Urvashi Bahuguna’s recently launched poetry collection ‘Terrarium’ won The Great Indian Poetry Collective’s Emerging Writer’s Prize. In a chat with NT BUZZ, she talks about how the book was born, her years in Goa, and the misconceptions about poetry
Danuska Da Gama I NT BUZZ
Writing can mean different things to different people. For many it is a catharsis- like it is for Urvashi Baguna who brings minute details to life through her poems in ‘Terrarium’, creating vivid images of places, people, her experiences, and more through her writing.
Her work has been recognised by a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship, a Sangam House fellowship. She also won an Eclectica Spotlight Author Prize, a TOTO Award for Creative Writing, a Wingword Poetry Prize, and nominations for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. Her poems and essays are published across several media platforms.
- How important was it for you to win the The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective’s Emerging Poets Prize?
It meant the world to me. I wasn’t certain if the manuscript was strong enough or if the poems were ready to be published. GIPC offers a twelve-month mentoring period where they assign two editors to work alongside the winners to fine-tune the manuscript. As a first-time author, I knew that I wanted that experience. It’s been really invaluable to have a rigorous editorial process. The win was also incredibly special for me because the judge that year, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, was (and continues to be) one of my favourite poets – I have dog-eared copies of all her books. I suspect it’s one of those moments that will never cease to feel unbelievable.
- How much of Goa or Goan-ness so to say, is felt in your writing?
I grew up in Porvorim and went to school in Miramar. Six times a week, the school bus drove me over the Mandovi bridge midway between sunrise and the sun being completely overhead. One doesn’t forget the sights one sees over and over – especially not sights like that. Goa’s landscape is an intrinsic part of the fabric of my imagination. The metaphors that come most instinctively to me are from my time in Goa. Some of the poems in ‘Terrarium’ are explicitly set in Goa, and others are informed by memories I have of my childhood here.
- Books on poetry still do not find as much favour among readers in India, as opposed to short stories and novels. What do you think is the problem?
As a culture, we tend to think of poetry as mysterious and difficult to understand. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me: “I am sure I won’t understand poetry.” We are not exposed to contemporary poetry the way we are to the latest fiction releases, we don’t always know where to start with reading poetry. For readers who are curious about poetry but also perhaps intimidated by it, I’d recommend exploring the following poems – Ellen Bass’ ‘Relax’, Kim Addonizio’s ‘To The Woman Crying Uncontrollably In The Next Stall’, Ross Gay’s ‘Sorrow Is Not My Name’, Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘Mint Snowball’. They’re all available to read online, and they are a place to start if someone is interested.
- As a writer, how attached do you get to your writing, especially when it has to be edited or scrapped?
I found that when I was putting together the manuscript, the way I felt about a particular poem or a phrase mattered less than when I was working on that poem alone. I trusted the editors I worked with and I didn’t mind relatively weaker or less relevant poems being removed from the manuscript because they weren’t meaningfully contributing to the larger collection. Also, I knew that deleted poems and lines could be used elsewhere at a later point. I saved them in a separate folder.
- Having grown up in Goa and now currently living and working in Delhi, how have the two places contributed to your growth as a writer?
I am always thinking about the differences between the two. What is possible in one, is not possible in the other, and I have needed both to bring to me to this juncture. Goa gave me a quiet childhood with time to read for hours on ends. It had a slowness that sometimes felt stifling as a child, but it’s a pace that’s stayed with me and I think allowed me to write. Delhi pushed me out of my comfort zones as a person, a reader, a writer – growing in all these different ways was crucial for me to understand that continuous learning is an inextricable part of being a writer for me.
- Tell us about ‘Terrarium’ and how it came to life?
I wrote ‘Terrarium’ after a period of straying far away from the world of writing. It was a time filled with living – I was engrossed in work, in my relationship, in the early stages of being ill. When I returned to writing, I found that those years had changed me, shaped my voice into a more nuanced one – one that wasn’t satisfied with a single version of any story. ‘Terrarium’ came to life, I believe, because writing is only one aspect of my life and it is nourished by having a full life outside of it.
- Reading has been taken over by PUBG and digital media. How can youngsters be lured into reading and writing today?
Reading requires access and time. In Goa, there’s the Bookworm library, there are second-hand collections at Broadway, Literati and other bookstores where one can buy books at relatively affordable prices. I’d even nudge people towards Kindle editions (one doesn’t need the device, just the free app) because prices are quite a bit lower than for paperback editions a lot of the time. Goodreads is a useful and free online platform where one can save books one wants to read, discover similar ones to the books we’ve enjoyed in the past, read laymen reviews. Give those a try; carve out time on the weekends and at night when one is usually on one’s phone to read sometimes instead. I think we (me included) have more time than we know because we give up so much of it to our screens.
- What are you working on next?
I am writing a collection of personal essays on mental health, tentatively titled ‘No Straight Thing Was Ever Made’, which will be released later this year with Penguin India. The essays are about my experiences navigating romantic and platonic relationships, family, work, and writing while struggling with depression and anxiety. It’s a very different undertaking from the book of poems. It has been far harder to write because in some ways I am going a step deeper into the issues I’ve written about in my poems. After writing the poems, I felt a brief sense of control over those narratives. But wading deeper has asked tough questions of me, has resulted in me feeling unmoored. And out of that unmooring a new book has taken shape.