Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Jess Thayil

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Jess Thayil

Jess Thayil

is working to complete a first collection of poetry. Her poems have appeared in Magma Poetry, The Stinging Fly, Ink Sweat And Tears, Black Bough Poetry, AbstractMagazineTV, Potomac Review and Whale Road Review.

The Interview

  1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I started writing poems 8 years ago around the same time I started to train in long distance running. While I’ve been working on poetry actively since then, for the most part, I managed to write poems and edit them in tiny scraps of time outside work. For the last couple of years, after my health deteriorated, I’ve had to give up work and running. So I’ve been focused more avidly on writing poetry and on some abstract painting even as my health conditions continue to be challenging to manage.

As for why I started writing poetry, I don’t really know and that might sound odd considering many poets have a defining reason or two. But the truth is that it felt right to return to it after a long break. (I last wrote and won awards in poetry while in school and university). Of course, I didn’t write strong poems 8 years ago because I was very out of touch with contemporary poetry. It took me a while to get into the groove because poetry wasn’t the only thing on my plate. But it felt like a nice challenge at the time to begin reading contemporary poetry, hone my own craft and work towards a first book. I’m happy I stuck with it.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I was introduced to a little poetry in school and then more of it at university as part of English Literature study. As much as I enjoyed those classes, I don’t remember loving poetry as I do now. Contemporary international poetry is a diverse and vibrant space. You ask about my ‘introduction’ to poetry, and while I will rattle off some names for you, that ‘introduction’ is ongoing.

When I started to write poems 8 years ago, I invested in the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets edited by Jeet Thayil. It’s still available from Bloodaxe Books and is a hugely vital anthology for anyone anywhere who wants to read English poetry from India. Back then I also read and continue to enjoy Eunice de Souza (passed away in 2017), Meena Alexander (passed away in 2018), Vijay Nambisan (passed away in 2017) and the late Dom Moraes. Contemporary Indian poets like Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Tishani Doshi, Keki Daruwalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Jayanta Mahapatra, Ranjit Hoskote and Jeet Thayil continue to be my introduction to poetry. I’m only stopping with those names because the list of contemporary Indian poets everyone, ideally, should read is (wonderfully) long!

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

I don’t know if I have a perfect answer to this question. If you mean, was I aware of Yeats, Keats, Tennyson, Eliot… yes. But while I dip into their works from time to time, contemporary and international poetry is way more interesting to me. So, to answer your question in relation to contemporary poetry, both ‘dominance’ and ‘older’ has a mixed significance for me. People can be dominating voices with or without poetry today if they use social networks in a way that happens to click and then that continues to attract large numbers of followers. And today, we can start to write poems while ‘older’ or be younger with multiple books in our names — age is practically irrelevent in some ways, is it not? Technology and platforms are more relevant.

From what I can see, ‘dominance’ has a lot to do with network-led reach. We could say Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav are dominant. But so are Jericho Brown, Maggie Smith and many others. It seems to me that some contemporary poets who dominate social media use the services of digital marketing agencies. It’s perhaps advantageous, in some ways, for poetry as an art form that anyone can have a sizeable platform- and network-enabled reach if they want to work for it

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I read some poetry everyday whether or not I work on my poems everyday. I’m also developing a practice in abstract and mixed media art — another reason I don’t write everyday. But most days, I’m in negotiations with myself on what a poem or a set of poems needs to lose and what I will keep. I’m gearing up to have a full manuscript ready and that means I’m currently busier with editing old poems than writing new ones.

I did set a target for myself at the start of 2019 to write one new poem a month, and I’m on track with that so far. And because I also deal with the uncertainties of chronic illness, I don’t set a rigid daily routine. Instead, I target to finish a few different things related to writing/poetry in a week, and this seems to help me get enough done even with those personal challenges.

5, What motivates you to write?

On motivation for my writing:

I’m always interested in the agency and capacity of individuals to effect a revolution in their lives. And I think about how that speaks into the collective. I believe even an individual who finds herself without a ‘community’ is speaking into the collective as well as bolstering its arguments and affirmations. I’m drawn to how women navigate the world at this point in the history of time.

