Friday, November 3, 2017

Amit Shankar Saha responds

Dr. AMIT SHANKAR SAHA: I am a university professor, postdoctoral researcher, short story writer and poet. But it is not what I am but how I am that is of interest. I am someone who is a science graduate who went on to do a PhD in English from Calcutta University because of his love for literature. I am someone who till his mid thirties lived predominantly on pocket money because he did not want to compromise on his calling. I am someone who lives his life as literature, loves his fellow beings dearly, and believes in the goodness of all things. I am someone who is in an eternal state of mawkishness from where stems his creativity. I am someone who would like to be worth his words. I am someone who will one day be someone. This is how I am.

DV: As a writer, which came first for you, academics or poetry? What was the spark that lit your authorial life?

AS. As a writer poetry came to me first. Poetry always comes first. Even before human beings learnt to speak in any language they imitated birdsongs and that was the birth of poetry. In my childhood I often broke sentences in rhythm or rhymed what I read and made poetry since it also helped as a mnemonic device. Then the movie "The Sound of Music" happened and I drew up my list of favourite things. So poetry was integral to my childhood. Academics came much later even though I had an aptitude for it since early days. But I always wanted to be an author. When I was in class eight one of my poems was published in the school wall magazine. Perhaps that fortified my ambition of leading an authorial life.

DV: Indeed, "the hills are alive with the sound of music." Before we return to poetics, would you mind letting us know what your academic interests are?
AS: Since my PhD was on diaspora study and the writings of the Indian diaspora, my major area of research interest remains that. But in academics I have published research articles on gender, postmodernism, identity, existentialism, amongst other varied areas. I love aspects of academics like teaching canonical literatures which gives us a sense of tradition, guiding researchers into newer areas of theory and literature, peer-reviewing journal articles as well as promoting creative writing. I want the poetry group Rhythm Divine Poets, which I have co-founded with Sufia Khatoon and Anindita Bose, to bring about a marriage of academics and creativity in due course of time.

DV: As a teacher, how do you teach canonical literature while also guiding researchers into new areas without diluting one or the other approach? Isn't the first endeavor inherently conservative and the second necessarily liberal in its bent?

AS: There is no dilution of approach primarily because canonical literature is taught mainly at undergraduate and postgraduate levels whereas new theoretical areas are explored mainly at PhD level. Even if there is a crossover I believe it is as T. S. Eliot has said every addition to the tradition due to individual talent modifies the tradition itself so also the canon is extended. When a theoretical approach is taken it is biased in favour of that theory and hence a perspective is created through which a piece of literature is seen. Reading with the grain or against the grain are inter-related areas but they don't get diluted because there is no definitive judgmental approach while teaching.

DV: If you had to make a binary choice, how would describe your own poetry? Traditional or avant-garde?

AS: When Thomas Wyatt and the earl of Surrey (Henry Howard) introduced the Petrarchan sonnet form from Italy into England, it was avante-garde. Now sonnet is traditional. When William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote "The Lyrical Ballads," it was something radical. Now it falls within the tradition of English Literature. When I started writing like a typical renaissance child I started by imitating the masters. But at some point I broke from tradition. Although I did not write something as unorthodox as say "The Waste Land" or "Howl" or have a standout style in ouevre like that of Charles Simic, my passage was seamless. I am still in the process of growing a style which is a combination of various influences. It is this distinctive combination that is avante-garde though individual elements may come from tradition. So yes, I write avante-garde poetry but I see them as becoming part of tradition too. 

DV: Would it be possible for you show us one of your poems and discuss its contents? In what way is it traditional? How is it non-traditional?

AS: Sure... here is a recent poem of mine.

The Last Tea

After the funeral of the leaves
I see a bird on the rock,
a butterfly, a river,
sound of gurgling water
fading as I leave.
Thoughts become dragonflies,
fly over trees.
Who shall come back to them,
like a squirrel amongst the greens,
if not me?
Too much is left behind
and the smell of what never has been.
The lost smoke from the oven
and the last tea.

