The Wise Owl talks to Sudeep Sen, a prolific, award-winning poet, translator, and editor of influential anthologies. Sen is the editorial director of AARK ARTS and editor of Atlas. The Government of India awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature.” Currently, he the international fellow and writer/artist-in-residence at the Nirox Foundation in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind. Sen is the first Asian honoured to deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture and read his poetry at the Nobel Laureate Festival. His latest book Red (published by Nirox Foundation) will be released on 28th May 2023 at WORDS FESTIVAL.
The Interview : Sudeep Sen
(Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl in conversation with Sudeep Sen)
The Wise Owl talks to Sudeep Sen, a prolific, award-winning poet, translator, and editor of influential anthologies. Sudeep Sen’s prize-winning books include Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Rain, Ladakh, Aria, The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry, Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions), EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House), Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury) and Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation (Pippa Rann).
Sen’s works have been translated into over 30 languages. His words have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Herald, Poetry Review, Literary Review, Harvard Review among others and broadcast on BBC, CNN, NDTV et al. The Whispering Anklets, Red and Blue Nude: Ekphrasis & New Poems (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) are forthcoming.
Sen is the editorial director of AARK ARTS and editor of Atlas. The Government of India awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature.” Currently, he the international fellow and writer/artist-in-residence at the Nirox Foundation in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind. Sen is the first Asian honoured to deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture and read his poetry at the Nobel Laureate Festival.
Thank you, Sudeep for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl.
RS: You are a prolific poet with several poetry collections under your belt. Please tell us a little about your journey as a poet – your upbringing, your background and your early influence. What gives you the sense of rootedness?
SS: Let me answer the last question first. I think the reason why you don’t see any sense of displacement in my writing is because I’m actually a very rooted person. My rootedness comes from my family and the way I was brought up. I’m first and foremost a Bengali writer, who just happens to write in another Indian language that is English. So, my cultural and intellectual spaces are very much defined by the fact that I come from a thoroughly Bengali milieu.
I am also fortunate to have grown up in a tri-lingual situation — I spoke Bengali at home, Hindi on the streets, and English at school not by design but by circumstance. So, this wonderful tripartite situation was such that I could slip in and out of several mother-tongues and languages at the same time it certainly made it linguistically richer, and we as South Asians are very lucky because of that.
I also come from a typically liberal educated middle-class Bengali family who have always been an immense source of strength for me. So, that kind jargon-ridden ‘post-colonial’ displacement you are talking about is very alien as a concept to me, and even more difficult for a person with my background to rationally understand.
The other aspect of this is that I grew up in the capital city of Delhi which is a very cosmopolitan place it has a curious mix of the First and Third World atmosphere depending on where or what you are engaged in at any given moment. So wherever I have travelled subsequently, be it a cosmopolitan place or a rural one, I was in some manner or the other, somewhat familiar with that new place from before, at least I was never in a state of cultural shock, however remote.
We, in India, have been exposed to the western culture, along with our very own, from our early childhood so neither of them are unfamiliar to us. So, when one is actually inhabiting these so-called Western (and Eastern spaces), they are places one feels equally at home. In fact, I quite enjoy being in both worlds. I love the taste of singara, sandesh, kabab, and phuchka; and at the same time, I love blue cheese, smoked salmon, wine and single malt. I do not personally see any conflict in these two worlds, rather I feel lucky and infinitely richer in experience, since my taste-buds as well as my intellectual and emotional terrain, can accommodate all of that happily and simultaneously.
As regards my early influence, it is best to tell your story of my very first collection of poems, Leaning Against the Lamp-Post. The poems in this book were all written between 1980 and 1985, while I was still in high school and subsequently as an undergraduate in New Delhi. In 1983, relying on my incipient enthusiasm, I summoned up all my courage, typed out about fifty poems from a much larger batch I had written up until then, and with the aid of a modest donation from my grandfather, took it to a local printer. They were cyclostyled through one of those now-extinct, messy, gargantuan machines (photocopying was still quite expensive then) and hand-sewn at the bindery by an old man who until then had only bound thousands of legal manuals and commercial reports with ubiquitous red cloth or leather spines and with their titles stamped in gold. This was, however, the first time he had bound a collection of poetry, and he did it with genuine interest and with the care of a fine craftsman. He was a poet himself and wrote and recited in Urdu. He also knew Bengali (my mother tongue) fluently, having spent his early life in what is now known as Bangladesh. Perhaps it was propitious that my early poems were blessed by the tactile touch of a true poet. It would only be fair to say of my grandfather that his patronage made him my first publisher. And as it turns out, this limited hand-assembled first edition of poems was to be my first ‘unofficial’ book of verse.
