Interview: Tishani Doshi, author, a god at the door - “My poems tread between horror and beauty”
Poet, essayist, and fiction writer Tishani Doshi who is also a visiting associate professor at New York University Abu Dhabi talks about her new poems that explore themes of impermanence, disembodiment, isolation, and the need for connection
How did a god at the door come into being? Would it be facile to call it a pandemic project?
I tend to write poems anarchically, without any grand project in mind. So, after publishing Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods in 2017, poems got written and shoved into the “new poems” folder. At the onset of the pandemic last year though, the writing took on an intensity, and by June I found I had a critical mass which could form a new collection. Much of my work as a writer has been about the body, and so the kind of disembodiment people experienced during the many lockdowns of last year really put into focus some of my concerns. Our physical isolation, inability to touch, need for connection and intimacy, difficulty with loneliness and alienation, questions of survival. My poems tend to tread between horror and beauty, and perhaps this was exacerbated by the pandemic, which really highlighted all the inequalities in our societies.
I would love to hear about the conversations that went into creating the stunning cover. What was it like to collaborate with artist Maya Jay Varadaraj and designer Bonita Vaz-Shimray?
There are so many circuits of connection between Maya’s work and mine. Bonita was the one who brought the work into my radar and suggested the collage series. We tussled over choices, because there were so many, but I was really struck by “Small head, short legs and cooing voice,” which we eventually used for the cover, partly because birds have come to populate my poems so much, but also because there was something of the spinning world in there – the fragments and mosaic, the feeling of being inside and outside oneself, containment, multiplicity. Also, poets coo too….
Why did you choose to open the book with epigraphs from Lal Ded and Lorrie Moore?
Epigraphs are thresholds. They help moor the poems in the collection. So – Lal Ded, because I was reading Ranjit Hoskote’s brilliant translations, and these vakhs, utterances, from 700 years ago really took up residence inside me. She’s dealing unabashedly with questing and transformation, which can feel over-earnest in a poet today, but which I’m deeply interested in, and there’s also her endless exploration of the non-dual – of collapsing the boundaries between body and universe, micro and macro, you and I. And Lorrie Moore, because she can pack universes into her short stories. She can make you laugh on one page and cry on the other. Her voice occupies a register I’m really interested in, which I think captures the absurdity of living, the ability to be irreverent, wry and tragic at the same time – laughter in the dark.
Your poem Mandala is a beautiful meditation on living through the pandemic and, more broadly, through human existence. How did you come up with the image of “Time’s wobbly trampoline”?
It’s a hat-tip to Einstein who came up with some of the most beautiful phrases to describe ideas that I find I can hold for one second before the meaning quickly vanishes. “God does not play dice” is another. Chandralekha’s dance theatre, which I worked in for 15 years, was called “mandala,” so I’m really interested in ancient visual representations of the universe/body as mandala, but also in images from the Hubble telescope, theories about dark matter and how stars are born, about trying to date the cosmos, and wormholes and all of that. In Mandala I was thinking about all this, but also how masks have been used as a means of transformation in theatre and dance – how it’s about revealing and hiding, the idea of masquerade and recognition. If you wear a mask long enough, you become the mask. The pandemic shifted some of that – the mask became a protective membrane, but also a symbol of how we can often feel like imposters of ourselves, and how we struggle to slip into some version or other of our selfhood.
I was moved by this fragment from your poem Pilgrimage: “The earth holds/ all our dead, all our half-eaten apples, and still it has space.” Would you call this hunger, expansiveness or neither?
Human history is so short compared to the planet’s history and we’ve taken so much room already. Still, there’s a givingness about the planet, an acceptance to take back our bodies, an endless maw which is both hunger and expansiveness on the part of the planet. From our view though, the quest for something holy, for something untarnished, continues, even though it’s impossible, given we have bloodied everywhere.
The titles of some of your poems seem like poems in themselves. I am thinking of Everyone Has A Wilting Point, I Carry My Uterus in a Small Suitcase, and Poems Lull Us into Safety. Do you have a particular method for zeroing in on titles? What do you usually look for while crafting them?
I feel restless when I don’t have a title. I don’t know how Emily Dickinson did it, but to have all those poems just floating around nameless would drive me nuts. Title, shape, form – these are all containers for a poem, and I find a title helps fix a poem, make it an entity. It’s also a way of leading the reader in to the poem. A kind of step-ladder into the swimming pool.
Abida Parveen, Frida Kahlo, Silk Smith, Marilyn Monroe, Arundhati Roy, Muriel Spark are among the many women you reference in this book. How have these fellow artists inspired your work?
I’m not the type of artist who wants to be in an isolated chamber, terrified of reading or encountering something for fear of being “influenced.” I really want to be influenced. Part of having this network of female rage-makers, aside from how their ideas flow into your work, is that you get to pay homage. I think of art as being essentially parasitic, without needing to kill the host. We get our nutrition from others. I’m less interested in originality, more interested in resonance, dhvani. What am I going to read or see or hear that’s going to make my strings hum with delight, and how can I in turn pass that on to someone else?
What are some of the most exhilarating and laborious aspects of writing poetry?