This poem is a farewell poem about a place I was leaving. It starts in the imagistic mode with the depiction of a series of visual images. But in the fourth line of the first sentence the auditory sensation is introduced almost as if a kind of synaesthesia is at work. The fifth line which ends the sentence ends with the word "leave" echoing the last word of the fisrt line "leaves". It marks a completion of the thought. Then through the imagery of dragonflies flying over trees thoughts are visualised emanating from the mind. There is a surfeit of "e" sounds around this portion of the poem marking a harmony. And in the eighth line starts the question - "Who shall come back to them..." The poem is in fourteen lines but it has no apparent element of a traditional sonnet and yet intrinsic in its structure of free verse there are remnants of tradition. There is no pause or caesura in structure but definitely there is one in the thought process. A discening reader will pause at the opening of the rhetorical question in the eighth line, which gets answered in the ninth line. Does it not faintly remind you of Milton's sonnet "On His Blindness" where the question raised at the end of the octave is answered in the beginning of the sestet through a run-on line? Obviously, I was not conscious of this when I was writing the poem but definitely as I look at it now I feel the canonical literature ingrained in me flows out unconsciously into my avant-garde compositions. The question along with its allied imagery is almost Tagorean (I was in Bolpur, Santiniketan, near the Sal river when I composed this) but also Wordsworthian. The question ends with a self-reference where the poet intrudes within his poem but only to accentuate the leaving: "Too much is left behind". And then another faculty of sense is evoked - the faculty of smell, the smell of "what never has been". The evocation of embodied senses of vision, sound, and olfaction is almost Keatsian. This combination of romantic and modernist elements creates a sense of undecidability which is distinctively postmodern. Thus the poem emerges from known genres of poetry but is a species in a class of its own. This is very much evident in the imagery in the last two lines which is in a statement but not in a full sentence. The sequence of "leaves", "leave", "left" culminates in "lost" with multiple connotations/ interpretations. These layerings make the poem rich. Just as the smoke fades so too does the place, its memory, and the poem leaving behind a lingering taste alluded to in the last tea. One more sense, the faculty of taste, is now evoked. This becomes a very sensuous poem and yet it does not consistently maintain any traditional trope. There is no rhyme structure apart from a few slant rhymes but the musicality is not lost. There is no meter in the lines and yet there is a sense of rhythm. The poem transcends its category of being a farewell poem into being a poem of poetic creation but there is nothing new in that. And yet it brings in newness by presenting a combination of traditional things in a new way, very much like the combination of short and long lines. The poem is not radical in the sense that it breaks boundaries but it does modify boundaries and in that sense it is avante-garde. 

DV: Although I'm not prepared to make a full-throated explication, on a casual reading I see allusions to the Holocaust, particularly in the last few lines ("Who come back to them, like an unclean animal in the greens" -- squirrels are not kosher, according to Jewish dietary laws;  the ovens of Auschwitz and the horrible smells of burning flesh. The leaves did at the end of the year....) I don't present this as an account of what the poem "means," but as an example of how good poems often connote possible connections that may not have even occurred to their author. (Of course, this kind of interpretation can be taken too far! It's a big part of the reason poetry turns off a lot of readers -- because they have been taught to believe it means something other than it says!) As a teacher and a critic, what do you think about this sort of feree-wheeling word associattion? Does it have a role?

AS: I believe that most good poems have at least three layers of interpretations. First the personal which is rather elusive, second the social which is allusive and third the artistic which is exclusive, something that distinguishes the poem in style and aesthetic value. But once a work of literature is created it has a life of its own amongst the readers. Hence, the readers can have a multiplicity of interpretations and the poem should yield to that. Some interpretations may be tenable and accepted by others and some might be a bit outlandish. When a poet writes a poem the semantics of the poem brings its own history and hence a lot of unconsciously generated meanings enter the domain of interpretation. It is more than just free-wheeling word association. It has to have a literariness to it. 

DV: I know, of course, that English is one of India's official languages and that India has a strong tradition of English poetry. Do you write in another language as well? (I'm tempted to ask, "Do you write as well in another language?")

AS: Occasionally I have written in another language like Bengali, Hindi and even Urdu but that is very rare. I find it comfortable writing in English because I studied English as first language. Most of my thinking I do in English. I lack adequate vocabulary, registers, knowledge of literary tradition, and expertise in other languages. Language was born to connect but human beings often use languages to divide them. The question of writing equally well in another language is subject to time and practice. Proficiency can usually be decided in retrospect.
DV:  Does a poem usually simmer and sizzle within before it boils out, or does it just spring unbidden into being,  or do you treat poetry writing like a factory job with regular schedules and routines?

