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Language in motion

Arundhathi Subramaniam’s latest poetry anthology ‘Love Without a Story’ explores the sense of kinship one can sometimes feel with unexpected people. NT BUZZ catches up with the award-winning poet before the book launch at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival (GALF) 2019

ANNA FERNANDES | NT BUZZ

Q. Do you think you were always destined to be a poet? What drew you to the art form?

Destiny is a big word! I’m not sure I was destined to be a poet. But I’ve always loved the form. Hanging around what I call the ‘workshop’ of language has always given me the greatest pleasure. And since I didn’t have the talent or the inclination to be a chartered accountant or computer scientist, I guess the options before me were limited!

What drew me to the form? Initially, it was the exuberant rise and fall of rhythm, the sense of language in motion. Later, it was the powerfully condensed form of self-expression that poetry offers. Today, I’d say I also love the richness of image, the patterning of sound and pause, and the heightened quality of the lyric poem.

Q. What are some recurring themes that you have explored through your work?

My first book (published in 2001) was a varied one, both thematically and stylistically. But there were certain themes that were very much in place even then: relationships, the city, the existential quest. In my second and third books (2005 and 2009), the theme of belonging – cultural, political, spiritual – became a recurrent preoccupation. In the fourth book (2014), the focal point was journeys – both contemporary and mythic. In my most recent book, ‘Love Without a Story’, I’d say the dominant themes are intimacy, ageing, and the urgent need for dialogue among people of varied persuasions. 

Q. ‘Love Without a Story’ will, in fact, be launched at GALF. Could you elaborate more about what the book is about?

It’s a book about the sense of kinship one can sometimes feel with unexpected people: not just parents, friends, lovers, but an assortment of people across religious and political divides, including Marxists and mystics and monks! The title, which is drawn from one of the poems, sums up what interests me: not the narrative or the drama of love, but what remains when the story is over, when the plot subsides. I believe something does remain. There is an expanding sense of warmth, of community, a more inclusive gaze, one that is unstained by need, by clinginess. That, for me, is the kind of gaze that I value increasingly. The kind that doesn’t swerve into its opposite. I choose to call that love without a story.

Q. You write extensively on spirituality and are a pioneer of
Bhakti poetry.

I see it as my aim to reclaim an endangered spirit of wonder in a jaded world. We live in times of such inflexible and rigid stances – both sacred and secular. If there is anything the Bhakti poets can bring to us today, it is the reminder that the existential journey is not about hardened opinions and attitudes, but about the courage to own up to uncertainty and bewilderment. They remind us that spirituality is not doctrinal, but experiential. They remind us that it is possible to aspire to walk with authenticity, integrity, spirit – and sometimes even ecstasy – into the unknown.

Q. Which poets have inspired you? Do you feel yourself ever influenced by the writing style of a poet?

Several have inspired me – from Basho to Neruda, AK Ramanujan to John Burnside, Akka Mahadevi to Tukaram, and many others. I suppose they’ve all influenced me in some way. But hopefully, one’s style is not just a heap of forgeries! It is about internalising the work of the poets you love, allowing them to enter your bloodstream. After that, the poets you love are just a part of you. Your voice will always bear their echoes, but the timbre of your voice will always be unmistakably
your own.

Q. Do you have a particular process or place where you like to write, and does a poem start life in longhand, notes, or straight to the computer?

I travel a great deal, so most of my poems are written in transit – in hotel rooms, in airport lounges, in restaurants. But there are times I choose to devote a few concerted days at a stretch to writing poems. During those times, I write in my favourite armchair – and sometimes, I confess, even in bed!

I used to write poems only in longhand, but more recently I’ve started working directly on the computer. 

Q. How do you think you’ve evolved as a poet over the years?

Some things have remained the same in my poetry: a tonal directness, for instance, or a certain feel for the spoken voice, or the love of an image. But what has changed is my approach to the entire business of writing, I think. I believe my approach is less tense, less micro-managerial, more relaxed. The aspiration today is poise without tension. I think I see more of that in my work.

Q. How do you respond to writer’s block or not knowing what to write?

Thankfully, no one is really putting pressure on poets to write! So, if one has writer’s block, one allows it to be – until it unblocks! 

But less facetiously, let me say that sometimes it is good to stop writing if one doesn’t feel there is any real flow. The seemingly barren periods are when a great deal of subterranean activity is actually taking place. One needs to trust that and not get anxious. The writing will surface again when it is time. It’s important to remind oneself that there can be no harvest without a spell of fallowness.

Q. According to you, as an artist, what is the role of art in today’s
society?

The fundamental role of art is to combine authenticity with artistry, truth with beauty. We live in very utilitarian times when the recurrent question people ask is, ‘What’s the takeaway?’ With art, the takeaway is intangible, subtle, difficult to measure, impossible to define. But it is there. The artist needs to trust that. I know that political orthodoxies of both right and left, decree that art must endorse a stand, take a position. But sometimes the greatest responsibility of the artist is to be true to herself: to refuse to speak a language of facile binaries, of easy conclusions, of dogmatic certainties. That, to my mind, is an important moral responsibility
in itself.

Q. What’s the best experience you’ve gained through your
writings?

The greatest reward has been meeting and connecting with listeners and readers. Talking to them or receiving emails from those who respond to one’s work can be deeply affirming. The other reward has been the opportunity to travel the world. I’m very grateful for that.

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