Dr Ampat Koshy talks to Santosh Bakaya about her poetry collection What is the meter of the Dictionary?
Dr. AK: You have brought out many collections of poetry. Which one is What is the Meter of the Dictionary? in this set?
SB: What is the Meter of the Dictionary? is my latest solo book to be published, following this order of chronology.
Oh Hark! 
Where are the Lilacs? 
Ballad of Bapu , a poetic biography of Bapu, has garnered a lot of acclaim.
Under the Apple Boughs 
Songs of Belligerence [ 2020]
Runcible Spoons and Pea-green Boats 
What is the Meter of the Dictionary? 
Dr. AK: What is the significance of the title of the collection? Do tell us the reasons behind the success of What is the Meter of the Dictionary?
SB: Well, I have been asked this question many a time, and to answer this question, once again, let me reproduce a few lines from the Acknowledgments of the book:
“Altarwise by Owl-light with its rioting images, and Dylan’s perennial quest for shape intrigued me beyond words…which I found very obscure. So, trying to make sense of it, with my woefully limited mental capacities, I kept going back to it."
So, I need to acknowledge the source of the title of the book, What is the Metre of the Dictionary [Altarwise by Owl-Light,]
What is the metre of the dictionary?
The Size of genesis? the short spark’s gender
Shade without shape? The shape of the Pharaoh’s echo?
[My shape of age nagging the wounded whisper]
Shapes have forever fascinated me – the shape of clouds, the shape of patches of sun, the shape of a noonday chill on a cold winter month, the shape of flamboyant kites flashing their long tails, the shape of a blade of grass swaying in the breeze and even the shape of a bird’ s wound.
Life circles in languorous shapes, sometimes shapes of frenzy too, it is then that on my brow I feel the soft, smooth shape of a mother’s hand.
As for the second part, honestly speaking, I myself was pleasantly surprised at the unprecedented response that the book received. To my mind, the title and the cover appealed very much to the readers. That is what I could gather from the readers’ comments and reviews. The reviews also mention the highly sparkling foreword and back page blurb by two erudite scholars- Dr. Sunil Sharma and Dr. Ampat Koshy. Naturally, the readers were curious to know what was between the pages of the book- so they read that too. Fair enough.
Dr. AK: What are the themes of the poems in the collection? Please expand a little on these themes.
SB: The book is divided into two parts Joyous Tumult and Faint Echoes. Joyous Tumult is about the myriad hues of nature. In Faint Echoes, I change shape and creep into the minds of the common man and woman, whose dreams remain in the mute echoes of their minds and in the wistful looks lurking sheepishly in their eyes.
So, there is the house help, vocalizing her dreams for her daughters while washing dishes in the kitchen, the security guard outside a posh locality, and the woes of a sad boatman in Dal Lake, Srinagar, talking of the good old times, the exhausted rickshaw -puller in Delhi, who drifts into a tired sleep after a hard day’s work. He sees a man preening in his green fields- a happy farmer, and wistfully recalls how he had to leave home, hearth, and farm to go to an alien land to earn his bread. He opens his eyes to ‘a screaming vacuity’
The green fields of his reminiscences evaporated
as home became an abstraction, sadly awaited
Dr. AK: What is your favourite poem in the collection and why?
SB: Honestly speaking, it is very difficult to choose one. But if you still force me to choose at gun point, I will say, The Sparrow Singing on the Wheelbarrow. I like it because in this poem I have talked of the freedom of a sparrow to sing with full- throated ease, without the danger of being charged for sedition or being incarcerated for its utterances. I have also talked of the futility of war, and of the dystopian times we are breathing in [oft not breathing!], the need for an egalitarian society, of doing things our own way, and above all, the recreation of that lost world of innocence. Moreover, this one is my favourite also because of the fact, that many poet friends have been gracious enough to give a rendition of this poem. In many of my book readings, I have been asked to recite this poem. You know, the poem just wrote itself when I saw a sparrow during my morning walk, happily hopping on a rusted wheelbarrow, singing its own song.
You, Dr. Koshy, being a scholar and critic, will be in a better position to judge the merit of this poem .
Let me reproduce a few lines from it.
I like the way you roll, dear little sparrow,
chirping unfettered on that rusted wheelbarrow.
How I wish I could chirp like you, too
Deliberately mangle my tenses, and recreate that lost world.
Unafraid to be sued for my utterances,
just because I have the gall to love all,
the black, brown, fair, the short, the tall.
I wish I could have your untethered freedom,
hum your liberating notes,
and sail my colourful paper boats like a happy child.
Are you seditious? No way.
Love your sassiness, any day.
Dr. AK: Simply lovely! Can you also tell us some lines or stanzas that mean a lot to you from some other poems and why?
The following poem was written in a three- minute spontaneous outburst. I also recited it on World Autism Day April 2, 2022, in response to a prompt in the Facebook group, The Significant League. When I finished writing this, I felt tears trickling down my cheeks.This is the fiftieth poem in the collection, and very close to my heart. I strongly believe that every child has hope, and it makes me despair that not much has been done in the field of autism. My poet’s heart craves for a magic wand to heal these little angels. My practical side wishes for some sort of honest, result- yielding holistic treatment, which will help these children to reach their full potential. Euphemisms are not the need of the hour, but real, focused, dedicated work for these innocent kids, definitely is.
Look Mommy [For the Blue Roses]
“Look mamma, look pappa,
how I splash the hues of love,
while that tiny dove looks lovingly at me.
It is a dove, isn't it? So pure and quiet.
What is the difference between a dove and a pigeon?
What is the difference between me and the others?
Me and the others – both have mothers – and fathers too –
so where lies the difference? Why am I different?