I was always convinced that writing poetry was extremely difficult (even though I thoroughly enjoyed reading it) and was best left to the masters themselves. Then one day in 1980 (I was in Class 10 at the time), daydreaming through a boring lesson in school, I penned, quite unknowingly, in perfect rhyme and metre, my first poem. Then followed those first few years when I wrote sheaves and sheaves of, what sometimes seem embarrassingly ‘callow’, and sometimes naive poems. But then, looking back I feel that there was a sense of innocence, idealism, seriousness, and honesty about them.
I grew up in a liberal and educated family with a lot of poetry and music around me. Art, literature, philosophy, and the world of ideas in particular, had always been a part of my upbringing. I learnt that our forefathers belonged to the aristocracy and could be traced back to the enlightened Raja Raj Ballabh Rai, famous in the margins of Indian history during the times of Sirajudaullah, the Nawab of Bengal in the late eighteenth century. As a child, my mother and grandmother would recite children's verse and sing songs for me. I realise now that much of my interest in form, structure, sound pattern and rhyme scheme comes from hearing aloud the incantatory music of their prayers and songs, which I had obviously internalised over the years.
My parents and grandparents introduced me to the world of poetry. They would recite the great Bengali poets: Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, and Kazi Nazrul Islam; also Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantics and the Victorians. I came to learn many of them by heart. In school and college, I explored Hindi and Urdu poetry, discovered the Russians, Latin Americans, as well as Japanese and Chinese verse. Some of my favourite poets included Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Irina Ratushinskaya, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Basho, Li Bai, and many more. My uncle opened to me a wondrous window, a hitherto unsighted world of modern European poets: Vasko Popa, Guillaume Apollinaire, Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Rainer Maria Rilke, Johannes Bobrowski, Horst Bienek, and so many others. Also, I became fascinated by the Metaphysical Poets and the French Symbolists, in particular John Donne, Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Verlaine. Of course, growing up in the seventies, one could not miss Ezra Pound and T S Eliot. The congregation grew and grew, and through quiet osmosis, I was seduced into the world of sound, rhythm, word-patterns, ideas, syllabics, music, and language itself.
RS: You use diverse poetic forms when you write verse (rubai, sonnet, creole, poetry chants, triptych, to name a few). Which form (if I may ask) do you feel most comfortable writing or do you prefer the challenge of experimenting with new forms of verse. Some of your poems seem to be inspired by the rhythm of dance, music and also replicates day-to-day life rhythms. I especially enjoyed your poems ‘Durga Puja’, ‘Bharatnatyam Dancer’, ‘Single Malt’ which reflect and follow these rhythms. Tell us a little about how these rhythms became a part of your poems.
SS: I am particularly interested in form and craft in poetry, poem’s rhythm and design, its construction and the way it appears on the page.
The architecture of a poem is also very important to me — partly because of my own inherent interest in architecture itself. During my days of apprenticeship, I consciously wrote using traditional strict forms, formal metre and rhyme schemes. Of course, I have also written in free verse, but due to my penchant for formal verse you are likely to encounter a pantoum next to an acrostic poem, a triolet juxtaposed against a ghazal, lyric narratives and prose poetry, Sapphic fragments, mosaic pastiché, ekphrastic verse, sonnet, rubai, poem songs, prayer chants, documentary feeds, rap, reggae, creole, canzone, tritina, sestina, ottava rima, rime royale and variations on waka: haiku, tanka, katauta, choka, bussokusekika, sedoka.
As I became more experienced and skilled, I started innovating and experimenting, creating and inventing new forms and poetic structures. I also believe that a poem should not only be linguistically challenging, but how it appears visually is an important factor as well. For me, typography and structure of a poem are just as vital as the inner spirit and content of any poem.
If I have to locate myself geographically or culturally — then I would say I am a Bengali poet who writes in English. My relationship with Bengali is umbilical and neonatal. My parents were Bengali, and I grew up in a home speaking Bangla in a Bengali neighbourhood in New Delhi. Hindi and English were my other mother tongues. So, the cultural, historical, linguistic and literary tradition of the Bengali tongue has had a very important effect of my poetic cadence, texture, rhythm and early rhyme-constructions. One very good example is my poem, ‘Durga Puja’ [re-published later in The Dhaka Tribune newspaper as part of a larger sequence, ‘Durga Sextet’]. During the lead-up to the puja celebrations, prayers are chanted from Chandipaath. In the poem, ‘Durga Puja’, I try to replicate its languorous baritone rhythm and its song-like cadence, as well as its long-lined couplet-structure.
