“Poets Who Matter: Sunil Bhandari interviews Amit Shankar Saha.” The Space Ink (an initiative of BanglaLive.com). 10th December, 2020. <https://thespace.ink/literature-and-fiction/poetry/interview-of-poet-amit-shankar-saha/>
Q. When did your journey as a poet start?
A: Poetry is something that a child learns first in the form of rhymes. So I too grew up rhyming words. But I got well appreciated when a poem of mine titled “A Plant” was selected by my English teacher Mr. Steve Menezes and it was published in my school’s wall magazine in 1992. There is an interesting story of how I got my poet persona noticed by my school teachers which is documented here: http://ourecho.com/story-5343-The-Stratagem.shtml. Since 1994 I started writing poetry seriously, first in imitation of the canonical masters, and then developing my own voice in course of time. Some of the early poems were later published in Poetry.com, MuseIndia.com, Boloji.com, Kritya.com etc.
Q. What is it about writing poetry that excites you?
A: Writing poetry has been a part of my life and yet there have been phases when I have not written a poem for a long period of time. In each phase of poetry writing I have perhaps been a different poet. However much I try to emulate the poet who wrote the poems in a particular phase in the past I cannot do so successfully. So it is this constant development that is very exciting. I have to do something new in each phase.
Q. Who are your favourite poets?
A: Among the canonical poets it is John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Among contemporary poets whom I am in touch with are Kushal Poddar and Ananya Chatterjee. There are many poets whom I appreciate and that includes Sunil Bhandari but to name just a few will not do justice to all of them.
4. Tell us the story about your first book. And how each of the subsequent ones are different.
A: I got my first book published when I was 39 years old. I had been cogitating about the fact whether I have a good enough number of quality poems to produce a book for quite some time. One late December in 2016 Kiriti Sengupta and Bitan Chakraborty of Hawakal Publishers asked for my manuscript. Every time I collated a manuscript of poems I had a few new poems which I had written in the interim and wanted to include. So the manuscript was revised a number of times until I decided it is enough and sent it to Hawakal in October 2017. It was also a period when I along with Sufia Khatoon and Anindita Bose started Rhythm Divine Poets, a group that works for the promotion of poetry. I came in contact with Ananya Chatterjee whose influence brought the emotional element in my poems and Kushal Poddar whose influence helped me find my own voice distinct from canonical influence. I also started living in Bolpur and many rural metaphors crept into my poems. It was this mix of emotional, aesthetic and social influences that went into the making of my first book “Balconies of Time” which got published in November 2017 by Hawakal Publishers. My second book “Fugitive Words” which was also published by Hawakal Publishers (in June 2019) was a progression of the first but it is more diverse in theme. My third book “Illicit Poems” was born out of a whim. Linda Ashok asked me for a donation for her fundraiser to help victims of Amphan and Covid-19 and I told her that I have my poems to donate. So I compiled a digital chapbook of thirty popular poems of mine and got it published in Pothi. The money raised from the sale of it went to the fundraiser. Later I got the chapbook published in paperback too.
Q. What’s your day job — and how do you reconcile it with your journey as an artist?
A: My day job is that of an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Seacom Skills University. I especially wanted to do a job where I will be involved with literature because then I will not have to constantly switch on and off my artist persona. But it was a path of struggle as I had to study science at graduate level to satisfy my father and then come back to do Masters and PhD in literature in Calcutta University and then because of this chequered academic background I had to wait till 2016 to get a proper full time job of my choice. Literature for me is not a hobby that I do in my leisure but I live my life as literature so it was necessary that all aspects of it needed to add to that singular goal. But then even Keats had to train as an apothecary before devoting himself to poetry and later in life he acknowledged that he was glad at not having given away his medical books. Perhaps, I too am glad that I did not discard my Mathematics books which help me mix some method in the madness of an artist.
Q. Do tell us about your collective Rhythm Divine Poets and what it stands for.
A: Rhythm Divine Poets is a collective I co-founded with Anindita Bose and Sufia Khatoon.
Early in 2015, barring a few exceptions, the poetry scene was quite uneventful in Kolkata and we felt the need to do something that will bring like-minded people together. Thus was born Rhythm Divine Poets, an endeavour entirely funded by the three of us and dedicated to create a space for poets to showcase their talents. We helped create the so-called “poetry scene” in Kolkata by organizing poetry readings, workshops, festivals and hosting outstation poets visiting Kolkata. We also held the Poetry Chapbook Contest and published works of poets like Huzaifa Pandit and Kripi Malviya. We did 100 Thousand Poets for Change events and the Woman Scream International Poetry and Arts Festival in Kolkata. Many organizations like Alliance Francaise, Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Oxford Bookstore and others came in support of us. In a sense Rhythm Divine Poets stands for something germinal that has happened with English poetry in Kolkata.
Q. Do tell us about what is now making massive waves — EKL Review. Where did the idea for this come from? What do you want to achieve from it?
A: If Rhythm Divine Poets is germinal, then EKL Review is its future development that has now come into existence. When we started Rhythm Divine Poets we had decided that we will review its activities after five years and in 2020 when we were thinking of what next, Jagari Mukherjee came with the proposal of starting an online journal. But there are so many existing online journals, how will ours be different? We took inspiration from Leszek Kolakowski’s essay “Emperor Kennedy Legend: A New Anthropological Debate” and decided to imagine against the grain. This will be the next level of activity for us in the field of literature where we will be breaking boundaries and experimenting with forms. The aim of this journal is twofold – to challenge whatever is given and to connect with the world. We devised a very rich register for the journal and made it avant-garde. EKL Review is an evolved organism – something of the order of the monolith that appears in Stanley Kubrick “2001 A Space Odyssey.”
Q. You are a generous soul, always there in events, in collaborations. What is your philosophy of life here?
A: It is a cliché to say “be the change you want to see”. But it is true that if one wants to live in a particular type of house one has to build it. So one needs to cultivate the field in which one wants to prosper and that is what we have done. Anindita, Sufia and I created the urge in the people to belong to the “poetry scene” and thereby not just us but everyone who had the desire has benefitted. The philosophy of my life is to develop and progress not like a palm tree but like a banyan tree.