Another poem which means a lot to me is the 64th poem in this collection. When Life comes Visiting. It was published on 13 October, 2021, figuring in the highly commended category for October month, in Destiny poets, November 9, 2021. Let me quote a few lines from this poem:
Isolated in our luxurious shells,
as snug as hermit crabs,
not bothered about the unjust world around.
we go on slurping steaming hot coffee
with a poached egg on a slice of toast.
While the rag picker hunts for scraps of treasure
in the overflowing, stinky dumpster,
we, the high- born inhale the morning air
exhilarated by the crisp, breeze teasing the trees,
unfazed by the throttled screams of tethered freedom.
From the safety of our shells, we see life walking towards us.
Loose-limbed, wobbly, ataxic, an audacious sneer pasted on its face.
But, we the invincible, are safe in our shells, aren’t we?
So, why bother?”
Dr. AK: Wonderful! Now we see why this collection is such a tremendous success, and why you matter as a writer. What do you want this collection to do for and to the reader who peruses it?
SB: I wonder whether a collection can do anything for the readers, but I am indeed grateful that readers have some very good things to say about the book.
What hurts me immensely is our brutal disregard of nature, and a lot of my poems in this collection, deal with the benevolence of Nature and how cruelly we are treating it. In my Author’s Note, I write about this:
The present pandemic has taught us a lot of things – that we had taken nature for granted, exhibiting a brutal disregard for what it offered. Running after squirrels to find where they hid their nuts, trying to hunt for camouflaged grasshoppers, squelching through the rain-soaked ground, trying to identify the bird calls, fascinated by the chattering monkeys, the rumbling of clouds, the butterflies hovering on the ivy on the trellis, the breeze-touched buttercups, and runaway hares – Are these juvenile activities? We need to steal time to indulge in these so- called juvenile activities – that way maybe we can then get another chance at living and loving. Reminds me of Carl Jung’s words, “You are not living on Earth. You are Earth. Nature is not matter only. She is also Spirit.”
In the book, I talk a lot about the magical power of nature, about wildflowers, the rustling leaves, the songs of the pines and birds, the silver- touched waves, the bleating lambs, grasshoppers and happily flitting butterflies. If the book is able to remind readers of the therapeutic power of nature, if mankind is just able to stand, stare and be drenched in the benevolence of nature, life will be a little more beautiful, believe.
Let me also maintain, that despite the changing norms about poetry, I continue to stick to rhyme and meter. Some might label me a rhymester, consider it infradig and amateurish or crinkle their noses at the absurdity of rhymes in the present era of free verse, but to me, rhyming will always remain an integral part of my poetry, no matter what the detractors say.
Dr. AK: How would you rate or compare your book, with the others, in terms of what links all of them together and what makes this different from the others and better?
SB: I don’t know whether it is better than the rest, but each poem, is as much a chunk of my heart, as it was in Songs of Belligerence, Where are the Lilacs? Under the Apple Boughs or Runcible Spoons and Pea- green Boats. I think that what links them together, are strands of nature, and nostalgia about a sylvan age.
Where are the Lilacs? , a collection of peace poems, was incredibly well- received, and launched in many places- in Ghana, Accra, in Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, in Jammu, Delhi and Jaipur.
In the Author’s note I write:
In The Challenge of Thor’, H W Longfellow wrote long back,
‘Over the whole earth
Still is it Thor’s-Day!’
Why should Thor continue to reign with impunity? Why indeed? Do we gain by its reign? Does war give us anything? Just death and destruction, sadness and despair. Why should every day be Thor’s Day? Why should we allow brute strength to hold sway?
Songs of Belligerence, 2018 deals with some real incidents which shook the world. Permit me to quote a few lines from Westminster Bridge [22 March, 2017]
‘Yes, the chilling butchery killed the gaiety and laughter
but the morning after
a tube board message proclaimed:
‘the flower that blooms in adversity
is the rarest and most beautiful of them all.
We are not afraid.’
In the Authors’ Note, I say that it is an elegy for an innocent world of yore,
‘when some vile villain had not, as yet
filched that pot of gold we had found under the rainbow.
When the pine trees had peered at us through exotic green eyes
and our songs had not yet trailed into sighs.’
Runcible Spoons and Pea-green Boats,  is a book of nostalgia,
nostalgia about lost glens, lost bridges,
lost smiles, lost games, lost hopes.
And lost parents.
Nostalgia about those days we thought would never end- memories of that first lost tooth, the memories of slithering up trees, disappearing into the attic when scolded, the tantalizing smell of that book- filled attic still lingers in corners of a still-active mind, the dust motes clinging to the ceiling suddenly shine in the light of remembrance.
Dr. AK: Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan or R S Thomas or you - to put a comparative touch to this questionnaire in my idiosyncratic way, can you talk of which of these writers' books would you take to a desert island and why? Which album can also be specified?
SB: I would take Dylan Thomas’ complete works with me, and read them while humming Bob Dylan’s, immortal song, ‘The answer is blowin’ in the Wind.’ Under Milkwood, has always intrigued me, right from its opening line ‘To begin at the beginning’. You can almost touch the love with which Dylan plays with words here. ‘Listen. It is night moving in the streets.’ ‘Time passes. Listen. Time passes. ‘Hush, the babies are sleeping. I can never get tired of reading this. In that desert island, I can imagine myself reading- rereading all his works and being rejuvenated.
RS Thomas! I read him a long time back and remember being hooked. Iago Prytherch, a farm laborer, a symbol of fortitude, is a character I grew to appreciate. Hardships, humanity, hard work, is what he stood for. In the past couple of years, Prytherch has hovered in my mind, especially during the time the farmers of our country were fighting for their rights. I was immensely touched by his words about the resilience and endurance of the Welsh farmers, despite the sad tone, there was a palpable touch of life- affirming optimism, haunting and soul- stirring.
