Nalini Priyadarshni in conversation with Anu Mahadev
An abuse victim in the past, Anu Mahadev is a poet based in New Jersey. She is a 2016 MFA graduate of the Drew University’s MFA program in Madison, NJ. With two poetry collections to her credit, Myriad (2013) and Neem Leaves (2015) Anu is a curious reader and lifelong learner. She is passionate and outspoken about issues such as domestic violence, girls’ education and independence, and depression/bipolar disorder. She loves music, languages, animals and long walks. She writes and edits at The Woman Inc., and Jaggery Lit, a literary magazine for Indian diaspora. In this exclusive, she responds to questions from feminist poet Nalini Priyadarshni.
Nalini: Thank you so much, Anu, for taking time to talk to Borderless Journal. I have enjoyed reading your poetry for its vivid imagery and the subtle imprints it leaves on one’s mind. If you have not been asked umpteenth time already, let me ask, why do you write poetry? What is your goal?
Anu: Thank you Nalini for this interview, and for reading and appreciating my work! To me, poetry has always been my favourite form of expression. I write simply because I have to. I am an introvert by nature, and writing is not just my outlet, but my raison d’être. It is not a “hobby”, but what I do, and I do it because I don’t know any other way to be. I do not have a far-reaching goal in mind but I do think it is important to keep the arts alive. If I can change the way people look at the world, through a different lens, by the power of the written word, I would be happy.
Nalini: When is a poem done for you?
Anu: I don’t think I have a fixed rule for that. I try not to wrap my poems with a pretty little bow at the end. I do believe in revising and editing though. The first draft is seldom my final piece. That’s something I had to change about my writing – my impatience. The teachers at my MFA program insisted on it, and drilled it into my habits. Sometimes I even revisit a poem 6 months later with a fresh pair of eyes, and I may have an epiphany! When I feel like I have conveyed what I want to, with just the right words, with economy, I consider it done. Less is more when it comes to my writing.
Nalini: How does a poem begin for you — with an idea, an image or a form? Let’s just say, what triggers a poem?
Anu: My poems are usually an emotional response to something that is happening around me. Either something I’ve heard or seen or felt – sensory triggers basically. Or a memory from a long time ago, that has morphed into something different in the present. I don’t go seeking a poem. It comes to me when it has to. I do not force anything. I’ve been told to set aside time to write every day, which I probably should do, but I don’t believe my best work comes that way. I find that taking a break keeps my writing muscles fresh, and then I can be more open and receptive to what the world has to offer me, in terms of images and ideas. I am not a big fan of forms, and don’t write them unless I am forced!
Word of Mouth
Alive in the ice and fire, was a package
of minutes with no expiry date.
We unwrapped layer by layer,
unraveled the novelty, the raw scent
of unopened nerves, neatly tied up
You said people don’t have a shelf life,
and I laughed.
Then we tasted the hate that comes only
from familiarity, it’s boring faults,
its ripened haste like a cashew flower’s
You said it’s a car with no brake pedal,
no insurance and no collateral damage.
I believed you then, when there was
nothing left in the airwaves but static,
doubt and guilty breathing.
Alive in the ice and fire, is a story,
its tiresome minutiae, and I still
gape at its impossibility with impatience.
Nalini: Plath said, “Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it and the imagination to improvise.” What is your opinion?
Anu: I believe the next line is “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”. I agree fully with her quote. There is no reason to limit yourself to just a few aspects of life, because you are experiencing those at the moment. The world is your oyster, as they say. Everyone always has something interesting to say, whether they know it or not. Everybody has a story to tell. The fear of whether you will get published, or what if people don’t like it, should not come in the way of your writing. Easier said than done, I know, and it does seem daunting. But write the story, the whole story, and worry about revising later. Everything will come together at some point. Be brave enough to explore your soul.
her pencil writes —
of styli, quills
scratched sound waves
between the lines
scattered word fragments
soft chipped graphite
empty notebooks wait
in silence, ruffled pages
reams of white
soon to be covered in print
broken only by these faint
noises, muffled roar
traffic, teapot, dryer
her tapping toe rings
against the chair
the pencil writes —
of such things
when her thoughts
cannot sing her song
Nalini: Some of your poems come with a tinge of nostalgia such as– photograph in b/w, saudade while some of your poems like Laws of Poetry and Needlepoint Theory advocate breaking down old order. What can you tell us about this tension between belonging and charting new paths?
