Categories
Interview

 When a Hobo in a Fedora Hat Breathes Tolkien…

In Conversation with Strider Marcus Jones

Strider Marcus Jones
i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien

Strider Marcus Jones wrote these lines about an idyllic utopia that was named Lothlorien by JRR Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. Jones writes beautiful poetry that touches the heart with its music and lyricality and recreates a world that hums with peace, beauty, acceptance and tolerance – values that have become more precious than gems in the current world of war, strife and distress. He has created his own Lothlorien in the form of a journal which he has named after the elfin utopia of Tolkien. An avid reader and connoisseur of arts, for him all his appreciation congeals in the form of poetry which draws from music, art and he says, perhaps even his legal training! Let us stride into his poetic universe to uncover more about a man who seems to be reclusive and shy about facing fame and says he learns from not just greats but every poet he publishes.

What started you out as a writer? What got your muse going and when?

In my childhood, I sought ways to escape the poverty of the slums in Salford. My escape, while gathering floorboards from condemned houses every winter and carrying them through back entries in crunching snow to our flat, above two shops for my dad to chop up and burn on the fire was to live in my imagination. I was an explorer and archaeologist discovering lost civilisations and portals to new dimensions our mind’s had lost the ability to see and travel between since the time of the druids. Indoors I devoured books on ancient history, artists, and poetry from the library. I was fascinated by the works of Picasso, Gauguin, Bruegel and many others and sketched some of their paintings. Then one day, my pencil stopped sketching and started to compose words into lines that became “raw” poems.  My first mentor was Anne Ryan, who taught me English Literature at High School when I was fourteen. Before this, I had never told anyone I was writing poetry. My parents, siblings and friends only found out when I was in my twenties and comfortable in myself with being a ranger, a maverick in reality and imagination.

When I read your poetry, I am left wondering… Do you see yourself in the tradition of a gypsy/mendicant singing verses or more as a courtly troubadour or something else?

I don’t have the legs to be a courtly troubadour in tights and my voice sounds like a blacksmith pounding a lump of metal on his anvil.

I feel and relate to being gypsy and am proud of my Celtic roots passed down to me from my Irish Gypsy grandmother on my Father’s side who read the tea leaves, keys, rings, and other items telling people’s fortunes for years with scary accuracy. I seem to have inherited some of her seer abilities for premonition.

Like my evening single malt whiskey, age has matured the idealism of my youth and hardened my resolve to give something back to the world and society for giving me this longevity in it. The knocks from the rough and tumble of life have hardened my edges, but my inner core still glows like Aragorn’s calm courage and determination in the quest to bring about a more just and fairer world that protects its innocent people and polluted environment. Since Woody Guthrie, Tom Waits and Bukowski are influences I identify with deeply, I suppose I am a mendicant in some of my poetry but a romantic and revolutionary too, influenced by Neruda, Rumi, Byron, and Shelley shielded by The Tree of Life in Tolkien’s Lothlorien:

THE HEAD IN HIS FEDORA HAT

a lonely man,
cigarette,
rain
and music
in a strange wind blowing

moving,
not knowing,
a gypsy caravan
whose journey doesn't expect
to go back
and explain
why everyone's ruts have the same
blood and vein.

the head in his fedora hat
bows to no one's grip
brim tilted inwards
concealing his vineyards
of lyrical prose
in a chaos composed
to be exposed,
go, git
awed
and jawed
perfect and flawed,
songs from the borderless
plain
where no one has domain
and his outlaw wit
must confess
to remain

a storyteller
that hobo fella

a listening barfly
for a while,
the word-winged butterfly
whose style
they can't close the shutters on
or stop talking about
when he walks out
and is gone.

whiskey and tequila
with a woman who can feel ya
inside her, and know she's not Ophelia
as ya move as one,
to a closer and simplistic,
unmaterialistic
tribal Babylon,

becomes so,
when she stands, spread
all arms and legs
in her Eskimo
Galadriel glow,
sharing mithril breath,
no more suburban settlements
and tortured tenements
of death,
just a fenceless forest
and mountain quests
with a place to rest
on her suckled breasts,
hanging high, swinging slow.

war clouds HARP
through stripped leaves and bark,
where bodies sleeping in houseboat bones
reflect and creak in cobbled stones:
smokey sparks from smoked cigars
drop like meteorites from streetlight stars,
as cordons crush civil rights
under Faust's fascist Fahrenheit’s.
 
one more whiskey for the road.
another story lived and told

under that
fedora hat
inhaling smoke
as he sang and spoke
stranger fella
storyteller.