Dr. AK: In the sprawling landscape of Indians writing poetry in English in India and abroad, where do you place yourself? What do you have to offer that they don't, which makes you also matter and so potent in this panorama?
SB: ‘Sprawling’- this word says everything! But, why, pray, should I place myself anywhere? Why should I matter? I exist on the periphery of the mainstream literary scene, a tiny mote. Not much of a presence, honestly. I nurse no delusions of grandeur, and I write, because I was born with a mad streak in me; and will continue to write till my last breath- it is a passion which has lifted me from the dumps, many a time. It is a straw which I cling to, with a white- knuckled intensity. It is the oar which has steered me away from many a turbulent moment. I write with no ambition of offering anything to the world. I write because I want to - simple! I write because that pesky voice inside me, commands me, ‘go write,’ and I ‘writhe’ on paper!
I believe, I am more of a storyteller, and most of my poems are narrative poems. They tell stories which sometimes spring from deep within, and then are lost somewhere in that ‘sprawling’ space, where so- called poets like me roam untethered.
But, let me reiterate that neither am I a mediocre poet, nor a cerebral poet. I might lack the erudition and scholarly competence of many, in this ‘sprawling’ literary scene. But, yes, I have a voice, which I wouldn’t want to be labelled as mediocre. I write to satisfy my passion, which is perennially prodding me on. And I feel I am well placed, wherever I am. I am content to bask in my muted glow.
Dr. AK: Who are your favourite writers in English from the past that have left a mark on your work and whom you would like to keep alive if need be by asking others to read?
SB: Honestly speaking, it is very difficult for me to point that out, because at different stages of my life, I have been inspired by different writers, and the list is so long, that while writing about them, I might be guilty of inadvertently dropping many. In school and college, Edgar Allen Poe and Edward Lear were my favorites, and they continue to be so. Lear’s limericks have very uncannily merged into me, so much so, that I wrote Ballad of Bapu, a 300 page poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi, in the rhyme scheme of a limerick- aabba, which garnered a lot of national and international acclaim. The foreword so graciously penned by the Mahatma’s great- grandson. Mr. Tushar Gandhi has also been written in the form of poetry.
As I said earlier, Dylan Thomas will always remain my favourite, and to this day, I mourn his early death. What literary gems would have flown from his magic pen had he lived for at least twenty more years! [By the way, my poem on him for Dylan Thomas Day was just published in Vatsala Radhakeesoon’s blog on 14 May, 2023].
It was in school that I had read every book by Thomas Hardy and Dickens- their poems too, and a reading of other writers came later-Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez- the list grew on. The Afro- American writers, created a snug niche in my life, and I read every work by them in college. Langston Hughes, [1902- 1967] and his commitment to the cause of civil rights, along with his Jazz poetry intrigued me no end and the poignancy of The Weary Blues touched me immensely. [I often find myself humming a ‘drowsy syncopated tune’/Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon’.
It was while doing my research for my biography of Martin Luther King Jr, that I read the works of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou thoroughly. Ralph Ellison’s [1914- 1994] Invisible Man , about a young college educated black, trying to survive in a racially divided society, won the National Book Award in 1953 and is a favourite. Some quotes from the book will forever remain etched in memory.
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free”.
One book which has inspired me the most, has been To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee.
Since my father’s Doctoral thesis was on the Dramatic Monologues of Robert Browning, Browning has also been a great influence on me. The Pied Piper of Hamelin makes cameo appearances in my writings, so does Porphyria’s Lover. My father had awe-inspiring oratorical skills. I can still feel chills crawling up my spine at the way he recited certain blood- curdling words, from it:
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I still remember gasping at his expression and enunciation, and the movement of strangling that he made with one hand. The mammoth library in our home, whetted my appetite for reading- little knowing that it would turn me into a small-time writer. I remember having rehearsed the poem, How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix, for a school elocution contest, under the supervision of my dad. The way he acted out the following lines is forever etched in memory.
‘And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shuddered and sank.”
‘The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,’
’Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff.’
It was my friend’s father, who had just been transferred to Jaipur from his homeland, Kolkata, [Calcutta then], who introduced me to the writings of Gurudeb Tagore, and needless to say, he cast a permanent spell over me.
Maya Angelou [1928- 2014] Why the Caged bird Sings Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize Winner, Toni Morrison [Songs of Solomon, 1977, Sula,1973 Beloved, 1987and The Bluest Eye,1970, Derek Walcott, Caribbean poet and playwright, Nobel Prize winner for literature, 1992. I have been mesmerized by the lush manner he celebrates the natural beauty of the Caribbean landscape, In a Green Night: Poems [1948 -1960.]. All these writers should be read by all. They are the sparkling stars of African- American literature, a must read for all.
Yes, Ruskin Bond, is also a writer who, should be read by all and, so is RK Narayan.,
Dr. AK: What are the next projects that you are working on? The genres and themes?
SB: Don’t laugh at me when I tell you that I am working on ten projects- Family says that they can ‘hear the crash and bang of a cacophonous simultaneity in my mind’, but believe me, I have a sneaking suspicion that their ears are oversensitive!
Actually, these books were written at different periods, now I am picking them one by one and editing them – culling – honing- polishing- polishing – honing. There are three novels [one a satire, two romantic novellas with Kashmir as the backdrop]. I am also giving the final touches to my compilation of humorous verse, and children’s poems.
SB: I had a wonderful time answering your questions. Thanks a ton Dr. Koshy. Thanks The Wise Owl magazine for this opportunity. It was a great honour.
