a critic, scholar, or professor, and I have no insights to offer about such matters. It is not my business to do so. Instead, I make poems, and I have been privileged to have published a few of them. So that our readers will know what we’re referring to, here is my poem “Yeti,” which your journal kindly published, for the first time, in its May 2021 issue. The poem conjures up the mysterious creature of the Himalayas, whose existence has never been verified, but which continues to haunt the imagination:

            Yeti

Tell me again that nothing’s there,
          that never was
At all, except in places where 
          things slip, or pause,

Yet register, on some high ridge
          where something moves
And then is gone. As though a bridge
          of snow should lose

Its grip, and drop away, but leave
          a shadow where
Such vanishing might still deceive
          in that thin air.

The first thing one notices about this poem, which is in a relatively new form called an Alexandroid, are its formal aspects — its lines end with rhymes, and it has repetitive stanzas and lines of a predictable length. A second thing one notices is its brevity — twelve lines in all, and a total number of syllables amounting to half of those in a typical sonnet in English. It is a small poem, then, in a range of length favoured by the American poet, Emily Dickinson. Longer than a haiku or tanka, but still very brief.

A third characteristic, perhaps not immediately apparent, is the way in which the “sh” sound in the closing lines — should, shadow, vanishing —  suggests the texture of something slipping away. Or the sound of a bridge of snow suddenly collapsing into a crevasse. In certain cultures, it is the same sound we make when we put a forefinger to our lips to signal for silence — shhhh.  

That sound is followed by the stark, icy i’s and e’s, at the poem’s very end, of might, deceive, thin, and air. The trail has gone cold, the Yeti has disappeared. That poetry can suggest strange moments like this, with such minimal input, is one reason why I like it so much.

In the making of such a poem there is, literally, no place to hide. Whoever reads it will be affected, consciously or not, by the smallest detail. It goes almost without saying that to make a poem within these parameters, the writer must, to borrow your phrase, “dispose of a number of lines and pick a few”. This is inescapable. There is simply no room in which to say whatever one likes, or to run on interminably. No room for the vainglorious.

Somewhere there may be a poet who can write a similar poem without hesitation, as though copying it out, not pausing to substitute or change a single word.

I suppose I do the opposite. I experiment and try out many different words, many lines, many drafts, in order to arrive at what I believe to be a poem. In doing this I don’t think I am any different from most other poets.

It has been pointed out that one interesting thing about poems is the way they can talk about one thing while implying something entirely different. “Yeti” is presumably about an elusive, folkloric creature, but at the same time it is talking about poetry, and how it disappears even while you are reading it, and sometimes you are not sure about what you have just read. Something still seems to be there, even while it vanishes into thin air.

What is it you look forward to?

I look forward to making more poems, and more books of poems. There’s an old American saying, from the days of vaudeville, which holds that “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”   

But clearly I am an old man of the forest now, and I think the best claim from an aging artist, about what can still be accomplished in the years ahead, is by the Japanese painter and printmaker, Hokusai. Since we’re discussing art and culture of the East, I’ll suggest that his marvelous statement, in his colophon to One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, is a perfect way to end this interview:

From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvelous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.

In some translations, Hokusai adds, at the very end, with reference to what he has just affirmed, this invitation: “I beg those who live as long as I to see if I do not keep my word.”

Hokusai lasted until he was 88. That final sentence has always seemed to me to be a blessing he is bestowing on readers and admirers — a wish, for whoever might be listening, that those persons too might have long and fruitful lives.

I would hope Hokusai’s spirit still lingers, and that I might join him in wishing that for you, Madame Chakravarty, and for all of your journal’s most admirable readers, there on the other side of the planet Earth. Thanks to all of you for allowing me to come into your world.


Thank you very much Mr Carter for your kind words.

