A universe of verse

Poet Hoshang Merchant talks to MEENA KANDASAMY about his poetry, activism and his travels…

Published - February 06, 2010 03:59 pm IST

Hoshang Merchant: Midnight's poet.Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

Hoshang Merchant: Midnight's poet.Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

One of the most daring and important voices of contemporary Indian poetry, Hoshang Merchant (b.1947) has published 20 books of poetry in 20 years from the Writer's Workshop, Kolkota. Other notable books include Flower to Flame (Rupa, 1990), Yaraana: Gay Stories from India (Penguin, 1999), Forbidden Sex/Text (Routledge, 2009).

His translation of Jameela Nishat's Urdu poems was published by Sahitya Akademi (2008). He is presently a Professor of Poetry and Gay Studies at the Hyderabad University where he has taught since 1987. He holds a Ph.D. (for his dissertation on Anais Nin) from Purdue University where he was one of the founders of Gay Liberation.

Travelling all over the world, he studied Buddhism at Dharmashala, and Sufism in Iran and Palestine. He was in Chennai recently to kick start the Poetry with Prakriti festival. Excerpts from an interview:

Can or should poets give interviews since the Buddha says there is no personality?

Yes, there is no personality. I'll tell you my own example and of Miohaux (French). I thought to become a Buddhist; I danced instead but went back to poetry. Not Buddhist poetry, like the fourth Dalai Lama's... I have few possessions, but I couldn't be a Buddha because I thought too much to be some One.

Henri Michaux did not want his poetry canonised, he wouldn't even allow himself to be photographed. He was happy the Dalai Lama saw his photo; “Now I am in the Dalai Lama's mind.” As he lay dying, he talked to his nurse of travel. When she started to give him oxygen, “No! Let me keep travelling,” he said.

What is the aim of your poetry?

Even gay poetry's aim is NOT to change legislation. “To come out into an objectless view/Which is the true aim of all poetry,” is a definition I use in my poems. “Objectless” does not mean “not objective,” because anyway the lyric is a subjective art.

It means that poets have no axes to grind. Their objective is the poem itself. However we poets have to ‘abstract' our experience to fit it to the reader's experience. We all share the same space/time. Some great poets make their own space and their times. It comes as a surprise to know Whitman, Melville and Dickinson were gay. We do not know them as gay poems but as Transcendentalists even after 150 years. This transcendence is a poem.

To paraphrase Dickinson “to make a prairie/It takes fancy, a clover and a bee/Fancy alone will do/If bees are few.”

Why do you equate Dalits with gays?

Because gays, like women, are gender-Dalits. Also, there are gay Dalits who refuse to be identified for social reasons. Both are oppressed groups. I understand forms of oppression differ.

But oppression is oppression. For politics we need coalitions (not only LGBT but also women and Dalits). Gays have to stop oppressing women. Some women who oppress gays have to stop doing that. Ditto for Dalits.

To divide minorities and prevent them from coming together in a common platform is just another male heterosexists' ploy to preserve their power.

My struggle is unimportant unless it also opens up a possibility for generalised liberation and living.

Are you before your time for India?

No! The poet is always of his/her time. It is the others who are behind.

Is writing a political act?

No. But if you say you're not political that means you side with the establishment. If you want to change your heart, mind and body then that's politics.To say sex is a private matter is to pretend sex is about love only and not also an exploitative.

Why do you travel so much?

I travel to get new identities. And to write about them. It is how kids ‘enjoy getting lost'. It reminds me that personality is not solid. In a new land people don't know you, you can become whatever you want!

What is the audience reaction to you? How does your audacity sit with them?

Mine is not a moral universe. But it is a formally beautiful universe of verse. If I affront them I also beg their indulgence. And, mostly, I get it!



My lover's feet are mud

Under his feet the earth, mud

I kiss his feet :

The poem in my mouth, from the

dust of his feet mud

He grew the food

I eat

Now I eat the dust of his feet

The grain came from river-mud

Now I am him: His river

And the mud

My body is made of all this earth

When I die I'll be again

all his earth

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