Monday, April 4, 2016

Reena Prasad responds

Hi, I’m Reena Prasad, cat lover, bird watcher, learning parent and poet from India (which part of it is a question that has always stumped me). But now I have been living in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates for 15 years and it is still peaceful here despite me. (This is supposed to resemble a cocktail party flirtation so this is me hanging out with the fat kitty under the kitchen table). I think of myself as an extreme introvert and on certain great days even my thoughts are too loud for me although I have been known to offer coffee and biscuits to clueless visitors, startling them. Unless of course you are a cat. Now that can change things drastically. The things I love most in life are hanging out with myself, stalking birds, reading poetry, weekend family lie-ins, my favourite people -- my family -- scratching cats behind their ears and pretending to take pictures of people while secretly photographing birds on the trees behind them. I’ve been procrastinating doing my own poetry book for years, and I really love it. My idea of the perfect day would start with coffee, sun rise, silence and writing, then a long walk, talking to cat friends at the Corniche, cooking, writing, watering the three pots we have, fighting with the kids once they are back from school, more writing, reading in bed and falling asleep with a book while my husband swears at the accounting file on his laptop-- Merely an idea. Such ideas do not in fact change your life though television jingles say they do. Destiny Poets's UK gave me their best poet award last year in the hope that I would desist from spamming their pages, and to keep me occupied and prevent more damage to the Rejected Stuff Facebook group I was made an Editor of The Significant Anthology, a book that shocked me into writing more poems. (The guests are drunk. Now it is just me and kitty and the food.)

DV. I really admire your fresh take on writing poetry. How did you ever get started writing? And, in particular, why do you write poetry, of all things!

RP: It was in school in the 5th grade. The school magazine wanted kids to give poems to them. I am a girl, this is my school, we live happily at home and cry when the teacher breaks the rule ... poems of this kind. Wanting badly to change the world, I wrote my first poem. Since then, the world has miraculously bettered itself and I am left with free time to write more poems. Despite the early appalling poems, I enjoyed my secret vice so much that I continued to indulge in it, using the school desks and a geometry compass, math notebooks, hidden diaries, and my family, relatives or the kids I played with and befriended had no inkling that I was a poet. Most still don't know they have been living with one all this time. All I knew was that someday if I persevered, I would write something that I wouldn't be ashamed to show someone. The situation hasn't changed much but Mark Z has made it a lot easier to find similar crazy people whom you can safely bombard with poems and not lose them forever. Poetry mainly because the smoke generated inside the brain when the cogs turn can be transformed into clouds when put into words.

DV: Even your answers sound like some sort of spontaneous poetry! Have you ever had any interest in doing form-based poetry, or has your proclivity always been toward free verse?

RP: I try out different forms occasionally but they all start out as free verse and I find it easier to adapt them to a particular form in which they might read better. It is more of a way to experiment and try to master the form and have fun than serious poetry. Early poems used to rhyme vigorously but I have learnt to relax now. Haiku, Puente, Pantoum, Sestina are all forms I have written in. Trying out the Roseate Sonnet invented by Dr A. V. Koshy has also been a fun, learning experience. Here is a Sijo (Korean) for you:

You write of a blood-spattered heart that knows no respite from love
yet in solitude mine grows weary finding none seemly at all.
Can I be blamed for trying to steal the one you write about?

The Sijo is a tricky form that requires counting the syllables (mine has a total of 46, 15-16-15) and which if it lacks an internal rhyme, can easily slip into free verse. Also the lack of a title (which can often save a lot of words in a poem) and the twist in the second half of of the second line make it quite challenging. They were meant to be sung aloud I believe. I like my maiden mine but would have liked a curvier twist (grinning).

DV: I think you're right about the sijo's history, although "chanted"would be a more apt description than "sung." They were really rap songs! Originally "sijo" just meant the music. Its identification with a lyric form came much later. Actually. there were two streams in the sijo tradition. The Korean yongban (the aristocrats, courtiers, intelligentsia) developed it as a philosophical/religious vehicle, but there was a parallel development among the  kisaeng -- the professional female entertainers/courtesans (rather like the Japanese geisha). As you can probably guess, the second strain focused primarily on themes of love and carousing. Your example clearly falls in the second category.. Yet I know from other work on this site that you are capable of tackling more serious themes. Do you think the sijo form is too short to engage adequately with "deep thoughts"?

