Exclusive: A really good poem can alter your life: Poet Arundhathi Subramaniam

Anisa Fathima
Resident Editor
Pics: Dayanand Kukkaje
Daijiworld Media Network - Mangaluru

Mangaluru, Sep 30: Arundhathi Subramaniam is one of India's finest poets. Her poems take you on journey that you would not only cherish, but revisit every time you felt an inclination to read. And each time, they would take you by surprise, make you smile or simply make you wonder and ponder. Known to explore ambivalences, her poems are lively, full of substance, and striking at the very soul.

Arundhathi Subramaniam is also a writer on spirtuality and culture. She has worked as curator, as journalist on literature, classical dance and theatre, and is the India editor for Poetry Web International. She is the author of three works of poetry - 'On Cleaning Bookshelves', 'Where I Live' and 'When God is a Traveller', two works of prose - 'The Book of Buddha' and 'Sadhguru: More Than A Life'. She has edited various anthologies, the most recent being 'Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry'. She has worked at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, as the head of classical dance, where she also led a discussion-based inter-arts forum called 'Chauraha'.

She is the recipient of Raza Award for Poetry (2009), the Charles Wallace Fellowship (2003); the Homi Bhabha Fellowship in 2012, the International Piero Bigongiari Prize 2015, and the inaugural Khushwant Singh Memorial Prize for Poetry in January this year.

In an exclusive interview to daijiworld during her recent visit to Mangaluru to deliver the fourth annual James and Shobha Mendonca Endowment Lecture on Poetry organized by Kavita Trust, Arundhathi Subramaniam spoke on various subjects, giving a fascinating glimpse into her evolution as a poet, her encounter with spirituality, general misconceptions about poetry and how it must be revived among the reading public and taught in schools, and much more.


Tell us something about your family and childhood. Did you always aspire to become a poet?

Arundhathi: I grew up in Mumbai to Tamilian parents. Like all of us, I grew up with a kind of multi-lingual background. English was very much a part of my landscape. My mother was from Delhi so there was also Hindi, and her parents were from Burma. So in many ways we were like a multi-lingual mess that most Indians grew up with. There was Tamil, lots of English, and we also had a nice old grizzled cook from Kerala so there was also a smattering of Malayalam, and Bombayya Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi were also not far away.

I also grew up in a home full of books which was lovely, and I think I realized just the joy of being around books very early thanks to growing up in a space like that. The other thing I discovered early was the sheer delight in reading poems aloud - not just reading them on the page but wanting to taste them on the tongue - that was important for me. Looking back now, I realize that these are pretty much the things I enjoy doing even today. I like to hang around poems, around books, and I like the idea of releasing a poem to the spoken world.


And your education - Did school and college years shape you as a poet? Who was your inspiration?

Arundhathi: My education was entirely in Mumbai. I studied at JB Petit School and then at St Xavier's College. I did my BA in literature and my MA at Bombay University. I hated school and enjoyed college. Sometimes I feel it must have shaped me (as a poet) - a lot of my poems are vendetta poems about school (laughs)! In my first book I have a poem 'Advice to a Four-Year-Old on Her First Day of School' that is sort of preparing a four-year-old on her first day of school for all kinds of torture! But honestly, that apart, I think it was a very liberal school and for me that was hugely important. It gave me licence to read. We had a wonderful library, without teachers breathing down our necks telling us what was right and what was wrong. We were just allowed to explore, and for me that was important. And we definitely had some wonderful teachers in school. Though I have actually written about the nasty ones, I had a couple of wonderful teachers, like Urmila Bannerjee and Elizabeth Alexander. Just opening up literature as pleasure and not as some dreary thing you have to do as part of your curriculum, just the joy of reading - that is important.