Q. You stay in Calcutta. How much of your life and art is influenced by that?
A: I stay in Calcutta and am glad that I stay in Calcutta. Every weekend I have to come back to Calcutta from Bolpur because this is the city where I have grown up. The city seeps into my poems unnoticeably. I have written poems on Park Street, Gariahat, Southern Avenue and even Baguiati. So many poets I know now have grown up simultaneously in this same city like in different parts of the same house without knowing each other. And yet we may have crossed each other at some points in time at some avenues in Calcutta. Often I ask poets, especially of my age, what they were doing on a particular day and discover that we may have come physically so close to each other and again separated without knowing. One can imagine living many parallel lives of such coincidences and this imagination is what fuels art.
“Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Amit Shankar Saha” Wombwell Rainbow. April 2, 2020. < https://thewombwellrainbow.com/2020/04/02/wombwell-rainbow-interviews-amit-shankar-saha/ >
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
I have been writing poetry since my early school days but then later one of my poems got published in my school’s wall magazine which encouraged me to look seriously into writing poetry. In 1995 when I was hardly eighteen I wrote a poem “I Met a Cherub in My Dream” in imitation of John Keats which later got published in Muse India magazine. This poem helped me realize much like Keats that I shall be amongst the poets. So one can say that is how it all began.
Regarding why I write poetry, is like asking why I speak or breathe. It came naturally since from my childhood I have been studying literature and poetry has been a major part of it. But to answer why I write what I write in poetry can have a different answer. Poetry is often very personal for me. It is my personal expression though it may not be always be the best expression deemed by a critic. It is because I may have a strong association with a less appropriate word which no one else is privy to. Poetry is also a display of my erudition and poetic abilities because those are also part of my personality. Then there is also a struggle, a struggle of words. The words that enter my poem are always in minority to the words that don’t enter the poem and the majority constantly tries to diffuse in my poem. My struggle is to keep them at bay, cutting out superfluity until I am on the brink of a crisis of syntax and I have a poem. Poetry is also a kind of rebellion for me. It is the rebellion of a cornered cat between the walls of languages (English, Bengali, Hindi), between the walls of reasoning and passion, between the walls of utilitarianism and art. But the corner is also a place of privilege because it is here that I find the intersection of walls. It is a marginal space and even though I cannot live here, I can spring forth from here. This springing forth of the cornered cat is poetry. Art lies in painting oneself into a corner and giving oneself no choice but to spring forth in spontaneous composition of poetry.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I started studying poetry seriously in depth with all its nuances under the tutelage of my school teacher Steve Menezes. He encouraged me to read beyond the syllabus. Later I came in contact with fellow poets like Kushal Poddar and Ananya Chatterjee who influenced me a lot. Also as part of Rhythm Divine Poets, a poetry group co-founded by me for the promotion of poetry, I came across a lot of contemporary poets who constantly shape my imagination through their works.
3. How did Kushal Poddar and Ananya Chatterjee influence you?
I was quite a proficient creative writer all throughout my school and college days. But when I started doing my PhD in English at Calcutta University, which made me adopt the academic register in writing extensively, I somehow lost the free flow of my creative writing. After my PhD in 2010 I started attending creative writing workshops to get back the so-called “shaping spirit of my imagination”. There I met Sufia Khatoon and Anindita Bose and with them I co-founded Rhythm Divine Poets poetry group. Through it I came in touch with the two poets Ananya Chatterjee and Kushal Poddar. Since my writing had become devoid of emotion and very distanced, the works of these two poets and the conversations I had with them helped me to get back the spontaneity and passion in my writing. They inspired me both in exploring the content and craft of poetry, themselves being excellent poets in their own right. Kushal Poddar introduced me to contemporary poetry and poets, especially of the West. Ananya Chatterjee gave me the very reason to compose poetry.
4. Often in your poems you combine two different ways of using images. For example in “Body”
Our bodies become forgotten rain,
Pours like amnesia.
A transformation then a neurological condition?
My usage of images often marks a movement, either progression or digression. This dynamism is very organic in the sense that I don’t use it deliberately but it comes naturally as a creative trajectory. There is usually a link like in the example that you have cited from the poem “Body”. The transience of rainfall and the transience of physical experience bring together the first imagery but the link word here is “forgotten”. The rain that is forgotten or the physical experience that is forgotten is transient but it is also part of a perpetual and progressive forgetting like amnesia. The rain that is forgotten is still pouring in that forgotten space called amnesia. The mind will forget what the body experienced but the past cannot be wiped out, so the experience will stay recorded in some inaccessible corner of unconscious or subconscious. The neurological disorder of amnesia does not wipe out the past or the memory of it but just displaces it in an inaccessible spot or diffused space. There is a logical sequence in the progression of imagery from tangible to amorphous. The solid body becomes the fluid rain, which in turn becomes something metaphysical. This is what poetry does; it transforms the concrete into the abstract, the particular into the universal.
5. What is your daily writing routine?
At present I don’t have a routine for writing daily. But at various phases of my writing career I have had different routines. Usually it is either early in the morning before the day begins or late in the night till I fall asleep. During the day there are too much of intrusion of the world to have that creative space. Though I have written during daytime also especially when I am in a writing workshop.
6. In Balconies there is a series of poems featuring trees and forests, both externally and internally in relationships and sometimes the forest takes on a mission of its own.