Click here to read the more from Jared Carter in Borderless Journal.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Interview

In Conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam, Photo Credit: Meetesh Taneja

Does she need an introduction? Arundhathi Subramaniam who has taken the world by storm with her poetry, reinforcing God, using English as a medium of writing over what we call a mother tongue, and voicing her stand on her own concept of national identity, and yet she has won the Sahitya Akademi award for 2020 for her collection, When God is a Traveller. She has broken rules that defined the modern literary world and moved towards creating her own individual brand of writing. Her writing is full of vivacity and makes the reader emote. She writes from the core of her being — that is clearly evident in the flow of her poems. Clarity, preciseness and perfection in linguistic usage enhance her ideas and grasp the reader in their fulcrum to lever their thoughts and emotions into her world. In this exclusive with Borderless Journal, read about Arundhathi’s journey.

Tell us about your journey as a writer and a poet. When and why did you start writing? 

I’ve been excited by poetry for as long as I can remember, Mitali — the swing, the rhythm, the velocity, the precariousness of it. Thankfully, none of my early efforts at writing it have endured! But I composed many bits of doggerel as a child. In my adolescence and early adulthood, poetry was catharsis and emotional self-expression, as it is for so many. I think it was in my late twenties and thirties that I began to come into my own as a poet. 

My first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves, happened in 2001. I felt I’d been waiting a long time to be published. But in hindsight, it was a good thing. It took me time to find the timbre of my voice, to allow it to embody a mix of assurance and doubt. At least I now began to know the poetry I aspired to. It is what I still aspire to — a kind of textured clarity, a poised uncertainty.  

What gets your muse going?  

I’m still finding out! I know some measure of quiet helps. Long days, devoid of agenda, help. And yet, so much writing also happens on flights, in cab rides, in coffee shops, waiting for a friend to arrive. Poems happen when I’m able to strike a certain creative tension between urgency and unhurriedness.

When you were a child, what were your aspirations? What did you want to become? 

There was a fleeting aspiration at age five to join the army. But I think I realized pretty soon that the path to field marshaldom was an arduous one. It was always poetry after that! 

In 1997 you had a life changing experience. What was it and has it impacted your writing?  

It was a naked-wire experience of emptiness, if you will. A brush with life without form, without any graspable meaning. There was terror in it, but later, also a kind of freedom. I’m never quite sure what brought it on. But the experience faded in a week, leaving in its wake a strong, unwavering awareness that I needed to live my life differently, to commit myself to making my peace with this vacancy. That turned me into a seeker, first and foremost. All the writing – both prose and poetry – that came afterwards probably reflected this shift in some way. 

What have been the influences that impacted your writing? 

The literary influences have been as varied as all the poets whose work I’ve ever loved: TS Eliot, Basho, Wallace Stevens, Donne, Neruda, Rilke, Anne Sexton, Denise Levertov, Arun Kolatkar, AK Ramanujan, John Burnside, and so, so many more. But as my spiritual journey took on a certain momentum, I also rediscovered the Bhakti poets for myself, and realized they were an integral part of my literary lineage. They are my ancestral guides and companions, in a sense: Nammalvar, Annamacharya, Tukaram, Akka Mahadevi, among others. And there are so many other mystic poets I’d add to that list: Issa, Buson, Ryokan, Ikkyu, Dogen, St John of the Cross, Hafiz, Rumi, among them. 

But we aren’t shaped only by what we read, are we? My life experiences have also impacted my writing. I’ve met some extraordinary people, had some fascinating conversations, travelled to some unforgettable places, had some deeply life-altering (and not always easy) experiences, and I’m sure all of those have contributed to who I am and how I write. 

You have done a book on Sadhguru and another with him. What was it like working with him? 

Sadhguru can be funny, profound, provocative, compassionate, a friend, a remote spiritual master — sometimes all in the course of a single interaction. So, I learnt to go into every book session, prepared to be startled. It’s been interesting — the way I have felt provoked, unsettled, singed, during many of our meetings, and still emerged, feeling oddly energized, invigorated, alive. As the writer of his biography, I was struck by the freedom he allowed me, his refusal to micro-manage the writing.  

You have written books on Buddha and Sadhguru. Why did you opt to write on men associated with religion? 