About Santosh Bakaya
Santosh Bakaya is a poet of repute. Winner of International Reuel Award for literature for Oh Hark, 2014, The Universal Inspirational Poet Award [Pentasi B Friendship Poetry and Ghana Government, 2016,] Bharat Nirman Award for literary Excellence, 2017, Setu Award, 2018, [Pittsburgh, USA] for ‘stellar contribution to world literature.’ Keshav Malik Award, 2019, for ‘staggeringly prolific and quality conscious oeuvre’. Chankaya Award [Best Poet of the Year, 2022, Public Relations Council of India,], Eunice Dsouza Award 2023, for ‘rich and diverse contribution to poetry, literature and learning’,[Instituted by WE Literary Community]. Poet, biographer, novelist, essayist, TEDx speaker, creative writing mentor, Santosh Bakaya, Ph.D, has been acclaimed for her poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi, Ballad of Bapu [Vitasta, 2015]. She has participated in many literary festivals, and was one of the delegates to the SAARC Sufi festival in Jaipur, in 2017, her poems have been translated into many languages, and poems and short stories have won many awards, both national and international.
About Dr Ampat Koshy
Dr Ampat Koshy is an Assistant Professor, presently at the Department of English. Mount Carmel College, Autonomous, Bangalore, and has 28 books with his name on the cover. He is a poet, fiction writer, critic, and editor, having curated many anthologies and won many awards. Some of his books are # 1 Amazon best sellers, one having gone into multiple translations.
Akshay Kumar talks to Sudeep Sen about Converse: Contemporary English Poetry by Indians, an anthology edited by Sudeep Sen.
to a sentence.
— A K Ramanujan
AK: Editing a volume of poems is an act of responsibility, because anthologies, in a way, set the broad contours of what may later on ossify as a canon. Bringing within the scope of one volume, one hundred sixteen poets is a mammoth task, fraught with all kinds of risks, and possibilities of backlash from those who have been excluded. Scores of poems must have been read, re-read, and scrutinized by Sudeep Sen for the purpose of his latest anthology Converse. Reading a poem involves lot of cerebral effort, and also a necessary degree of immersion. Imagine how arduous it must have been for the editor to go through a whole range of poets and their poems. One has to be a poetry addict. I have known Sudeep for many years now, and I can say that he is addicted to poetry as much as poetry is addicted to him. He consumes poetry, and is consumed by poetry. His primary instinct is writing poems, but on the sidelines, he has this important contribution of an editor of poetry — not just Indian English, but poetry in translation both from India and abroad. Not long ago he edited an anthology for Harper Collins, to be precise in 2012. It was well-received and it travelled far and wide as a definitive volume of Indian English poetry. Then you edited Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi) which sort of acted like Volume 2 of the HarperCollins one. In this new collection Converse, one gets a sense of the field, and the broad spectrum of styles and moods that Indian English poets have been through in the last 75 years. This book comes on the eve of 75 years of India’s Independence. So Sudeep, before I ask specific questions on the anthology, let me ask you about your motivation. What really triggers you to re-do an anthology of poems? Do you think in the last ten years the field has changed enormously?
SS: I do have an addiction to poetry, it’s true. It’s a strange disease, and I seek no medication, because I do not wish to be cured. Poetry sustains me.
So why do I do poetry anthologies? At a generic level, I find the world around us is so fractured, that the only things that seems capable of a universal healing, are intimately crafted words. Words that use both the head and the heart. Using just one source would be problematic. A lot of young poets write only from the heart, and it’s wonderful if it’s written for a specific person, but it can be sloppy. There are poets who write only cerebrally and that can be problematic too because the rasa, the cadence, and the texture is often missing, making it too academic, too staccato. The right calibration is in the balance.
The truth is, I have often told myself I will never edit another anthology. It can be a thankless job. Anyone you leave out is an instant foe. The reason I continue is because I think that the best of English language poetry coming out of India, and the Indian diaspora, is of a very high standard. I am fortunate that I am able to travel overseas extensively for my own poetry, and it makes me realize how little of poetry from India gets across to the world. Actually, very little gets across within India itself, leave alone outside India. I just want the best poetry to be out there. If it is there in book form, it is possible to pull people in to see it, to read it.
A very important motivation for this book also comes from my interest in Classical Indian music and dance, and my respect for the guru-shishya parampara. I have, as a poet, been very privileged to have had some wonderful mentors, directly or obliquely — Jayanta Mahapatra, Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, and Arun Kolatkar in India — Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney and others overseas. These were all guiding lights as far as I was concerned. I wouldn’t be a poet now, had they not paved the path, and carved the space for the next generation of poets. It’s very important to recognize this. Some younger poets may decry and call their poetry “old fashioned” and therefore “not relevant.” I believe it is important to know their poetry, because it situates us as part of a continuum.
Now in classical music and dance, this tradition or parampara is respected. You learn from your Guru and if you are a very good student, you break away from the Guru, and the Guru allows you to do that. And I have to say, the best of Indian poets in my case, people I have learnt from, have allowed me to break — break free, without them feeling slighted, because most good writers do not feel slighted. It’s the mediocre people who get agitated.
Mediocrity is the biggest contagion in Indian poetry. Angst ridden poets, wanting their voices heard, wanting to be known, create a grisly kind of situation, because they feel the need to be everywhere. On the other hand, the really good Indian poets are fairly relaxed. They are doing what they have to do — they continue writing.
When we talk about other languages, I feel the problem is lesser, perhaps because we are talking about rootedness of a different kind. I am not going to get into a discussion of English being a rooted language or not, because English to me is an Indian language, always has been the case. But, the English language poetry scene in India is so fractured that it is almost disheartening, to the point of exasperation, really. Putting this book together, is perhaps, a gesture, to provide some peace and calm and salve. But ultimately, I do it for the wider cause of poetry.
