January 9

Voices Against Violence

For Mumbai folks, I’m speaking / reading (more reading than speaking) on Friday at the Press Club. Do come by.

Here’s the official invite:

VOICES AGAINST VIOLENCE

Culture Beat of the Mumbai Press Club
in association with 100 Thousand Poets for Change
invites you to readings and a discussion
on the issue of Violence Against Women.

Join Kalpana Swaminathan, winner of the Vodafone Crossword Book Award (Fiction), 2009,
Smriti Ravindra, co-author of The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl
and Anindita Sengupta, 2013 IRP New Media Fellow, winner of the 2012 Muse India Young Writer award for City of Water and Founder-Editor http://ultraviolet.in/: ‘Indian Feminists Unplugged’.

The event will also feature readings of poetry based on the theme.
Date: Friday, January 11, 2013
Time: 6.15 p.m.- 8.00 p.m.
Venue: The Terrace, Press Club Mumbai,
Address: Glass House, Azad Maidan, Mahapalika Marg, Mumbai 400001

Join us for tea and refreshments at 6.00 p.m.
The event has been coordinated by Menka Shivdasani and Anju Makhija
Open to All

August 7

Then there were two

Three poems in two new anthologies — The Harper Collins Book of Indian Poetry and The Yellow Nib, Modern English Poetry by Indians published by The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Queen’s University, Belfast. You can order the Harper Collins anthology here.

 

March 31

Food

I’m looking at Madhu Menon’s Food Photography. This guy makes me feel interested in food in a deep sort of way and I’m not really a foodie. I mean I like different sorts of food but I can rarely eat a lot and this apparently disqualifies me. (I’m told this by good friends who are disappointed at my inability to do justice to vast spreads.) Anyway, I like reading about food and I love food-related imagery in poetry as do many people I suppose. One of my favourites is ‘A Display of Mackerel’ by Mark Doty.

They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity
barred with black bands,
which divide the scales’
radiant sections

like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.

Read the rest here.

My own attitude toward cooking is as erratic as everything else in my life. I hate it, I love it, I don’t know what I want to do with it. I’m probably the equivalent of people who love poetry and badly want to be a poet but don’t really have the discipline for it. I’m impatient with measurements for one, which is really a no-deal thing if you want to be a cook of any seriousness. And I can’t poach an egg. I tried really hard some time back and ended up with a lot of makeshift egg drop soup. Well, it probably wasn’t really. But that’s what I’m calling it. I like chicken though. I can do nice things with chicken.

More food poetry — Persimmons by Li-Young Lee,  Yam by Bruce Guernsey, and of course this famous poem about plums by William Carlos Williams.

February 24

Fonts & flowers

On handwriting and fonts, Nell Boechenstein at The Millions:

Pens are often considered a fetish item of neurotics with disposable income, but a Mont Blanc sensibility is not my point. Despite being reliably cash-poor, writer-types are often as particular about their pens as they are about their fonts. (When Helvetica—the trend, the font, the film, the MoMA exhibition—was the rage, Slate published a piece asking writersabout their favorite fonts and those queried had cultivated preferences at the ready; Courier, mostly, since those writers who may not fetishize the pen fetishize the typewriter instead.)

Confession: my handwriting sucks (at least I think so and I’m hoping someone will convince me otherwise) and I hate writing by hand. This leads to intense fear that I’m not really a writer because real writers, you know, they love pens.

I do love fonts. But even here, I’m commitment-shy so I like to change from time to time. I like serif fonts like Times New Roman or Book Antiqua while writing and Arial (10 pt) while editing. I switch back to a serif font for the final draft. For blog posts, I love Georgia which is convenient since that’s the default WordPress font.

Gosh, how nerdy is this post? But yeah, just to finish, I’ve been through my Courier phase and exactly for the reason that it looks like typewriter font.

On the subject of nerdiness, I recently discovered I have become more short-sighted and I found a strand of white in my hair. I also recently had a birthday. How is someone to cope with such profusion? No really, it has been all upheaval and discovery in the last few months. What is helping now is flower season. Look at the gorgeousity here. My street has some Golden Trumpet and some jasmine. They’re lovely. It’s been raining a little and in the early morning and the evenings when the air is cool, the world seems soft.

