The overnight rain had washed away all soot from the exteriors of buildings. The rain-washed roads were flanked by petunias and dog flowers, now bent with the effort of carrying the droplets on their petals. It all cried out for some poetry, some exchange of ideas as in a literary adda. The 8th Symposium in the ‘Literary Activism Series’ at India International Centre, hosted by the Centre for the Creative and the Critical, Ashoka University, could not have come at a more opportune time.
With the theme ‘The Writer-Critic and Literary Studies’, the symposium was dedicated to the memory of Dubravka Ugrešić, a writer-critic of Croatian origin. Addressed among others by Amit Chaudhuri, Vidyan Ravinthiran, Jane Goldman, Sumana Roy, Ashutosh Bharadwaj and Martin Cowley, the meet forced one to think, to ponder, to explore. Why does a literary work need citations to be considered authentic? Why should everything have to be publicised in a newspaper to be considered worthy? As Ravinthiran, who teaches at Harvard, quoted critic and historian lan Watt: “The whole game that our culture is playing is that nothing really happens unless it’s in the newspaper.”
We caught up with author-poet Sumana Roy, whose first book, How I Became a Tree, a work of non-fiction, was shortlisted for the 2017 Shakti Bhatt Prize and the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2019 and 2020. Edited excerpts:
Is the Internet the sanctuary of poetry in modern times considering most poetry books are reported out of print soon after publication?
The world of poetry has begun to seem to me like an inverse of the agricultural situation, where there are too few farmers and too many eaters — here there are more poets than readers. The Internet has become an extension of the private notebook where one wrote poems only to hide them, as if they were pornography. There’s a stock exchange in this world: very few poets get a ‘Selected’ or ‘Collected’ published; many will continue to bring out books every few years, for that’s the annoying thing about poems, you see — they don’t seem to stop coming even when you are aware that there’s almost no place for them in the world. So the Internet, almost as elastic as the mind, is where our poems can live, even if they are lonely and not visited by readers.
What does a poet-professor bring to her profession? Also, is academia used by the poet to pay her bills?
In my talk at the symposium, I was trying to remind ourselves, through the examples of Samar Chakraborty, Niranjan Mohanty and Robin Ngangom, of what the poet-professor brought to the classroom, and how the new curriculum and the new literature classroom has marginalised that idiosyncratic temperament and poetic intelligence. A job in academia pays the scientist’s bills as much as it does the poet’s. The work of both is necessary.
Aren’t literature classes in college more like an adda? If so, where does the poet don the garb of the professor?
The PowerPoint slides that give form and structure to many literature classrooms today leave little room for the aleatory, which is necessary as much to the poetic as it is to the classroom. We must be allowed to rest our spine from being on alert all the time — a joyous serve-and-volley among the participants of the adda/ classroom without any decided order or even the compulsion to speak and register one’s presence for the professor’s grading consciousness.
Is it fair to expect a poet from a small town to be close to nature, its trees, its birds, a feeling of stillness? I believe that’s how you started in Siliguri?
It’s a natural — naturalised — expectation, I suppose. But we know, from our own lives, that neither the mind nor the artist behaves with any kind of obedience to these expectations. I’ve often been asked whether I could have written my first book How I Became a Tree had I not spent nearly all my life in Siliguri. How can I say whether I’d have been the same person had I been born to a different set of parents? I don’t expect the novelists of Delhi to only write novels set in Delhi. Why, then, this expectation from the writer who’s spent her life in a small town? It’s only a stereotype.