AK: One of the advantages of reading Sudeep Sen’s anthologies is that he provides a very lucid and extended introduction or ‘Foreword’, which he terms as ‘Contexts’. Each such prefatory note, in itself, speaks of his critical acumen, and can be read as an important resource for writing literary history. In Converse, Sudeep takes a long shot at the history of anthologies that have come right from Dutt Family Album onwards. He refers to various anthologies which have been compiled in the recent past. Sudeep, what do you think about the sudden spurt in anthologies of Indian English poetry?
SS: I am happy to see the spate of anthologies that have come out recently. It allows a wide variety of poets to be showcased, and allows the reader to really choose. The more there is out there, the more you have an opportunity to discern.
AK: Designing an anthology needs to have some governing principle. When you do Converse, mere seventy fifth year of India’s Independence can never be the only reason. So, when you put these poets together in one volume, do you have some overarching design, or overarching theme so to say? Are these poets being clubbed together because they have been writing prolifically all these years?
SS: Every anthology would have a very, very essential kind of tissue formation, the DNA is very important in any structure.
Poetry is not scrutinized in a critical way, like we scrutinize cricket for instance. Everybody is such an expert on Indian cricket, every missed cue, every leg lance, every little fielding lapse is deconstructed, in every home, across the country. Poetry on the other hand is the opposite. So, it’s very important to deconstruct poetry, to see what is living, because no poem is dead. When you pick up a poem, whether it’s by a dead poet or living poet, if a poem is working, it’s like a microorganism that is living. It’s like an algae that keeps moving, and you can’t stop it, because it does something to you. That’s the magic of poetry.
So yes, all these anthologies had a sort of reason and impetus. When I look back, I am kind of astonished at how many I have done. I have done almost fifteen anthologies, by which I also mean special issues of magazines which are on Indian poetry or South Asian poetry. And, truth be told, I take it up purely because it’s my weak point, my Achilles heel.
When I was commissioned to do The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry, it was the sixtieth anniversary of Indian independence. The years don’t really matter in terms of poetry, it’s not important — but of course, it gives the publisher a reason for publishing. My impetus for putting together an anthology then was to showcase the excitement and ebullience that I saw in the poetry firmament in India. Some years later I did another important anthology for the Sahitya Akademi., it was the Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians — and acted as Volume 2 of the HarperCollins one. When I was commissioned to do Converse, I already had these two big anthologies that had done really well. I looked at both of them and I asked myself, “Who are the people who deserve to be in this new one?” The answer was, “There are lots of poets who are good poets, but who haven’t really written in the last fifteen years significantly. Maybe they need to be given a rest, and others who were part of the larger team, to use a cricket analogy — those who are playing really well in the Ranji Trophy, but haven’t got a chance in the Indian Test Team — should be given a chance.”
You will find, therefore, that some who are not in it, are people who are significant names in literature, but have gone on to write novels or are doing other things. Very little poetry is coming from them, I don’t feel the burden that their older work should be here. The flurry of good younger writers now is just astonishing. And this is perhaps because the access and width of the platforms have broadened – it is not just print, but also performance, and it is on various platforms — social media, and so on. Personally, I do not hierarchize a printed volume over the others. I read poetry on Instagram-Twitter-Facebook; I watch poetry films. There is a lot of very, very good work coming out that captures this new vibrancy. And so, I chose to feature only living poets — because this would allow a wider representation of active younger poets.
But at the end of the day, the only guiding principle for anybody to qualify to be in this book is the purity and quality of writing itself. Nothing else matters to me. Whether he or she is powerful, or is a friend of mine or not. None of these concerns matter. The only reason poets feature in Converse is because they have written good work.
AK: When you talk about guru-shishya parampara, are you aware of the perils of gharana politics? There are many gharanas in Indian poetry.
SS: Sadly, that is true. The English-language poetry scene in India is completely fractured. I had hoped as a younger editor when I first started editing anthologies, things would change over time, but unfortunately, they haven’t improved. Quite the reverse in fact — that is the reality. Ironically, in contrast, the state of Indian English poetry itself is very strong, the best if it is very good indeed, and there is a lot of it — which is what you find in this book. I try and side-step the regional gharanas because I want the focus to be on good poems as a whole, not the poet’s personality. And for me, all the poets in the book are equal — they are all my children. Jayanta Mahapatra who is born in 1928 is rubbing shoulders with the youngest poet (born in the 1995) in this book — isn’t that wonderful? And both are there for the same reason, because of the quality of their writing.
I have visited Jayant Mohapatra in Orissa many times over the years. His address is charmingly old fashioned — Jayanta Mahapatra, Tinkonia Bagicha, Cuttack, Orissa. Send a mail to that address and it will reach him safely. I have spent many afternoons and evenings on his slanted mango tree, talking about poetry and life over endless cups of tea. I still cherish the sense of comradeship that came with it. The youngest poet in the book is someone I had a chance to mentor on a long train ride to Delhi. When I first knew her, she was starting out. By the time I was putting this book together, she had published her first book of poetry by a very fine press in London. These are the two poets who book-end the Converse anthology.
AK: Can you name some of the gharanas? It should not be very difficult to identify them.
SS: It is an open secret. Traditionally, it’s been topographically mapped. There is the ‘Bombay School.’ It’s not a school really, but for historical reasons, certain areas of India had clusters of poets, who in terms of numbers were much more than those in the other parts of India. Bombay was probably number one in terms of numbers. Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, and various others, Hyderabad for instance, had a loose conglomeration of poets. Then there are two other very interesting non-metropolitan centres. One is Orissa, and that largely happened because of Jayanta Mahapatra and his tutelage. And the other is the North-East, which often gets left out -- there again there is this sort of micro climate of poetry that exists independently. The poetry there is quite different, though in a holistic sense it merges with the larger Indian poetry scene.