Yes. Many poems in “Balconies of Time” have trees and forests. There are multiple reasons for it. Firstly, in 2017 I shifted from the city of Kolkata to the predominantly rural campus of my university in Kendradangal (Birbhum) near Bolpur (Shantiniketan). I came in contact with nature. That was one inspiration. When I first reached Bolpur it was the Bengali month of Bhadra, which is considered inauspicious to begin anything new. Hence it was difficult for me to find a place on rent to stay there. I got a place away from the town proper in Ballavpur. The poem “Unseason” was born there during a morning walk amidst rural surrounding and written in a girl’s voice. Secondly, the train journeys every weekend between Kolkata and Bolpur also provided me sights of nature. Poems like “Impressions from a Train” and “Silhouttes” were born thus. Thirdly, some of my poems are written in response to or as companion pieces to Ananya Chatterjee’s poems, like “Birch”, “Lost Verdancy”, “A Secret of Forests”, which have lots of nature imageries. Some poems like “Heartbreak of the Lost Earth” are written as ekphrastic pieces on seeing pictures posted by her of places like Binsar to California during her visits. Moreover, I grew up appreciating poetry of the English Romanticism, so the influence of nature remains, if not directly then as metaphor. Many of my poems are written “against the grain” of prevalent mode of poetry writing that is in vogue. Poetry for me is very organic and not just an intellectual exercise in craft and the traditions I belong to are multiple. So there is always the danger of my poetry being interpreted partially because it is difficult for a single person to access all the layers of my influence. But usually my poems yield to three layers of meanings – the social, the aesthetic and the personal. But be careful, the social appeal may be for a western reader, the aesthetic emanating from Bengali culture and the personal may be too private to know. The complexities in modern poetry need not be invested only through form; there are other more organic modes of modernity too.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today? How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
Writers one reads while growing up stay for a long time. Sometimes it can be a hindrance as the influence stops one from finding one’s own voice. Such was my condition under the influence of the poets of English Romanticism. Some of the best poems of my younger days were written in imitation of Coleridge and Keats. As a student of literature I could feel it when I was nearing them in quality. That gave me confidence that I have talent but it did not give me my own distinct voice. Later on when I started reading the modern poets and, under the influence of Kushal Poddar, contemporary American poets like Charles Simic and Billy Collins I started integrating the two influences. Take for example the conversation poems of Coleridge like “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison” or “Frost at Midnight” where he starts with something personal and specific and gradually reaches a universal appeal or philosophy. Many of my poems like “Double Helix” are written in that mode but without the Romantic ornamentation but employing contemporary techniques of poetry writing.
8. In many poems, as in Spices you make inanimate objects take on human characteristics.
I believe poetry rides on metaphors. Recently, writing about my poetry in The Asian Age newspaper Sudeep Sen remarked about the oblique nature of my poems. When I invest inanimate objects with human characteristics it is usually either because these objects are standing for something else, which are animate, or they have come alive in the imagination and such a perception too obliquely tends towards a purpose. Take for example the poem you mention, “Spices”. The first line of the poem echoes the title of a chapter in Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize winning novel “The God of Small Things”. Immediately through an intertextual network the background of the poem is set. The poem speaks of the spice trade that used to take place on the coast of Kerala during ancient times. Those migrant traders and ancient grandmothers are no longer there but the spices still remain and they bear the same smell from those past times. They are the connectors, the carriers of history – the forefathers and foremothers of the spices. The fenugreeks, the cardamoms, the mustard, the bay leaves, the cloves are the great migrants over time. They stand for all the ancient sailors and traders who migrated. By giving the spices human characteristics I am making them speak for the absent or missing or unrecorded migrants of the global past. But there is still more. The key line is “listening to smells, smelling stories” which evokes a state of synaesthesia. This is how we should read the history of those who have not left any written history. Since the perception in poetry is at an oblique angle it opens up a position of vantage that is not available to others. Only a poet can perceive the restlessness of mustard.
9. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There are many prose writers and poets whom I admire but if I have to choose the one poet I most admire it has to be Kushal Poddar. He is not just a fantastic poet but has a felicity with words that is quite unmatched. He knows all the techniques of the craft of poetry writing and yet he is so unobtrusively original. He just takes the breath out of the reader by the way he perceives an image. At a time when many poets and critics discourage ending a poem with a punch line, he does so with aplomb and gets critically appreciated too for the same. His poetry assures us of the future of the art and no doubt he has such a dedicated following all over the world.
10. As in your answer to my first question and in many of the poems in Fugitive words become alive and act in human ways.
Exactly. In fact the opening poem of my second collection “Fugitive Words” is titled “My Words” where I ask the question: “my words, those that live in huts by the tracks,/ who owns their lives in this light of dusk?” My words are like those people living on the margin and like those people these words are alive. When I first showed the manuscript of “Fugitive Words” to the noted poet and scholar Philip Nikolayev he gave me some very good feedback. But he also had reservations on my usage of Indian English. I replied that the instances of Indian English, for example “will shy to flower here”, are deliberate and are attempts to break syntax to prove their inadequacy to express thoughts emanating from a different culture. He objected to my usage of the word clamber in the poem “My Words” because it meant “to climb” and I explained that this usage is also deliberate because I observed the broken roof and broken bridge from moving vehicles (car and train) and the perspective was that of ants for whom I believe walking on the floor and climbing up a wall are the same motion. The poem My Words shows how impostor words (the fugitives), words that convey provincialism, dialects, culture-specific passions, etc. invade the domain of cultured and standard English of my poems. If words are not alive, they can’t invade.
11. The themes of memory and water run through the poems in Fugitive Words.
The theme of memory is perennial in my poems because most of my poems start from a speck of memory. Too much of presentism is sometimes a deterrent for my poems. So I look back into the past and it is in retrospect that I attain a reflective mood for poetry. I believe there is something soft and fluid in my poems and hence the abundance of the theme of water. Be it “The Waterfall” or “The Last Riverine Civilization” from “Fugitive Words” or even poems like “The River and I” from “Balconies of Time”, water takes my poems forward. Just like it is the major constituent of the earth and our body, it too constitutes majorly my poems. When Duane Vorhees had interviewed me I had told him that “Poetry is like water, it takes its own shape.”
12. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
The primary thing to become a writer is to write. Often diligently, looking for scope of writing and be patient. And one has to identify it as a calling. If one heeds to the call one cannot escape from becoming a writer. If there are nets flung at you by society and family then James Joyce in three words has given the escape route in his autobiographical novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” – silence, exile and cunning. And obviously one needs some talent. I became a writer through this recipe even before I read the book and I recommend the same to others. If I am not writing poetry, then I am writing book reviews or research articles or short stories or at least reading. Reading is essential because it is then that then one comes to know the tradition and where one stands in it.