It’s interesting that this tuesday’s poem at Tuesday Poem (link in sidebar) is ‘Olduvai Gorge Thorn Tree’ by Sarah Lindsay:

He kept dreaming of a tree, dreaming
of a tree, dreaming of a tree
and its sound like a hush,
and it seemed he could open
his mouth when he woke and make the others
know something they didn’t already know…
Read the rest here. Or listen to Nic Sebastian read it at the Whale Sound project.
October 31

Why all the silence

There is a village called Heggodu in central Karnataka, and a miraculous place called Ninasam there. I don’t want to get into why it’s miraculous but if you read the news story I’ve linked to, you’ll understand. Anyway, that’s where I was in the first part of this month.

Ninasam’s annual shibeera (camp) brings together academics, activists, actors, dancers, directors, enthusiasts, journalists, performers, photographers, poets, readers, singers, smokers, writers and watchers for a week of cultural adda. This time, there were two plays by the Ninasam repertory group — Kuvempu’s Shudra Tapaswi and Shakespeare’s Othello. There was Carnatic music by TM Krishna (sublime!). There were lectures by Sundar Sarrukai, Rajni Bakshi, Shiv Vishwanathan and N. Manu Chakravarthy. There were poetry, fiction and play readings in Kannada, Marathi and English. There was other stuff but I don’t want to bore you with lists. What I’m saying is there was lots of gorgeousity.

I did a reading of my work. I was more nervous about this than I am about most readings. Firstly, it was the post-lunch session. Yes, bring on the sympathy. Secondly, there were many Bhasha writers/readers at this gathering. I was expecting questions about mother tongue, cultural roots, the whole continuum of belonging and unbelonging about which I feel tormented sometimes and terribly bored at other times.

It was wonderful. Yes, there were some expected questions. But there were also some unexpected ones, especially later, and some wonderful responses from people I respect a great deal. But most interesting was this encounter with a Kannada poet —-

Our first meeting was after dinner the night before my reading. We were standing outside the canteen, near the washbasins. It was cold and rainy. Water dripping into my ears, muddy feet, poetry talk.

‘People who write in English can’t be authentic because they don’t think in English,’ he said.

‘I think in English.’

‘Yes, but you can’t feel in English.’ He drawled out the feel, like feeel. He looked at me compassionately because I am handicapped in this way.

‘Erm, yeah, I need a smoke.’

It took me a day before I could pass him without wanting to make faces. (Reader, I did not actually make faces. It might have seemed immature.)

After my reading, he waylaid me on two separate occasions, told me what he found problematic about my work–and some of it was exactly what has been appreciated in other places. It’s always freeing, even if unsettling, to encounter totally different poetics. It forces you to pick and choose elements from different cultures, to continually think about what would work best for a particular poem instead of following the easy formulae of rules. For example, I’ve been thinking about the whole ‘show, don’t tell’ principle quite a bit and his aesthetic preferences for exploratory statements as opposed to ‘photography’ made me think about this some more.

With all the intense communicating and socialising and sharing, I started feeling breathless every once in a while.  There is a small tailoring workshop on the grounds, a room with some women on sewing machines, a bench outside and in front, a grove stretching out. I sometimes went and sat there, under the trees, to think or write.  I exchanged smiles with the women but somehow, felt reluctant to break the silent companionship in which we sat — them inside, me outside — working at something. It seemed important to let that place be just for ‘doing’, and not for talking.

Here are some lovely pictures of the festival by Prateek Mukund. Oh, and anyone can attend the annual shibeera. You just need to write to Ninasam around the time it happens.

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After the intensity of Ninasam, there was the intensity of illness. I was sick for about three weeks. The upside is that antibiotics affect the poetry well, mostly because I get so drugged that I can’t see straight. This, I find, is an useful state for poetry. As are hangovers.