In the poem ‘New York Times,’ I invented a rhyme-scheme — abxba cdxdc efxfe ... and so on ... — the middle line, i.e., the third ‘x’ line, in fact is the mirror-line which reflects the first and second lines with the fourth and fifth lines of each stanza. The other reason I used the five-line stanza-format in the poem is because the city of New York itself has five boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, etc. The other aspect about this poem is if you turn the poem 90 degrees on its central axis, then a different kind of mirror line mimics the shape of the island of Manhattan itself and its reflection on the surrounding waters.
Another poem, a book-length sequence, Mount Vesuvius in Eight Frames (subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio as a verse-play, and premiered in London as a stage-play by Border Crossings directed by Michael Walling) is based on a series of eight etchings of a British artist, Peter Standen. The entire poem is set in rhymed couplets, reflecting the presence of two principal characters — man/woman, lover/other, life/death, and the other essential dualities. But they do not appear as obvious rhymes (like the translucent choral refrains in the poem) — they are wrap-around rhymes as opposed to endstopped rhymes. The four stanzas in each section reflect the four seasons, the four sides of a frame, the four corners of a visual space. I also use alternating line-indentation for each couplet and stanza with the idea that the entire poem works on a cyclical principle. So, if you join all the stanzas together using the left-justified margin as a reference plane, they in fact fit in a perfect dove-tail joint.
The poem ‘Single Malt’ (published in Wasafiri, UK) is one grammatical line, without any full-stops, mimicking the way whiskey, when poured gently into a crystal glass, caresses its sides and subsequently the tongue’s palette. Therefore, the slim verticality of this poem’s structure:
Another example is the poem, ‘Bharatanatyam Dancer’ (published on ‘The Poetry Foundation’, USA): In this poem, it might be interesting for readers keen on form to note that the line-end rhyme-scheme — abacca ... dbdeed ... fbfggf ... — maps and mirrors the actual classical dance step pattern and beat — ta dhin ta thaye thaye ta. Also, the left hand margin indentations match the same scheme and form.
There is also my book-length poem, Distracted Geography: An Archipelago of Intent (published by Peepal Tree (UK) & Wings Press (USA): It’s one long poem over 206 pages. The sparse elongated structure of the poem partly reflects the strength and surety of the human vertebra and spine, much like Neruda’s Odes that reflects the long, thin shape of Chile. The sections and subsections join together like synapses between bone and bone. The titles are translucent markers or breath pauses, not separators. The short two-line couplets echo the two-step footprints, a pathway mapped on the atlas. The 12 sections correspond to the 12 bones in a human ribcage, the 12 months in a year, the two 12-hour cycles in a day. There are 26 bones in the human vertebrae, and the 26 parts in the poem slowly assemble themselves and form a montage of tenuously strung lyrics. The 206 pages in this book match the exact number of bones in a human body.
I am constantly innovating with form and structure. This has allowed me to invent and introduce new forms (and structure) to the English poetry tradition, ones that did not exist before. Even as the voice and technique are in a constant state of flux and growth, there is always a distinct personal signature.
RS: You have also been editor and co-editor of several poetry collections. What has been your experience of editing such collections?
SS: Editing poetry and putting anthologies together are largely a labour of love. It is my way of showcasing the best of Indian poetry to people here and internationally. I have edited several important ones in the past, including The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry and Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi). But let me talk about the newest one, Converse.
Converse is authoritative, intellectually rigorous, judiciously representative ― a wide-ranging anthology ― an updated, international map of the best of English-language poetry by Indians. Commissioned to celebrate the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, Converse showcases the best of the varied, vibrant, rich, and exciting 'living' poets from India and from the Indian diaspora who write in English.
Within this definitive anthology, you will find long-established writers as well as younger writers in a large room without walls, where both individual and collective echoes are equally eloquent and important. Converse erases hierarchies, making boundaries seamless and transparent, with the unifying factor being integrity of thought and language.
Diversity and multicultural perspectives allow the poets here to have an internal dialogue between themselves on one hand and, on the other hand, with the varied topographical and cultural spaces of their origin or influence. Bringing such a variety of poems together creates an inherent syntactical and historical tension, one that ultimately celebrates humanity, imagination, artistry, intellect, and the written word ― the result is in an original wordscape of the vastly multilingual, historic, and artistic terrain of India and the Indian diaspora. Meant equally for serious and lay readers of poetry and contemporary literature, this collection of work shares language that is poised, expansive, experimental, and centrifugal ― while the thought is stringent and cogent, maintaining a fine balance between emotion, ideas, and expression. Just as Holi’s gulal-smeared leaf (on the front cover) from a 75-year-old bargad tree radiates colour, celebration, and conviviality against a dark geopolitical and climate reality ― so is this anthology itself a Keatsian ‘Bright Star’, creatively voicing affirmation and optimism. Converse is a book to relish and cherish.”