AS: All the cases you point out happen though the frequency of a poem coming unbidden and spontaneously composed is more than the rest. But there are times say when I have to compose on a prompt or in a particular form then even though I vaguely know what to write the how to write part requires a simmering period. Sometimes it may so happen that I am busy with some other work when a line starts haunting me. I keep on adding lines in my mind. The actual composition takes place when I get time to write it down. Regarding the maintenance of a regular schedule it is also somewhat true because I wake up early in the morning and expect a poem to come to me. Often it does, often the scribbling of the previous day is refashioned into a poem and sometimes nothing happens. When nothing happens then I recall an emotional memory. Sometimes it works, sometimes doesn't. So it depends on the mood even if a factory schedule is maintained. Poetry is an art form and a poet needs to hone his/her skills. This comes through practice, reading and life experiences. If it is not taken as an artistic pursuit then there is the danger of one stagnating as a hobby poet and not progressing further. Obviously there are exceptions. But I believe that to impart literariness to something one has to have talent as well as know the craft.

DV: I find that a lot of contemporary poetry is lacking in "craft," even though it may impart a very powerful message. Is that your impression, as well? Or is the craft involved in "free" verse too subtle for easy decipherment?

AS: Poetry is like water, it takes its own shape. And if it is poured into a particular vessel it will take that form. Writing in free verse is the act of not pouring it into a vessel. But poetry is not the vessel, it is the substance that is being poured. So even if someone is writing in free verse, aspects like rhythm, metaphors and all other ingredients of a poem will be there. All the components have to come unconsciously into a poem and it can happen only if the poet has imbibed them within his/her subconscious. For example, a poem is so much about hearing it and a poet intuitively arranges the words in a sequence of particular sound which is not possible without a large vocabulary. The question about "contemporary" poetry can be seen more clearly in retrospect. Who were the poets of our time only the future can tell best. But if we see the current milieu then it is true that there is a lot of message-poetry. But just as the currency of the messages fades out so too will those poems. A few will outlive their time because those will be found to have craft and it is always subtle.

DV: English poetry began in England even before there was an English language (Old English is actually Anglo-Saxon, which was merely a German dialect). As the British Empire grew, English poetry spread globally. Irish poets were an important contingent within the tradition, but they were part of the empire until a century or so ago, and various former colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa...) have their own English literary traditions, though few of their poets achieve widespread attention. The main exception, of course, is the US, which has become the co-leader of English writing. What about India? Do you think it is poised to form a troika of English poetry, with the US and the UK, or is it likely to remain something of a backwater like other former possessions?

AS: This is difficult to answer. I believe the electronic propinquity of the postmodern world will make poets from all over the world form a community. Geographical signifiers like US or UK or Indian will be just one source of identity amongst others. By virtue of sheer number of English-speaking people in India, which also has its strong poetic traditions in native languages, and aided by the increasing importance of the country as an emerging economy, India has the potential to form the troika you mention. You see poets like Vikram Seth and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and more such-like will emerge. The probability is high. Perhaps a new Tagore for the Western world and India will join with the UK and the US. Currently I can only say that at the critical level there is promising groundwork.

DV: Perhaps it might be you! Has your scholarly work on the Indian Diaspora shed any potential light on the development of India's poetic role?

AS: Hah, hah... that's being optimistic. Interestingly my work on Indian diasporic literature concentrates on fiction and not poetry. That was during a phase of my life when I was more of a story writer than a poet. Actually diasporic Indian poetry has not made a mark in the world as diasporic Indian novels have done. We all know that Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer for fiction but how many know that Vijay Sheshadri too won the Pulitzer but for poetry? Regarding India's "poetic" role, it is still a development in the process and I have not delved into it from a perspective of a diaspora scholar.

DV: Is there anything new on your poetry front?

AS: My first collection of poems titled Balconies of Time is being published by Hawakal Publishers in November 2017. I am excited about it.

DV: As you should be! Under the circumstance, It's been indeed a special pleasure talking to you. Before we end, though, I have a question that isn't actually about you. I'm just curious. A century ago Rudyard Kipling was probably the world's most important writer, but his reputation has precipitously declined since then. How would you describe his reputation in India?

AS: Rudyard Kipling has elements of racism in his works and his classics will not find favour in Indian academia. And since in India classics are mostly prescribed in college and university syllabuses, his absence will naturally dip his popularity. But he finds favour as a children's and young adult writer with the story of Mowgli in "The Jungle Book" and the poem "If". But many popular writers of their own time don't stand the test of time and hence lose their importance. Only time can tell where one stands in the long run. It was indeed a pleasure for me too to answer your incisive questions. Thank you for drawing me out. 


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