13. Why do write? Is it an impulse, a vocation?
Because writing is the one activity that I have been doing since my childhood – be it writing an answer to a question or writing a story. In both the cases there is creativity involved. I was never one who would memorize things and reproduce. So naturally I grew up doing that as best and it became my vocation. When my parents forced me to study science after school I was quite baffled because all throughout my school life I had studied English language and literature as major subjects and logically developed the most liking and proficiency in those subjects. I could not reconcile with the irrational arguments of the people on the side of science and so even though I graduated in science I had not given up my study of literature. Later on I went on to do my masters and doctorate in English from Calcutta University. I desisted from speaking during this period and writing became my predominant mode of expression. I created my blog with the subtitle A Room of My Own. Writing somehow makes me feel empowered; it is something basic in me. I always felt its calling. For example a piece of writing that I liked in a newspaper in 1992 I had cut it and kept it because I had a vague sense that I will use it somewhere in my writing career and I did use it about twenty years later. There are numerous such instances. I never doubted myself that I will not be a writer even when I was very young.
14. There is a lot of rain in these Fugitive Words?
Rains and clouds have enormous significance in Indian culture and mythology. The monsoon rainfall comes after the hot summer months in India and is hence harbinger of relief and good omen. So when I use the symbolism of rain in my poems it usually represents something good and pleasant like in the poem “Forgetting the Rains”. Rains also indicate a kind of dynamism, a kind of precipitation of action as opposed to the stasis of words. Rains replenish the theme of water that runs through my poems.
15. What do you hope readers will be left with after reading both these collections?
Poetry has seen a sort of revival in the recent years thanks to the efforts of organizations in India like RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts, Great Indian Poetry Collective, Rhythm Divine Poets, Poetry Paradigm and now we have the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library helmed by Bashabi Fraser, Sanjukta Dasgupta and Jaydeep Sarangi. Along with these there are independent presses like my publisher Hawakal and others who have aided in this revival. There is support from seniors like Sanjeev Sethi to juniors like Nikita Parik and the poetry community as a whole is also very supportive. In this perspective of having contributed in cultivating the field in which I want my poetry to exist, if I place my two books I first have to judge who my readers are before I can say what they will take from my books. My two books are not on any particular theme or written in any particular style. If the reader is a dilettante or a connoisseur or a layman or a critic, each will find something of his/her choice in the variety of poetry I present. Perhaps no one reader will be able to love my entire collection or hate it for that matter fully because of this diversity. The underlying thread of creativity that connects my poems of the collections may not be discernible to anyone apparently. So I would expect a reader to take back a multiplicity of experience though my collections where there are free verses, sonnets, ghazals, and so on and get to know a complete poet in the process. In due course of time they might discover the underlying thread of creativity too. Predominantly my poems are about love and nostalgia, both of which comes easy, and that is why to write something genuinely different and original in thought or expression or in combination on those topics is a big challenge. I hope the readers will be able to identify that newness and get pleasure too in the process. Too much sameness in poetry writing, especially in style, stagnates the field. I would not like reading poetry to be an exercise in intellectual code breaking or looking at a piece of ornamental art exclusively. The right balance is the key. If the reader can get that key I would be happy and if the aspiring poet can imbibe that instinct to balance I would be even happier.
16. Tell me about writing projects you are involved in at the moment.
There are quite a few writing projects I am currently involved in. As the Chief Executive Editor of Virasat Art Publication an anthology paying poetic tributes to Jalianwala Bagh is getting ready. Gopal Lahiri is editing the volume. With fellow poet Jagari Mukherjee I am planning an anthology of Kolkata Poets for the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library. I have done around forty book reviews and I would like to produce a book of book reviews. Though lately I have not been writing short stories many of the awards I have won are in that category. So I would like to get a collection of my short stories published soon. More collections of my poems will definitely come out in the near future. Then there is a very interesting Indo-US poetry project I was involved in along with Kushal Poddar, Sana Mohammed, Kevin David LeMaster, Julie Kim Shavin, Sufia Khatoon, Anindita Bose, and others where we wrote poetry letters to each other in 2015-16. That manuscript is in its draft stage and I am not getting time to take it up further. Also I have been writing very little poetry at this stage of my writing career because I would like to go to the next level of poetry writing as Keki Daruwalla recently indicated that to me and I am waiting for that breakthrough. I think I owe it to my followers and readers.
“Amit Shankar Saha: Author Interview by Lopa Banerjee”, Setu: Bilingual Journal, Pittsburgh, USA, August, 2018. <https://www.setumag.com/2018/08/Interview-Amit-Shankar-Saha.html>
Lopa Banerjee: First of all, many congratulations, Amit, on the publication of ‘Balconies of Time’. The lines of the title poem in the collection echo in my mind with a lingering impact after I finished reading. “There’s a hollow in the forest/Which the night cannot fill/ And the sleepy blue ocean/Walks sleepy blue still. There’s a hollow in the strangers, Hollow in their glances/Lurking in the faded corners/With folded hemline of chances.” There is a lot of sensitivity in the lines, the depiction of emotive imagery, as aptly described in the foreword to the book by Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta, poet, academician and literary scholar. Would you say your poetry emerged from reading the classic romantic poets or the modern poets Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats et al?
Amit Shankar Saha: Thank you. The aim of the collection was to have a persistence of impact on the minds of the readers and I am happy that is what is happening. My poetry emerged from reading the classic romantic poets but I have been writing serious poetry for about twenty years now so it has developed with further readings of the modern poets though not exactly Whitman but Yeats, Eliot and others definitely. At different stages of my poetic career I have written different types of poetry under different influences. However, what comes out eventually is both an amalgamation of influences as well as originality. It is my individual voice now.
Lopa: Many of the poems in your debut collection 'Balconies of Time' have the essence of nostalgia of belonging, in relation to the feelings of home, places you have visited physically or metaphorically, objects that are both part of your inner microcosm and well as the greater visual, visceral reality. Would you agree to this observation, and if yes, how would you explain it in relation to your body and mind?
Amit: At a literary festival I once heard Anita Desai say that nostalgia is not good for a writer as it comes easy and makes the writer complacent. But you will not find the typical usage of nostalgia in my poems because the sense undergoes a metaphorical metamorphosis and thereby reflects what you aptly termed as my inner microcosm. People who know me superficially find it difficult to imagine that I am the same person who writes these poems. Sometimes I too search for that person who writes my poems.