You seem to have a fascination for JRR Tolkien. You have a poem and a journal by the name of Lothlorien. Why this fascination? Do you think that JRR Tolkien is relevant in the current context? We are after all, reverting to a situation similar to a hundred years ago.

Yes, on all counts. Tolkien and his Lord of The Rings trilogy have been part of my life since I first read one summer when I was twelve years old.  My young mind, starved of adventure and elevenses in Salford’s slums, willingly absorbed the myths and magic, lore’s and legends beguiling me to enter the ‘Age of Man’. This living in a time of relative peace alongside other, more ancient races with musical-poetic languages reflected part of my own reality in living through the Cold War decades under the impending doom of nuclear annihilation where daily life often felt the shadows cast by the Cuban Missile Crisis, war in Vietnam, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and famine in Biafra.

Sauron’s evil eye and invading armies echo an outgoing President Eisenhower’s ominous warning to curtail the influence and corruption of the banking-military-industrial-complex. Instead, Martin Luther King and President John F Kennedy were assassinated and a surveillance state and gilded slavery ideology is being imposed globally using artificial intelligence. Ancient civilisations in Iraq and Libya have been destroyed for control of oil and to maintain global Petro dollar power. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings is just as relevant today in Ukraine, Yemen, and Syria and as it was through the slaughters of Verdun, the Somme and Flanders Fields. It is a warning that good must prevail over evil and this burden is borne by those with courage and conviction who cannot be corrupted.  

What is your Lothlorien? What does poetry mean to you and your existence?

My Lothlorien is a more peaceful world, with more tolerance of other individuals and cultures. Not perfect by any stretch but a place where people laugh, have their neighbours back and work with each other. A place of social justice and equality, music, poetry and art. It is no place for racism, sexism, ageism, corruption, or war. A kind of homestead with birdsong, forest, mountains and rivers, preferably in the French Pyrenees or Alaskan Bush. A place of words composed into poems and stories read and spoken, passed down and added to by each inspired generation in the Native American tradition. Poetry is all about communication and community in my existence. We are caretakers of our words and the world.

You have used Orwell, Gaugin and many more references in your poetry. Which are the writers and artists that influence you the most? What do you find fascinating about them?

Individuality of expression through fiction, poetry, art and music fascinates me. Now, at 62 years of age so many have influenced my poetry with or without me knowing or realising it. These include:

From the past – Chaucer, Tennyson, Shelley, Keats, Blake, W.B. Yeats, Auden, Langston Hughes, Hart Crane, Sexton, Plath, Kerouac, Heaney, Lorca, Orwell, Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Tolkien, Steinbeck, Heller, Donaldson, P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Rilke, Rumi, E.E.Cummings, Neruda, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, Thelonious  Monk, John Coltrane, Dylan, Tom Waits. So many.

From now – They know who they are. I have published their work in Lothlorien Poetry Journal.

You play instruments — saxophone and clarinet? Does that impact your poetry?

Saying I play instruments is a huge stretch of the imagination. I get strange notes out of my saxophone and clarinet that must sound like a hurricane blowing in anyone’s ears. My black Labrador, Mysty, covers her ears with her paws but I enjoy trying to play. I love jazz music, anything from the 1920s to early 70s, but Miles Davis, Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, and Ornette Coleman took jazz music to a level that transcends mortality.

Jazz music continues to be a profound influence in my poetry. I will explain how.     

Does any kind of music impact your writing?

In some way, unbeknown to me, jazz music, particularly that of Davis, Monk and Coltrane runs parallel to and interweaves with the rhythms of how I think when I write poetry. It closes my mind to the distractions of the outside world. The sound of those perfect and imperfect notes opens a door in my mind, I close my eyes, float into this dark room and my senses fill with images and words, which hover in the air like musical notes where I conduct them into rhythms and phrases bonded to a theme. Some become poems, others disintegrate into specks of dust, the moment gone. Sometimes, the idea and train of thought sleeps in my subconscious for years. This happened with my poems “Visigoth Rover” and “Life is Flamenco” which come from   my sojourns randomly wandering through Spain but were born years later listening to Paco playing Spanish guitar and Flamenco music which is another key influence in my poetry.