And then, for the first time — in various journals I’ve guest-edited: Lines Review (Scotland), Wasafiri (UK), Literary Review (USA), The Yellow Nib (Ireland) and others — culminating in The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (1992), I opened the whole anthology-making tradition to include the diasporic Indian poetry as well. Not just people from India who happen to have settled overseas in later years, but people of Indian origin who may have been born overseas. So, I included poets from say, the South Pacific, Fiji. I have travelled to many of these places — on the back of my poetry. I was invited to a festival, for instance, in South Africa, and because I am interested as an editor, I bought books by diasporic poets and brought them home. Over the years that aggregation is what has made these anthologies rich and diverse.
So yes, the old 'gharanas' are there, but I find the divisive idea of that very unattractive. They work more like coteries and have no allegiance to a parampara or tradition. Personally, I don’t believe in clubs, cliques and hierarchies. I do not believe in boxed rooms. I like airy spaces which have transparent walls, which can breathe through osmosis, because poetry actually travels that way. You have to de-fragment (to use a computer jargon), to get the energy back. I believe in inter-racial-hierarchical mixing.
AK: Since you’ve referred to Jayanta Mahapatra — Mahapatra himself says somewhere that because he was published abroad to begin with, that he received some audience back home. When one reads the biographies or bio-notes of the poets here, the same impression is buttressed. Some of these poets have been published, of late, by Sahitya Akademi, but most of them are recognized abroad first, and then these poets are anthologized back in India for some native approval.
SS: Doesn’t that say something about us, as Indians? I mean, the answer lies in your question really, and I don’t have to add anything. Just because someone has published in some obscure magazine abroad, is it the reason that their poetry is better than someone who has published in India? -- Of course not.
Overseas, in the US and UK at least, there is some degree of process in how books are published. There are dedicated ‘poetry editors’ in major publishing houses. The poetry editors are usually reputed practicing poets. Some of them are given a limited tenure, so their editorial vision doesn’t get stale. Then the editors may change. This is wonderful for the health of good and diverse poetry.
Often, the only way you can get a manuscript published with a really good publisher there, is based on the ‘acknowledgements’ list in your manuscript. If eighty percent of your manuscript is published in various publications, then the poetry editor knows that it’s already gone through a sort of a sieve or a system of selection, because these editors of different journals and magazines are varied. So, if you can impress, say twenty different editors and have eighty percent of the manuscript already published, automatically the editor at the publishing house will take the submitted book very seriously. Therefore, the whole tradition of publishing widely, literary magazines, reading live at festivals, become important — because there you can expect to encounter people who are really watching and taking notes.
So, what can I say? I do not want to sound bleak, because despite everything, four or five anthologies have appeared this year. It is a source of great celebration and I think the reason that is happening is because younger people are braver and more willing to cross boundaries, despite the hierarchical structures.
AK: In this particular anthology you refer to, as to who to include and who to exclude. That only the living poets become part of the book. How good is that rule to compile an anthology of this scale?
SS: That was purely partly a practical decision I had to take. When I set out to work on this book, we put out an open call, and received over 15000 pages of poetry in response. This was in addition to the poets I had personally invited to be part of the book. I wanted the book to reflect the live stream of energy I was encountering, and so the decision to go with only ‘living poets,’ I say very specifically in my introduction that some significant, well-published, senior poets are not in the book. These are poets who are well-mapped already and their work is easily available. So, if I have left out Nissim Ezekiel or Arun Kolatkar or A K Ramanujan, have I done any disservice? Not at all, because they are already well anthologized over the years and are incredibly easy to find. I think I am doing a service by giving space to poets who are bright and who haven’t had the space thus far.
Also, there are some very good poets who were in the HarperCollins book, who are not in this book. There is a very good reason. Some of those poets haven’t produced any significant new poetry in the last fifteen years. Therefore, I haven’t included them. They may come up with a better book or a new poetry book later on. If that’s the case they’ll be in the next anthology. It’s not a race, you know. It’s not a life and death situation. Poetry is something to be enjoyed, it’s part of a living tradition. So, for many of the deceased poets (who I greatly admire) and who are not there in Converse, I have tried to ensure that I liberally use epigraphs of their poetry in my introduction to mark their presence.
AK: Death is not something you can hold against somebody. After all, if you are publishing a book for commemorating seventy-fifth year of India’s independence, I mean I am not talking about the other living poets, but poets like Meena Alexander, A. K. Ramanujan, Nissim Ezekiel, Arun Kolatkar, etc. happen to be the frontline poets of post-Independent India. How can one not include them in an anthology which has the claims of being ‘definitive’?
SS: Many of the poets you mention are in my HarperCollins book. I do believe they are very fine poets. You can’t hold me accountable for a publishing house’s marketing spiel. Of course, they are going to say definitive, most intelligent, the best — but any discerning reader knows that is just a marketing strategy. Of course, it is not the ‘the’ definitive anthology, which is why I continue to endorse other anthologies that have come out this year or last year. It’s been such a wonderful thing that multiple anthologies have come out in recent times. And frankly, no matter which anthology you show me, I can make a credible argument why it is not ‘definitive.’ I think ‘informative’ would be a better word. The anthologies inform us about the movement in Indian poetry. I would say, just rejoice in what is there to savour.