Lopa: Before this collection happened, some of these poems you have mentioned, have been published in literary journals and e-zines. Tell us a few words about the birth of this compilation and what particularly inspired you to name the book 'Balconies of Time'. Has it been a deeply philosophical choice, or is it a name that tries to decode the intrinsic emotional meanings of the mélange of poems?
Amit: The compilation has poems selected from those mainly composed between 2015 and 2017. The poems were written during a very inspired phase of my life where there was a great upheaval of feelings. The title poem itself was inspired, as I have stated in the acknowledgement, by the words of my fellow poet Ananya Chatterjee. I had stated earlier somewhere that these poems chart an evolution of time from one state of situ to another. They bring in moods where the experiences of the poet become poetry. These emotional experiences are added with my travel experiences between Kolkata and Bolpur. Bolpur gave me new rustic metaphors whereas Kolkata always stood for urbanity from where I connected with the world, world where my friends travelled to. The private and personal mix with the public and social and become an aesthetic whole in my poems.
Lopa: As a scholar of English literature, many of your poems in this collection and also your other published poems have deeply nuanced language and imagery embedded in their core. For example, in the poem ‘Silverfish’, you write a poetic fable: “As I lie on my bed/And the night eats me up/A silverfish comes to my rescue…A long lost thought that lies/folded in the cupboard/Seeks a sudden breath of fresh air”. Again, in the poem ‘Gyre’, you write these lines which depict your passion for the beauty of the abstract: “Today I sit to write/the last poem of the year. Words queue to climb/the anthill of poetry. They mate with each other/to give birth to meaning.” Would you say poetry as a medium of art/expression derives its essential strength from the subtle rubrics of strong, distinctive imageries?
Amit: I believe poetry has to do simultaneously with imagery and sound. Even when a poem is read in the mind and not aloud, the sound of the words that depict the images has to leave a persistence of memory. Poetry is more akin to music than painting. When you see a painting you usually see the whole of it at a time, whereas you listen to only a part of the music at a time. Similarly, you read a poem only in parts – words, one line at a time perhaps. Often I forget the first lines of poems of some length with abstract imagery while reading because they don’t have persistence of memory of the lines in my mind because the sound of the words is not lingering. I try that does not happen with my poems. Poetry is definitely strengthened by distinctive imageries but those imageries have to be sustained in the minds of the readers through appropriate sounding words.
Lopa: It would be very interesting to know what inspired your introductory poem of the book 'Awadh' where you pay a tribute to Mirza Ghalib, the Urdu-Persian bard. Did the lyricism of Urdu Shayari and the Ghazal form entice you as a poet? We poets often say that poetry writing is a cathartic experience for us on the emotional plane. Do you think the catharsis is stronger in the Urdu Shayari genre of poetry, or does the complex emotional nuances of English poetry let us explore catharsis more strongly?
Amit: When I was compiling the collection, I had first thought of putting the title poem at the beginning, but then I put it in the middle and decided to start the collection with ‘Awadh’ since it goes back in history and time. It harks back to a different era of poetry and defines an age that is no longer there – an age of the bards of Urdu poetry that was overrun by the Empire. Moreover, the poem is one of the first poems that I recited at a poetry meet organized by Rhythm Divine Poets. So, it justifies itself as a precursor in more sense than one. I am definitely enticed by Urdu Shayari and Ghazal. My poems have both the influences of Indian as well as Western tradition of composing poems. As for being cathartic, poetry is cathartic irrespective of the traditions. It depends on the poet. We are privileged to have access and understanding of both the traditions and that enrich our poetry greatly.
Lopa: I sense after reading your poems on certain places and landmarks of Kolkata, including Some Place Else, Park Street, Gariahat, Southern Avenue that Kolkata, the city becomes a metaphor for remembrances and an intrinsic sense of emptiness, like a drink in which you, the poet drowns, to “swim with loss.” In the poem ‘Gariahat’, emblematic of the bustling street of Kolkata, you write: “That day we flew over the island of Gariahat./ The flyover licked us/and we were lifted up in incredible lightness/of being in love.” In these lines, we find the urban semantics, the post-modern imagery that embraces the physical landscape of the city and your metaphorical realities in very minimalist, yet strong poetic expressions. What would you say about this observation about Kolkata as your muse?
Amit: Kolkata has been a witness to my happy times and sad times, so naturally it finds a place in my poems. The city gave me urban metaphors – so many places are associated with remembrances. Every moment that has gone past leaves a certain sense of emptiness. I can revisit the same place but not the same moment and hence the sense of loss which is good for a poet, for it leads to the quintessential postmodernist philosophy of presentism. But I link it with Keatsian struggle between transience and permanence. A poet is a person who is caught between paradoxes, stranded amidst dilemmas, momentarily immobilized by predicaments. Kolkata as a muse has given me the semantics to explore such emotions.
Lopa: The sensuality of erotic poetry also finds ample voice in your poem ‘Discovering Guilt’. “Your body I peel like an orange/And your eyes an inflorescence split in two,/ Your breasts I suckle like a hot day/And your breath I take in kisses askew..” What is your take on the element of eroticism in English poetry and how do you think has it evolved over the years?
Amit: Usually I struggle to write erotic poetry but friends and fellow poets help me to achieve some measure of success when I attempt it. It is very important for a poet to get constructive feedback especially from those who have been successful in that genre and I have been fortunate in that regard. As for eroticism in English poetry, I have been influenced by the sensuousness of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, Keats’s ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. Eroticism in English poetry has definitely evolved from the bawdy verses of Earl of Rochester to the stark realities of modern times. But there are other languages too where erotic verses have flowered considerably.
Lopa: Let me ask you about my most favorite poem in the collection, ‘Double Helix’. You write: “I have my mother’s genes, /I am not a poet/And this is not a poem. /At the crossroad this will not pay for my coffee./It is still the seventies/And we are still unborn.” The lines juxtaposed against each other in the poem depicting a ruthless narrative of the seventies which merges with our own postmodern realities. Was this particular poem born out of angst or the tyranny of nostalgia?
