Hemant Mohapatra finds that the Indian poetry scene seems disconnected from the rest of the world. Excerpts from a conversation with Sharanya Manivannan.
You won the 2010 Srinivas Rayaprol Prize, one of the very few accolades available for English poetry in India today, and it catapulted you out of obscurity. In some ways, this is a comment on the “low ceilings” of the Indian poetry scene, in which it's difficult to get published, but relatively easy to ascend to celebrity. Can you say a little about this landscape itself, and the trajectories available to poets in India?
I am not a very prolific writer. I write in spurts, and take time with my pieces. I also publish very infrequently, but I don't think it is difficult to get good poetry published in India, what with so many online and print magazines sprouting everywhere. Publishing a full-length book is another story I hear; no personal experience here either. The situation isn't unique to the Indian literary scene, but poetry is especially marginalised in India (who can recall five contemporary Hindi poets under the age of 40?). Moreover, established literary journals are very risk-averse; I see the same 20 to 30 names whichever Indian lit-magazine I choose to read. Given this limited crowd, the path to ‘celebrity' is short, and perhaps not as satisfying. We cannot expect to see these trajectories expand and diversify till we are ready to bring poetry into the mainstream academic curriculum.
Has your recent notability within India had an effect on your reception abroad?
Not really. Somehow, the Indian poetry scene seems disconnected from the rest of the world, though I'd like to see this change in my lifetime, and also participate in that process.
Can you comment about poetry in public spaces, and what role readings play in increasing the public appeal of poetry? On that note, is the public appeal of poetry important, or is it best left to flourish as a niche art form?
My goal, with my poetry, has always been to demystify the craft, and poetry in public places may play a role there. I don't fully grasp the necessity of poetry readings, but I can appreciate the curiosity of a reader to hear the poet's take on his/her own piece. There is a need we all have to connect personally with artists that inspire us, and poetry readings achieve that.
Public appeal of poetry? Absolutely, but there is too much formalisation, too much abstraction in much of modern poetry. Sure, a well-crafted, clever poem could be a thing of beauty, but if it doesn't change me in any way then I am not interested. Poems are not puzzles to be solved; they work with insight, not cognition. As long as this is done right, whether poetry stays as a niche art form or not is of little concern to me.
I noticed that you rarely look up from your text, at the audience, when you read. Is the performative aspect of readings something you think about?
I am hardly the performance poet, preferring to focus on what I express on paper rather than on the stage. I read a lot of poetry to myself, out loud, but that is because I enjoy how a piece tightens or releases my breath; I am interested in exploring that. My early readings likely had a performance aspect: I would look at an audience member at just the right turn of phrase, at just the right moment and make her feel exactly what I wanted to. That sort of attitude can easily corrupt, so I backed off. I want to vanish and be unimportant during a reading; so if the audience stays engaged, it is due to the poem not the poet.
You're originally from Orissa, and are now based in Texas. You've also lived or travelled in a variety of other places, including Russia, South America and South East Asia? What impact has travel and geographic movement had on your poetry?
I am some sort of a ‘reverse traveller'. I don't move around to get inspired, but the other way round. I hear or read about a particular place and that stays with me. A year or two later, if that memory hasn't left, I start making plans. The sort of poetry I prefer to write cannot be written on a tourist visa, so I much prefer to stay at a place for a month or two at a time. It helps me find stories I would miss otherwise.
One of your significant poetic sequences is called “Letters from Exile”. Can you comment on exile as a concept; what does it mean to you, and in what sense do you approach this word?
I started writing the ‘Exile' series in the early winter of 2005 at the end of a significant phase of my life. For me, it was an attempt to be inspired by absences and that attempt has spanned over five years. By exile, I do not mean just the physical but also the emotional distance I had to put between myself and my life to be able to write about things that interested me in a dispassionate, non-sentimental way. The distance was important to gain that vantage, that perspective.
As a pianist, what influence does music — composing, playing and listening — have on your poems?
Music is just another form of expression, another method of self-exploration. There are things I cannot express with poetry alone, so there is certainly an opportunity to merge both media. I haven't been very successful at it so far, but I am trying. For example, right now I am working on a set of poems that will read in sync with a few Chopin nocturnes, the narrative, the punctuations, and line-breaks allowing the poems to ascend and descend with the music.
What about your day job as an engineer? Does that or your training have an influence as well?
Absolutely. I find what I do as an engineer very challenging and enjoyable. Also, it pays the bills, allows me to travel on whim, and to take creative risks. I know there are writers who are inspired by poverty, but not me.
You've said that as a confessional poet, you feel as if you are running out of material. But all artists, even those who don't work in autobiographical modes, are limited by their experience and knowledge. What do you do to keep being inspired? Do you see yourself writing beyond the scope of your own life in future?
I don't want poetry (or the writing of it) to interfere in the living of my life. I don't do anything to ‘find' inspiration, although poetry does present a very real and measurable way for me to assess myself. If I am uninspired, it shows. What I do with that knowledge is not always straight-forward. Writing fictional stories is not important to me, so I don't think I will ever write beyond what I have known, felt, possessed, or lost.