RP: I read up on the Sijo forms before I attempted one of my own. Something that held me enthralled was the lyrical quality of it and the music in the ones I read. I read quite a few lovely ones on nature and I did not set out to write a love sijo, it just happened. Yes, I do write on serious themes but am equally fond of less serious, more lyrical, imagery-strong themes too. No, the form isn't too short, in fact terse and concise, it might shine in the hands of more seasoned poets but at the first attempt, I couldn't do much more than have fun. This one here says so much. I think you may agree:

"Rivers, lakes, buoyant the gull is.
Unexpectedly, spittle spat
falls on the gull’s back.
O gull, do not be angry.
The ways of the world are filthy."
--Sijo song #93, Chong Ch’ol (McCann, Early Korean Literature, 53)

DV: Robert Frost said, "Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down" -- but he certainly wrote quite a bit of it, didn't he? I take a rather intermediate position. I appreciate the discipline that a regular poetic pattern imposes but dislike the forms that other poets prescribe. So I don't write much free verse, but I also rarely attempt a sonnet etc. When I lived in
Korea I discovered the sijo and enjoyed the flexibility-within-a-formal-structure that it allows but never wrote a successful one. Would you mind showing us what you've done with some of those other forms you mentioned?

RP: The form poems I mentioned were just experimental trials. I am all for trying one's hands at and learning things I don't know about. Not really sure if they are publish worthy.

DV: OK, let's agree that you don't acknowledge these as your best, mature work. But maybe we can use the opportunity to conduct a little writers' workshop. Let's see what happens. Would you like to start with the puente? The first and third stanzas have an equal number of lines, joined by a one-line bridge ("puente") which functions both as the last line of the first stanza and the first line of the next stanza (somewhat like a chain poem, where one poet's last line becomes the first line of another poet's continuation of the poem).

RP: All right, here's "Remnants":

A missed letter lay in a wooden box at her gate
A jasmine vine unfurled, weeping flowers at the haste
The house was empty, the memories had left
A broken promise loitered, alone, bereft

~There remains a not-so-sweet smell of forgotten love~

A brown crush of jasmine sleeps at your feet
The few I rescued from my hair lie on the crumpled sheet
The night meanwhile has ambled in, drunk, on all fours
and has stuck its cold feet in the crevices of a broken door

DV: You could have chosen any number of lines for your first and third stanza pairing, and you could have decided to use free verse or any kind of rhyme scheme you wished. Yet you used a quatrain composed of two couplets. Was there any reason for this?

RP: This puente was written as part of the NaPoWriMo we celebrated in the Rejected Stuff group on Fb. We were supposed to write one and the bridge seemed fascinating. When one is not familiar with a form, one slides back into a comfort zone and for me quatrains and rhyming couplets sort of come easy, for a lot of my earlier poems were naturally that. The flexibility in the number of lines is actually a greater challenge, for one can just keep rambling. It is a beautiful form and one that I would like to try sometime again.

DV: Why do you think he "greater challenge" is having flexibility? I imagine most folks would regard that as an advantage.
RP: Yes. I am talking about the time limitation. This puente was a surprise challenge during the NaPoWriMo exercise and to learn the form and write a passable one is easier when they say -- ok, do it in four lines or less. Less thought, less time to ruminate, less space to experiment and a faster poem but that is only because of lack of time. Otherwise flexibility is welcome. 

DV: Let's move on to your pantoum, another series of quatrains but this one recycles lines: the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next until the last stanzas, in which the first and third lines of the last stanza are the second and fourth of the penultimate one, so the first line of the poem is the last line of the final stanza, and the third line of the first stanza is the second line of the final one. Kind of tricky, isn't it?

