Poetry makes nothing happen

Poetry makes nothing happen

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 25 November, 2017
Poet and novelist C.P. Surendran speaks to Bhumika Popli about the travails of the writing life in a culture that measures literary talent against the bogus yardsticks of Facebook likes, award tallies and lit-fest appearances.

To begin with poetry: take us through your writing process. Do you get certain impulses about the things you observe? Impulses that make you feel the compelling need to take notes then and there? Or do you take a more considered approach, like Philip Larkin, who famously worked on a single poem for several years?

A. I don’t take too long to write a poem— if, again, I am in that frame of mind. A day or two at the most. There are exceptions. In Available Light, the opening poem is “A Note to the Self From Tranquebar”. Well, it took me about three months to get it right. And maybe 40 drafts. But this, as I said, is not always the case. A poem is how words form an unlikely pattern about a familiar thing or a feeling, a pattern which was not there till you thought it up. You created it. And the thing is no longer familiar. 

Some of my earlier poems (some of the Gemini II ones) were written without revision. They got sort of written, I guess. I used to keep a sheet of paper always rolled in the typewriter then. It could come anytime, you see? It’s innocence as much as luck, I guess. Innocence because you never thought for a moment, anything you wrote had ever been written before. A poem is normally born in that state of innocence. Some people might call it arrogance, too. Those who think it arrogance get to run festivals and shoddy but carpeted publishing houses. Luck, because you have to survive your experiences.

Q. How important is it for a poet to regularly read other poets? And how does a poet, who has to develop his unique voice, guard against being too strongly influenced by the stalwarts of the past?

A. I am not much of a reader. Even the little I read, I am not looking always for the whole picture. I am looking for a line or a word, and the crooked way a stanza straightens itself. I’m looking for something so I could be misled into my own thing, into a world where I am free, so I can feel safe and superior to the those who are networking like mad to get an award or a fellowship or a grant, safe and superior because I can, I delude myself, stand their world on its head by a turn of phrase.

But, in general, the more you read the better—provided you know roughly what nourishes you. I am not sure if your voice is something to be guarded. Often your voice is despite you. It is yours, because it’s what you are, and most experiences you live through only go to sculpt it. As for stalwarts of the past, you need, I believe, to exercise some violence and kill them again and again, so you can breathe free, free of their smothering fragrance.

Q. Available Light includes your writings from the last decade. How do you think you have changed as a writer during this span? 

A. I have changed a little less than the world at large. In the last decade or so, the great difference that the world has undergone is that it enjoins you, through millionaire inner-engineering gurus and a technology that seeks to subvert humanity itself, to love yourself even more than your parents did when they were young. In their age, there was more revolt perhaps, and failure. Now we have more with it and victoryThese days even rockstars don’t kill themselves. Is self- love a bad idea? No, it is just a very uncreative one. Nothing much comes out of sex with the self. 
Or the selfie.  

The philosophy of the selfie is that you are good enough to be photographed at all times; in fact, round the clock. Wake up in the morning, shoot. You have become that rare thing, the thing that you have always aspired to be: a celebrity; all you need is a camera phone. And you now have a better chance than ever to form a group that will celebrate you. Narcissus Inc. Actually, it’s a kind of Renaissance: you are the centre of the universe. Except that your universe has shrunk to an Instagram group.

That change has rubbed off on me, too, but perhaps to a lesser extent than a lot of fellow writers I know. I am more than ever aware of my awful shortcomings as a human being and a writer. I panic. I scramble to cover up: write some 20 poems in a fit of frenzy. Must do it all before I am too old, which is now. Before I turn blind. Before I am totally bald. Old. Dead. My need is all-engulfing; the need to appear as Can Do; the need to be seen as a good performer, not to be left out of the circus of festivals, of mutually endorsing groups. I guess I too am on the lookout for that perfect selfie, the light and angle just correct; the one I can keep retweeting with pride so others envy me albeit reluctantly. But, again, oh well, I can’t. Certainly not as much as I want to. I am still self-conscious. Still defensive. Still defiant. And I still feel like a loser. A misfit. I have no idea when I will ask the wrong question, bring the party to an early end. The world knows it. It’s exceptionally good at sensing that sort of thing. It can make out a spoiler from a mile off.  I am not on too many party lists, you understand. Or on fest schedules.

I said I am a misfit—of sorts; unable or reluctant to play the selfie game. The poems in Available Light are a kind of cover-up so the insufficiency of the change is not too visible. The poems are a fig leaf. Indeed Available Light is dedicated to “Those whom I served grief/In killer cups, raged naked and free/As the first man to their disbelief/Consider these words olive; fig leaf to me.//”

The craft and content of the poems seem to have changed though. It is not stiflingly personal all the time. The neuroses of the genuine “chronophobe” remain: death. Deep inside, despite the preponderance of glittering screens that reflect you everywhere, and as the gleaming robots plan quietly for the takeover, I am still that frightened, easily shamed 13-year-old boy, looking for something, someone, to hand myself over, and be irresponsible, ever ready to start all over again, and make the same damn mistakes—all over again. I need another go at life, in short. The poems are an approximation to that.