There’s a moment the poem begins to live, when the words lift off and you realize a poem is going to happen, maybe not today, but certainly tomorrow. A concrete feeling of making which is exhilarating. I don’t find any aspect of poetry laborious except perhaps in the post-production. Talking about the work is always more laborious than the actual making of it.
Who are the peers and mentors that you tend to approach for feedback on works in progress? What kind of feedback do you find most helpful, and how do you make room for it?
I’m not big on showing my work. I have two or three people whom I send things to. I can trust them to tell me what’s what. A lot of the time, they confirm what I already know subliminally. Sometimes you just don’t want to let go, and they help you gently shove it off the cliff, which can be useful.
How has your training as the lead dancer in Chandralekha’s troupe shaped the way you play with sound and image, the abstract and the concrete, and also the arrangement of words on the page?
Chandra trained in Bharatnatyam, so geometry was an inherent sense of her vision and being. She also made intricate kolams every morning, one for each of the three thresholds to her house. Design was very much part of her vocabulary, and she often said if she had not been a dancer, she would have gone to painting or sculpture. There’s a wonderful story of how when she was choreographing Mahakal she was struggling to find the shape of time, until finally, after a conversation with one of the fisherwomen in her neighbourhood, who talked of how all of life was kaala sarpa, she realized she had to ditch the linear diagonals she’d been working with; time had to be a serpent, curvatures, loops. I think there are so many traditions in India which combine the sonic and iconic – whether its ragas and ragamalas, yantras and mantras – the interrelatedness of sound, form and emotion, and how this enhances power. I’m really interested in how a poem can assert itself on the page. Think of the geometry of stepwells or pleasure gardens, the worlds you can find embroidered in phulkari, or how the dots in Bhil and Gond art are a language unto themselves. Poems also have this kind of symbiosis.
How do you work with writer’s block?
I think it’s actually useful to have fallow periods which are more about recuperation and letting the soil turn. As long as I’m reading, I’m tethered to the creative world, so I don’t worry. Eventually you’ll read something that unlocks whatever is clogging you up, so I don’t call it writer’s block, it’s just necessary hiatus.
Some of the poems in a god at the door are responses to news reports and speeches made by politicians. Is this an exercise that you also get your creative writing students to explore? Do they find it helpful to have such prompts, or are they reluctant to merge the aesthetic and the political?
I think there’s a big difference between news and politics. I feel that my students are incredibly political, so much so that their politics is already merged with their aesthetic. Instead, we try to look at the language of the news, the intensity with which the news cycle infiltrates our lives, the desensitization that can happen, the erosion of language. How poetry can then be a way to create an alternative space, not just to make rejoinders to the news, but transcend it as well. I guess the struggle is in how to preserve the lyric while speaking to the times we are living in. To be universal and timeless while talking about this time.
Given the current situation in Afghanistan, how do you look back at the process of writing After a Shooting in a Maternity Clinic in Kabul, based on Mujib Mashal’s report for the New York Times?
It was a devastating piece of writing, and in a moment where there was already so much going on in the world with the unfolding of the coronavirus, you felt taken beyond numbness into unnameable shock. There was one detail in the story that undid me, and that was a woman who had come to claim the child of her sister, who had been killed in the shooting, whose husband was serving on the front line. The doctor tells this woman to come back with a man. Somehow, to not have this basic right, to claim the child of your dead sister, it just tipped everything into a kind of hopelessness, and that’s where the first line of the poem came from: “No one forgets there’s a war going on, / but there are moments you could be forgiven / for believing the city is still an orchard.”
The theme of impermanence runs through many of your poems in this collection. You speak of the body that “wants to be glorious while it can”, the cities that “rise and fall/just as names of streets change”, the heart that “will collapse” like the economy, and “the unknowing we/must accept.” Did you plan it as a connecting thread? What makes this theme so alive and urgent for you?
I have identified as an outsider most of my life, which is probably why I’m obsessed with ideas of home and rootedness and connection. Essentially, I accept that transience is the mode we inhabit, and yet, I long and grasp for moments of stillness, which I equate to a kind of wholeness. As a dancer, a poet, I revel in the glory of being alive, in language and body and their possibilities. These are the footholds to centre oneself. But I’m 100% with Samuel Beckett, when he says, “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that.” You see the cracks, the fragments, the bombardments, the violence – and the only way to counter it is to draw from the sources of beauty that are available to us as a form of resistance.
Reading your poem It Has Taken Many Years to See My Body felt like being guided through a meditative ritual of scanning each chakra in the body, and excavating what lies buried. What enables you to write about “the temple of our bodies” when there is so much guilt and shame around us?
It’s partially to overcome the guilt and shame that is drilled into us, to recognize the body as a possible altar. I love the idea that temples were built with the architecture of human bodies in mind, that you had to coil your way through legs and arms before arriving to the innermost chamber for the darsan. I think the whole collection began to move towards this idea of making pilgrimage back to ourselves and our estranged bodies, whether we could and how we’d imagine doing that. BN Goswamy writes about the khulai stage in the making of miniature painting, when the work comes to life, it’s opened up, it blooms. And I think about how the murti’s eyes are opened for the first time, how this gives life to the temple. Sometimes, you stumble upon yourself in awe, in surprise, and you recognize yourself – a lot of the time, we’re estranged, but those moments of seeing, those flashes of clarity are epiphanic, magic, chamatkar – poetry.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter.