An Interview with Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam is a multiple award-winning author who is internationally renowned for her many books of poetry and prose. Widely translated and anthologised, her volume of poetry, When God is a Traveller (2014) was the Season Choice of the Poetry Book Society and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.  She has won such awards as the Khushwant Snigh Memorial Prize for poetry, the Zee Women’s Award for Literature, Mystic Kalinga Literary Award, the International Piero Bigongiari Prize in Italy etc. Her most recent anthology of poetry is Love without a Story, which was published in 2019. In this free-wheeling conversation she talks to Abin Chakraborty about her poems, craft and perspectives with her usual eloquence and depth.

Picture from Wikipedia.org

1.   Can you tell us a bit about your poetic process? Do you write daily with the determined practice of a musician or do you wait for the urge to gradually evolve within you before taking pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard?

I am at my keyboard each day, primarily because I have a writer’s twitchy fingers! I don’t necessarily write a new poem each day, but I do spend a lot of time tinkering with poems. And I do a fair amount of prose. So whether it’s an essay, a review, an article, even email, it’s difficult to stay away from the laptop. And poems are always around – in terms of books by my bedside, or a manuscript someone’s asked me to read. So, even if I don’t write poetry daily, I’m breathing it in pretty regularly.

2.   Which poets, Indian or foreign, have been the biggest artistic influences on your career?

Well, I’m an omnivorous reader, so I’m sure all the poets I’ve enjoyed over the years have had some impact on my understanding of poetry. My early poetics were shaped by all the poets I’d read and loved – TS Eliot, Keats, Wallace Stevens, Neruda, Rilke, Basho, the Zen poets. I was also shaped by my immediate context: Nissim Ezekiel with his emphasis on craft, Eunice de Souza with her poetry of economy, Arun Kolatkar with his poetry of imagistic precision. Mumbai simply abounded in interesting poets – Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel, Imtiaz Dharker, as well as the Poetry Circle, the wonderful writer’s group I frequented for more than a decade. What this context offered me was an ecosystem, and a constant reminder that poetry is about a journey of craft, not a single divine downpour of creative exuberance. Later in my life, I became a rasika of the Bhakti and Sufi poets, particularly the heady blend of the sensual and sacred one finds in poets like Nammalvar, Hafiz, Akka Mahadevi, Annamacharya. Today, as I look around me, I realise books by John Burnside, AK Ramanujan and Dennis Nurkse are invariably within arm’s distance.

3. Your poems often move with the gradual accretion of resonant details, to eventually culminate in a short line or two that like a flash illuminate anew everything that has preceded them. Is that a deliberately chosen structure or simply the structure of the experiences themselves?

That is an insightful observation. It isn’t planned, but it might have something to do with my own fascination, as a reader, for poems with arresting beginnings (John Donne’s verse, for instance), or the distillation one finds in poetry of extreme succinctness, like the haiku. My work isn’t always minimalist, but I do like the oscillation between expansion and contraction, between image and statement, the line that stays determinedly grounded and the line that reaches for the stars. I like to be led by metaphor through a poem, but there frequently comes a time in the poem when you reach a point of sparseness, of extreme distillation, when to say more is to undo the whole point of the exercise. That is the moment of what you call “the flash”, and that’s the time to stop and say no more. In a draft, one might write much more. But while revising the work, it is often clear that much of that doesn’t have to be said at all. The poem can work quite well without the flab. Learning when to shut up is an important part of becoming a poet!

4. The laconic/ironic edge found in some of your earlier poems has apparently been replaced in “Love without a story” to a voice of genial warmth that is willing to accommodate all kinds of diversities– something that may be summed up as a shift from the “meritocracy of heart” to “democracy of tongues”. Is that a valid observation? If yes, would you please elaborate upon this evolution of the poetic voice?

Another interesting observation. I see the ‘meritocracy of the heart’ and ‘the democracy of tongues’ as part of a continuum, Abin. They are part of a widening journey of the heart, a journey of deepening inclusiveness, in which the gaze ‘includes more than it leaves out’ (‘Let There Be Grid’), a journey in which intimacy and spaciousness are increasingly seen as inseparable. 

