The Saturday Interview — A journey in verse

What does it take to strike a different note with poetry? Poet-culture curator Arundhathi Subramaniam has the answers

May 27, 2011 04:50 pm | Updated 04:50 pm IST

THE POWER OF WORDS: Arundhathi Subramaniam. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K

THE POWER OF WORDS: Arundhathi Subramaniam. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K

Much of Arundhathi Subramaniam's poetry is about the complex and contradictory impulses that make us what we are — both at our most mundane and sublime best moments. As Keki Daruwalla said, her poetry is one of illumination, the kind that suddenly “flashes a pencil-torchlight on a subject”.

Arundhathi has published two collections of poems — “On Cleaning Bookshelves” and “Where I Llive”, and co-edited “Confronting Love”, a collection of Indian love poems. Her attention has veered towards the spiritual in recent years, and she has published “The Book of Buddha” and “Sadhguru: More Than A Life”. She is the editor of the India domain of the Poetry International Web, besides being a cultural curator and critic. Excerpts from an interview with the Mumbai-based poet.

Why is there so little publishing of poetry compared to, say, fiction?

A lot of it has to do with the way poetry is taught in school, which has led us to believe that we have decoded a poem if we have managed to paraphrase it. That is precisely the death of a poem. I am far more comfortable with people who relate to a poem but may not have a cogent response to it immediately. After all, our response to a lot of art is pre-verbal. We will have more readers if we encourage people to trust that response. As American poet Randall Jarrell once said, people have not stopped reading modern poetry because it is difficult; it is because they have stopped reading poetry that they find it difficult.

It is a mystery how a good poet arrives at an image that makes you feel it simply couldn't have been anything else. The kind of thing that gives you gooseflesh, just as a great piece of music does.

Yes, ‘arrive at' is the crucial part. It is not about putting in a clever phrase for effect; you have to arrive at it. The reader senses it. The process works differently with different poems. My own strategy often is to put a poem away and not look at it for months. I look it up again when I feel brave enough, and see if it grabs me. Then you are just a reader and can sniff out the integrity of it, if any. It is often about working hard, going back, tweaking drafts… But the crucial thing is that you have to know when to stop. There's an original nub of a poem and you can't amputate that. It requires the right amount of care, but also the right amount of inattention. It is finally about arriving at an image you trust, a moment that strikes you as not just beautiful, but also true. When the two come together you are in the presence of poetry.

Poetry is such a compressed, concentrated form. Isn't it a hard task master, not allowing for one word too many?

Yes, but I don't believe there has to be savage minimalism either. There should be room for a certain relish of language. I want to taste words on my tongue, enjoy the sumptuousness of an image. Agha Shahid Ali, for instance, allows himself the ecstatic in his wonderful English ghazals.

Many of your poems speak a certain state of flux and uncertainty, be it about the notion of a home or the very process of writing a poem.

There is always a gap between where I live and where I belong — in a cultural, political and spiritual sense. I suspect it is always going to be a piece-meal kind of address. The result of that is not necessarily angst. If fact, it is often this gap that allows you to breathe. It is about learning to live with uncertainty, learning to construct a poem with uncertainty.

Your poem ‘Claim' strikes a different note with its tone of confidence on finally “settling down on page”.

There is doubt that can fuel exploration, there is doubt that can eat your innards. I think no human being should allow the latter to happen. Yes, we are going to hunt and grope, perhaps perennially. May be it is an eternally deferred destination. But I don't want to be totally invested in my uncertainty either.

There is now a strong impulse among many writers to clearly define their identity.

There are dogmatic voices on how to belong. I don't want an identity that flattens me out. I am uneasy with introductions people write to their poems telling readers what to look for. I am not averse to taking stands. I don't want to live in the perennial morass of contradictions and never find a way out. Clarity is surely important, but not at the cost of dumbing down or ironing out complexities.

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