RP: OK, then, here's "Climbing":

The humble tree can lead to the clouds
hung for you just out of reach
It is the worker who stands tall and proud
Firm footholds will find your feet

Hung for you just out of reach
The clouds will shade your bedazzled eyes
Firm footholds will find your feet
yet stubborn thorns will rent your leaves

The clouds will shade your bedazzled eyes
as you leave the ground beneath
yet stubborn thorns will rent your leaves
but there will be fields of golden wheat

As you leave the ground beneath
lift your gaze and aim for the skies
but there will be fields of golden wheat
the kind that greets the one who tries

Lift your gaze and aim for the skies
forget the fruits of the seed you did never sow
The kind that greets the one who tries
to hang his dreams on a stout rainbow

Forget the fruits of the seed you did never sow
It is the worker who stands tall and proud
to hang his dreams on a stout rainbow
The humble tree can lead to the clouds

I am not a fan of very abstract poems. I love it when they give me ample space and time to pause and let the words, images, sounds and their overall tone and beauty sink in even if they are mine. 'Climbing' was written because a few friends had posted quite musical ones that tempted me. There is an old-world feel in a good pantoum, a relaxed, slow movement, a music in its refrains. It is named 'climbing'so because apart from the content, when I read it aloud (as I do most poems), it turns into a sort of chant slowly ascending to a crescendo-- don't know if I appear to make sense but to me it does seem that way and the last line sort of completes the sloshing movement being the same as the first.
DV: A lot of standard English prosody had its origins in France or Italy, but the pantoum has Malay roots.  Do you think your Asian background has made you especially receptive to that form?

RP: I don't think so. English itself isn't our native language but I am fully aware that it is the only language in which I can express myself to some degree of satisfaction. The pantoum is attractive because it is meant to be a highly allusive form and one that lends itself to oral expression and not particularly because of its origin or mine.

DV: The repetitive verbal effect of a pantoum is very much like that of a villanelle. How did you set about  the composition? Did you write the first stanza and then use it to riff on the second stanza and then repeat that process from the second to the third? Did you plan a series of rhymes that you could deploy like lines of battalions? I'm just curious about the compositional mechanics of the thing.

RP: It was fun. I wrote the first stanza as you said trying to keep the end words simple. Then I made the rest of the stanzas blank, just filling in the repetitions  and wrote the last line of the poem (same as the first). Then filled in the 2nd stanza and added the repetitions to the third and then filled them up the same way. By the second stanza, a sort of storyline had emerged and then it was easy to round it up .

DV: A lot of your poems seem to have a back story to them, the details of which we readers are unfamiliar but which nevertheless we can intuit. The poem is like the visible tip of an iceberg, with the greater part of it below the surface. Is that part of your authorial strategy?

I would not term it as a strategy. It just happens to be the way I write. I start from the thing that is closest to me at a particular point of time or a thought that has been there in my mind for some time and try to analyse it by writing down and trying to pin point what it is that causes it to linger. As a result a poem or several poems come to be. I am an Indian citizen. My parents are from South India, Kerala, but I was born and brought up in Odisha (East India) but for fifteen years I am a non-resident Indian living in the United Arab Emirates. The cultural diversity,stark differences in the lifestyle, topography, language, climate and the extreme contrasts among all these places, all of which I call 'home,' results in such 'tip of the iceberg' poems. On bad days I call it identity issues, on good days, it is like having a platter to choose from. Most of the time, I guess it is just trying to capture something of my Indian childhood, particularly in Odisha and Kerala, which I cannot express otherwise, not having the requisite vernacular fluency in the different tongues of these places. Here in the UAE desert, a melting pot of world cultures and where splendour and poverty live as neighbours, I see India locked up inside the hundreds of flats in the innumerable sky scrapers, the moment a door is opened you get a whiff of it. It is all here, hidden under the sameness of wealth, cars and drab lives. Like people collect souvenirs or show pieces to remind them of home and lug it all over the world wherever they go, I collect moments, people, emotions and smells in my poems.

DV: Are there any English, Indian, Arab (or other) poets that have shaped your own poetic vision? (Not just as "great poets" but as actual models for you to emulate or to consciously avoid copying at all costs?)

