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Dylan and I: A writer remembers the Welsh poet

books Updated: Oct 27, 2016 15:43 IST
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Dylan Thomas was born on October 27. I was born on October 24. The three-day difference—never mind the seventy years between our births—allowed me to dream of being a writer. Dylan grew up in Swansea, Wales. I grew up in Gangtok, Sikkim. Swansea wasn’t London or New York. Gangtok wasn’t Bombay or Delhi. You didn’t need to be from a big, important town to write, Dylan whispered to me, much the way R.K. Narayan did. I’d borrow 18 Poems from my town’s lone library. The librarian was amused. It’s a memory that makes me smile.

The memory, though, wasn’t going to cheer me up at the Nepal Literature Festival in Kathmandu in November 2013. I’d been receiving flak left and right for a throwaway comment I made about poetry.

I was asked on TV if I wrote poems, to which I replied something along the lines of poetry being the most insincere form of literature. I was on live TV. The questions were short. My answers were shorter. I had no time to elaborate. We moved on to other questions. The issue of my not writing poetry continued rearing its head on panels where I was a speaker and on panels that shouldn’t have had anything to do with me.

I tried explaining where my comment came from. I was seeing far too many ‘poets’ around me. Fuelled by Facebook likes and encouragement from idiotic friends, a new generation of pseudo Dylan Thomases is eviscerating literature, I pointed out. Sure, prose, too, has it share of people who think they are super-skilled at it, but it’s far worse among ‘poets.’ The trend—and I notice this especially in South Asia and Africa—is to embrace poetry because poetry is, you know, ‘easy’—people think they don’t need to adhere to rules when writing poetry. Shaky grammar? Prose exposes it. Poetry continues concealing it. That great self-esteem booster called Facebook blesses these writers with validation, making people who can’t write actually believe that they are great at it. It’s a dangerous phenomenon. Forgive me, therefore, for being cynical.

I admit poetry and I share a less easy relationship than prose and I do. This lack of ease comes from insecurity and envy. I don’t usually feel threatened when I read prose, even great prose. When reading fiction, I often think, “Ahhh, this was good, but I could have done this, this and this better.” When I read a Tishani Doshi poem, on the other hand, I realize how little my words sing. Jane Draycott makes me feel utterly inadequate as a writer. And envy? I envy poets who write knowing that the rewards of writing—readership, fame, money—come far more easily to prose writers. I, for one, will not go out of my way to write poetry because there’s no money in it.

Not writing poetry doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it. I read Joe Benevento’s Tough Guys Don’t Write over and over again. I marvel at Arundhati Subramanium’s and Jenny Lewis’ works. I frequently go back to the poems of Jeet Thayil, Shikha Malaviya, Sudeep Sen and Jamie McKendrick. And then there’s Dylan Thomas. He sits on my shelf everywhere I have a base. He travels in a suitcase when I travel. Poem in October is my birthday poem. Fern Hill depresses me, but I still read it. I am more familiar with his poems than with his prose.

*

I flew to London after the Nepal Literature Festival because I needed to be in Swansea, Wales, for the Dylan Thomas Prize. The Gurkha’s Daughter, my debut collection of short stories, had been shortlisted for the 30,000-pound prize.

I knew I wouldn’t win, but I wouldn’t give a prize ceremony attached to Dylan Thomas a miss. It was an unhappy time, though. In addition to feeling uncomfortable about the little controversy I had generated in Kathmandu, I had just discovered that The Gurkha’s Daughter hadn’t been entered for any Indian prizes because Indian prizes weren’t important to my British publisher. To find that my book had even been entered for an award—any award—took the sting away somewhat. That this was the Dylan Thomas Prize made things better.

During the prize week, we finalists—from America, India, Africa, and the UK— were all put up in three interconnecting converted stone barns at the lovely Clyne Farm. The farm had spectacular views of the sea, often declared the best in Swansea, and horses and a dog. It was a jolly group of writers, young, drunk and untainted. During the day, we’d visit schools and read at bars. We’d drink fancy wine at restaurants and cheap wine back in the house. The fire alarm went off the night before the award. The dog dragged a writer’s hat through the mud. A BBC reporter asked me if there was jealousy among the writers. I said there wasn’t.

Is there any other town that’s as proud of its literary offspring as Swansea is of Dylan? Swansea is Dylan and Dylan is Swansea. Everywhere you go, you see traces of the town’s biggest literary icon. For a documentary on the prize, we were taken to Dylan Thomas’ birthplace and family home. The meticulously restored house is one of Swansea’s bigger tourist attractions. Our boisterous group fell silent here. Shakespeare’s house had done nothing for me. Here, though, I stood reflective.

The prize ceremony was a black-tie affair. My agent traveled from London for it. I rented an ill-fitting tux. I didn’t win. I pretended I was thrilled for the winner. I had known all along she’d win. She deserved it. All the finalists hugged. To divert my attention from my loss, my agent asked me about the comment I had made in Kathmandu. She knew it’d be a distraction.

“A few poets even blocked me on Facebook,” I said.

“If it’s any solace to you,” she said, scrolling down her phone.

“If it’s any solace to me?” I repeated.

“Here.” She handed me the phone. A list of famous Dylan quotes was staring at me. “Read Number 10.”

I read it out aloud: “Poetry is not the most important thing in life… I’d much rather lie in a hot bath reading Agatha Christie and sucking sweets.”

“That’s the kind of thing you’d say,” she said.

She laughed. I laughed. I went to congratulate the winner for the fourth time. The winner and I hugged.

*

(MAX KORNDÖRFER )

(Prajwal Parajuly, a 2013 finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize, is on the jury of the 2017 Dylan Thomas Prize).