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Interview with Vivek Narayanan

1) Did you envision Mr. S. as a book with interconnected poems from a start or did the idea evolve over time? Others have written books with interconnected poems as well such as Kolatkar’s Jejuri and my own Crossing Black Waters but it is not as common. What does writing interconnected poems allow you to do that poetry that stands alone doesn’t? Why did you choose to mix genres as opposed to just poetry or a novel?

The idea to have a book-length sequence did not come at the beginning but evolved gradually. At first, I was just fooling around with the underlying form of the poems, a kind of blown-apart/deconstructed sestina. Then, when I realised the form itself had something genuine to say to me — in other words, it was letting me say somewhat unexpected things and surprise myself — then I started to explore it more consciously and rigorously. There was another turning point when I realised that these poems would have to stand by themselves, that they could not just be thrown in with other kinds of poems, that they would have to be their own book. I had to then set aside all my other projects, especially other kinds of poems, and work towards this alone. I had to produce variation. After that, there came a process of culling– I needed to throw away all the material in this style that felt more like just exercises and try to identify the poems and the lines that felt real, alive, resonant, etc to me. Slowly– very slowly in fact– the final book began to emerge.

It’s an interesting question you ask, what it is a coherent book of poems can do that individual poems can’t. I’d be very curious to hear your answer for Crossing Black Waters; maybe it’s different for different books. For me, what was interesting, what I didn’t even realise was happening, was that time –the passage of time– began to inscribe itself, record itself, write itself into the book. So perhaps this is one answer, that a book of poems can contain time in a way that an individual poem cannot?

I should say, though, that I’m still ambivalent about one thing — precisely because time surprises us, because the narrative goes places you don’t see it going — that the narrative of Life and Times may imply to some a happy, even smug ending. That you have all these very difficult issues — the violence of history, the complicity of elites, the past, the impossibility and the necessity of faith, of obsolescence, of newness, etc — with an ending that some could read as simply the happiness of a hetero-normative settled bourgeois family. Nothing against families but I don’t believe that, and I tried to work against this reading by ordering the poems in a more jagged, non-linear way, as a constellation of interruptions or counter-arguments. However, in some ways time had already done its work of inscription and could not be undone without being fake. So perhaps the best way of addressing this might be with a follow up. Lately, I’ve been getting the craving to write another Mr S book… at some point.

2) The past, both personal and his literary traditions are important in Mr. S.’s obsolescence but also in his transformation and awakening. What interests you about history and why does it matter so much in order to progress? How does poetry fit into this awakening?

“The past” is one thing; “history” is perhaps another. The problem with history — or at least some particular, dominant ideas of it — is that it seems to leave us in chains, trapped in a present and future we didn’t ask for and can’t do anything about. There is a line in the poem, “Area of Mr S”: “back / back into an unacknowledgeable past / where too someone ambled—even Thiruvalluvar / a wide eyed confused young man greater than / today’s frozen plaster”. I had this image of Thiruvalluvar — who is now a saint and a plaster statue — hundreds of years ago, in his day, as just another intense, confused young man wandering the streets of Mylapore, trying to make sense of it all. A real poet, in other words. What if we could go back to that uncertainty, that unsettledness, that openness again? What if we could go back to the past, not as something unchanged and unchanging to be taken for granted, or as a relentless steamroller, but as a set of questions and contradictions to be re-opened? Some would say it’s just a fantasy, this idea of time travel / multiple times or perhaps “ahistorical time”, but a part of me will not let it go.

And poetry might be useful for this, because poetry, in its own profound way, really completely disregards linear notions of history. I’m reading Ezra Pound’s Cantosnow, and this poem’s idea of history seems to be a kind of delirious oceanic dream, with fragments from different historical periods floating out of order, out of context and sometimes colliding with each other. Or, to take even the opposite of the Cantos, Emily Dickinson, who here and there seems to completely aware of the developments of her time but can apparently see way beyond them, into both the future and the past. I’m sure some people will think I’m talking complete nonsense, but, well, there it is.

3) Wallace Stevens’ dictum that poetry “has to be abstract,” continues to be uncommon today especially in mainstream writing where “show not tell” poetry predominates. Could you elaborate on your own poetics, why you think the abstract is important, and how you navigate between the two?

I think the truth is that poetry can neither be completely abstract nor completely concrete. It has to be both to be genuine, and to embrace that contradiction between the two which is inherent in language itself, in words themselves. So your “navigate between” is a good way to put it. If I go too far in one direction I try to go back in the other. Given the dictum of “show don’t tell” (whatever that really means), I think there was a part of me that was afraid to be abstract in a poem, as if abstraction was somehow out of place in contemporary poems, something to be frowned upon. But when Mr S just insisted on being that way, I had to follow him. Then, just when it seemed like abstraction was indeed possible, it was time for another course correction. And just when I was getting ok with being essayistic, it was time to go back to the potentials of narrative.

4) Poetry is moving increasingly away from a performance art to one where the visual cues on the page are equally important. Do you feel it is equally important to read your poetry as it is to hear it? Is poetry becoming less of a performance art especially the kind of poetry that relies on visual clues?

Again for me, the special power of poetry as a genre is that chooses neither the aural nor the visual, but explores the connections and the tensions between the two. I consider both poetry readings and printed poetry to be forms of publication; I try to take both seriously and bring the two together somehow, even if they never completely overlap. This is also a way of continually weaving together our oral and literary cultures, which should not be kept separate.

5) Margaret Atwood has written that writers from the U.S. are infatuated with journeys and border crossings, and that Canadian writers focus upon the natural landscape. Do you think that Indian writers are drawn toward any specific topics? Is this different for Indians writing in English versus those writing in native languages?

I probably should not be making categorical statements, but more and more I feel that every serious Indian poet will at some point end up having to think hard about translation and the challenge of bridging multiple languages.

This seems inescapable for the Indian English poet, since she is writing in what is still, for now, a marginal, elite language in India. She tries to make herself whole through the act or support of translation. You can find that with almost all of the important poets of the previous generations.

Let me say a bit more. There are some things very different at stake in the act of translation, say, for a Ramanujan, Agha Shahid Ali or Mehrotra than for Indian language translators from the West. I think the IE poets aren’t as concerned with representing a culture, or even playing the “expert” on the source language. Instead, they are using translation to ask some very fundamental questions for themselves and about themselves; the boundary between their “translations” and their “own poems” is, visibly, a very porous one. Other poets, like Adil Jussawalla or Eunice De Souza may not have authored translations themselves but they have been deeply involved in editing, sponsoring or encouraging it (Adil’s major contribution is of course, New Writing in India.) A third kind of strategy can be seen in a poem like Jeet Thayil’s “Malayalam’s Ghazal”, which is about both a tension and a yearning between English and Malayalam, and an excellent excuse to delight repeatedly in the multisyllabic word itself, “Malayalam”, to see what it might do to a poem in English. So the usual criticism of IE poets, that they are some how aloof from the other languages, is I think quite unfair.

Now, with poets writing in some of the other South Asian languages, that have much larger local literary cultures and numbers of readers, there may be the luxury of just staying within the cocoon of your own language if you want to. And yet, I still feel that the serious contemporary poet in any South Asian language ought to somehow be addressing this core reality of our lives: we live in and among multiple languages — which are also, by extension, multiple realities.