In college, one of my professors was Eunice De Souza, who is a fine poet, so I am sure such proximity must have played a role. And I definitely had friends in college (with whom) I shared a fairly active intellectual life, which for me was important. And soon after college I was also part of the Poetry Circle of Mumbai, where we had other fellow poets and people who wrote generally, like Ranjith Hoskote, Jerry Pinto, Menka Shivdasani and many others. At the time I was doing MA I had already met poet Nissim Ezekiel, so there was a certain context of poetry in the city I grew up in, and that helped. Two or three of us were part of a young poets' reading organized by Nissim Ezekiel.

I think it was quite clear to me when I was in college itself that poetry was what I wanted to be doing, primarily because I remembered my own early excitement about poetry as a child, and that never subsided. So although it was at odds with the cultural climate of the time, because really the 90s was when the English novel in India became a big deal and if one wanted to do something more in keeping with the times and also perhaps something more rewarding, one would perhaps have opted for the novel, I am glad I did not. Poetry had its own singular magic.

Did your parents encourage you to write poetry?

Arundhathi: The ideal kind of parental encouragement to my mind is of parents who do not interfere too much, who allow you to do things and discover your thing. I feel increasingly that parenting involves a certain measure of benign indifference - you shouldn't be too pushy or have tremendous zeal to see your children excel at multiple activities. I think children should be left alone to day dream a bit, to read at whim, and my parents encouraged me by offering me the right amount of inattention and some measure of attention.

How were you drawn to Bhakti poetry? Has it influenced your own poetry?

Arundhathi: That is much more recent in a way. I had read A K Ramanujan's wonderful translations of Kannada poems and Tamil Saiva (saint) poets and Nammalvar who is a Vaishnava poet. I had read them decades ago and loved them. I had also read Dilip Chitre's marvelous translations of Tukaram. So I was familiar with them and I loved those poems. But I think it was when my own spiritual journey began to unfold, at least in a very conscious way, I derived another kind of energy and sustainance from Bhakti poetry, which was different.

The book ('Eating God') started when Penguin suggested it, but they already knew I was excited about spiritual literature and I was involved in poetry. For me this book has been one of the exciting books to do, because it brings together two seemingly parallel streams in my life - poetry and the fascination with the sacred. I couldn't have asked for a happier convergence. I worked on this book for four years before it was published.

I think many of these poets have offered me a camp fire where I could warm my hands during dark phases. Also I think it is important to reclaim these figures for ourselves, because you can read them today as absolutely non-sectarian. I think they speak to us...the tone, the spirit of these poems is essentially egalitarian, almost ferociously egalitarian. They are upsetting heirachies all the time - even the heirarchy between god and self is upset. So there's a very bracingly subversive quality that draws me to them. I think far too often we think of bhakti (devotion) as some kind of lily-livered piety, we think of devotion as just being pious and good. Many people think saint poets as being some kind of 'plaster saint' with a halo. For me, these poets draw me because they are real - there is nothing phoney. They are also not terribly comforting. They can offer consolation at one level, but they can also disturb you.

Why did you choose 'Eating God' as the title of your book of Bhakti poetry? I know it is a line from Nammalvar's poem, but why specifically this? Why not 'devouring God' as in your introduction you described Bhakti poets as someone 'wild and incorrigible'?

Arundhathi: That is a good question. I wish one of them had said 'devour god', I would have happily put it. But what interested me is that not just Nammalvar but also Jana Bai (translated by Arun Kolatkar) says 'I eat God'. In fact, I initially wanted the title to be 'I Eat God'. Basically, it is interesting for me that poets from two very different cultural contexts - Nammalvar in Tamil and Jana Bai in Marathi - come up with the same image. And the other thing is, to some degree we are familiar with the idea of Sringara and Bhakti being related - as in love and romantic devotion being linked, but we don't really hear enough about this aspect of Bhakti - which is not just loving god but eating god. So I wanted an element of surprise, but I also found a startling title because I found startling poems.

Also, the finest mystical poetry is also sensuous, because there is really no way to talk about the sacred except in terms of the language of the five senses. Forget mystic poets, the best poets in the world have always known that the more crunchy you make an idea, the more effective your poem is. So 'eating god' is about as tangible as you can make an abstraction like god. Thus apart from being mystic, they were also very clever poets.