Q. Do you think that publishers in India take poetry seriously? Is there any particular approach a poet should take so that their works are well-received in the market, or at least are read by a committed minority?

A. There are exceptions in the publishing field. To me, Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger is a saviour of sorts. He has what I call an eye, and an ear: rare features in the publishing world. I am conscious of the fact that I am not a correct or pleasant personality. This is a problem certainly in a field like mine.  Most of the jury panels and prize committees are peopled by left-liberal women who haven’t lost out on a single discount deal. And men who aspire to be like women so they appear cool. I am generally perceived as anti-women; that is only partly true; I am also anti-men. A wrong book is not easily appreciated, then. You can’t blame them. It’s a historical correction. But that doesn’t help me, does it? I have wronged no gender, nor a neutered cat. But a literary work is a space for well made wrongs. Recently, I was on the jury of a literary prize, and I had to use great restraint not throw out the kind of writers I personally dislike because they are so tame, and so, so whatever... Unless you are on guard, all of it—publishing—is so damn personal. You just try to give it the appearance of reason. That’s why if publishers and agents go on long leaves, the books will change for
the better.

In an industry dominated by correct people and correct politics, I often find my writings, both prose and poetry, have to be explained; it is as if the text itself is not enough. Footnotes have to be stapled to it. Many publishers would not agree with this assessment. They would tell you, it’s just the story: “I need to warm to it,” or “I was not passionately drawn to it.”  “It’s meandering.” Etc. Maybe. These are the same people who swear by A. Roy’s latest offering and Rushdie’s annual disasters. To my mind, this literary “I” is mostly about politics and what they conceive to be as “market”. Those two factors prevent them from running away from their heads.

I do not set much store by too many conventions. My characters in fiction, like my obsessions in poetry, are not heart-warmingly correct either. The novel in India , and perhaps abroad—(I find 90% of the novels coming out from abroad, after all that great and arduous filtering process, monochromatic, boring stuff; that includes A Horse Walks Into a Bar, or Lincoln in the Bardo; I find Raymond Carver beautiful. Ditto Tobias Wolff; or the poet Charles Simic.)—is generally not seen as a very fluid form. The publishers, except for a few brave ones, have a certain received sense of it: it must sound like “something”. Mine doesn’t, or so I believe. So with every novel I have to begin all over again. There are many novelists who meet that condition of sounding like a novel. They get by pretty well too.

That’s the general scene as I perceive it. Now, the trouble is, much the same kind of metrics go into poetry. Fortunately, there are not enough editors in the publishing industry who understand it. I remember sending a couple of poems—or was it a whole bunch?—to an editor in one of your new big firms, and he said they were not up to the mark: the poems did not move him. 

Later I learned that the man was a boy, and that he had passed out of some journalism college and put in a year or so at yet another “normal” publishing firm. That shows how much the publishing industry respects a form of art that is central in any literate society to defining its culture. 

To reduce a state of being to a line or an image is not a question of a career or a prize. It’s a remarkable and rare talent. The British respect their poets. Strangely enough, so do the Americans, though now both countries believe, wrongly, that poets can be grown in creative-writing hothouses. Nothing in fact has damaged good writing so much as creative-writing courses. Because it’s the same professors who also double up as jury, a certain kind of writing is propagated and perpetuated as the correct writing. It wears the grey uniform of boredom.

In India, the publishers for the most part are ignorant about poetry. That ignorance affords a great number of acute problems. Because they are not tuned in, the few who write good poetry are not promoted.  As a result, if you ask a publisher abroad who are the good Indian poets, he will reach for his whisky. He doesn’t know. Is that stupid? Only partly. But it’s fully philistine. There are any number of international poetry prizes on offer. Not one Indian publisher, as far as I know, has ever sent a volume of verse he reluctantly midwifed into being if only just to test the waters. Forget lobbying. 

It is a kind of literary philistinism; one expects that on full display in institutions like Sahitya Akademies (I have not seen the inside of one, as they do not believe I exist, and I have been around for decades now). But for editors who wax eloquent on cocktail circuits and literary festivals, a long cigarette held limply between the ring finger and the all-important middle one of one hand, and a nice glass of Tuscan wine in the other, to show their utter unconcern for poetry is proof that their idea of writing is one-dimensional. It would be literature if Jhumpa Lahri wrote it. It would be poetry, too, if Vikram Seth wrote it. Never mind that Vikram Seth is a far inferior , superficial poet to, say, someone like my late friend, Vijay Nambisan, who was a poet for a day, the day after his death, when some got to know he was after all born. All of it is such a colonial mindset. 

