Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: “Hibiscus: poems that heal and empower”, edited by Kiriti Sengupta, Anu Majumdar and Dustin Pickering

Hibiscus Cover

1. How does poetry heal?

In the introduction to Hibiscus, I wrote: “Can poetry heal us? Of course, it does. The importance of healing and the power of the spirit can never be hyped or ignored, for it is as integral to our living as breathing.” So, I understand where the question comes from. Art heals in more than one way. It can disturb us, and thus, prepares us to address the concerns on our own. And at times, art makes us feel good.

Nevertheless, poetry, like other expressions of art and culture, stimulates our nerves, or the brain, to be precise. There is no point in explaining how the brain receives and processes the impulses. I’ll quote George Harrison: “It’s all in the mind!” Rhythm, not necessarily rhyming, and the contents of poetry help convey the stimulus to the brain. Let me cite an example: the Vedic verses (the shlokas) are chanted even now to boost mental and physical wellbeing.

Kiriti Sengupta

Poetry is capable of cauterizing wounds where the language is most pertinent. Language is the human capacity to challenge and evade reality on grounds of its unreality. It can create worlds where reality meets our expectations or where we are met with ourselves in such a light that we recognize Caliban’s face in the mirror of literature, Our hideousness is before us, as in Plath’s “Tale of a Tub” where “the stranger in the lavatory mirror” both encapsulates humanity in truth and also beautifies the ugly through sublimating its presence in life. Poetry is the sublime capacities of language, emboldened by fears and hopes held in human hearts, which serve as a kind of escapism but also as revelation. Poetry reminds us in so many ways that God is present within or that the divine spark within us can speak. Poetry confounds boundaries of the recognizable and intuitive reality shaped by forces beyond our control. It exists on the liminal dreamscape of communication and human yearning.

The feeling compelled in poetry speaks volumes more than much of what is written in prose. Because it can transcend storylines, plot barriers, restricted flow of thought, or the everyday process of life it has the ability to flood into the mind with subtle healing. The art of crafting poetry offers surprises and helps victims contextualize the things hurting them. People see things differently when they write about them. Writing helps trauma victims safely face their private tragedies, and as a form of self-communication poeticizing unveils histories and allows us to see things much differently than we had before. It also opens us up to discussing things we are afraid to discuss openly because it creates a distance between us and the subject at hand.

Even though the world holds the suffering of the greatest poets in front of us, might we consider that poetry became their armor rather than caused their turmoil? Plath, again, wrote from her domestication troubles and mythologized from histories and folklore to show us how deeply personal the human experience is. The most minute details of life can be memorialized in poetry, thus poetry acts as memory as well.

Dustin Pickering

2. How does poetry empower?

Empowerment precedes healing. Honestly, when I conceived Hibiscus, I was particularly keen on curating poems that addressed healing. Anu Majumdar, one of the associate editors, proposed “empowerment.” It was an eye-opening moment. Where does healing lead to? As a clinician, I can tell you, healing is not all about back to normalcy, or in other words, restoration of the state of being. Healing imparts strength. It renders authority. Post-extraction, the edentulous gum gradually turns hard to aid in chewing, and at times, it rejects prosthesis. Empowerment is a spontaneous phenomenon. It exposes us to more injuries—a lot more scratches. You know, wounds are impressive: they bleed, itch, ache, and enlighten. What about the laceration of the soul? It is invisible but never ceases to make its presence felt at every crucial juncture. The resultant scar is the real master who teaches us the essence of healing and, thus, empowerment.

Poetry empowers us the same way as it heals. One must remember, healing is an essential prerequisite to real empowerment.

Kiriti Sengupta

In lieu of my previous remarks regarding healing, poetry presents us with the specter of death, the prospect of Becoming, and reminds us of imminent loss. By wrestling with mortality, poetry restores the human mind to hope and dream while embracing the possibility of change. Heidegger, though a designated fascist, once remarked that the poet ushers in a new state of being.

On a personal level, poetry can empower the same way it heals. When a person reads poetry, they engage in a body of thought and learn to see the world anew. This is the very meaning of death– letting go, opening to the New.

Dustin Pickering

Anu answers both questions:

How does poetry heal?