Your poems are known for their ambivalence. Does such ambivalence stem from your own personal life - divided between Chennai where you have your roots and which you described in traditional terms in your poem, including its title 'Madras', and Mumbai, where you live, which is more glamorous? Do you feel a constant push and pull between these two cities?

Arundhathi: I feel you asked two questions in this. I'll answer the bit about place first. I would say, perhaps because I have not lived in Madras - it is not my city - and because there is certain distance from it - that I can sometimes be kinder to it, than I can to Mumbai. In any relationship of intimacy, there is always ambivalence. I have a far more intimate relationship with Mumbai, so I can allow myself to express that ambivalence.

But if you are asking in a more general way about the ambivalence in my poems, I would say this is what I consider to be the great freedom that poetry allows. It does not compel you to be either this or that - it allows you to be both. I feel poetry is this very hospitable, verbal space that allows us to embrace contradiction. That is its strength. If I wanted to look for opinion, I would read a review; if I wanted to read a party line, I would read a manifesto; but I would go to poetry for something else.


How would you define yourself - as a seeker or a writer/poet?

Arundhathi: I used to always see myself primarily as a poet. I thought that was my fundamental identity. From about 1997 onwards I became a much more conscious seeker...there was a life experience that changed many things. Actually language deserted me to such an extent that I thought poetry could not be my fundamental identity either, and I felt seeker was perhaps, and still is, more me. Seeker is not really someone who always has recourse to language, but I am very grateful that poetry came back into my life. For me language is a refuge, a sanctuary and at the same time it is a place of great pleasure. I enjoy playing with language, tasting language. So being a seeker doesn't mean becoming some kind of austere, anti-pleasure aesthetically ascetic human being.

Some of your poems dwell on the essence and beauty of the word, as in 'Leapfrog' where the word comes alive and breathing and reaching places where the voice cannot. You seem to have a personal connection with language. In that sense, does a poem come to you spontaneously or do you have to work on it?

Arundhathi: The starting point is often spontaneous. It may might often start with an image, and sometimes you just feel a strong hunch that you must follow that image and see where it leads you. Sometimes it may start with a strong feeling or a strong idea. I am using words like 'feeling' and 'idea' but honestly when they come in a poem, the two cannot be extricated; often an idea and a feeling come together. So part of it is spontaneous, but I certainly believe in endless drafts and re-drafts after that. The trick with doing drafts is you must do drafts but you shouldn't overwork a poem either - you need to know when to let it go.


When poet and novelist Jerry Pinto was in Mangaluru last year, he said poetry does not bring in money, but the act of putting the word on paper is very essential to the poet, and that poetry makes us human. Do you agree? What is your idea of a poet?

Arundhathi: Poetry definitely doesn't bring in the money. I would say, poetry makes you human but that could be said of any art form. For me, poetry compels me to inhabit the present moment more fully than I would otherwise. In that sense it is more a vertical engagement with reality. The thing with fiction and prose narrative is that you are constantly moving from beginning to middle to end - there is a horizontal movement, whereas the lyric poem is about gloriously being in the now. For me that's exciting. I believe poetry is really a dark art - it is not an accident that poetry is the oldest literary art in the world - there is a real magic about it. This is the reason why we are all instinctively drawn to poem as children. There is a very deep primal capacity in humans to respond to poetry. It is heightened, concentrated and distilled language.

Do you believe poetry can influence or change the way a society thinks and acts?

Arundhathi: Oh yes. It is always been said about poetry not making anything happen and that is true only if you have a completely narrow, utilitarian view of the world. If you only believe things that can be quantified and measured are the only things that count, then yes, poetry makes nothing happen. But I believe poetry can make all kinds of shifts happen along internal faultlines. So at the end of it, you are changed, in a subtle way. There is also a whole tradition of patriotic poetry, propagandist poetry, there is poetry in Bollywood - those are part of the collective consciousness. So poems can make things happen individually as well as collectively. There is something to be said about the individual and her or his relationship with the book. Some of the most intense, life-altering experiences happen there in that relationship between the individual and the book.