It makes me think of this interview with Iain McGilchrist, a writer and psychologist who has written a “a fascinating analysis of, and a clear warning about, our increasingly divided brains (Poetryfoundation.org).” From the interview:

The right hemisphere is not just better at understanding metaphor in the strictest sense, but at making unusual connections, and therefore at any non-literal use of language. I don’t think we need to get hung up on that: metonymy is also going to be a right-hemisphere function—indeed my thesis is that poetry is nothing if not a recruitment of the right hemisphere.

I’m interested in this because I feel like I get through life as two different people (left-person and right-person) — one who is obsessed with process, systems, lists and order and the other who shirks all of these alarmingly. The first fills in excel sheets with plans, routines, menus worked out for the entire month. The other refuses to even look at the excel sheet on certain days. It’s not hard to predict which would be better at poetry. The trick is getting the right one to come out at the right time. It’s not nice when I’m at a social event and find myself drifting blankly while someone speaks to me, or open my mouth to say something and realise I’m speaking strange.  And on that note, read what George Szirtes says on conversation.

Also interesting is what McGilchrist says about the logic, order and patterning required in poetry. Rhyme, rhythm, metre.

And I could not agree less that having a clear metrical pattern and rhyme scheme is limiting, or tends to suggest the left hemisphere’s attitude to language. They are the condition of all music and dance, the right hemisphere’s domain, and when we decide to dispense with them, we take a knowing risk.

Hmm.

*

I’ve been making a(nother) attempt to learn Kannada. I decided I had gone about it all wrong in the past — all those conversational classes which told me how to buy vegetables at the market just bored me to death. I realised the only way I can get interested in a language is through its writing. So I’ve learned the script. I can now read signage of all sorts and spend a lot of time reading out shop signs to A.

More ambitiously, I’m also trying to read Girish Karnad’s ‘Yayati’. Since I can spend a total of one hour a week or something on this, I’ll probably be done with it by next year. But hey, remember the tortoise?

In the spirit of slow but sure, I love this site called Padakali which gives you one new word every day.

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May 14

The Launch

So, I wore pink. I had planned to wear black but an ironing disaster got in the way. Maybe it was a good thing because the book is black and white and it would have looked like I don’t know any other colours. The launch went as launches go–I read for about half an hour. Then Sridala and I conversed, which means she asked intelligent questions and I tried to answer the questions and I remembered to ask one question back between saying lots of things about my writing, half of which I don’t remember and half of which, I will change my mind about. I’m always envious of people who work out a theory around their writing and seem like they will stick to it forever. I will get very bored if I have to stick to any theory forever. So the writing will come as it comes. And I’ll say different things about it at different times.

*

Picture:

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As of now, the books are available at Sahitya Akademi outlets in major cities and in Crossword at Residency Road in Bangalore.

Also, in Bombay, People’s Book House at Fort will apparently source it from SA if you ask. Phone: (022) 22873768 , (022) 24362474. Address: 15, Ground Floor, Meher House, Cawasjit Patel Street, Fort. Landmark: Near Meher House.

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One more picture:

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I was badly prepared for the signing. I had left my pen in my bag so I had to use other people’s pens. And they were not interesting ink colours like pink or green which I generally use at home. I must remember to keep my pens ready next time. I am hoping there will be a next time in another city some time soon.

*

The most difficult question Sridala asked me was to do a Kolatkar-style telling of influences. This is Kolatkar’s list:

Whitman, Mardhekar, Manmohan, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Kafka, Baudelaire, Heine, Catullus, Villon, Jynaneshwar, Namdev, Janabai, Eknath, Tukaram, Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Han Shan, C, Honaji, Mandelstam, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Babel, Apollinaire, Breton, Brecht, Neruda, Ginsberg, Barth, Duras, Joseph Heller … Gunter Grass, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Namdeo Dhasal, Patthe Bapurav, Rabelais, Apuleius, Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Robert Shakley, Harlan Ellison, Balchandra Nemade, Durrenmatt, Aarp, Cummings, Lewis Carroll, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Godse Bhatji, Morgenstern, Chakradhar, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Balwantbuva, Kierkegaard, Lenny Bruce, Bahinabai Chaudhari, Kabir, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Howling Wolf, Jon Lee Hooker, Leiber and Stoller, Larry Williams, Lightning Hopkins, Andre Vajda, Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Truffaut, Woody Guthrie, Laurel and Hardy.