Amit: This poem is a perfect example of multiple layering of meanings in a poem. I composed it after a fellow poet posted her mother’s poem in Facebook. I delve into the circumstances of my mother who never got an opportunity to write a verse, being too surrounded by household duties as a housewife. So this is a feminist poem. But it is not only that. It is also about me when I contradict myself by stating that my poem is not a poem. It is just a statement of hard realities of life. So it is a deeply personal poem. But the poet that I am, is also a product of his times being born in the late seventies at the end of a turbulent decade when my peers too were born and grew up. So the poem transcends the personal and goes into the social sphere. Towards the ending, the poem becomes almost political in raising questions of right and left spectrum of political ideologies. The poem was written at a time when there was this controversy of the Bengali poet Srijato’s poem which was deemed to be not in good taste by a certain political class. This poem was my response to the right-left conundrum. But despite this political angle, the interrogation is from a very personal point of view where I go back to my mother and my fellow poet’s mother and query which of them will now become a Naxalite. History has given us enough evidence of repercussions of rising extremism. But the layering does not end there. Apart from these immediate contemporary and historical realities there is this whole look into the business of a poem. The poem was written after World Poetry Day which is celebrated by many coffee shops around the world where you pay for your coffee with your poem. So it also interrogates the purpose of a poem as a non-utilitarian creation of imagination which comments on social, political, historical, as well as personal and private realities of life with an aesthetic consciousness. Poetry is art and through my conversation with my fellow poet in this poem, I am delving symbolically into the genesis of it – the genes of art within the double helix of artistic creation. There are many other layers which perhaps the reader will discover further. No doubt it is your favourite poem and also mine and whenever I read it in gatherings, I am appreciated.
Lopa: On the other hand, there are poems like ‘Suicide Bomber’, “The Wilderness of Binsar’ and ‘Silhouettes’, ‘Aleppo’ etc. where several human images convey the essence of the multi-layered politics of the world of our times, the world in a state of flux, of turmoil and turbulence. How would you say the personal and political collides with each other in your collection of poems?
Amit: Exactly the point I am getting at. The personal is political and the political personal. When I am writing about love I am also commenting about a political situation and vice versa. Love and politics intersect and the turmoil of the world reflects the turmoil in my mind. So each state can be interchangeably used linked by poignant metaphors. A poem should yield to multiple interpretations and this is how through metaphors it is embedded with meanings.
Lopa: In the foreword, Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta very engagingly elucidates the ever-expanding domain of Indian English poetry and how poets like Parthasarathy, Kamala Das, Nissim Ezekiel et al had employed the English language in their poetry as a means of liberation of their poetic selves by indulging in cultural pluralism, that resulted in “a cultural bridge between the home and the world.” We would like to know how you envision this entire process as a poet belonging to the domain of Indian English poetry.
Amit: There has always been cultural pluralism and history has proof of it. No one except those who are still stuck in primitive time warp can escape cultural pluralism. Just as no poem can have its meaning alone, no culture can have its meaning alone. I have been influenced by both Indian and Western tradition of poetry and it is a great advantage. This advantage needs to be exploited to produce good poetry. English is the language in which I am proficient and it is the language of my imagination. But that does not mean I don’t use words from other Indian languages. Cultural pluralism gives Indian poetry that richness.
Lopa: As a co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets, a poetry and arts collaborative based in Kolkata, you have been engaged in curating and conducting many poetry and literature events in the heart of the city. Kolkata has had the privilege of being the cultural capital of India since many moons now, and poetry and art has been at the core of the city a long time before the birth of this new generation of writers and artists who inhabit the city now. What are the most fascinating elements of the poetry revolution in Kolkata currently that you would like to share?
Amit: Rhythm Divine Poets (RDP), co-founded with Sufia Khatoon and Anindita Bose, has created through sustained efforts a sort of revolution in the poetry scene of Kolkata. It has given Kolkata visibility in the poetry circles of the nation as well as the world. The events that we organize round the year give local and visiting poets a platform in the city. We have been appreciated by many people. But it could not have happened without the support of senior poets like Sanjukta Dasgupta and Sharmila Ray. Now there is also Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library (IPPL) which has joined the bandwagon and we look forward to even more poetry related events and promotion of the art form. What is most fascinating about this poetry revolution in Kolkata is the enthusiasm of poets like Ananya Chatterjee, Joie Bose, Nikita Parik, Ruth Pal Chaudhuri, Kushal Poddar and others in participating in the cause and promoting the art. It is very encouraging and positive. Also we have been very receptive to collaborations locally, nationally and internationally. RDP believes that integration and autonomy can exist side by side and we can always be open to better alternatives through out-of-the-box thinking.
Lopa: What message would you like to give to young aspirant poets, university students, young professionals from diverse sectors in India who want to dive into the world of poetry publishing? Would you tell them that in spite of many claiming otherwise, poetry is there to stay as a timeless aesthetic art form?
Amit: Poetry is definitely there to stay. It has been there even before the birth of language in the music of birdsongs and it will outlive all of us. My advice to young poets is two-fold: first the practical one – write, choose and then publish. It is a long process and unless you have written enough it is foolhardy to publish a book of mediocre verses for a serious poet. Start by getting published in journals and magazines. RDP runs the Poetry Chapbook Contest and so does many other organizations outside India. Participate in those competitions and get noticed. The second advice is that since the poetry scene is now very vibrant, you have to work really hard if you want to belong to the contemporary poetry scene. Don’t adopt unfair means but rather invest yourself in the study of traditional as well as contemporary poetry. Don’t seek instant success else you will end up just being a flash in the pan. Aesthetics require cultivation. If you are good, and to know that it will take time, you should have the sense that you will be among the poets for posterity.
“Amit Shankar Saha Responds to Duane Vorhees”, Duane’s Poetree, 3rd November, 2017. <https://duanespoetree.blogspot.in/2017/11/amit-shankar-saha-responds.html>
DV: As a writer, which came first for you, academics or poetry? What was the spark that lit your authorial life?