Do you then feel poets should also channel their energies and use their talents to reform the society through their work?

Arundhathi: See, poetry has that inherent capacity (to transform), so you transform anyway. The transformation happens anyway, subtly, in fact, far more radically. When you are talking about all the sacred poems that exist in the world, across traditions, are these necessarily those that tell you to be good? They are not necessarily telling you to lay down your arms and be good to your neighbour at that point of time, are they? But they have transformed cultures. I believe that the kind of impact that a poem can have is enormous.

For many of us who are also doing other kinds of writing, like journalistic or prose, there is a particular way of writing to deal with particular kind of ideas. But I certainly do not want poetry to replicate the function of journalism - I think that would be a travesty of poetry. Poetry's impact is much more than journalism. Today's journalism is tomorrow's garbage. Poetry is much more fundamental, that is the reason why you can recall some of the poems you learnt, whereas you don't usually recall the headlines of day before yesterday.

A really good poem can alter your life, and I refuse to subscribe to this very narrowly functional perspective of the universe that tells us that only things that you can measure are the things that count. The deepest transformations in our lives are not measurable. Can you measure love or the impact faith has had in your life? The subtle is not in any way inferior. We have set up an unfortunate heirarchy in the world where we seem to believe where a manifesto or a newspaper is in some way superior to other forms of literature.

There has been a debate on the Indianness of Indian poets in English, and you yourself have written a poem on addressed to the 'Welsh Critic' and also an essay in The Hindu. Have you personally ever faced criticism over this issue?

Arundhathi: There was a Welsh critic, but not many people read his review because it was written in a bit of an obscure journal and he himself has vanished. But honestly, if it was just about me and my personal experience of the critic, I wouldn't bother to write a poem; if it wasn't something I was indignant about, on many levels - in my curiotorial work in NCPA and journalistically, one of constantly countering dogmatic voices in all spheres of public life, whether it is religious, political or cultural. Dogmatic voices that are constantly giving you prescriptions of belonging. The Welsh critic did happen, but I also had this larger sense of outrage about it, and thus the poem happened. So there was a personal experience, but it was much more than that.

Your book 'When God is a Traveller' has poems on Middle Age, Confession, Life After Forty and even quick-fix memos. Do you find poetry a means to deal with life, or a means for release, something that liberates?

Arundhathi: Definitely, poem is a way to deal with life. The question 'is poetry a mirror of your private life?' often comes up. It is a question more often asked of women writers than men, and why that is so is something we need to think about. But every time I use the first person singular 'I', I don't necessarily mean myself. I 'could' mean myself, but not necessarily. I am not saying this to sort of erase my identity from the poem, but I would say this - Every time I write about my sister, it is not about my sister, or if I write about my mother, I am not sure she would recognise herself in it. So there is a great deal of fictionalizing that happens. In any case, memory itself is fictionalized, and there is conscious fictionalizing as well.

I would say that for me, there is always a kernel of emotional truth in the poem. A lot of the rest is fiction. Facts, no, not necessarily, but there will be truth. So there is definitely a personal truth in the poem, that is where I enter the poem, in a way. But what we need to remember is the first person singular (I) can be used as a device, it doesn't necessarily mean the self. And you can be political about it. You can be talking about yourself, but actually making a political statement or alluding to history or myth.

But far too often, we tend to trivialize women's writings. One of my pet peeves generally is the way people write about women's writings, where women are patted on the back for having graduated from the personal pronoun to 'we'. That is a very naive way of reading a poem. The 'I' can be a tremendously seditious tool you can use. It is really a reductive reading to say that 'I' means a particular person's private life.

In an interview some years ago, you had said you turned to spirituality as poetry alone was not enough. What role does spirituality play in your life?