My first manuscript will have a lot of that. But everything motivates me — birds, buildings, bones, hands, humans coughing and sneezing, unwashed dishes, windows, wells, worms… everything.

6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

If you mean poets specifically, I wish I could say I was hugely influenced by the ones I had to read in school or in my undergraduate programme in India. But I recall we read white male poets and only a meagre number of women, white or coloured. Even the fiction I read as a hobby when I was growing up in India was written by white authors too. It feels more accurate to say that what I didn’t read then, and what no one guided me to read, has in one way or another, more of an influence on me now.

I read poetry by Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Das (aka Kamala Suraiyya) so many years after leaving school and university. Their work is representative of strong voices in Indian poetry and I’m now amazed they were not in our literature texts. I remember one of Nissim Ezekiel’s poems featured in a textbook and then we never heard of him again. And not a single poem by poets like K Satchidanandan or Arun Kolatkar in a literature textbook at university. We never had to write essays on India’s English language poets but we handed in a number of assignments on poets like John Milton and John Donne. This scenario likely prevails to this day. So all that underrepresentation has influenced me more than anything else — I now want to read more Indian poetry in English, even translations from our regional languages, or read in regional languages as I write more poetry in English myself.

7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I’m currently reading Glen Wilson’s An Experience On The Tongue. What I enjoy about Glen’s poems is that they contain distinct worlds in each of them and that bigness is expertly sustained by grounding images and local references. (I feel the same way about Seamus Heaney’s poems). I’ve also enjoyed Nathan McClain’s collection Scale for its buzzing units (poems) that somehow achieve the feat of heart-tuggery while simultanoeusly having a settling effect on me. Between a hawk and a young girl’s ‘entanglements’ with each other, they are (for me) not just leading images and metaphors in Maggie Smith’s collection Good Bones, but also the reason why Maggie’s poems feel tethered while also enabling me to feel all the swooping flight in them. I want to read a lot of Maggie’s work, past and future. Ricky Ray’s collection Fealty contains poems of reflection and meditations on pain, but some of them have an assured way of granting a reader like me the light of little unexpected jokes as they travel towards their finish lines. I enjoy what Kelli Russell Agodon does with the sea and love in Hourglass Museum, I enjoy her questions, and I’m keen to read more of her work.

I like to re-read Heidi Williamson. Her poems are confident neat arrangements and they have a way of fixing you in place without force. She’s another poet whose worlds I can get lost in and you may understand what I mean especially when you read The Print Museum. I also tend to re-read Louise Glück and John Glenday nearly every year now. Louise’s long poems in Averno and many of John’s compact poems in both Grain and The Golden Mean having a way of defining and redefining for me what a good reading day feels like. I read the work of many Indian poets over and over — I’ve mentioned their names earlier. In general, because I write poems, and I know what I want them to try and achieve, I enjoy reading poets whose language is clear and simple while their poems aren’t easy. To me, there’s huge value (and I’m learning more about this everyday) in poetry that can say things directly while also inviting the reader to contemplate how a single line or fragment can point to multiple meanings each time you read a poem — I enjoy poems that keep on giving.

8. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

To enjoy it. And if something makes me enjoy it less, I retreat and do more of the other things I enjoy, like painting or cooking, and then what feels like a natural pull of writing puts me back on course. I operate like the sea. More like a wave. I try to enjoy being a wave.

9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Write. As regularly as you can. And if you’re not writing just for yourself and you aim to be read, get used to revising and editing your work, show your work to other writers who can comment constructively on your writing and help you polish up your work.

10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’m working to complete a first collection of poems. I’m also working on a first novel, but I don’t expect this to progress in a hurry. I’m all right with a novel taking 5 or 10 years or longer. Because after 8 years of attempting poems, poetry takes up much head and heart space.
For me, the writing life includes reading poetry by other debuting and emerging poets. Reading helps me think about poetry and its function as well as place in the world. That could lead to some essays, or not. I hope to continue to write poems beyond a first manuscript, whether or not I have a first published book of poetry to my name, and whether or not I manage to write anything outside poetry.

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