I had real trouble with this because any list like this has got to be flippant and fun like Kolatkar’s and I wasn’t really in that sort of mood. I named some eclectic things like Ghalib, Bollywood and Neil Gaiman besides various poets–Ramanujan, Rilke, Plath, Kolatkar, D’Souza. In related news, see Aditi’s post on mood boards which I thought was a cool way to keep track of influences. I think it makes more sense than a definitive, immutable list of influences. At the moment, my mood board has Anne Carson, WG Sebald, Selima Hill, Arun Kolatkar, The Single Man (though I thought the movie was just so-so), Edward Said, heat, rain, the smell of fresh dung, Hanuman, various travel stories, a Scottish loch, some sculptures from the Louvre, some scientific concepts. Or at least, these are the things I’m conscious of.

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April 5

Boland on Poetic Dilemma

I’ve been reading Poetry in Theory, which is an anthology of essays by poets and philosophers written between 1900 and 2000 and today, I read Eavan Boland’s essay The Woman Poet: Her Dilemma. She talks about how the Irish woman poet had to fight multiple ‘force fields’ every time she sat down to write–‘romantic heresy’ on the one hand and separatist feminism on the other. Romantic heresy ‘sets limits on what is to count as poetic experience’. It allowed a woman poet to write only about certain things, ‘poetic’ things. She could write about other things only as long as she invested them with sufficient ‘poetic experience’. Feminism liberated her to write about her everyday experiences but prescribed the mood and tone, that of anger. For a poet, both were equally restrictive and stunting.

Boland wrote this essay in 1986-7, twenty years ago and she was speaking very specifically about conditions in Ireland. Some of it may be relevant even now, and even in other places where British poetry is an influence. Or the specific force fields may differ but the general notion may still be relevant.

For example, I can think of two different force fields that affect me, and possibly, other IE poets–what the British and Americans say English poetry should be and what people who write in other Indian languages say poetry should be. The feminist identity does not affect me as much, or not that I’m aware of. I do write about women a lot but that’s never been agenda-driven, more a natural outcome of preoccupations at the time.

The way Boland confronted the dilemma was to look at other art forms that provided a different way of looking. And she found a way to break through in painting:

The precedents for this were in painting rather than poetry…In the genre painters of the French eighteenth century — in Jean Baptiste Chardin in particular — I saw what I was looking for. Chardin’s paintings were ordinary in the accepted sense of the word. They were unglamorous, workaday, authentic. Yet in his work, these objects were not merely described; they were revealed. The hare in its muslin bag, the crusty loaf, the woman fixed between menial tasks and human dreams — these stood out, a commanding text.

This part resonated with me. I love the way Chardin builds tension, even menace, into a collection of mundane things. The cat looks poised to jump in both these pictures and one imagines the chaos that will follow–the kitchen disordered, people screaming, perhaps the meal for a party or big event ruined, fights as a result, domestic squalor. The possibility of so much noise and living in this ordinary kitchen moment.

By the time I started writing, we were no longer mired in romantic heresy (thank god). I think there was a happy mix of ‘poetic’ subjects and the ordinary in our English poetry which meant that I never felt that kind of constraint. The equivalent force field I can think of would be political or socially engaged poetry. As I was telling someone yesterday, I burden under quite a bit of guilt. How can one not bear witness to terrible things? Isn’t that self-indulgent? At the same time, I recently trashed three different poems — on the Gujarat riots, the Bhopal tragedy, and on Kashmiri widows respectively — because I felt they were just not working as art. I was not being able to get into the situations enough to bear witness with any integrity. It’s okay to write shallow poems sometimes. Less okay to write them on the backs of other people’s tragedies.

Another bit that resonated with me:

From painting, I learned something else of infinite value to me. Most young poets have bad working habits. They write their poems in fits and starts, by feast or famine. But painters follow the light. They wait for it and do their work by it. They combine artisan practicality with vision.