RS: Your recent book ‘Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation’ encompasses the entire gamut of response to the covid pandemic. I was especially touched by ‘Burning Ghats, Varanasi.’ What inspired you to write this collection? Did you innovate with structures of poetry to lend urgency to your concern about climate & pestilence?
SS: Thank you – I’m glad the poem ‘Burning Ghats’ touched you. The act of ‘burning’ is so much part of the process of ‘climate change’ and the ‘pandemic’, and in the idea of ‘anthropocene’.
My newest book, Anthropocene is a literary and artistic response to, and inspired by, the most urgent issues that face humanity now — climate change and the pandemic. Anthropocene tackles the complexities head-on with honesty and sensitivity, without any compromise. Simultaneously engaging multiple genres — creative non-fiction, essay, prose, poetry and photography — the book interrogates our lives against the backdrop of a dangerously fraught and ever-changing landscape, on the emotional, physical, micro and macro levels.
Amid all the negative noise in the world, here is a quiet artistic offering — a testament to our fervent times where the ever-increasing ravages of climate change scar humanity, where Fascist politics overrides the silence of introspection, where the cleaving schism between the rich and poor becomes ever-widening, where racism peaks at an all-time high, where toxicity among people proliferates, and fake news abounds.
Ultimately, the book is a plea for positivity and prayer — it urges us to slow down, to introspect, to consume less. It is time once again to learn how to love selflessly and embrace “Hope, heed, heal — our song, in present tense.”.
RS: Which are the contemporary voices (poets & writers) that echo and resound with you?
SS: There are so many — Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky — Jibanananda Das, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ghalib — the list is endless.
RS: A lot of our readers are budding poets and writers. What advice would you give them about honing their poetic skills and craft?
SS: Read, read, and read more. Read your colleagues work with a critical eye. Read the classics and the contemporary poets in India (and worldwide). Practise writing formal verse, even though that might not be your thing. It is a good learning and apprenticeship.
RS: The Whispering Anklets, Blue Nude: Ekphrasis & New Poems, and Red are your forthcoming books. Tell us a little about them.
SS: The Whispering Anklets project has been many decades in the making — born out of my long-term engagement with dance, music and the arts. The poems in the book — simultaneously spontaneous and studied — are often a series of crafted ekphrastic responses to live performances. Dance and music for me, are about the silence and its unarticulated hymns; about light, shadow and the penumbra within; about word and wordlessness; about stasis and movement; about introspection and expression — and also the strict practised forms and invisible architecture that drive and prop up the artistic exoskeleton. Dance frees my soul — it makes me walk on air.
Among my friends and colleagues, I count some of the world’s leading dancers and musicians, theatre and film directors, photographers and artists, poets and writers — my world revolves around the ideas and creations of these hugely talented individuals. This book is a collaboration with the extraordinary dancer, Aditi Mangaldas, and Dinesh Khanna, the master of composition and colour photography.
So whether it is Aditi Mangaldas’s soul-searching kathak and high-octane modern-dance shows, the carefully articulated padams and javalis by Leela Samson, Madhavi Mudgal and Bharati Shivaji’s lasya-layered abhinaya, Malavika Sarukkai and Alarmel Valli’s sinuous gazelle-like leaps — or the deep-throated aalaap of Pandit Jasraj, the mature sonics of Shubha Mudgal, the haunting melodies of Kishori Amonkar — I invariably find myself scrambling for scraps of paper in the semi-darkness of an auditorium, to scribble my early thoughts, to tie down phrases that suggest themselves. Over time, these notes-texts-phrases, through various assemblages and revisions, slow-morph into finely-etched poems.
Dance has always been, for me, “the hidden language of the soul” (Martha Graham). The Whispering Anklets “murmur[ing] mnemonically / in … lucent luminescence” — is an act of individual obsession, of artistic collaboration, of communal creative sharing, of friendship and humanity.
As regards, the two other books-in-progress — Blue Nude, and Red — let them be a surprise!
RS: Thank you so much Sudeep for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in all your creative endeavours and hope your poetic voice scales greater heights.
SS: My pleasure.