VISIGOTH ROVER

i went on the bus to Cordoba,
and tried to find the Moor's
left over
in their excavated floors
and mosaic courtyards,
with hanging flowers brightly chameleon
against whitewashed walls
carrying calls
behind gated iron bars-
but they were gone
leaving mosque arches
and carved stories
to God's doors.

in those ancient streets
where everybody meets-
i saw the old successful men
with their younger women again,
sat in chrome slat chairs,
drinking coffee to cover
their vain love affairs-
and every breast,
was like the crest
of a soft ridge
as i peeped over
the castle wall and Roman bridge
like a Visigoth rover.

soft hand tapping on shoulder,
heavy hair
and beauty older,
the gypsy lady gave her clover
to borrowed breath, 
embroidering it for death,
adding more to less
like the colours fading in her dress.
time and tune are too planned
to understand
her Trevi fountain of prediction,
or the dirty Bernini hand
shaping its description.

LIFE IS FLAMENCO

why can't i walk as far
and smoke more tobacco,
or play my Spanish guitar
like Paco,
putting rhythms and feelings
without old ceilings
you've never heard
before in a word.

life is flamenco,
to come and go
high and low
fast and slow-

she loves him,
he loves her
and their shades within
caress and spur
in a ride and dance
of tempestuous romance.

outback, in Andalucian ease,
i embrace you, like melted breeze
amongst ripe olive trees-
dark and different,
all manly scent
and mind unkempt.

like i do,
Picasso knew
everything about you
when he drew
your elongated arms and legs
around me, in this perpetual bed
of emotion
and motion
for these soft geometric angles
in my finger strokes
and exhaled smokes 
of rhythmic bangles
to circle colour your Celtic skin
with primitive phthalo blue
pigment in wiccan tattoo
before entering
vibrating wings
through thrumming strings
of wild lucid moments
in eternal components.

i can walk as far
and smoke more tobacco,
and play my Spanish guitar
like Paco.

Tell us about how music and language weaves into your poetry — “i’m come home again” — there is no effort at punctuation — and yet the poem is clear and lyrical. I really love this poem – Lothlorien. Can you tell me how you handle the basic tool of words and grammar in your poetry?

In my mind, music is poetry through sound instead of words. Like words, the combinations of notes and pauses have intricate rhythms and phrases. In many of my poems like “Lothlorien” and those above, I weave the rhythms and phrases of jazz music or Spanish guitar and words together with run on lines so there is no need for punctuation. This gives these poems, and many others a spontaneity and energy which feels more natural and real and has a potent, more immediate impact on the senses and emotions when combined with images and happenings. This whole process feels natural to me. It began in my early twenties, when I was listening to old Blues and the likes of Leadbelly and Robert Johnson alongside Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Tom Waits and Neil Young. These are the raw underbelly notes of my pain and anger at the world. Jazz is the mellow top notes. I hope this makes sense. It is hard to explain something that is natural to and part of who I am, so forgive any lack of clarity.

Sometimes, I just like to add a moment of mischievous fun to a serious poem as in these two:

REJECTING OVID

the fabulous beauty of your face-
so esoteric,
not always in this place-
beguiles me.

it's late, mesmeric
smile is but a base,
a film to interface
with the movements of the mind behind it.

my smile, me-
like Thomas O'Malley
the alley
cat reclining on a tin bin lid
with fishy whiskers-

turns the ink in the valley
of your quills
into script,
while i sit
and sip

your syllables
with fresh red sepals of hibiscus,
rejecting Ovid
and his Amores
for your stories.



OLD CAFE

a rest, from swinging bar
and animals in the abattoir-
to smoke in mental thinks
spoken holding cooling drinks.

counting out old coppers to be fed
in the set squares of blue and red
plastic tablecloth-
just enough to break up bread in thick barley broth.