But yes, I think there is a stronger note of equipoise in the new book. I wasn’t aware of it when writing the poems, but when I look at the volume now, I see that it is there. How did it happen? I’m not sure. It certainly wasn’t a programmatic attempt to sit and write less laconic poetry. Some inner shifts have probably occurred – in the quiet, undramatic way in which tectonic shifts in our interior life happen – that must have inflected my perspective. And as I’ve often said, poetry for me is deeply linked to a journey of self-understanding and self-integration. That journey is primary. And it is reflected, I suppose, in the poetry.

My personal aspiration is to allow the poetry to grow subtle without losing voltage, without losing intensity. So as long as equipoise and expansiveness is accompanied by energy, by octane, I’m okay with it. But if the poems start losing form, spine, poise, I would definitely be concerned!

5. As a part of this evolution, your recent poems travel not only across space but across apparent religious divides as well, from Tibetan Buddhists to Sufi saints and pilgrims to more local South Indian Hindu deities and devotees. In the current socio-political climate, how difficult is it to sustain such an inclusive credo?

Yes, I’m aware of this. And precisely because our climate is growing increasingly fraught and polarized, I think it is more important than ever before to keep speaking our own truth the way we want to speak it. I may not wave a flag that proclaims religious diversity or tolerance. But I would like to invite readers to places the way I inhabit them. I am fascinated by the textures of spirituality in diverse traditions, and that fascination is bound to bleed into the work. 

The realm of the sacred has nothing to do with slogans anyway; it is about entering a space where words have to be uttered sparingly, and sometimes murmured, even whispered, rather than belted out. Besides, by walking and witnessing the world in our own very singular ways I believe we make more of a difference than we know – subtly but surely. I do believe that even the murmured truth, if uttered with integrity, can modify the frequency of a discourse.

I am always comfortable around seekers – those who employ commas and question marks and pauses plentifully in their conversations. By the same token, I am uncomfortable around dogmatists – religious or political, sacred or secular, those who speak with shuddering full stops, those incapable of self-irony. Rather than rage against the latter, I’d like to speak to the former. I’ve learnt over time to adopt the same language of habitual rage and scorn to counter a dogmatic attitude is counter-productive: the attitude grows harder, and you end up with laryngitis!

The mystic poets demonstrate this on another level altogether, don’t they? How else do we explain our awe and fascination with Nammalvar or Kabir or Rumi or Tukaram today? They remind us that language, when birthed in conditions of great heat and self-implication when the very heart is at risk, can create reverberations that can transfigure human lives for centuries. It can alter the very ways in which we map our world today.

6. Perhaps as an extension of this inclusivity, we also see in your love poems a celebration of the power of love to bring opposites together, a telling example being the line: “With you/even the moon smells/of mackerel”.

I’m so glad you chose that particular image. Yes, that is precisely the kind of opposition that interests me. That’s the excitement I feel around metaphor – its capacity to remind us that the world is smoky and crunchy, spiritual and material all at once. In ‘Mitti’, another poem in the book, I speak of the role of the poet as that of a ‘messenger between moon and mud’. And I do believe that is the business of the poet: to remind us of all the wild and wonderful ways in which this universe, and we as its inhabitants, are connected.

Put another way, Abin, this has probably been one of the most important realisations for me, as my spiritual practices deepened – that we are not just matter or spirit. We are both! An obvious fact, perhaps, and one that ought to be self-evident, but one that it took me ages to recognize. But since I realise this more viscerally than I did before, I suppose that realization is part of the poetry too.

7. This combination of the visual and the olfactory is yet another example of how several senses merge together to create that world of unified sensibility which characterises your poetry. Again, is this deliberate or just the structure of the felt experience?

