On the eve of the release of his new poetry book for children, Adil Jussawalla speaks about writing and teaching verse.
“Words happen; I work on them,” writes Adil Jussawalla in his introduction to his new book of poetry, The Right Kind of Dog and Other Poems. This book is important, not just because it comes from one of the finest of India’s living poets, but because it must be the first time a poet of his stature addresses children and young people.
What makes these poems extraordinary is that Jussawalla never condescends to his audience. He is not hunkering down on his knees; he is not adopting a new tone of voice. He does his young readers the signal honour of treating them as people, young people yes, but people. There is no trace of the twee, no holding back on matters of depth and intensity. Excerpts from an interview given on the eve of the book’s release:
Do you remember your first encounters with poetry as a child?
How far back can one go? I don’t think I remember anything about the learning of nursery rhymes, which I think is everyone’s first encounter with poetry. I remember, very occasionally, being told stories by my mother, stories in Gujarati. There were no poems there. She did have her own set of favourite poems but I got to know these much later.
The Poetry Circle, Bombay, once invited you to read out Poems That Matter, an event we held with poets of the city. You read out, from memory, because you said that poems that mattered should be memorised, a poem about a dromedary…
(Quotes) In dreams, I see the Dromedary still…Yes, but that wasn’t in junior school. It was a poem from senior school, I think, at Cathedral and John Connon. There are poems from that time that haunt me still. Like ‘The Dromedary’ by Archibald Young Campbell. We studied other long poems, ‘The Old Bull’ by Ralph Hodgson and Francis Thompson’s ‘The Hound of Heaven’. By the age of 15, I suppose I was getting some poems by heart for elocution. I remember doing D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Mosquito’ for an elocution competition. The poems written for young readers were often comic verse. I remember the exploits of a nasty young woman called Matilda, for instance.
Since these poems made me laugh and they made others laugh, I think my first attempts at verse were comic or satirical. I did write a poem on The School Prefects and sent it to The Borderer, as the school magazine was called. In the year after Senior Cambridge, my attitude to poetry had been completely changed when we began to read The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse by Kenneth Allott. Rider Salmon introduced us to Eliot and that changed everything. I realised that there was more to poetry than what I had been reading. I’d like to say here that I do not think poetry was taught badly at school. We were taught by several teachers, some of whom were not inspirational but, on the whole, they were quite good. And we were made to learn poems by heart, which is always a very good idea anyway. It was something of an ordeal to recite them in class…
I wonder why it seems to be the fashion for people to say, “I don’t understand poetry but then it was taught so badly in school”. I remember the poems I learned very fondly: ‘The Village Schoolmaster’ by Oliver Goldsmith, for instance. And if poetry was taught so badly, then why did those same schools produce so many poets as well? I just think people can’t be bothered to have the experience that poetry brings to them and so they find it much easier to blame school for it.
Why is it a good idea to learn poetry by heart?
I think it was [W.H.] Auden who said that every practising poet should know several thousand lines of poetry by heart. And I think he did too. I believe that the art of poetry has a lot to do with the creation of lines that are memorable. And what does memorable mean if not that someone should remember them?
Why is this aspect of poetry so downplayed now? One’s friends and relatives, after a few drinks, tend to buttonhole one and recite poems from memory, poems that have stayed with them. My uncle Gustad Rashid, whom we knew as Uncle Gostu, could recite the whole of Fitzgerald’s ‘Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam’ and often did. I think he even had a recording made of himself reading it aloud, with music in the background — Beethoven, I think it was. It worked surprisingly well; I remember it being almost professional in quality. However, they are the same people who will have nothing to do with your poetry.
There’s a lot of the despair and powerlessness of childhood in this book.
I think those two words are important in this book because those are words that are important to children. I think children feel, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ much more often than adults. They feel, ‘You bore me, you brought me into this world and now you’re torturing me’. I know that the Buddha says suffering comes from attachment but I wonder about that. There’s suffering that is incidental to one’s life, there’s suffering that is accidental and then there are the deliberate mutilations we inflict on each other. I think also of that great chapter, The Grand Inquisitor, in The Brothers Karamazov where at the end, Ivan cannot understand: why must children suffer.
So I suppose the question I had to ask myself was: can one write entertaining poetry for children? Will it make them feel worse than they do already? That’s not the intention, I suppose.
So what was the intention then?
I think the poems indicate that some damage has been done already. I think the intention as I say in my introduction is to surprise. And, I suppose, I hope, that they are not poems about or by victims. I hope that the speaker or the person in the poem is doing something about the situation. Sometimes doing something about it can just be speaking about it. The very process of putting things into words is to try and deal with the hurt. Some of the poems are obviously about children whom adults would consider a failure. But instead of being crushed by it, they show some resistance to it, some opposition to further damage, even if it is by putting things into words.
You’re a poet. You’ve been a teacher. What advice would you have for teachers of poetry?
I think I would improvise a lot. I do believe in teaching by improvisation. I don’t believe in lecturing. Even when I was teaching English literature at St Xavier’s College, I couldn’t lecture. I preferred interacting with the students though that can often get anarchic and you can see a deadened look on some of the faces, as if they were saying, ‘This is not what we want. This is not what we expect’. But I could imagine myself reading one of Manohar’s [Shetty’s] creature poems and asking, ‘Have you ever thought of a frog described in this way?’ I think it would be easier to point out the visual associations, the metaphors, than to do the sound effects of a poem though there’s no reason why a good reading might not bring those out too. The ears of students must be opened to the music of poetry. The sound of some of James Joyce’s poetry, for instance. These are not generally used in class but can be used to show how poets use sound.
I still don’t know how poetry as a practice is being taught at these MFA [Master of Fine Arts] classes that are proliferating all over the world. I would be very poor at workshops, at conducting them I mean. I don’t know how one could get poems from someone and then listen to them and then pull them apart. At the most I could offer a few suggestions and then hope that each student would expose herself or himself to more poetry and learn more that way.
Why do you write?
I’m not sure it can be described. It’s like what happens when you’re listening to a piece of music for the first time; you like what it does to your mind and you want more of it. And that happens even when I read a new poet; and when I’m drawn to the mind of the poet. There are times when I can persuade myself that even if I could never write another line of poetry, even if I never wrote another line that satisfied me, which is perfectly possible, I should be content with reading all the wonderful poems there are. But I know I would not be. I know there is a special pleasure in creating a good line. I think this pleasure, this satisfaction, would be the common inheritance of anyone who has ever practised an art. You want to do it because it has happened before and you want it to happen again.