Jesus is late
after saying he was coming
back to share the wealth and real estate
of capitalist cunning.

maybe. just maybe.
put another song on the jukebox baby:
no more heroes anymore.
what are we fighting for --

he's hiding in hymns and chants,
in those Monty Python underpants,
from this coalition of new McCarthy's
and it's institutions of Moriarty's.

some shepherds’ sheep will do this dance
in hypothermic trance,
for one pound an hour
like a shamed flower,

watched by sinister sentinels-
while scratched tubular bells,
summon all to Sunday service
where invisible myths exist-

to a shamed flower
with supernatural power
come the hour.  

How do you compose a poem? Is it spontaneous or is it something you do? Do you hear the lines or voices or is it in some other way?

Most poems come from life’s experiences and observations of people, places, nature, and events. These can be from the past, or present and sometimes premonitions of the future which often overlap depending on the theme/s and where I want it to go.

When it comes to composing a poem, I am not robotic, and neither is my Muse. I have no set time and never write for the sake of writing something each day which I find disrupts my subconscious process. A poem can begin at any time of day or night, but my preferred time to think and write is mid-evening going through to witching hour and beyond. I put some music on low, pour myself a slow whiskey and sit down in my favourite chair with pen and folded paper. I never try to force a poem. The urge to write just occurs. I don’t know how, or why. It just happens. My subconscious finds the thread, thinks it through and the poem begins to unravel on the page. I care about the poems since they care about the world and the people in it. So, I often agonise for days and in some cases years, over lines and words and structure, crossing out words and whole lines until they feel right. Editing, and redrafting is a crucial part of the writing process and requires courage and discipline. Butchering your own work feels barbaric in the moment but enhances your poetic voice and strengthens the impact of a poem on the reader.

You are a lawyer and in the Civil Service in UK. How does law blend with poetry?

I am a law graduate and retired legal adviser to the magistrates’ courts/civil servant who retired early. I have never practiced as a lawyer.

I never think about law when I write, but I am sure the discipline brings organisation to the orderly chaos of Spinoza’s universe that resembles the space inside my head.

Tell us about your journal. When and how did you start it?

I started Lothlorien Poetry Journal in January 2021. I publish the online rolling blog of poetry and fiction and printed book volumes — currently standing at eight issues featuring established and emerging poets and fiction writers published on the LPJ blog.

We are a friendly literary journal featuring free verse/rhyming/experimental poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and occasional interviews with poets.

We love poems about enchantment, fantasy, fairy tale, folklore, dreams, dystopian, flora and fauna, magical realism, romance, and anything hiding deep in-between the cracks.

I publish Lothlorien Poetry Journal periodically, 4-6 issues every year. Contributors to each issue (selected from the best work published on the Journal’s Blog) are notified prior to publication and receive a free PDF copy of the issue that features their work.

We nominate for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.

 What do you look for in a poet as a publisher?

I look for a poet or writer’s distinct voice, that spark of originality in their theme/s, the rhythm and musicality in their language and phrasing.  I have no boundaries as to style, form, or subject – prose, rhyming, free verse, sonnets, haiku, experimental or mavericks who break the rules and write about the darker underbelly of society – if it is good and not offensive, racist or sexist Lothlorien Poetry Journal could be the natural home for your work. The best way to find out is to come to Lothlorien, have a read, and decide to submit.

LOTHLORIEN

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien
to marinate my mind
in your words,
and stand behind
good tribes grown blind,
trapped in old absurd
regressive reasons
and selfish treasons.

in this cast of strife
the Tree of Life
embraces innocent ghosts,
slain by Sauron's hosts-
and their falling cries
make us wise
enough to rise
up in a fellowship of friends
to oppose Mordor's ends
and smote this evil stronger
and longer
for each one of us that dies.

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien,
persuading
yellow snapdragons
to take wing
and un-fang serpent krakens-
while i bring
all the races
to resume
their bloom
as equals in equal spaces
by removing
and muting
the chorus of crickets
who cheat them from chambered thickets,
hiding corruptions older than long grass
that still fag for favours asked.

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien
where corporate warfare
and workfare
on health
and welfare
infests our tribal bodies
and separate self
in political lobbies
so conscience can't care
or share
worth and wealth-

to rally drones
of walking bones,
too tired
and uninspired
to think things through
and the powerless who see it true.
red unites, blue divides,
which one are you
and what will you do
when reason decides.