Available Light was written with a vengeance; some 100 poems in 16 months, I think. To me, often vengeance— and guilt— are ruling  passions. Very Biblical. Or Pulp Fiction-ish. Oh, well, what’s the difference? Yes, vengeance, now. To get back and tell the world that I am not dead yet. To say that loud and clear to those who have gone before me and those who come after me. To those who I feel may tend to write me off. I am around. Bloodied and muddied, and prizeless. But still around.  If Ravi had not accepted the work, or my friend Kanishka Gupta had not sold it to him, I would be in a bad place indeed. Imagine going around on bended knees to the new-gen publishers, and few old ones too, saying, please, I am a poet, a poet!  It almost reads like, “Unclean, unclean!” I learned later that Jerry Pinto recommended me discreetly, and that Ranjit Hoskote, who has written the foreword to the collection, also wrote to Ravi. This is hearsay. But if it’s true, I owe them three. But to recognise that the sword of one’s literary career dangles over one’s head by such thin threads. ..

Q. In your tribute to your friend, the poet Vijay Nambisan, included in this book, you have portrayed him as a carefree writer. Then again, there are writers who primarily write for certain readers and shape their writing according to the taste of those readers. How careful, or carefree, are you about who your readers are and how your works are read?

A. Vijay was not carefree. But he knew his priorities. I am a more mixed-up character. Perhaps a little more vain, more ambitious, more depressive, too. And in a strange way, he was also lucky. But I wouldn’t want to explain that here.

Ah, the reader. It’s only now that I am really conscious of this entity called the reader. In India, there are few readers for poetry, though most are secret poets themselves. But of late, no more virginally innocent, I am also keenly aware that poetry is also a kind of competition. You write a good poem; or so you think. Well, where is the prize then? 

The sad fact is I am incapable of writing prize poems. A prize poem is a totally complete thing. With a proper beginning, middle and end. I am more into fragments that heavily depend on almost the last word to make sense of the rest. It was Paul Celan who said the poem coming across its ideal reader is like shaking hands with a friend. Well, most of ours are on Facebook, no?

“The philosophy of the selfie is that you are good enough to be photographed at all times; in fact, round the clock. You have become that rare thing, the thing that you have always aspired to be: a celebrity; all you need is a camera phone. And you now have a better chance than ever to form a group that will celebrate you. Narcissus Inc. ”

Q. How do you manage to switch between various literary forms, such as poetry, scriptwriting, the novel, and journalism? Which do you find the most comforting as a writer, and which the most challenging?

A. I think scriptwriting is a most curious version of the written word. Very often what the producer or the director gives you is just one line. And then you come up with, say, 100 scenes, every one of which must either develop the character or the plot. Often, too, a scene is just one line. Or an image. The writer is heavily dependent on the actors. My first—I am working on my second movie, though I have done three or four scripts or treatments—movie, directed by Anant Mahadevan, was an eye opener. More than three or four sentences in one conversation bit, and you get to realise that it’s too much in a character’s mouth. 

And when a greatly talented actor—and highly underappreciated—like Vinay Pathak assays the main role as in Gaur Hari Dastaan, the pauses between the words, the clasping of the hands behind one’s back, all alter the meaning of the scene. In short, scriptwriting, unlike fiction or poetry, is a collective effort. So many people contribute to its final effect. 

Fiction and poetry are, shall we say, relatively inhuman. No, that is not quite correct. Fiction is cruel. It is like you are adrift on a stormy sea. But you have left the shore far behind, and now the moon is so large and close rising out of the water, dripping wet, you might as well enjoy its terrifying beauty. You have no clear idea where exactly you are headed. In a script you must know the end before you start writing. I think I find poetry the easier to write—provided I am in that frame of mind. So much of poetry is about what’s not there. Charles Simic’s poetry, to me, is an accumulation of absences adding up to a presence: the poem itself. Absences come fairly easily to me for some reason.

Q. Have you ever written, or attempted to write, in Malayalam, which is, technically, your mother tongue? 

A. No. Malayalam is a very tough language, not just because it has 56 letters (may be more now, with all those splitting of typefaces etc; I have no idea why they complicated it), but because it is just not as rich as English. It has seen no great wars. It has not witnessed no great and extended acts of cruelty practised down the ages say by a colonial language like English. It has not suffered enough. It doesn’t know enough. It has missed out great political and industrial revolutions. It can’t in one word, contain. For me, that is. Of course, I was not aware either of its strengths or its limitations when I started out. English just seemed then as now the right paddle, though no one gets out of the creek clean or alive.

Q. In many of your poems, I see references to, and multiple interpretations of, death. What keeps you hooked to the theme of mortality? 

A. Well, you are born. Why? The old, correct answer is, to die. But if it is so correct, why is that final parting such a source of mystery and grief? Death puts everything in perspective. A bronze vessel still on the table. An orange slowly going off. A cow vigilante believing in his god and hoping for the best by means of an iron rod. It’s all so four-letter sad. Billions have died before you rehearsing the act, often, right in front of you. Yet and yet. As I keep saying, one way to read my poems is as a long farewell to everything. We are all going away from each other all the time. In any case, if you are going to pop it and you have no idea when, it would take a bit of a clown to compulsively celebrate the falling of the axe begun before your birth. Besides I am diagnosed as clinically depressed. I have dopamine for breakfast. Same for dinner.

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