AK: Those who have read Sudeep’s poetry will find that in any case when he writes, he doesn’t write all alone. There are epigraphs of poets from different continents and different nations that precede many poems or are placed in the beginning of a new section of a book. As he writes his poetry, he orchestrates world poetry to his advantage. There is always a lurking anthologist in Sudeep’s poetry. One of ways to anthologize poems is to put poems under some thematic rubric. The general rubrics have been ‘love poems’, ‘green poems’, ‘peace poems’ etc. What do you say about such anthologies?
SS: Thematic anthologies are a different beast. That was not what I set out to do. I wanted to do a book that was representative of the time(s). I look at anthologies from a practicing poet’s lens, so my duty is not that of an academic or a critic who may wish to do anthologies under certain themes. For instance, in the last two years, there have been way too many anthologies on climate change, perhaps because it is topical or trendy. What about everything else that is important? — those tends to get edited out in thematic anthologies.
I have tried to make the Converse anthology different in subtle and nuanced ways. The book exhibits the poems from the oldest to the youngest. So, you can see the poetry change over time, and also see the poetry at a point in time. I have chosen to publish between five to twelve poems by each poet, which is again unusual. I want any reader who reads the book to get some sense of what each poet is all about. The norm in other anthologies has been to feature just two or three poems per poet — and the problem with two or three poems is, often, that the same poems get recycled in every anthology.
Another effort I made was to resurrect some work that was out of print. And make space for long poems. In anthologies, long poems are almost never published, because of the nature of anthology making and the market forces — there is just no space to include them. For instance, Adil Jussawalla’s ‘Chakravyuha’ is in Converse. It has never been published before, you know? He wrote it as a commission for Channel Four television in the UK. Subsequently extracts were published here and there, but not the whole poem. He wryly said, “Sudeep, publish this at your own peril. Publishers won’t commission you again because one poem has eaten up twenty-five pages of the book.” I replied, saying, “It does not matter.”
Similarly, I found some work by another poet, Tanya Mendonsa — who had written this wonderful, fable like, book-length poem, ‘The Fisher of Perch’, that was published by a small press. I thought the poem was so brilliant that it ought to have a full run in a book like this. So, the entire poem spanning over 15 pages is there in Converse. I told her, “I am only choosing one poem by you … but it is going to be this long poem.” She said, “I would have preferred six shorter poems.” I said “It is your choice. Either six poems or one poem — and I prefer the long poem.” She later thanked me for my selection.
There has also been an effort to do things innovatively. Anybody who reads the book will see that. There is a lot of interesting internal architecture and musicality that resonates within the book. A terza rima poem is sitting next to a ghazal, fragmented Sapphic verse is sitting next to a tightly-wrought canzone, and so on. I had to read very deeply as you can see. The selection took many hours of re-reading every submitted poem.
AK: My next question springs from your answer. In this age of anthologies, what is the future of book-length poems? Don’t you think that the poem-centric anthologies supersede book-length poems?
SS: I think there is a great future for book-length poems. Any serious reader of poetry reads poetry without any stipulated rules, as you well know. You look at Derek Walcott’s Omeros, it is a book-length poem. His Tiepolo’s Hound is a book-length poem. Joseph Brodsky’s 'To Urania' is a book-length poem. Michael Madhusudan Dutt has written book-length poems. Arun Kolatkar has written book-length poems. Mahapatra has written a book length poem (which won him the Sahitya Akademi prize) — Relationships, which is now being re-published, fortunately. Your own favourite book of mine, before I ever met you, was my book-length poem, Distracted Geographies.
I was a young poet then, and I came across one of your books Poetry, Politics and Culture published by Routledge, and there was a whole chapter in that book on my Distracted Geographies. I was relatively young when I had written this long poem, which takes place over two hundred and six pages. Reason it takes place over two hundred and six pages is because there are two hundred and six bones in the human body. And the guiding principle for the structure of the book was the human spinal cord. Since there are thirty-three sections of the spinal cord, so there are thirty-three chapters in that book. You wrote a chapter on this book before I ever met you. That’s how poetry should be read. Read the text first, if you like it, that is what matters — the person who has written can be discounted. If this person happens to be a nice guy, or you get to know him, great — that is a bonus. So yes, long poems have been a part of the poetic tradition. It still exists, very much so.
AK: That is true. The question is that these days anthology is a very handy kind of a pedagogical tool also. Accommodating a long-poem within the limits of an anthology is difficult. Parthasarathy’s ‘Homecoming’ or Mahapatra’s ‘Relationships’ or Kolatkar’s ‘Jejuri’ are difficult to fit in within the scope of any anthology.
SS: The length of any poem does not deter me. I take my decisions based on the merit of the poem. Including long poems in this anthology is one of the barriers in anthology-making that I was breaking. I have also included concrete or visual poetry, poems that are very difficult to set up typographically. It is a nightmare for a typesetter. If I find a poet who has taken interesting liberties with typography, how do you represent those poems? So, the first thing the publisher tells me is, “Drop that poem. Let’s just get left-aligned poems.” These are things you fight for, because you want to show variety, diversity, and representation of the different kinds of things that are being done.
AK: There is a balancing act somewhere. You tend to choose poets from different rubrics, different clusters, and you keep repeating this thing that it is ‘inclusive’, and that I have tried to give representation to all gharanas or non-gharanas, or whatever else.
SS: Yes, you also do want to represent fairly — that is part of making a good anthology. If it was just a book of five poets, then my choices would be very clear who I would want. If you have a very small number of poets in a book, you could make a really cutting-edge, tight anthology — maybe even a maximum of twenty poets. Now if you are making that kind of anthology, if that is the publisher’s brief, it’ll be a great thrill to do it. Only twenty people to be selected from the entire history of Indian poetry. But in Converse we were looking for a wider representation that does justice to the last 75 years and the present time.