Arundhathi: I don't think spirituality has meant an alternative content. What I am writing about is not necessarily different because the spiritual journey has become important, but how I write about it has perhaps changed a little. Spirituality has definitely influenced my poetry, because the spiritual journey is not just one little fragment of yourself. If you want to lead a conscious life, an examined life, it involves consciously inhabiting every aspect of yourself. You can't live in compartments anymore, that's really what spiritual life means. What you do in one facet of your life and in another are deeply linked and you become aware of that connection, and you are trying to become one integrated being, and not multiple people. And that's what yoga is in its most fundamental sense - integration.

I think the conscious spiritual life in my case has influenced the 'how' of my poetry more than the 'what', not the content as much as the form. I have grown much more aware of the role of the 'pause', and I feel the poems now breathe differently on the page. There is just more breathing space.

In a discussion on translation with eminent panelists at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, you raised an important point about how poetry is taught in schools today - how students are made to paraphrase and extract meanings instead of being taught to enjoy poetry. Can you elaborate on this? What do you suggest to make poetry enjoyable to students?

Arundhathi: I would say, maybe for a start, when you are reading a poem in class, not to be in a hurry to ask the kids questions about content - what does it mean, what is it trying to say - I think it's time to put those questions in the backburner. Can we look a little at the strategies a particular poet is using - what are the innumerable ways in which she or he could have talked about, say, love, and why he or she has chosen this particular way of talking about it.

We need to sharpen our capacity to listen. Basically, this is a universal malaise of our times. Our capacity for fine-tuned listening is increasingly becoming besieged. We are not encouraged to cultivate listening. It is amazing to me how people don't pick up changes in tone. There is a kind of blunting that has happened to us, because we were not encouraged to cultivate that. So I think whatever ways in which teachers can sensitize you to the sensuous resources of the poem, not just to the content or theme, all those efforts need to be made.


You have also translated poems from other Indian languages to English. What are the main challenges you face as a translator? Do you believe the translator should also have a voice in the work?

Arundhathi: I think the biggest challenge as a translator is to be true to the spirit of the original (work), and at the same time create a working poem in the target language. It has to sound like an effective living, breathing poem in the target language. So you have got to be true to the source, and fair to the target. This is the most essential challenge of translation. When I translated Abhirami Bhattar (saint poet), I wanted the idiom to be accessible to the modern reader. Because he was an 18th century poet, I did not want to present myself as 18th century translator - I am not. I am 21st century translator looking at an 18th century poem. So, the idiom is definitely modern, but the sense of sheer ecstacy, the adoration of a man in love with a goddess - I wanted some of that insanity in the poem - that to me is the primarily important.

Tell us something about your inter-arts forum 'Chauraha' at the National Centre for Performing Arts and also about your work as India editor for Poetry International Website.

Arundhathi: 'Chauraha' happened at the right time in my life, in 1994. Vijaya Mehta (Marathi actress and theatre artiste), whose brainchild it was, called and said she wanted to start a forum that encourages dialogue between practictioners of different art forms. I was very excited about it. I did it for 15 years, and enjoyed much of it for three reasons - the bases of 'Chauraha' was always interaction, informality and intimacy. These are three features that still matter very much to me. Poetry for me is a very intimate form. In many ways, 'Chauraha' played a significant role in the cultural life of the city, and in subtle ways, the cultural life of our times. So I was happy to do that.

Poetry International Web was one of the nicest things that happened without having to try for it. They got in touch with me and said they wanted me to edit the India domain of the Poetry International Web. They hadn't yet started it, so that again was a project that I was a part of from inception. There is a certain joy in that, because you are watching something grow. I said no initially in 2003, but gradually spun around, as I just had to deal with reading poems and working editorially. From 2003 to now, it has grown into quite an acchive of Indian poetry, and I am happy with it because for me, it is a chance to read and listen to other voices in other languages.