Well, I think that is the nature of our felt experience, isn’t it? We are all essentially synesthetic beings. We have simply been encouraged to forget it, to fragment our experience of reality in so many ways. Because of that forgetting, it is a conscious effort initially to reclaim and hone that way of seeing in language. That is part of one’s sadhana as a poet, one might say. Or at least, sadhana for the kind of poet I want to be. So, it is deliberate, to that extent. But after a point, it becomes so much a part of one’s way of processing the world: to look for the colour in numbers, for instance, or the grain of an abstract noun, or even to sniff out the authenticity of a person.

8. Nature plays a particularly potent role in your latest anthology. Leaves, trees, petals, mud, rivers – all merge with various moods and states of being with seamless ease. Have you always been so close to nature or is this too a part of ‘the fine art of ageing’?

Yes, I am aware that the natural landscape has entered this work like never before. I’m glad about that. I’ve been a poet of cities earlier, and even the trees in my earlier poems have been largely metropolitan entities, holding their own amid glass skyscrapers and neon signs. I must confess at the start that both ‘Mitti’ and ‘A First Monsoon Again’ were commissioned poems. (I was approached by a newspaper to write on rain; that’s how the monsoon poem happened. And I was asked by another newspaper to incorporate a word, suggested by one of its readers, into a poem. The word I was assigned was ‘mitti’; and that’s how that poem grew.)

But let me add that I wouldn’t have agreed to these ideas if they hadn’t struck a chord within me. Why did they strike a chord? Well, I suppose ‘the fine art of ageing’ does have something to do with it. I am certainly more conscious nowadays of my need to walk barefoot in the grass, to feel the sand beneath my feet on the beach. It may also have something to do with the time I spend at the Isha ashram in Coimbatore – a place of great natural beauty, at the foothills of the Velliangiri mountains. Perhaps my deepening preoccupation with Devi has something to do with it too: you really cannot have a relationship with a goddess without acknowledging earth and trees and stars, basically, all the glorious thinginess of this world! It could be all the above reasons. I don’t really know. But I think I like the equipoise – there’s no escaping that word in this conversation, is there? – between earth and sky in these poems.

9. Different authors have coped with the pandemic in different ways. Anthologies featuring authors’ responses as well as literary representations on the pandemic are also being released. How have you coped with the lockdown and other consequences of the pandemic?

Well, the first six weeks were restless, unquiet. The world around was ablaze too – as it still is – with raging narratives and counter-narratives, with conspiracy theories and fake news outbreaks. I was reminded time and again of the Buddha’s Fire Sermon. Then I realized that tuning into this madness was disempowering. It felt right to trust a simpler way to navigate these times – trusting the body’s need for exercise, sleep, food, yoga, stillness. It helped.

Gradually, some poems began to happen. I have also managed to work on a book of essays that I’d deferred for a long while. And I’ve been helping Sadhguru with a book on karma. So, it’s not been unproductive. But the real work has been more internal, I think – spending time with oneself, feeling one’s way into spaces of unease, of relegation, learning to trust one’s feelings more deeply. It’s been an intense seven months – difficult at times, but not unrewarding!

10. Finally, any word of advice for the budding authors?

I’m not sure budding authors ever want advice! But here are some possible suggestions. One: don’t feel your first draft must be your last. Enjoy the inspired moment of birthing a poem. But don’t forget to enjoy the whole journey of crafting it. Workshopping a poem can be a very pleasurable process – full of surprise and sensual discovery. Two: read! Read widely, read deeply, read guiltlessly, buy books of poetry, spend time with poems that you enjoy and figure out what it is that makes them work. I’ve learnt more by immersing myself in what I love than by being in any formal classroom situation. Three: you don’t have to be anxious to publish, or in a hurry to arrive. It is not the length of your bibliography that matters. It’s the quality of your work – its depth, artistry and authenticity.

 

For more on Arundhathi Subramaniam go to https://arundhathisubramaniam.webs.com/

Love without a Story can be had from https://www.amazon.in/Love-Without-Story-Arundhathi-Subramaniam/dp/9388689453/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

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