AS. As a writer poetry came to me first. Poetry always comes first. Even before human beings learnt to speak in any language they imitated birdsongs and that was the birth of poetry. In my childhood I often broke sentences in rhythm or rhymed what I read and made poetry since it also helped as a mnemonic device. Then the movie "The Sound of Music" happened and I drew up my list of favourite things. So poetry was integral to my childhood. Academics came much later even though I had an aptitude for it since early days. But I always wanted to be an author. When I was in class eight one of my poems was published in the school wall magazine. Perhaps that fortified my ambition of leading an authorial life.
DV: Indeed, "the hills are alive with the sound of music." Before we return to poetics, would you mind letting us know what your academic interests are?
AS: Since my PhD was on diaspora study and the writings of the Indian diaspora, my major area of research interest remains that. But in academics I have published research articles on gender, postmodernism, identity, existentialism, amongst other varied areas. I love aspects of academics like teaching canonical literatures which gives us a sense of tradition, guiding researchers into newer areas of theory and literature, peer-reviewing journal articles as well as promoting creative writing. I want the poetry group Rhythm Divine Poets, which I have co-founded with Sufia Khatoon and Anindita Bose, to bring about a marriage of academics and creativity in due course of time.
DV: As a teacher, how do you teach canonical literature while also guiding researchers into new areas without diluting one or the other approach? Isn't the first endeavor inherently conservative and the second necessarily liberal in its bent?
AS: There is no dilution of approach primarily because canonical literature is taught mainly at undergraduate and postgraduate levels whereas new theoretical areas are explored mainly at PhD level. Even if there is a crossover I believe it is as T. S. Eliot has said every addition to the tradition due to individual talent modifies the tradition itself so also the canon is extended. When a theoretical approach is taken it is biased in favour of that theory and hence a perspective is created through which a piece of literature is seen. Reading with the grain or against the grain are inter-related areas but they don't get diluted because there is no definitive judgmental approach while teaching.
DV: If you had to make a binary choice, how would describe your own poetry? Traditional or avant-garde?
AS: When Thomas Wyatt and the earl of Surrey (Henry Howard) introduced the Petrarchan sonnet form from Italy into England, it was avante-garde. Now sonnet is traditional. When William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote "The Lyrical Ballads," it was something radical. Now it falls within the tradition of English Literature. When I started writing like a typical renaissance child I started by imitating the masters. But at some point I broke from tradition. Although I did not write something as unorthodox as say "The Waste Land" or "Howl" or have a standout style in ouevre like that of Charles Simic, my passage was seamless. I am still in the process of growing a style which is a combination of various influences. It is this distinctive combination that is avante-garde though individual elements may come from tradition. So yes, I write avante-garde poetry but I see them as becoming part of tradition too.
DV: Would it be possible for you show us one of your poems and discuss its contents? In what way is it traditional? How is it non-traditional?
AS: Sure... here is a recent poem of mine.
The Last Tea
After the funeral of the leaves
I see a bird on the rock,
a butterfly, a river,
sound of gurgling water
fading as I leave.
Thoughts become dragonflies,
fly over trees.
Who shall come back to them,
like a squirrel amongst the greens,
if not me?
Too much is left behind
and the smell of what never has been.
The lost smoke from the oven
and the last tea.
This poem is a farewell poem about a place I was leaving. It starts in the imagistic mode with the depiction of a series of visual images. But in the fourth line of the first sentence the auditory sensation is introduced almost as if a kind of synaesthesia is at work. The fifth line which ends the sentence ends with the word "leave" echoing the last word of the fisrt line "leaves". It marks a completion of the thought. Then through the imagery of dragonflies flying over trees thoughts are visualised emanating from the mind. There is a surfeit of "e" sounds around this portion of the poem marking a harmony. And in the eighth line starts the question - "Who shall come back to them..." The poem is in fourteen lines but it has no apparent element of a traditional sonnet and yet intrinsic in its structure of free verse there are remnants of tradition. There is no pause or caesura in structure but definitely there is one in the thought process. A discening reader will pause at the opening of the rhetorical question in the eighth line, which gets answered in the ninth line. Does it not faintly remind you of Milton's sonnet "On His Blindness" where the question raised at the end of the octave is answered in the beginning of the sestet through a run-on line? Obviously, I was not conscious of this when I was writing the poem but definitely as I look at it now I feel the canonical literature ingrained in me flows out unconsciously into my avant-garde compositions. The question along with its allied imagery is almost Tagorean (I was in Bolpur, Santiniketan, near the Sal river when I composed this) but also Wordsworthian. The question ends with a self-reference where the poet intrudes within his poem but only to accentuate the leaving: "Too much is left behind". And then another faculty of sense is evoked - the faculty of smell, the smell of "what never has been". The evocation of embodied senses of vision, sound, and olfaction is almost Keatsian. This combination of romantic and modernist elements creates a sense of undecidability which is distinctively postmodern. Thus the poem emerges from known genres of poetry but is a species in a class of its own. This is very much evident in the imagery in the last two lines which is in a statement but not in a full sentence. The sequence of "leaves", "leave", "left" culminates in "lost" with multiple connotations/ interpretations. These layerings make the poem rich. Just as the smoke fades so too does the place, its memory, and the poem leaving behind a lingering taste alluded to in the last tea. One more sense, the faculty of taste, is now evoked. This becomes a very sensuous poem and yet it does not consistently maintain any traditional trope. There is no rhyme structure apart from a few slant rhymes but the musicality is not lost. There is no meter in the lines and yet there is a sense of rhythm. The poem transcends its category of being a farewell poem into being a poem of poetic creation but there is nothing new in that. And yet it brings in newness by presenting a combination of traditional things in a new way, very much like the combination of short and long lines. The poem is not radical in the sense that it breaks boundaries but it does modify boundaries and in that sense it is avante-garde.
DV: Although I'm not prepared to make a full-throated explication, on a casual reading I see allusions to the Holocaust, particularly in the last few lines ("Who come back to them, like an unclean animal in the greens" -- squirrels are not kosher, according to Jewish dietary laws; the ovens of Auschwitz and the horrible smells of burning flesh. The leaves did at the end of the year....) I don't present this as an account of what the poem "means," but as an example of how good poems often connote possible connections that may not have even occurred to their author. (Of course, this kind of interpretation can be taken too far! It's a big part of the reason poetry turns off a lot of readers -- because they have been taught to believe it means something other than it says!) As a teacher and a critic, what do you think about this sort of feree-wheeling word associattion? Does it have a role?