IN THE TALK OF MY TOBACCO SMOKE

i have disconnected self
from the wire of the world
retreated to this unmade croft
of wild grass and savage stone
moored mountains
set in sea
blue black green grey
dyed all the colours of my mood
and liquid language-
to climb rocks
instead of rungs
living with them
moving around their settlements
of revolutionary random place
for simple solitary glory.
i am reduced again
to elements and matter
that barter her body for food
teasing and turning
her flesh to take words and plough.
rapid rain
slaps the skin
on honest hands
strongly gentle
while sowing seeds
the way i touch my lover
in the talk of my tobacco smoke:
now she knows
she tastes
like all the drops
of my dreams
falling on the forest
of our Lothlorien.

Thanks for your lovely poetry and time.

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

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

Categories
Editorial

Making a Grecian Urn

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  
  
John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to a Grecian Urn
‘Beauty is Truth’ : The Potato Eaters(1885) by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Courtesy: Creative Commons

What makes for great literature? To me, great literature states the truth — the truth that touches your heart with its poignancy, preciseness, sadness, gentleness, vibrancy, or humour.  If Khayyam, Rumi, Keats, Tagore, Frost or Whitman had no truths to state, their poetry would have failed to mesmerise time and woo readers across ages. Their truths – which can be seen as eternal ones — touch all human hearts with empathetic beauty. Lalon Fakir rose from an uneducated illiterate mendicant to a poet because he had the courage to sing the truth about mankind — to put social norms and barriers aside and versify his truth, which was ours and still is. This can be applied to all genres. Short stories by Saki, O’ Henry or plays and essays by Bernard Shaw — what typifies them? The truth they speak with perhaps a sprinkle of humour. Alan Paton spoke the truth about violence and its arbitrariness while writing of South Africa — made the characters so empathetic that Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) is to me one of the best fictions describing divides in the world, and the same divides persist today. The truth is eternal as in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Suskind’s Perfume (1985). We love laughter from Gerald Durrell or PG Wodehouse too because they reflect larger truths that touch mankind as does the sentimentality of Dickens or the poignancy of Hardy or the societal questioning of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. The list of greats in this tradition would be a very long one.

 Our focus this time is on a fearless essayist in a similar tradition, one who unveiled truths rising above the mundane, lacing them with humour to make them easily digestible for laymen – a writer and a polyglot who knew fourteen languages by the name of Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974). He was Tagore’s student, a Humboldt scholar who lived across six countries, including Afghanistan and spoke of the things he saw around him. Cherished as a celebrated writer among Bengali readers, he wrote for journals and published more than two dozen books that remained untranslated because his witticisms were so entrenched by cultural traditions that no translator dared pick up their pen. Many decades down the line, while in Afghanistan, a BBC editor for South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz, translated bits of Mujtaba Ali’s non-fiction for his curious friends till he had completed the whole of the travelogue.

The translation named In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan was published and nominated for the Crossword Awards. This month, we not only run an excerpt from the translated essays but also have an interview with the former BBC journalist, Afroz, who tells us not only about the book but also of the current situation in ravaged Afghanistan based on his own first-hand experiences. Nazes himself has travelled to forty countries, much like our other interviewee, Sybil Pretious, who has travelled to forty and lived in six. She had been writing for us till she left to complete her memoirs — which would cover much of history from currently non-existent country Rhodesia to apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. These would be valuable records shared with the world from a personal account of a pacifist who loves humanity.

We have more on travel — an essay by Tagore describing with wry humour vacations in company of his niece and nephew and letters written by the maestro during his trips, some laced with hilarity and the more serious ones excerpted from Kobi and Rani, all translated by Somdatta Mandal. We have also indulged our taste for Tagore’s poetry by translating a song heralding the start of the Durga Puja season. Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated in India. An essay by Meenakshi Malhotra explains the songs of homecoming during this festival. It is interesting that the songs express the mother’s views as highlighted by Malhotra, but one notices, never that of the Goddess, who, mythology has it, gave up her life when the husband of her own choosing, Shiva, was perceived by her family as ‘uncouth’ and was insulted in her parent’s home.