Both questions move between the inner and outer territories, between darkness and light, In the case of healing, poems negotiate grey zones of illness, death, fear or anger and often pole vault through spirit space like this haiku by Issa: In this world / we walk the roof of Hell / gazing at flowers. Beauty discovered or recovered is often the source of that healing, through a deeper wellspring of the soul or of nature as with the Romantics once. Hibiscus missed a contribution from Arundhathi Subramaniam by two weeks unfortunately. Here is a touch from her collection, “When God is a Traveller” – Not scripture, no, / but grant me the gasp / of bridged synapse…/ that allows words / to spring / from the cusp of breathsong, / from a place radiant / with birdflight and rivergreen. The Hibiscus anthology abounds in such flashes of tat radiant space and a will to break out into a healing breath at a time besieged and suffocated by the Covid-19. In The Virus, April 2020, Steve Denehan writes: this universe is empty of stars / is walls and ceilings / that we push outward / upward / inward. Or, it is an acknowledgement of another power that propels healing through an inner assertion, as in Claudine Nash’s poem: someone holds our uncertainty / at a distance which allows the masses to lift the waves and search the sand for hope. This is echoed differently in Sanjeev Sethi’s Inducement: His omnipresence/ erases the offensive. For Raja Chakraborty, healing is freedom regained through a dive inwards: The earth is breathing / Can you hear her… / Go inside…/ And when this night ends / Count the fallen stars / It took you so many light-years / To understand freedom. A freedom that not just heals but empowers. empowers.

How does poetry empower?

The empowering word looks at the sun, holds the light, it is almost an act of will, an act of greater breath, one could say, like Dylan Thomas’ : Do not go gentle into the good night / Rage, rage, rage, against the dying of the light. It can summarize the work of poets throughout time. That’s “All it Takes” as in John Grey’s poem: Sure, the night rolls round again. / But not for us. / We’ve been there./ We won’t let go the light. For Usha Akella, empowerment comes from being a witness, an active will, uttered from a distance: Unbridge the latitudes that arise from hate…/ We are here, we do not come to stay…/ Let our steps be the flight of doves, and let our roads be incense. And finally, Michael R Burch’s “Peace Prayer” – Be one with the buffalo…/ Lift your face to the dawning light, feel how it warms / And be calm/ Be still/ Be silent, content. The buffalo is an invocation of spirit power, in a world clearly in need of peace, though not stated here. The poem stands in the full glory of light, Lift your face to the dawning light. And there it finds its seated poise and empowerment.

3. Why do you think there are more descriptions of the natural world, plants, trees, gardens in the poems than the interior experience of home, hearth and kitchen?

I believe Covid-19 and the ongoing climate crisis are interwoven. The lockdown globally seems to have more effect on the natural environment than on us individually at home. While we grow restless in our homes, economic activity harming the environment is relaxed. Major offenders are transportation and waste.

The anthology is a response to coronavirus generally, and the healing of Nature from our negligence is a primary observation in the course of events.

Dustin Pickering

Nature holds the keys to all disorders. In an extreme crisis, people tend to adopt a holistic approach to life. The COVID-19 has not only impaired the world economy and mobility as well as the positioning of people, but it has also cautioned us to become sensible and diligent.

In a recent review of Hibiscus, Prof. Mosarrap H. Khan writes: “A young, audacious Pushkin found in the plague a way to defy death, a way to steal life faced with an unprecedented crisis. [Hibiscus] is no less audacious in its claim that poetry has a role to play in moments of collective crisis, a pandemic. Poetry ought to not only heal but empower us in uncertain times, enable an inward journey of self-consciousness, and make us rethink our way of life. As Sengupta writes: “Our Hibiscus will bloom amid corona infestation, self-isolation, unemployment, famine, and suffering. This anthology will comfort and rejuvenate the readers to step into a world that might not allow reckless lifestyles we were used to. Self-restraint comes with a price.””

“You see, what we claim to be a “new normal” isn’t really the “latest.” In ancient times we maintained close contact with Nature: with the progress of civilization, we severed the connection. We forgot our camaraderie. The pandemic allowed us to revisit the togetherness. Thus, the inevitable descriptions of the natural world in the poems.

