Not everybody understands poetry. It can seem abstruse or even gratuitous. But for those who are able to appreciate it, poetry is sublime. In a month, award-winning poet Sudeep Sen is set to release his first novel. So before the conversation turns to prose next year, we decided to talk to him about poetry – the art and its appreciation.
Sen has been writing poetry for more than three decades and his work has been translated into several languages. It has won international awards. He is one of the most exciting poets in India today. His latest anthology of poetry, Fractals: New & Selected Poetry is a collection of his verses written since 1979, when he was still a teenager.
Excerpts from an interview:
We don’t appreciate our poets in India. This is odd in a country with a rich tradition of writing in verse. Why is modern English poetry a niche?
Yes, it is ironic, considering that the only Indian Nobel laureate in literature was the poet and polymath, Rabindranath Tagore.
English poetry in the wider context of Indian literature appears to be niche, but actually that is no longer the case. In fact, in the introduction to The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry by Indians, which I edited in 2012, I had provocatively stated that the best of Indian writing in English is happening in poetry.
Three years later, that has certainly proven to be true, with many new poets having published their first books, many established poets bringing their impressive ‘selected’ and ‘collected’ volumes, and many cutting-edge anthologies having appeared recently. More literary presses (like Poetrywala, Almost Island, Gallerie, Copper Coin and Yeti) and mainstream publishing houses (like Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette, Bloomsbury, Aleph, Speaking Tiger, Yoda and Duckbill) are publishing poetry on a more regular basis. So all this is a very positive sign and speaks for the good health of Indian poetry.
Even within literary circles, many admit they don’t understand poetry. What does it take to appreciate it?
To appreciate poetry, you just have to be open to the everyday, multifarious shades of the sounds and sights around us. We are surrounded by poetry actually – all the time and everywhere – we just have to be receptive to it, to its subtle cadence, texture and tenor.
What does it take to become a poet? How did you begin writing?
Poetry is like a disease. It is a mental health problem. It is an obsession and a wonderful madness – it is unexplainable really. Poetry is all that matters. All that matters is poetry. Poetry is life. Everything is poetry. That’s it. The madness of it apart, one needs to be very focused on the craft and its dedicated practice, riyaaz.
I first started writing poetry in high school, the first one in a particularly boring class. But I also grew up in a typical Bengali family surrounded by books, music and dance, and reading poetry aloud was very much part of growing up. As a young child, I did not write poetry, but read it, committed it to memory, and recited a lot of it. And through a process of osmosis it seeped into my blood.
My first professional poem publication was in The Telegraph. My official debut, a collection called The Lunar Visitations, was published in New York in 1990.
When you were in class 12, your grandfather printed, photocopied and bound your first manuscript of poems for your family and friends as a graduation gift...
It was called Leaning Against the Lamppost, and the year was 1983. It was hand-typeset, hand-printed and hand-bound at a neighbourhood letterpress print shop and bindery. Sadly, not a single copy exists of that fledgling volume – not even a photocopy. Though some of the poems have been resurrected and reprinted in Fractals.
Fractals is a collection of your poetry and translations spanning 35 years. How has your poetry changed? How have you changed?
The book Fractals is divided into three parts and is presented in reverse chronological order. One can easily notice the difference, the trajectory, and the movement. In the beginning, the act of writing was sometimes a conscious one, but now it is second nature, like breathing.
Of course, as a person I have changed and grown over the years. Hopefully, now I am tempered and mellow, more understated and mature, though I’m still equally excited about exploring new forms and creating fresh work all the time. I like to constantly push the genres and boundaries of language.
You have found poetry in buying a Bollywood film ticket, in hospitals, in science, and in death. Is there something that doesn’t inspire you?
No. Everything around us is a source of poetic stimulus. No subject is inappropriate for poetry. Poetry is all around us – in prayer-chants, in ritual rites, in songs we listen to, in advertising jingles, in fiction, and of course in poetry itself. We just have to listen to silence to find real poetry.
Do the classics inspire you? Who are your idols when it comes to poetry?
Undoubtedly. I studied literature in college and my family environment also led me to reading the classics. In order to break tradition, one has to be trained in the classical tradition, either to reinvent it or go against the grain. Reading books was and is a pleasure as well as a profession.
Among my idols, first, there is the god of poetry, thereafter Milton, and then the Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott.
Does poetry get lost in translation?
The truth is that we all read much of great world literature in translation. I believe good translations possess the essence of the original. Sure it may not one hundred per cent perfect. Yet, if one follows a proper methodology, if the matrix of sounds and metre is balanced with the content, then the translation version of a poem can deliver something very close to the original. Sound is very important. A poem should sing.
Are you working on a novel or a book of fiction?
Curious that you ask that. Having published a number of books of poetry over a 35-year literary career as a writer, EroText, my first book of fiction – micro-fiction in this case – is expected to be launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival next month. I am looking forward to this fiction debut enormously – a new challenge awaits.
From Fractals, two short poems:
MA | MOTHER
[RATNA SEN 18.12.1940 - 27.01. 2013]
As if in a dream, you disappeared
unannounced – untimely and unprepared.
The handwritten diary you left behind
weepingly revealed your sordid, searing pain.
Grief-struck, I run around city’s municipal offices
rummaging through bureaucratic files,
seeking your death certificate for validation –
as if losing you, wasn’t loss enough.
A bright red boat
Blue fishing nets
Ochre fort walls
Sahar’s silk blouse
gold and sheer
Her dark black
A street child’s
holding the rainbow
in his small grasp
My lost memory
white and frozen
now melts colour
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From HT Brunch, December 20
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