AS: I believe that most good poems have at least three layers of interpretations. First the personal which is rather elusive, second the social which is allusive and third the artistic which is exclusive, something that distinguishes the poem in style and aesthetic value. But once a work of literature is created it has a life of its own amongst the readers. Hence, the readers can have a multiplicity of interpretations and the poem should yield to that. Some interpretations may be tenable and accepted by others and some might be a bit outlandish. When a poet writes a poem the semantics of the poem brings its own history and hence a lot of unconsciously generated meanings enter the domain of interpretation. It is more than just free-wheeling word association. It has to have a literariness to it.
DV: I know, of course, that English is one of India's official languages and that India has a strong tradition of English poetry. Do you write in another language as well? (I'm tempted to ask, "Do you write as well in another language?")
AS: Occasionally I have written in another language like Bengali, Hindi and even Urdu but that is very rare. I find it comfortable writing in English because I studied English as first language. Most of my thinking I do in English. I lack adequate vocabulary, registers, knowledge of literary tradition, and expertise in other languages. Language was born to connect but human beings often use languages to divide them. The question of writing equally well in another language is subject to time and practice. Proficiency can usually be decided in retrospect.
DV: Does a poem usually simmer and sizzle within before it boils out, or does it just spring unbidden into being, or do you treat poetry writing like a factory job with regular schedules and routines?
AS: All the cases you point out happen though the frequency of a poem coming unbidden and spontaneously composed is more than the rest. But there are times say when I have to compose on a prompt or in a particular form then even though I vaguely know what to write the how to write part requires a simmering period. Sometimes it may so happen that I am busy with some other work when a line starts haunting me. I keep on adding lines in my mind. The actual composition takes place when I get time to write it down. Regarding the maintenance of a regular schedule it is also somewhat true because I wake up early in the morning and expect a poem to come to me. Often it does, often the scribbling of the previous day is refashioned into a poem and sometimes nothing happens. When nothing happens then I recall an emotional memory. Sometimes it works, sometimes doesn't. So it depends on the mood even if a factory schedule is maintained. Poetry is an art form and a poet needs to hone his/her skills. This comes through practice, reading and life experiences. If it is not taken as an artistic pursuit then there is the danger of one stagnating as a hobby poet and not progressing further. Obviously there are exceptions. But I believe that to impart literariness to something one has to have talent as well as know the craft.
DV: I find that a lot of contemporary poetry is lacking in "craft," even though it may impart a very powerful message. Is that your impression, as well? Or is the craft involved in "free" verse too subtle for easy decipherment?
AS: Poetry is like water, it takes its own shape. And if it is poured into a particular vessel it will take that form. Writing in free verse is the act of not pouring it into a vessel. But poetry is not the vessel, it is the substance that is being poured. So even if someone is writing in free verse, aspects like rhythm, metaphors and all other ingredients of a poem will be there. All the components have to come unconsciously into a poem and it can happen only if the poet has imbibed them within his/her subconscious. For example, a poem is so much about hearing it and a poet intuitively arranges the words in a sequence of particular sound which is not possible without a large vocabulary. The question about "contemporary" poetry can be seen more clearly in retrospect. Who were the poets of our time only the future can tell best. But if we see the current milieu then it is true that there is a lot of message-poetry. But just as the currency of the messages fades out so too will those poems. A few will outlive their time because those will be found to have craft and it is always subtle.
DV: English poetry began in England even before there was an English language (Old English is actually Anglo-Saxon, which was merely a German dialect). As the British Empire grew, English poetry spread globally. Irish poets were an important contingent within the tradition, but they were part of the empire until a century or so ago, and various former colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa...) have their own English literary traditions, though few of their poets achieve widespread attention. The main exception, of course, is the US, which has become the co-leader of English writing. What about India? Do you think it is poised to form a troika of English poetry, with the US and the UK, or is it likely to remain something of a backwater like other former possessions?
AS: This is difficult to answer. I believe the electronic propinquity of the postmodern world will make poets from all over the world form a community. Geographical signifiers like US or UK or Indian will be just one source of identity amongst others. By virtue of sheer number of English-speaking people in India, which also has its strong poetic traditions in native languages, and aided by the increasing importance of the country as an emerging economy, India has the potential to form the troika you mention. You see poets like Vikram Seth and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and more such-like will emerge. The probability is high. Perhaps a new Tagore for the Western world and India will join with the UK and the US. Currently I can only say that at the critical level there is promising groundwork.
DV: Perhaps it might be you! Has your scholarly work on the Indian Diaspora shed any potential light on the development of India's poetic role?
AS: Hah, hah... that's being optimistic. Interestingly my work on Indian diasporic literature concentrates on fiction and not poetry. That was during a phase of my life when I was more of a story writer than a poet. Actually diasporic Indian poetry has not made a mark in the world as diasporic Indian novels have done. We all know that Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer for fiction but how many know that Vijay Sheshadri too won the Pulitzer but for poetry? Regarding India's "poetic" role, it is still a development in the process and I have not delved into it from a perspective of a diaspora scholar.
DV: Is there anything new on your poetry front?
AS: My first collection of poems titled Balconies of Time is being published by Hawakal Publishers in November 2017. I am excited about it.
DV: As you should be! Under the circumstance, It's been indeed a special pleasure talking to you. Before we end, though, I have a question that isn't actually about you. I'm just curious. A century ago Rudyard Kipling was probably the world's most important writer, but his reputation has precipitously declined since then. How would you describe his reputation in India?
AS: Rudyard Kipling has elements of racism in his works and his classics will not find favour in Indian academia. And since in India classics are mostly prescribed in college and university syllabuses, his absence will naturally dip his popularity. But he finds favour as a children's and young adult writer with the story of Mowgli in "The Jungle Book" and the poem "If". But many popular writers of their own time don't stand the test of time and hence lose their importance. Only time can tell where one stands in the long run. It was indeed a pleasure for me too to answer your incisive questions. Thank you for drawing me out.