Well, I’ve also edited an anthology of Bhakti poetry, Eating God, and have a forthcoming book on four contemporary little-known women who walk the spiritual path in their own deeply individual ways, called Women Who Wear Only Themselves. So, my fascination is with the realm of the sacred – and not just with men who commit themselves to it, but with women too. 

I am emphatically not fascinated with the exoteric aspects of religion. But I am interested in the nascent experiential insights around which faiths are often built. So, the Buddha has long interested me as the fearless amateur questor, the compassionate guide who showed us a direct path back to ourselves – one that allows us to bypass all the institutional middlemen who ‘sell water by the river’, as it were. Sadhguru fascinates me for similar reasons, as a contemporary mystic – irreverent, flamboyant, and deeply human all at once. 

You have got God back into poetry. Eating God, a recent book of yours, even says it in the title. What made you opt for bringing God back in where the modern trend is to shun the spiritual? What is your perception of God? 

Eating God is an anthology of sacred verse – of devotional poetry. So, it was difficult not to have god on the menu. The bhaktas wouldn’t have forgiven me for it! 

My own book of poems, When God is a Traveller, also uses the word ‘god’. But the god of this book is not a deity in a temple, but a heroic adventurer who, like so many others in world myth, takes off on a journey around the world and returns to find the answers lie within him. So, the god, Muruga, is a kind of alter ego in this case; a pilgrim/ traveller/ vagabond archetype who mirrors us back to ourselves. 

My perception of the divine? It’s still unfolding and is best implicated in poetry. So, let me simply share my poem, ‘Goddess – II’, with you. It’s from my most recent book, Love Without a Story

Goddess II 
(after Linga Bhairavi) 
 
In her burning rainforest 
silence is so alive 
you can hear  
 
listening. 

Have you ever written in any other language other than English? Why? 

No, I haven’t. English is my first language, and it is an Indian language. It may be ours due to unfortunate historical circumstances. But it is no longer a foreign import. It is as much ours today as democracy, or cricket, or chai, or the chili, or tamarind, or okra, or the nose ring! I have translated poems from Tamil and Gujarati into the English, however, working with fellow-translators for whom those are their first languages. 

In your poem, To the Welsh Critic, you have said: “This business about language, / how much of it is mine, /how much yours”. By saying this, in a way you critique the commonly held belief that writers should write in their mother tongue to express themselves. Can you explain your views on this?  

Well, I often say that my mother speaks many tongues. She is a Tamilian, raised in Burma and Delhi, married in Mumbai, and has chosen now to live in Chennai. Consequently, she speaks Tamil, English and Hindi fluently, and is now studying Spanish online! Like most Indians, she has bequeathed to me a multilingual inheritance. I grew up in Mumbai where I heard Bambaiyya Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil and English around me. English, however, was the language I formally studied, and the language I heard plentifully at home, so it is my first language. It is the language I dream in, express rage and grief in. It is the language closest to my skin; it is the language I need, therefore, to write poetry in. 

Rather than impose some doomed project of cultural jingoism upon ourselves, rather than try to aspire to some mythic state of cultural purity, it would make our lives infinitely richer and more exciting if we embraced our pasts. My ‘Welsh Critic’ poem is addressed to all those – in our country and elsewhere — who offer us absolutist formulae for belonging, who would have us believe there is only one way to be ourselves. As I say in the poem, ‘I stammer through my Tamil,/ and I long for a nirvana that is hermetic,/ odour-free, bottled in Switzerland’. My cultural identity is polyglottal, happily hybrid, and for those very reasons and other indefinable ones, I believe I am as Indian as they come. 

How do you think language should be perceived? Should it be bound to the umbilical bonds? Or should a writer, like an artist, be free to choose his medium of expression — for language is merely his tool, his colour or paintbrush?  

