Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Amit Shankar Saha

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.

Amit Shankar Saha

is a widely-published award-winning poet and short story writer. He has won the Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature, Wordweavers Prize (both for poetry and short story), Nissim International Runner-up Prize for Poetry. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Griffin Poetry Prize. His works have been included in Best Indian Poetry 2018 anthology. He has been a delegate writer at Sahitya Akademi and Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival amongst other literary festivals. He is the co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets, Assistant Secretary of Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Fiction Editor of Ethos Literary Journal and Chief Executive Editor of Virasat Art Publication. His debut collection of poems is titled “Balconies of Time” and his latest collection of poems is titled “Fugitive Words”. He has co-edited a collection of short stories titled “Dynami Zois.” He has a PhD in English from Calcutta University and teaches in the English Department of Seacom Skills University. His articles, stories and poems have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and anthologies nationally and internationally like Ann Arbor Review, Entropy Magazine, The Winnow Magazine, Harbinger Asylum, Tuck Magazine, I am Not a Silent Poet, Duanes PoeTree, Queen Mobs Teahouse, Le Simplegadi, International Times, Oddball Magazine, The Wagon Magazine, Shot Glass Journal, Cha: an Asian Literary Journal, Kitaab Magazine, Asia Writes, The Cauldron, The Pangolin Review, Hakara Journal, Estrade Magazine, Four Quarters Magazine, Coldnoon, Muse India, Palki, The Leaky Pot, Kritya, Writing Raw, Learning and Creativity, Dissident Voice, Different Truths, Indiaree, Hall of Poets, IPPL Journal, Journal of Bengali Studies, Desi Journal, Desilit Magazine, Boloji, Rupkatha, Langlit, Diplomatist, Asian Signature, Setu Mag, The New Indian Express, The Statesman, etc.

Author of “Balconies of Time” and “Fugitive Words”
Blog: http://amitss6.blogspot.in
Website: http://sites.google.com/site/amitshankarsaha

Co-founder, Rhythm Divine Poets

The Interview

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.

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