The way she uses that is to find a time in her daily routine that would amount to her ‘best light’, and make the most of that time. This is relevant for a lot of people who have to balance day jobs or children with writing. I don’t really have to do that at the moment but I think it’s a good principle to work by in any case. Painterly habits also makes me think of Monet’s painting of the Rouen Cathedral which he did in different lights at different times of the day, to see how it changed. One of the things I’ve been trying is to read / edit a poem at different times in a day and see how that works.

She ends with saying that the ‘dilemma persists; the cross-currents continue.’

What I wished most ardently for myself at a certain stage of my work was that I might find my voice where I had found my vision….Artistic forms are not static. Nor are they radicalised by aesthetes and intellectuals. They are changed, shifted, detonated into deeper patterns only by the sufferings and self-deceptions of those who use them.

I like that last line a lot. Sufferings, but especially self-deceptions.

April 3

Leaving, comfort zones, duck

Last days in Canterbury. The sky holds its light longer each day. These last months have been both rewarding and freeing. I had burrowed into a rut and I’ve been breaking out of it, I think. It’s all the time and the poetry, the solitude, the detachment from currents.

I did a reading of my work at the university last week. I was nervous and exhilarated as usual. Some of my older, and what I think of as ‘less crafted’ poems still seemed to move people the most. This and the second one on this page have never been revised and so in essence, are what I wrote as first drafts. I’m puzzling over what this means (and hoping it doesn’t mean I should just retire). Of course, sometimes poems that work well in a reading are not the same as those that work well on the page. A poet brings certain things to their own reading of a poem that make it more than the words. But I wonder if that’s all it is.

As a reader, I like a lot of poets whose work is polished. But there are others I like whose poems are looser or even flawed. The truth is I’d rather read a poem that I get something out of — feeling or thought — even if it’s  imperfect than a lovely construction that left me cold in both ways. Even one sparkling or memorable line, image, thought trumps a series of words that sit in the right place but glisten dully.

On the note of rules, I lurked at a workshopping site for some time last year. The site is pretty strict about what makes good poetry and what does not. Obviously this has its uses, especially for beginners, but it can also lead to neat poems with the intelligence and emotional appeal of frozen meals. More harmful is the fact that they stress a singular way to write poetry. This can become a comfort zone, an old couch you grow fat in. It’s very tempting to stay there. Poetry is hard to pin down and it’s easier (less risky) to follow a set of rules than to figure out what works or doesn’t as one goes along, poem to poem, moment to moment. How messy that is! How uncontrollable. How dangerous. How much like life.

So how much revision is good revision? Somebody said (I forget who) there’s an optimum amount after which you need to stop, save the poem from your own mind or something like that. Where’s that point? I think of it like that dot in a painting by Miro, the one poet Moniza Alvi talks about, ‘Barely distinguishable from other dots, / it’s true, but quite uniquely placed.’

The dot knows where it is. And once you see it, you know where it is. But until then, it’s a a bit elusive.

Here is the poem and here is a video reading of the poem by Moniza Alvi which shows the painting.

I Would Like to Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro

I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro.

Barely distinguishable from other dots,
it’s true, but quite uniquely placed.
And from my dark centre

I’d survey the beauty of the linescape
and wonder — would it be worthwhile
to roll myself towards the lemon stripe,

Centrally poised, and push my curves
against its edge, to give myself
a little attention?

But it’s fine where I am.
I’ll never make out what’s going on
around me, and that’s the joy of it.

The fact that I’m not a perfect circle
makes me more interesting in this world.
People will stare forever —

Even the most unemotional get excited.
So here I am, on the edge of animation,
a dream, a dance,a fantastic construction,

A child’s adventure.
And nothing in this tawny sky
can get too close, or move too far away.

~ Moniza Alvi

March 12

Poem up

My poem ‘The City of Water’ is now up at Unsplendid, an online journal of received and nonce forms. It’s a sestina. Do read if you’re interested in that kind of thing. That kind of thing being poetry, sestinas, etc.

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My computer was down for six days and I suffered. I had to use computers in a common room and write by hand the rest of the time. I survived. But I’m glad it’s over.