AK: You say that in your anthologies, including the present one, poetry precedes the poet. What matters to you is the quality of the poem more than the reputation of the poet. So, can you shortlist five poems which you think are one, two, three, four, five, as per your standards? I know it would be difficult to commit to four-five poems.
SS: I am afraid, I won’t fall for that question. Instead, I will read just two poems — the first and the last. I will read one by Jayanta Mahapatra — who starts the book. It is a fairly iconic poem, ageless, — this is what the best poems are all about. It is called ‘Dawn at Puri’:
Endless crow noises
A skull in the holy sands
tilts its empty country towards hunger.
White-clad widowed women
past the centres of their lives
awaiting to enter the Great Temple.
Their austere eyes
stare like those caught in a net
hanging by the dawn’s shining strands of faith.
The frail early light catches
ruined, leprous shells leaning against one another,
a mass of crouched faces without names,
and suddenly breaks out of my hide
into the smoky blaze of a sullen solitary pyre
that fills my aging mother:
her last wish to be cremated here
twisting uncertainly like the light
on the shifting sands.
Now, let me read the last poem in the book, by the youngest poet in Converse. This is a young person writing, ostensibly, about shoes. But it is talking about so many other things — about exile, about language, about moving from one land to the other, about being taken abruptly from a warm Punjabi-Himachali space into a cold Irish space, where slippers-and-barefoot existence is simply not available.
It’s been a good discussion, and we do not want to spoil the beauty of poetry by too much analysis or explanation. Let us end with a poem by Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal, who was born in 1995. And it is called ‘Reading Natalia Ginzburg in East Cork’:
Words fail me often and so do shoes.
I always keep a pair ready, polished
in an empty suitcase like an air ticket
without a return date purchased on a whim.
I wear them only on uncomfortable occasions.
For when I am feeling most comfortable, I long
for the worn-out sneakers I have been wearing
every day for hundreds of days;
trusting them the most to keep my feet warm
and dry, to keep my gait pronounced
like an athlete's or a ballerina's. It is too much
to ask for, perhaps from something lifeless
summoned by all the burdens of the living.
At the edge of this forest and the tree-lined
avenues of the city where I have not yet
been able to go — reside some little virtues
and there, we can ask for everything
that the heart needs and there, we will
know that it would have been the best
if we came in our most worn-out shoes.
AK: When you read this anthology, you are overwhelmed by the poetic talent particularly of the emerging younger poets. The natural ease with which a variety of emotions are expressed in the so-called ‘father-tongue’ English is simply remarkable. Diverse poetic forms — native, non-native — are practiced. Sudeep himself has written haiku, sonnets and quatrains. Agha Shahid Ali mastered the art of ghazal in English. He was a pioneer of English ghazal poetry as you know. In Converse, there are poets writing ghazals now with greater felicity. Let me take the liberty of reading one such, the opening four couplets from ‘A Ghazal for Peace’ by a young poet Mihir Chitre on Twitter, and the culture of trolls and fake-news that it perpetuates:
Empathy has just died on Twitter.
We have violently lied on Twitter.
They, who’re targeted today,
Your retweet is their cyanide on Twitter.
Lynching anyone with a dagger of accusations
Truth is often mystified on Twitter.
A lifetime reduced to 140 characters
Nuance commits suicide on Twitter. …
Sudeep, since you have covered poets of the last 75 years, do you notice remarkable changes in the way younger poets deal with issues of religion, culture and nationalism? For instance, I read this anthology as a solid and unambiguous testament of non-parochialism. Or this anthology can be read as the locus of India’s cultural journey towards a more cosmopolitan and planetary future. To what extent have the poets experimented with the traditional forms of poetry?
SS: Not just experiment, I think new poets have been making new forms with wonderful exuberance For instance, to cite a personal example, there is a poem of mine called ‘Bharatnatyam Dancer’. It uses a form which never existed before — I invented the form. The story behind it is this: When I was watching a particular dancer dance to a particular raga, the taal and bol that were being used was — ta dhin ta thaye thaye ta, ta dhin ta thaye thaye ta, … So, when I was working on the later drafts of this poem, it struck me that I could use that as the rubric for the structure. So, I invented a rhyme scheme — abacca, abacca, ... to match and mimic the dancer’s classical beats. Now in books of prosody, this poem is cited as an example of a newly invented form. There are others I have invented too, like in the poem ‘New York Times’, and for the book-length poem ‘Distracted Geographies: An Archipelago of Intent’.
AK: And I have ventured to translate some of these poems into Punjabi.
SS: Yes, indeed. A book of my English poems in Punjabi translation, titled Godhuli Lagna, has come out as well. Can you imagine the challenge of translating these formal structures into Punjabi? Because a lot of my work is formally very strict, even though it may ostensibly appear as free verse. One of the poets I have admired is Gerard Manley Hopkins who is a master of half rhymes and internal rhymes, and formal experimentation.
So, it’s not easy, but I think you did a very fine job. The translation project was, coincidentally, prompted in this particular hall where I had done a talk/reading and a workshop with young students. There were some people who wrote in Hindi or Punjabi, and I told them, “You don’t have to be an English language poet to come to my workshop. Just be a poet.” So, people who came, wrote in Punjabi, Hindi, and English. Then some of the students started translating my poetry into Punjabi, and eventually, more than a decade later, under your tutelage, this new book of my ‘Selected Poems’ saw light of day. The book, apart from your fine critical introduction, also has a wonderful Foreword and Afterword by the illustrious Punjabi poet Surjit Patar and theatre director Neelam Mansingh, respectively. What a pleasing and fulfilling journey poetry can be.
(This is an edited version of a live conversation that took place in Mulk Raj Anand Auditorium of the Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh on 26 November, 2022)