RP: I used to read a lot of Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Rabindranath Tagore, the Bronte sisters, Auden, Robert Browning and a great deal of translated works of poets who write in Malayalam and no doubt it has influenced my poetry but actual models have been the poets I met after boarding the FB craft. Cannot name them all but my writing has undergone a sea change thanks to Dr. A. V Koshy, Prathap Kamath, Dr. Mary Annie, Dr. Madhumita Ghosh, Rukhaya MK, Zeenath Ibrahim, Ra Sh, Iulia Gerghei, Santosh Bakaya and many more. I am mentioning them because I have made a conscious effort to spruce my writing and strike out some conservative elements especially Romantic influences after reading them. Taking the best of their weapons and striking at my poems has helped me. All of them are fantastic poets with extremely different styles of writing. Naming is always problematic and often inadequate like this answer.

DV: Artistically, what do you have against the Romantics?

RP: Nothing against them at all. On the contrary, I am an ardent fan with an overwhelming conviction that it is the best kind of poetry to read and relish. Neruda, Ben Johnson, John Keats, Elizabeth Browning and Co. knew what they were doing But at the moment, my poetry is in an uncertain terrain, I am trying to work on avoiding sounding like a sloppy version of the old Romantics because quite a few of my older poems when read aloud are absolutely mortifying. I want to talk to myself  rationally about things that matter to me without consciously or unconsciously coating them with metaphors or beauty and not cringe while hearing myself speak. That is all.

DV: Do you have any idea what direction your poetry is taking, or is going to take?

RP: It is spontaneous. Mostly I have only a faint idea where the next poem is coming from, it is like doodling for a bit with inane words and basically hanging around till a circuit completes in my brain and then the poem just starts pouring. I know I want to write poems narrative/non-narrative that will delight and act as a small self-help manual for my kids or anyone reading them later on but somehow it is important to me that when they go into a book, they must make sense and not leave the reader frustrated. Some contemporary poems are all images and no heart, difficult to follow and resistant to any form of understanding other than language play. Right now the goal is to improve the way I use language and coaxing it to speak ardently for me while keeping intact the wilderness that is so essential to poetry.
DV: A little earlier you said that English is the only language you can write in satisfactorily. When I sold encyclopedias door to door in Montreal I asked one of my customers why he wanted to buy an English (rather than a French) encyclopedia, and he told me English was more precise. And one of my students in Seoul said she had a different personality in English than she did in Korean. So I ask you: How do you explain your own affinity to English over your native language?

RP: English is still the only language I read books in. Growing up in a different part of India, with a language, Odiya, that was not my mother tongue (which is Malayalam) and growing up in an industrial township where every other kid spoke a different language, Bangla, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada - you name it, I had friends speaking all of these. And we communicated primarily in Hindi with each other. But once home with books, English was the only language my eyes would read in. Though I retain a smattering of most of the other languages and can speak in Malayam and Hindi, there was no real choice to be made when poetry found me.

DV: It's been a real pleasure talking to you and picking your poetic brain. Do you have any thoughts you'd like to close with?

RP: It is fun in a bizarre way to be living with people who don't know how it feels to belong to poetry country. A number of poems have taken birth from that angst I feel. Some of my kind friends call me a natural since I have not studied poetry formally but it happened to me because I read up entire libraries when small. When I read, I want to write. That is how it works for me.  It is me in your debt for allowing me to ramble on and on and for publishing my poems in your excellent blog. If you permit, I would like to mention my first editorial venture. The Significant Anthology published by Morph Books is a book I have co-edited with Dr. Koshy A. V and Michele Baron and it is a mixed anthology that features 176 poets and writers from 29 countries and is a landmark in my writing career with the rawness in its poetry, the intensity of its short stories, drama, a long poem (Dr. Santosh Bakaya's Oh hark!, a rhyming epic poem running into a 100 +? pages). Editing this mammoth book was a humbling experience and taught me a lot about what makes a poem, a piece or a book resonate with readers. 


  1. Absolutely mesmerised by this brilliant interview. Her poetic soul peeps through every word . Hats off to both .

  2. Absolutely mesmerised by this brilliant interview. Her poetic soul peeps through every word . Hats off to both .

  3. Thank you Dr. Santosh Bakaya. Coming from a superb writer and an extremely humble human being who has influenced me a great deal and whose work demonstrates unparalleled talent, these words mean a great deal.
    Duane Vorhees, indebted for this opportunity.Thank you.

  4. Excellent interview, my applause, my regards


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