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I went to see Ron Arad: Restless at the Barbican. Arad is an industrial designer, artist and architect. I found some of it really fascinating / amusing including a strangely-shaped ping pong table which one could actually try out. Some pictures here.

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Before that, Patience Agbabi came to read at the university. She was warm, vibrant, very lovely. Her next collection is a retelling of the Canterbury Tales in poetry. Quite a challenge, I’m guessing. She’s blogged a little bit about it here. She’s also Canterbury Laureate for the year and the audience was quite large. The questions were similar to the ones asked back home — do you write for the page or the stage? what kind of research are you doing for this book? Patricia Debney who is a poet and writer herself and a senior lecture here asked about the fact that she often uses form and whether she finds this restricting. Agbabi said that using form makes things more interesting / challenging because it sets parameters that she has to work within, makes it less amorphous.

*

Somebody read my horoscope and it was full of some troubling stuff. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before and I was all shrugs and smiles about it. But I was surprised at how it played on my mind all the way back in the bus from London to Canterbury. Nothing some wine and sleep couldn’t fix. But still.

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I was only reading poetry (and poetry-related essays / criticism) for the first month simply because there’s so much of it available here that I don’t get back home. I started missing prose though so have picked up a novel, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Wizard of the Crow. It’s quite gripping and very funny in bits. The protagonist is a conman who pretends to be a healer and diviner. I thought this was interesting:

As a novelist, Ngugi says he is very influenced by the “trickster” tradition. “The trickster character appears in tales all over the world,” he explained. “In West Africa it is Anansi the spider. Elsewhere it is Hare or Tortoise.

“The trickster is very interesting because he is always changing. He always questions the stability of a word or a narrative or an event. He is continually inventing and reinventing himself. He challenges the prevailing wisdom of who is strong and who is weak.”

Among other poets, I’ve been reading Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Some of her poems here.

February 18

The Seductive Snowball

Given my current situation (and seductions) in life, I thought this was appropriate. It’s been a month since I got to England and barring one week of illness and a few days of being snowed in, it’s been exciting. Actually, the illness and the being snowed in were probably useful because I got some work done.

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Serendipity: A was in Berlin three weeks back and we met at Paris for a very hectic four days. The Louvre is overwhelming in a way that leads to despair. After walking around for about ten hours, we accepted that at least a month was required to see everything. We didn’t have a month. We had just a day and we had to concede defeat. There was so much to love but discovery-wise, Chardin was interesting. The Musee D’Orsay is much more manageable than the Louvre and one of the things I liked most there was Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s Four Parts of the World. I also loved The Orangerie, which has a much smaller collection but is beautifully located inside the Jardin des Tuileries. The rooms full of Monet’s Nympheas or Water Lilies are exciting and serene at the same time.

Okay, I’m not going into what else we did (the Eiffel, a river tour, walks along the Seine etc) and ate (scallops, escargots, crepes, cheese, pain au chocolat) because this is not a travel guide and Paris is not little talked about. There was also an embarrassing episode at a strip-show where we got conned but I won’t get into that either. I did feel a sort of helplessness about all the things we couldn’t find time for.  Every now and then, we had to remind ourselves that this was Paris, a city that can’t really be enjoyed in a guided-tour, monument-hopping way. We prioritised leisurely walks and meals over one or two important sights and adopted Indian fatalism about visiting again soon.

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British poet Drew Milne came to read at the university. You can see his work here and here. What do you think? I’m still trying to make up my mind about it. Frankly, my first reaction was not intense. But maybe, I’ll change my mind. I don’t know.

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There was a guest lecture about ecopoetries in America. The speaker went on a bit about Americans and their special relationship to their land. It made me think about our relationship to our land. Especially now that we see it disappearing under construction rubble in cities like Bangalore. It also made me think about some of Ramanujan’s poems, especially A River which has these lovely lines:

People everywhere talked
of the inches rising,
of the precise number of cobbled steps
run over by the water, rising
on the bathing places,
and the way it carried off three village houses,
one pregnant woman
and a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda as usual.