In spirit of this festival highlighting women power and on the other hand her role in society, we have a review by Somdatta of T. Janakiraman’s Wooden Cow, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan, where the protagonist upends all traditional values ascribed to women. Another book which is flavourful with food and would be a real fit on every festive occasion is Mohana Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review, “In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.”

Aruna Chakravarti’s review of Shazia Omar’s Golden Bangladesh at Fifty also stands out embracing the colours of Bengal. It traces the title back to history and their national anthem — a Tagore song called ‘Amaar Sonar Bangla – My Golden Bengal’. Gracy Samjetsabam’s review of Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow, a cross cultural novel with an unusual ending that shuttles between America and Japan, winds up our review section this time.

As Kamata’s book travels across two continents in a pre-covid world, Sunil Sharma in reality moved home from one continent to another crossing multiple national borders during the pandemic. He has written an eye-opening account of his move along with his amazing short story on Gandhi. Another unusual story creating a new legend with wonderful photographs and the narrative woven around them can be relished in Nature’s Musings by Penny Wilkes. This time we have fiction from India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and America. Steve Davidson has given a story based partly on Tibetan lore and has said much in a light-hearted fashion, especially as the Llama resumes his travels at the end of the story. Keeping in step with light humour and travel is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s account of a pony ride up a hill, except it made me laugh more.

The tone of Rhys Hughes cogitations about the identity of two poets across borders in ‘Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?’ reminds me of Puck  or Narada! Of course, he has given humour in verses with a funny story poem which again — I am not quite sure — has a Welsh king who resisted Roman invasion or is it someone else? Michael Burch has limericks on animals, along with his moving poem on Martin Luther King Junior. We have much poetry crossing borders, including a translation of Akbar Barakzai’s fabulous Balochi poetry by Fazal Baloch and Sahitya Akademi winning Manipuri poet, Thangjam Ibopishak, translated by Robin S Ngangom. A Nazrul song which quests for a spiritual home has been translated from Bengali by no less than Professor Fakrul Alam, a winner of both the SAARC award and Bangla Academy Literary Award.

Former Arts Editor of Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, has shared an essay on how kantha (hand embroidered rug) became a tool to pass on information during the struggle against colonial occupation. The piece reminded me of the narrative of passing messages through mooncakes among Chinese. During the fourteenth century, the filling was of messages to organise a rebellion which replaced the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with the Ming (1368-1644). Now the filling is delicious lotus paste, chocolates or other edible delicacies. Women were heavily involved in all these movements. Sameer Arshad Khatlani has highlighted how women writers of the early twentieth century writing in Urdu, like Ismat Chughtai, created revolutionary literature and inspired even legendary writers, like Simone de Beauvoir. There is much more in our content — not all of which has been discussed here for again this time we have spilled over to near fifty pieces.

We have another delightful surprise for our readers – a cover photo of a painting by Sohana Manzoor depicting the season titled ‘Ode to Autumn’. Do pause by and take a look at this month’s issue. We thank our writers and readers for their continued support. And I would personally like to give a huge thanks to the team which makes it possible for me to put these delectable offerings before the world. Thank you all.

Wish you a wonderful month full of festivities!

Mitali Chakravarty,

Borderless Journal

Categories
Essay

My Experiments with Identity

By Tejas Yadav

“Who are you?” Rarely do people vocalize this question, but you know they’re thinking it — from the very moment you meet them. To answer that question, you have to deal with another, internal one first. Who amI?

For a long time, I believed in a rigid identity, a fixed innate truth. Identity was a monolith, immutable and inherited. Down the river of years and landscapes, I have docked at numerous destinations, calling at each port with a distinct call. Heraclitus said you cannot step into the same river twice: the river moves on and so do you. If everything is in flux, how could I be, forever and everywhere I went, only one of the many things I could be?

In an interview, author Jhumpa Lahiri contended a singular, unchanging identity no longer interested her. Instead, she was seeking out different facets of her being and pushing the limits of how she defines herself. Lahiri grew up in an immigrant Indian family in the US but now lives in Rome, having learned and published in her adoptive language. She wonders if she is a Bengali, an American, an Italian, a woman, a writer, a wife or all of the above? Reading Lahiri’s words was liberating. Here was someone who had immersed herself into the Heracletian river, instead of skimming its superficial curves and bends.