Anu: I don’t believe there is a tension or a tug between the two. Yes, I tend to write a lot about the past, the memories of growing up, family ties and so on, but also about what affects me in the present and what the future holds. Some poems are keen and curious observations about what a character might be feeling at a certain point of time. Some are extrapolations of my experiences, where my imagination takes over. I am equally part of all of these. Maybe I tend to write about loss more than anything else, and the pain associated with it, but these are personal experiences, and it is cathartic to write about them.
Photograph in b/w
sepia toned acacia tree, two
little girls standing—
one, bigger, smiling, two
dolls in her hand
one, smaller, wailing, one
doll, clay-baked mud
matching dresses, hairbands,
shoes, one happy
— she’s not an only child
anymore, she won’t
share though, the other
screams for mom
separated soon after birth,
reunited as sisters
strangers in the womb
hands, trying to understand
how a family behaves
the definition of love, where
it comes from
Nalini: Do you recall a moment in your upbringing or childhood that, when you revisit, seems to presage for you a life in poetry and writing?
Anu: I think that being a shy and quiet child led me to books and writing, long before I realized that it was to be my passion. As an introvert, I grew up to be very observant about others and the world around me, and felt that I could see what others simply took for granted. As a sensitive child, I was generally ignored at school. Left to my own devices, I gave myself the freedom to explore. Without cellphones or Google, and with plenty of time to be bored, my imagination soared. I guess around the age of 10 till about 17 is when I wrote plenty. Life took me in other directions after that – engineering and computer science and so on. I got my second wind after my son was born and I was home for several years. It felt like poetry had never left me. I started writing again and enrolled in an MFA program for poetry at Drew University. After that, there was no looking back.
Nalini: How did you overcome the trauma of abuse to lead a normal life?
Anu: I suffered mental and physical abuse for four years in the mid 90s. Coming out of it was a Herculean task because first of all I did not know that I HAD to come out of it. As a victim I had learned to accept things as the status quo, believing that I had no other choice and that it was fate which brought me to that situation. Whatever little self-esteem I had had been eroded to such a bad degree that I could not think for myself any more. But the two things that were untouched were my faith, and my love of books/writing. Those too would have gone had I stayed longer, but I soon understood that this was a toxic relationship. And that it was better to be alone, no matter how terrifying that sounded.
Nalini: What role did writing, in general and poetry in particular, played during this difficult phase of your life? And how has it changed your perspective since then?
Anu: Overcoming the trauma was no small feat. What I did not know at the time was that I was also suffering from chronic depression. At first, building myself bit by bit felt like an ordeal, but soon, having removed the bad influences from my life, it was actually peaceful. Nobody to boss me around or show me the consequences if I did not do something right. Or waste my time after a long day at work. I returned to books and kept a small journal to chronicle my thoughts and my progress. Over the years, I have written more about living in abuse, and seeing my life on a sheet of paper has been surreal, but it helped a lot to write openly about that phase and get it out of my head. From believing that nobody would love me, or that I was not fit to have a normal life, I now believe that everyone is deserving and capable of love.
My desire is to help women in a similar situation understand that the power of the written word can work wonders. They light the fire that results in changing a thought. I know it seems crazy but Tagore’s “Where the mind is without fear” would help me. It was for a country, but at that time, I felt like it was written for me to wake up and take action.
I remember a different time when Orion brought us
good luck. When the Big Dipper would point to Sirius,
and we thought the spirit of every dog lived there
When I would stare at your freckled back and look for a map of cities
where we would go, where we would separate
The hunt is important, you would say, so is the capture
who cares what happens after that?
They say it’s easy to get anything, maintaining is the hard part –
clothes, toys, luxury items,
you with your blasé look — I, still hungry, look for a side of a cold bed
that’s no longer slept on
Your mind, partitioned into different countries,
a concubine in each harem, an echo in each chamber
I’m singing the same song, in a different intonation,
the way you did when your tongue first caressed my nape, my mouth,
Crumbs of red velvet are still crumbs, in a vagabond’s palms.