And these…

He said:
the river has water enough
to be poetic
about only once a year

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I haven’t taken too many pictures in London yet, mainly because I’ve been busy doing other things like being completely turned on, obsessed and orgasmic — to continue with the seduction trope — about the Poetry Library. I can’t really explain how moving it is to be in a library devoted to poetry. And they allow you to read and borrow books for free. I know I sound like I want to squeal with joy. But I felt like Gretel finding that magic house made of chocolate and candy in the woods. Minus the witch.

I’ve also been busy visiting more museums, spending time with an old friend and watching movies. Also, Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour made my birthday pretty special.

But here is a gull looking at the Thames. Doesn’t he look like he’s thinking hard?

February 6

The Book

So yes, City of Water is out. It’s my first collection of poems and do write to me if you’re interested in a copy. Or you could look for it in the Sahitya Akademi shop in your city. Under the matter-of-fact tone, there’s a swell in my throat. It could be happiness and not the remnants of a sore throat. One can’t be absolutely sure though.

The cover photo is by Sohrab Hura, one of last year’s winners of the Toto Funds the Arts award for photography. I really like his work in general and this photo in particular because it has crows by the water, the ocean to be exact, flying into the wind. Are they a murder? I’m not sure. But they are a certain number of crows in flight and crow flight is a measure of things. Then there’s the thing that they are flying into the wind. Walking into the wind is difficult for us so we may impose a connotation of struggle to the picture. But  for some birds, it’s what helps them fly.

January 21

Padel, Thematic, Cathedral

There was an element of theatre in Ruth Padel’s reading of her poems. Not only did she bring alive the narrative charge of her poems but she also did different voices for the characters in her poems, usually Darwin or his wife since she was mostly reading from Darwin: A Life in Poems. The book is an unusual and ambitious project but the poems she read were not groaning under the weight of the lofty idea. They were tender, humourous, down-to-earth, and they made Darwin more human which is not easy to do with legends. Some are available here.

Disappointingly (but expectedly), the Q&A session after the reading had few questions on poetry. Darwin, spirituality and conservation vied for attention, and obviously more people are interested in these than in poetry. I think there were one or two interesting questions about whether she would ever turn (return) from science towards poetry. The unsaid words here were ‘real’, ‘normal’, something like that. I may be paraphrasing this badly but I think the attempt was to understand whether she would move away from the specific themes she’s been attached to so far, whether she would ‘free’ her poetry to go where it will.

So is themed poetry restricted in some way? Is poetry directed towards a cause glancing away from other areas of truth it could discover? On the other hand, judges on award panels seem to think that big concerns are important for poetry. Re: Judge’s comments on Philip Gross winning the TS Eliot Prize for The Water Table and Roddy Lumsden’s comments on that.

Does anyone else have a problem with this preference for themed books as opposed to miscellanies. Surely that’s an American thing, arc and concept and all? I’m happy with either, but claiming it as a strength which goes towards a prize win is odd, no?

Ditto with ‘big concerns’ – are we giving prizes for ‘big concerns’ now? Big concerns, whatever they are, are great, but surely not a reason to award a prize?

So which side of the fence are you on?

Back to Padel: some of us got to meet her the next day for an informal discussion and lunch,  a generous three hours during which the questions were more focused. We talked about some nitty-gritty stuff like craft and performance but it didn’t graduate to a very evolved discussion on poetics. I’m not sure why. The time was probably short and the group a bit diverse (playwrights, fiction-writers, poets). She clearly believes in modernist ideas of compression, avoiding abstractions and so on. I would’ve been interested to know how she responds to poetry written in a very different aesthetic. Or what she feels about Language poetry, which is more recent.

Anyway, relatedly, I’ve started my three months of poetry-and-not-much-else at the University of Kent. The room is all tidy lines, the air outside is crisp and cold, my fingers have not frozen yet. The snow has stopped but there are some meager patches of it lying around. The quiet is so big I could float in it.

I’m thrilled to have access to books we normally don’t get in India. The high point of my day was reading Don Paterson’s Nil Nil at an English pub outside the cathedral. The picture of the cathedral is a bit blurry because my hands had gone numb in the cold.