Language is and must always be about freedom of choice. Only when we choose freely can we express freely. Rather than chop and hack at a diverse cultural legacy, it makes sense to enjoy its abundance and savour its many flavours. This is why so many Indian poets I know are translators as well. We enjoy the challenges of bringing the textures and insights of one literature into another, opening up new worlds of aesthetic experience. I have worked for years as editor of the India domain of the Poetry International Web, a small but significant online archive of contemporary Indian poetry. It entailed working with poets working in over twenty Indian languages. The work on this website, as well as all my book of Bhakti poetry, has been about translation – allowing literatures to roam freely from one linguistic context to another.  

It is time to talk unapologetically about the language of poetry. Poets everywhere recognize each other because of this kinship. It has nothing to do with jaded arguments around language politics. Those belong to politicians, not poets. 

Some of your poems talk of establishing an identity as a woman and express a fierce desire for an independent existence. “I erupt from pillars, / half-lion half-woman.” Do you think this need is gender related? Or is it the call of poetry? 

Well, yes, some of my poems do consciously assert a female identity. It is one of the many identities I own – alongside being Anglophone, Indian, contemporary, among other things. In ‘Confession’, the poem you mention, the entity that erupts from pillars, ‘half lion-half woman’, is clearly an allusion to the Narasimha avatar of Vishnu – and yes, I’m definitely presenting a female version of that archetype here. I remember the surge of freedom and joy when crafting that metaphor. 

There is an early poem, ‘5.46, Andheri Local’, in which I speak of a women’s compartment in a peak-hour Mumbai local train being transformed into ‘a thousand-limbed, million-tongued, multi-spoused Kali on wheels’. And in my most recent book, I have a song for ‘catabolic women’ – women who are happily ‘unbuilding, unperpetuating, unfortifying, disintegrating’. These are some of the poems in which the female identity is asserted strongly, emphatically.

‘Catabolic Woman’ is a poem that binds you to both your identity as a woman and an Indian. Do you see nationalism as a necessary part of a writer’s identity?  

Well, there’s a playful paradox in one phrase — ‘proudly Indian, anti-national’ — but other than that, the poem doesn’t really dwell on national identity. It’s more about growing into oneself as a woman (something that happens usually in one’s forties and fifties, or at least, did for me), a woman who’s no longer fooled by self-serving rhetoric, vested interests, hidden agendas. As I said of the poem, ‘To the Welsh Critic’, I see myself as deeply Indian. But I’m uncomfortable with dogmatic definitions of what it means to belong to a particular country, a particular faith, or even a particular gender. There are many ways of being not just Indian, but woman, as well. I would like to believe that my work reflects that complex sense of identity. 

Tagore, perhaps the most acclaimed poet from India, wrote in the start of his essay on Nationalism, “Our real problem in India is not political. It is social.” Would you agree with that? 

Well, I know that there are ways of belonging that lie beyond a glib cosmopolitanism and what I think Tagore called ‘the fierce idolatry of nation-worship’. Belonging anywhere is not about passivity. It is always an act of negotiation. It takes time to see plurality as a possibility, rather than a liability. As richness, rather than confusion. Countries everywhere are grappling with this in their own way – how to celebrate diversity, but without hierarchy, a diversity rooted in justice, in equality. That is our challenge too.  

What is your perception of the role of a poet or writer in the world? Is it only aesthetics or something further? 

We sometimes tend to polarize the morality-aesthetics debate. Being morally attentive doesn’t mean turning heavy-handed or perennially indignant, and valuing aesthetics doesn’t mean turning ethically laissez-faire or politically indifferent. The role of a poet, as I see it, is to be true to the way she sees the world and to use language with precision and thoughtfulness. A mix of authenticity and artistry, integrity and craft – both are essential to poetry. 

Poetry alters human beings in very deep and enduring ways. But those changes aren’t accomplished by turning self-conscious, but by growing more conscious – aiming for greater exactitude and greater nuance, but without losing intensity, without losing the fire that burns, and must always burn, at the core of this art.

Thank you Arundhathi for giving us your time.

Photo Credit: Meetesh Taneja

This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty on behalf of Borderless Journal.

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Click here to read a poem by Arundhathi Subramaniam.

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