Nalini: We live in an age of Twitter and Instagram. There is a deluge of poets writing micro poems and riding on instant fame. It might seem that poetry has become more popular in recent years but is it really so? What do you think of instant/micro/4-line poetry written around popular notions?
Anu: I have nothing against micro-poetry, as long as it is well done. 4 lines can sometimes convey more than 40 lines. And as for the popularity, one can say they are easily relatable to the masses, therefore they become famous. However, the trend I observe is that there is nothing fresh about the poems themselves – they are trite and clumsy. I am not saying that someone has to come up with some out of the world topic – come to think of it, many poets write about the same things, but they do so in different, refreshing ways. That is what I find lacking these days. And in general, the opinion is that it is very easy to become a poet, as opposed to a fiction or a screenplay writer, and therefore everyone feels like taking it up. I have a problem with that J Poets go through rigorous technique training too, just like the others, and so, writing 4 lines one day doesn’t make you a poet. They are born, and then made just like in any other profession. I am not trying to sound like a snob. Certainly, everyone has the freedom to write, and everyone’s aims are different. If you want instant fame, sure social media will do it for you. But if you want to write everlasting poetry, something that will be quoted for generations to come, then that isn’t the way to go about it. I am getting to know several poets who write beautifully but don’t have a book out. So that definitely is no measure of success!
Nalini: Talking of social media, Facebook poetry groups are ubiquitous. I keep removing myself but still I must be in a million groups. Though I must admit they are great places to read, share one’s poetry and interact with other creative minds. Poetry group, The Woman Inc. that you run is one of my favorite for the powerful poetry it shares. How do you think internet and social media contribute towards well-being of the poetry?
Anu: I think it is great that these groups exist. I was a hesitant poet once, very unsure of my writing, and these groups gave me the confidence that I too could write. What I like is that the feedback is honest and sincere. I don’t like groups where everyone simply praises each other for a great poem, whether it is true or not. And if I am added to such a group, I remove myself. I myself started a small Facebook group for New Jersey based South Asian poets, where we post our poems and solicit blunt critique. That is the only way to grow. It is great for the future of poetry because budding poets come alive and develop their writing skills, and go on to write far better than when they started out with. Not to mention the community it creates. Such communities are important for the arts to thrive.
Nalini: And now a question that all those who write poetry ask themselves at some point of time — what does it mean to be a poet?
Anu: According to me, being a poet means being connected to a deeper part of yourself, and feeling each moment, each ripple. The response that you create when you see something that moves you – a painful event, an injustice, a happy moment, the beauty of nature – these are just examples that make you want to bring about a change, even a small one, in the world. I think being a humble student for life is a poet’s personality. There are days when I struggle with the impostor syndrome, thinking I don’t belong here, or my writing is awful. But to persevere, and have faith in that part of yourself that is able to capture a different view of the world, is what makes you a poet. To be able to distinguish between seeing something and looking at something, to be part of that self-discovery that expresses who you are as a person, defines who you are as a poet.
Nalini: Any words for budding poets?
Anu: Read! Read your favorite poets, poets you’ve never heard of, the classic poets, the Pinterest poets, anything you can – this will expand your horizons and you will also learn to distinguish between different varieties of poetry, different styles of writing before gravitating towards some and developing your own style. And write regularly. Continue writing – I cannot advise that you do it every day because that is not what I do – but often enough, and find a mentor, a sounding board whom you can approach from time to time.
Also, start slow, and then find journals to submit to. You will get a lot of rejections before you get an acceptance, and that can be frustrating. But if getting a poem published is that important to you, then keep at it. You are creating something out of nothing, and that is a powerful skill. Be engrossed and be committed to your art. Feel each word. Get your ego out of your head and be open to receiving feedback. And in the midst of all this, don’t forget to have fun in the process.
Nalini: Thank you so much, Anu. It was a pleasure talking to you.
Anu: Likewise, Nalini! Thank you.
(This interview was conducted via email.)
Nalini Priyadarshni is a feminist poet, writer, translator, and educationist though not necessarily in that order who has authored Doppelganger in My House and co-authored Lines Across Oceans with late D. Russel Micnhimer. Her poetry, prose and photographs have appeared in numerous literary journals, podcasts and international anthologies including The Lie of the Land published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. A nominee for the Best of The Net 2017 she lives in Punjab, India and moonlights as a linguistic consultant.