I find this detachment from an unchanging, stereotypical identity appealing as I grow older. The more I turn around the sun, the more I want to shed cloaks of nationality, race, religion, sexuality and career. I want to be who I am, only I get to decide which emotional, political and social avatar I wish to place uppermost given the context. The richness of a pluralistic life means different hues take precedence depending on space and time. Back in the Renaissance period, polymaths were celebrated for being cultural chameleons and intellectual infidels. Utilitarianism has turned us into reductionists and prejudice into bigots. We want quick, short, predictable, comfortable answers to “Who are you?”. “Save the transgressive, subversive ambiguity of your Being,” they seem to say. “We need a label to comprehend your humanity. So, hurry up, what’s yours?”

Like Gandhi who wrote My Experiments with Truth, I too am Indian but unlike him, I am also the person who has lived most of his adult life away from India. I am gay, part of the identity politics of the LGBTQ+ minority and in the same breath I am also a cisgender able-bodied male with unspoken privileges. I am a scientist, but I am also a writer, poet. Sometimes I am a ‘person of colour’ and sometimes my emotional reactions against the racial battle fatigue, make me wish I could simply blend into the seawater of majority White.

Today, I have a paid job, but I am also someone who carries inside the memory of being unemployed. At times the immigrant in me surges to the forefront, on other occasions the anti-capitalist. I can be lucid and peaceful, but I know too the chasms between depression and vitality, the ones that are never fully bridged. Although this schizoid state recalls split personalities, a multi-layered identity is far from an incoherent, fragmented sense of self. All of these planes of existence make me who I am and, nevertheless, none of them are sufficient to define me. Only a paradox remains when I think of the whole of me. Identity then is an oxymoron, in evolution.

Undeniably, in a world that likes stock labels and neat boundaries it can feel chaotic to juggle different identities. Heterogeneity strikes many as a threat. Dissonance, variance, deviance constitute a trident charged against the constant, the power-wielding majority. The allure of sameness is strong in mobs, groups, entitled circles. They proclaim cohesiveness is the same as compassion. All outliers are dangerous. This primitive insularity reeks of exclusivity, of othering.

Invariability strikes those with unquestioned identities as the paragon of assimilation. But assimilation asks a great deal out of me and nothing out of you. How is that fair? Perhaps it is fair in the same way that ignorance and intolerance prosper while justice langours in the darkness. Assimilation has one objective: constancy. I’ve lived in four countries, speak five languages, straddle Science and Art. I stand at the crossroads of the developing East and developed West. I know the taste of racism deep in my skin (like spit full of hateful fear), I’ve walked down shiny corridors of privilege (Oxford, New York, Paris). I know the eyes that ask “Who are you?” and answer before I can, denying me the dignity of equality. In their gaze, my identity is a foregone, implicit bias. To them I say, constant is a dead word to me.

I live in the rough, mean, fleeting edges, the boundaries that no one sees because intersections are tough places. They are also thriving, lush, transcendent niches for the invisible and ignored. At intersections, we become so much greater than the sum total of our experiences. The goal of self-determination is not to figure out the right identity label and hold on to it dearly and protect it vehemently when attacked. Instead, fluidity serves natural order better. Amorphous like the primordial sizzling soup we come from, full of protean charm. Complex and dazzling like precious stones under a stolid terra firma. I wish to carry myself with my multitudinous, contradictory truths.  If someone is not prepared to engage in meaningful exchange with my nebulous vibrant ‘otherness’, they will receive a unidimensional, disengaged version of me. Or better, none at all.

Rumi allegedly said “You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” As I write these words, I’m starting to see what he meant. My experiments with difference continue, ironically because the word identity comes from the Latin one, idem, which means the same. How much of me is lost if the river stops flowing? Congruity always tries to boss over irregularity. In the end, the truth of one’s identity stems from uniqueness, not uniformity. Manifold and bewildering is the flow of an ecstatic river that refuses to be forded by narrow constraints imposed by mankind.

Tejas Yadav is an Indian scientist and writer. Currently, he lives in Paris. Themes of immigration, race and mental health inspire him. You can read more of his published work here:https://ytejas.medium.com/my-published-work-7cc06b99a443

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

Categories
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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