'Chauraha' was a way of saying 'let's not live in isolation', and Poetry International was in a way doing the same thing - 'let's listen to other languages and other voices'. In many ways all we are trying to do is build little bridges, small bridges. So in my editorial as well as curatorial work, the attempt was to try and build bridges. The great challenge when you are doing any kind of organizational or editorial work is to also take the backseat. You create a space where, whoever the artist or writer you are dealing with, feels honoured, where you want to honour them. So it is not about you, but about the other person. That for me has been a huge learning experience and it has continued.

In your poem the 'First Draft', you spoke of how important it was for you to write poem with pen on paper. But everything today is on the internet. What role do you think technology can play in widening the scope and reach of literature, and personally was the transition difficult for you when you became the editor of Poetry International Website in 2004?

Arundhathi: Well, the one small thing I must confess to is I don't only write with pen and paper. I love pen and paper, but I have written a few things in the computer directly. Still, I would say, with prose I can work on the computer, but with poetry I still like to scribble. My first draft is usually best as a scribble.

On the role of technology, I think it is tremendous. It has democratised the space for literature in a big way. There are online poetry fora, social media...I am all for it, because it seems to have democratised the space, its put people in touch with each other, makes them feel much less isolated. I am deliberately saying all the good things. The thing I am slightly concerned about sometimes is this - somewhere we cannot forget that there is something like an effective poem and an ineffective poem; so somewhere in our eagerness to be inclusive we should not turn indiscriminate also. This is a challenge, each one of us personally has to keep a certain fine tension.

You have to be conscious of the fact that you want to be open, invitational, welcoming, hospitable to other points of view and other voices that are completely at loggerheads with your own. At the same time, you need to have your own idea, however fallible, of what a good poem is and what a bad poem is. As soon as you have such a notion, a poem will come along, some strange organism will come along, and will upset that definition. That's fine, your definition should be upset, it should be extended. That's wonderful, as it is a process of learning. But there still needs to be a yarstick, however provisional. 'Anything goes' attitude shouldn't become dominant, that's my only concern.

How would you react if you were called a feminist poet?

Arundhathi: I have no objections to it. I don't consider feminism a dirty word. I am very grateful for feminism and for what it has opened up in my life. I see feminism really as a means to question, to interrogate the many ways in which gender, that is notions of feminity and masculinity, is socially constructed. So feminism gives you tool to question. By definition, any process of questioning is a journey. It is not about conclusion, but it's certainly a very valuable journey. Unfortunately many people have trivialized and belittled feminism as an ideology. It is reductive view when someone says feminism is about male bashing - it is an absurd view. Feminism has always been much more than that. So if you were to use those tools with some sense of strenuousness in your life, you will see it is not about being dogmatic at all. Just like faith has Any the capacity to turn dogmatic. Likewise, any ideology is of use when it enables you, empowers you to ask some hard questions, to explore yourself. If it is only becoming a heap of slogans, then it can be chucked out. I think feminism empowers men as it does women, so it is a wonderful thing as long as it is empowering.

What message or advice would you give aspiring poets?

Arundhathi: I would say don't be in a hurry to publish. Take your time. Sometimes I think we live in a particular cultural scenario today where it is quite easy to arrive, where there are lots of mechanisms, publishers and so on who are hungry for overnight sensation. Don't be content with being a overnight sensation is what I would say to a young poet. Ask yourself deeper, harder and vigorous questions, and them of yourself and your poetics. Simply because you have a book out, you are not a poet.

Don't be in a hurry to acquire just another 'noun' as a matter of self-definition. The thing real thing about poetry is the making of poems. It is all about the 'verb' - it is about sitting and making poems, reading other poems. Don't get anxious with all the jostling and the pushing and the networking that people sometimes see as adjuncts of the literary circuit. The real thing that matters is scratching the pen across the page, putting away scraps of paper for months and allowing them to incubate and then one day suddenly finding a fully cooked poem. Nothing can take away the joy of that. Most importantly, don't be impatient to arrive, and secondly, read. Far too many people write poems but don't read poetry. Make sure you read poetry and do your good deed for the year by at least buying a few good books of poetry.


Read poems by Arundhathi Subramaniam Here


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