Kiriti Sengupta

4. Often in this collection the poets speak of the divine, and prayers and praise and lifting up. Why do you think poet;s turn to religion at times like these?

I’m not sure it is only poets who turn to religion during these times, and I don’t think it is only during these times that we seek divinity. People of various faiths believe God is the supreme good, a being with omniscient qualities who has a plan for humanity. Poets are great revelators as I previously mentioned. I think part of healing and empowerment is recognizing that something eternal is on our side in spite of obstacles and wrongdoing. It keeps us strong and healthy. Such things aren’t only a matter of religion, but of a positive outlook. Learning to appreciate and share gratitude for what one lives and understands of life.

Dustin Pickering

Now, there is the catch: why poets turn to religion at these times can only be answered by them. I can’t speak for others. Poets are human beings in the first place, and this is a general tendency to involve the gods when one is in danger. My poem, “Gateway to God,” will address your query, hopefully. Note, the poem first appeared in The Earthen Flute (Hawakal Publishers, Feb 2016):

Prayers carry lives within.
They are expressions
our desires take refuge in.

For all worldly pleasures and fulfillment
we remain scared, perhaps.

Wishes are chanted with closed eyes
and we continue to live being frightened.

Like an inevitable death
an enormous God steps in.

In “Inducement” (Hibiscus, p 142), Sanjeev Sethi writes, “… What’s my catalyst / to keep on truckin’? / His omnipresence. / He erases the offensive.” You know, faith blooms in quietude—in isolation. The pandemic gives us another chance to seek divine intervention.

Kiriti Sengupta

5. Despite the alphabetical structure there is the surprise of an underlying shape to the content: An introduction to the pandemic, the experience of the pandemic, then the vision of a time after the pandemic, a hope for change and renewal. How correct is this as a reading?

That’s an interesting question. Perhaps a divine hand took part there. I don’t think it was intentional.

Dustin Pickering

We, the editors, have jointly penned the introduction, named “The Silver Lining.” It has a well-planned layout, and we were sure of what we would write for the piece. We thought Hibiscus wouldn’t be just the poems we’d curate. It should provide future readers about the perspective of this collection. We would eventually forget the pandemic, these difficult times, the crisis, and the COVID-19 would find a tiny place in world history. As editors, we accepted our accountability to record the vantagepoints. So, even after a few decades, when someone would read Hibiscus, s/he would understand what made these 104 poets write on “healing and empowerment.”

I hope you are aware that I conceived the anthology. I found it apt to write a post for my blog, The Straight Bat, which will inform readers, critics, and media about my motives. I named it, “Hibiscus—a palliative measure.” I had no intention of including it in the collection. However, the publisher’s (Bitan Chakraborty) insistence changed my mind, and after a few minor edits, the post turned into a preamble.

-Kiriti Sengupta

6. How did you choose what poems to include and what to exclude?

That would be a question for Anu and Kiriti who did the bulk of selecting. I promoted and invited poets I felt were of the calibre needed for this important book in crisis literature. My role has been one of promoter and adviser. I did not have much of a role in final selection.

Dustin Pickering

We had a set of guidelines we shared with the calls for submission. We sought shorter poems: the length shouldn’t exceed 14 lines. Although we made a few exceptions, we politely declined all submissions that weren’t related to the theme of the anthology. One hundred and fifty-six poets from across the world submitted to Hibiscus. We selected 104 of them.

-Kiriti Sengupta

7. What do hope the reader will leave with after reading “Hibiscus“?

I expect them to leave the book with a sense of hope. I also anticipate that the reader will be challenged to see healing and empowerment differently than sentimental tales convey. Healing is an arduous task, one fit for a warrior, and it applies to our world, our friendships, our families, our societies, and our art. The anthology sought to encompass a wide array of aesthetics from all over the globe. I hope the reader will find commonality in their own life with the overall feeling of what is expressed across these aesthetics.

=Dustin Pickering

Paul, we did our bit and sincerely. Now, I’ll love to listen to the readers instead.

Kiriti Sengupta


Copies of  “Hibiscus” may be bought here: Hibiscus: poems that heal and empower

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