Updated: January 23, 2010 17:05 IST

One cannot write if one is complacent

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Going with the flow: Sampurna Chattarji
Going with the flow: Sampurna Chattarji

Poet-novelist-translator Sampurna Chattarji tells K. SRILATA which of her writerly personas she most identifies with.

Feisty and warm, Sampurna Chattarji is the sort of poet whose work approaches the intellect by way of the heart. Her poems resonate amid the green silences of Cholamandalam artists' village, one of the many venues for the Poetry with Prakriti festival. After the reading, Sampurna and I continue our conversation, initiated over e-mail, about her poetry and her forays into fiction…

You are a poet, fiction writer and translator. You have translated Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray, written books for children. Your debut poetry collection Sight May Strike You Blind was published by the Sahitya Akademi and your first novel Rupture is just out. Which writing persona do you identify with the most? How does the practice of one kind of writing influence the other?

I guess the writerly persona I most identify with is that of the poet. And I would suspect that aspect informs my fiction, in terms of the way I use language. My translator-avatar I think of as quite separate from my poet and novelist personae. If there's any common thread running though my fiction and my poetry, it would be, among other things, a concern with the darker side of life.

You remarked that the dynamics of doing a poetry reading is quite different from the dynamics of reading from fiction…

The nature of listening is different in a poetry reading. People are predisposed to listening to chunks. Silence is not an indication that they are bored or have switched off. Book launches of fiction tend to be louder…

Writing poetry has become an act of retreat, of salvaging that very private self that fiction seems to be overwhelming. Perhaps I cherish it all the more fiercely for that very reason.

You quit advertising to write full-time. What is your typical day like? And what is the process of writing a poem like, for you?

I'm afraid I'm a creature of routine! I get up early, and start writing straight after breakfast, and write until lunch. (This is for fiction. With poetry it's a little less regimented, unless I'm working on a series, in which case I tend to treat it like chapters of a book.) I tend to do my rewrites and other administrative stuff post-lunch. I think being in advertising taught me the importance of discipline and deadlines…

As for the process of writing a poem, it usually begins with a line that makes me feel like I need to follow it wherever it may lead me. Sometimes it begins as an emotion I am trying to grapple with. Sometimes it begins with an image, something I have seen… Sometimes, something I have read acts as a trigger… Sometimes, it's more experiential… In most cases, I do tend to revise. One thing I used to do a lot was to read my poems out loud and record them on a digital recorder. When I played them back, I would often hear the spots that needed fixing…

I loved the way your poem “Our Knowledge of Faces” treated the subject of how we know and relate to faces, yoking together different conceptual worlds. Would you like to say something about that poem? How it came to be written…

Thank you! The story behind the poem is this. I was reading Proust's In Search of Lost Time and I came across the line “our knowledge of faces is not mathematical”. It was such a powerful line that I jotted it down in my notebook. I knew I had to follow it in search of the reason why it resonated so powerfully with me. Looking at it now, I guess it was at the heart of my interest in the way in which mathematics and science lay claim to a certain kind of precision that can also be the hallmark of good poetry. People rarely expect poetry to be scalpel-like in its precision. And yet, precision has different ends in the two different disciplines. While the language of math aims at the quantifiable, the verifiable, the language of poetry questions the assumption that there is only one answer. It also goes back to my own relationship with math and science. As a child, I was better at the humanities than in math and science (“already the alphabet more seductive than the numeral” as I write in the poem), but I was always fascinated by the intelligence, the mystery, the abstraction of all those concepts. Maybe this poem was a way of concretising and personalising those abstractions for myself, as an adult.

Sight May Strike you Blind is done in sections. Were the poems planned that way?

The sections happened when I realised I was doing a manuscript. I looked at the poems thematically, thought in terms of clusters. I have a predilection for clusters.

What made you take that step towards writing fiction?

I had written the first few drafts of Rupture earlier, simultaneous with my poetry. It went into cold storage for a while. But time played a great role in enhancing the book. I felt able to be more objective…

How would you define the creative state of mind, the creative state of being? Where does your writing come from?

I don't know whether I can define the creative state of mind or being. I think one writes not because one is in a creative state of mind, but because one's whole being is affected by what is happening… One could be affected positively or negatively. Either way, it's a kind of ‘disturbance'. One cannot write if one is complacent…

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