In the mood for poetry

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Author, poet, translator and journalist, Jerry Pinto is out with his new book ‘I Want a Poem’. He shares his insights into his love for the poetic form with NT BUZZ

CHRISTINE MACHADO | NT BUZZ

Q. This new book of poems is dedicated to four literary greats from India – Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, and Eunice de Souza. Tell us more.

In some ways, I think I wanted to say: These were the ones who went before. These are my ancestors, even if there is no direct lineage. I wanted to say thank you for being a walk away and always ready to listen. I wanted to say sorry I didn’t come see you as often as I should not because you needed me but because I needed you. I wanted to say I love your work and it still means a great deal to me.

Q. In writing there is always a tendency to go back and rewrite a piece some more, to change something around and make it sound better. How do you know when a poem is complete?

This is a good question and the answer is: I don’t know. I wish I did. I wish I had a magic formula. Because you’d think it would be simple. You want to say something. You want to say it in a special way called poetry. Have you said that? Is it a poem? But as soon as the second question sounds, the answer begins to recede because you have to define what a poem is. And as soon as you define what a poem is, it makes a jail-break of your definition and runs away. So maybe there is only one way to know. Has the poem opened its eyes and begun to live? Does it seem like it might have a life outside of you? I feel so stupid saying this but this is as close as I can get.

Q. How does a poem come to you? Do you have to sit down and force it out or do you prefer writing poetry only as and when inspiration strikes?

Thoughts, feelings, happenings, everything brings words. Because very early on, words were the way I ordered the universe. If I could say what it was, I had some sense of it. But words are also hollow things; they’re made of glass and we fill them with the colour of our emotions and associations. I learned that quickly.

So now when the words come, I pass them on, I let them through, I pour them out. But when they have been committed to paper, I scrutinise them thoroughly, I begin the savage triage of the edit. I like what Nissim Ezekiel said in ‘Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher’:

To force the pace and never to be still

Is not the way of those who study birds

Or women. The best poets wait for words.

The hunt is not an exercise of will

But patient love relaxing on a hill

Q. What in your opinion is the reception like for poetry in India today?

People love poetry; they don’t seem to buy poetry books. But they never get rid of the poetry books they buy. I have a huge collection of poetry books but very few of them have come from second-hand dealers. Most are new. This is because, I believe, a book of poems becomes part of who you are. 

Q. What is poetry for you?

I wish I knew. There are two parts to that question. ‘What is poetry’ and who are you. The second half is the reason for much poetry, the exploration of this numinous and exotic stranger that is the self. The first half is larger. Because it means you have to define poetry and I think if I do ever find a definition, I will cease to be a poet and will become a critic that day.

Oh, it occurs to me there might be a third and a fourth part to the answer. What is poetry not just as poetry but as poetry in relation to that moving target, the self; and then there is the self as it is found and explored and remade in poetry.

Will this ever end?

Q. You’ve written novels, children’s books, a biography, poetry and done translations too. What else would you love to dabble in?

Words are a temptation. They have always been. But they are will o’ the wisps and will lead you astray. But the journey, as Cavafy reminds us, is the thing; Ithaka is only a destination.

Q. What’s next?

I rarely keep track of what’s coming next but I suspect the next book to hit bookshops might well be ‘Battlefield’, my
translation of ‘Ranaangan’ by the noted Marathi filmmaker and writer, Vishram Bedekar.