The Sheaf Interview: Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam is an award-winning poet and writer on spirituality and culture.  Winner of the inaugural Khushwant Singh Memorial Prize for Poetry in 2015, the Raza Award for Poetry and the International Piero Bigongiari Prize, she mostly lives in Bombay.  She has published two books of poetry in Britain with Bloodaxe, Where I Live: New & Selected Poems (2009), and When God Is a Traveller (2014), a Poetry Book Society Choice which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, won the inaugural Khushwant Singh Prize at the Jaipur Literary Festival, and was awarded the International Piero Bigongiari Prize in Italy.  Her latest collection, Love Without a Story, is due from Bloodaxe in November 2020.  Arundhathi Subramaniam will read as part of our Poetry and Translation event on Sunday 22 November. This interview was conducted by poet Angelina D’Roza for Sheaf Poetry Festival in October 2020.

Angelina D’Roza: Over the last few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and inheritance, what we might consciously explore but also what haunts our writing. The perspectives and biases and vulnerabilities that are there from the beginning, that recur unbidden, and I wondered how this vulnerability relates with what you describe as words as a means of making ourselves vulnerable, “the startling confrontation of self with self”. What do you feel haunts your work, what startles you?

Arundhathi Subramaniam: What haunts my work? The old questions, I suppose. About love, loss, dying. And there’s a preoccupation with time. Since my very first book, there have been some recurrent themes – cities, journeys (both real and mythic), relationships, cultural politics, spirituality, being woman. But at heart, there is the need to make sense of time. And to make sense of the physical – its sensuousness, but also its fragility. To understand those places where matter meets vapour. The connection between thinginess and spirit, as it were.

At the age of ten I wrote a story about a chick – yearning to get out of the claustrophobia of the farmyard, longing for companionship, disturbed by the inevitability of turning into meat for a human dining table. At age eleven, I wrote a story about a cloud trying to come to terms with its fear of death by figuring out who or what it really was (thing or air?). I believe those preoccupations still endure in my poems to this day – questions about love, pain, death, freedom, what we’re all about. But there’s also a need to make all those abstract nouns sensuous, crunchy.

AD: The role of the landscape in “Eight Poems for Shakuntala” seems both informed by the mythology and used with new significance, the courtrooms and battlefields mapped against jasmine and lotuses, the detonating butterflies “in the folklore of tourist brochures”, the evergreen home. What role, for you, does nature and landscape play in your writing process?

AS: I used to see myself primarily as an urban poet. Trees in my poems usually stand cheek by jowl with highrise apartments. Even the sea is a handkerchief of ocean, momentarily glimpsed between a hysteria of traffic and concrete. But yes, in the last book and my most recent one, the natural landscape grows increasingly important.

In the Shakuntala poems, I was exploring a woman who seemed perennially conflicted about where she belonged. The poem counterpoints the glamour of the court with the more innocent place of origin – the forest. And here I was drawing on the forest imagery of the classical Sanskrit poet, Kalidasa, as well as the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma I’d grown up with – a world of creepers and deer, jasmines and lotuses. I knew it was naïve to see the forest as completely innocent – hence the admission that it might well be a postcard reality, hyped up by ‘tourist brochures’. At the same time, living as I was in a remote forest ashram myself, I was growing more and more aware of my own need to marinate in greenness – and to ‘rewild’, in a sense. Also, of course, ecology isn’t just an academic debate any more: it’s a matter of urgency, a matter that concerns our very survival. So, it probably isn’t surprising that greenness is pervading my work more than ever before.

Eventually, the Shakuntala of my poem realizes that she doesn’t belong to either court or hermitage, city or forest. Her role is to be the bridge between the two. She is herself the address she has been looking for. But it took me several years and eight poems to figure that out! That realization bubbles up again in the new book: there’s a poem in which I speak of the poet as the messenger between ‘moon and mud’. I guess there is a growing insight that one doesn’t have to choose between Eden and a fallen world. Between nirvana and samsara, spirit and matter. We don’t have to choose because we aren’t simply about one or the other. We are about both. We are both.

AD: I’m interested in what you said about the concept and impact of being considered not Indian enough, Orientalism, and performing “Indianness”. You talk about resisting the role of “vendor of exotica”, and I want to ask about this resistance in terms of the reader, how they might read beyond any impulse to look for what is Indian in a poem, or to read “Indianness”. 

AS: I actually believe most readers of poetry don’t need too much guidance on how to read. The pigeonholing happens with a certain kind of academic. I am not dismissive of academia; I have done my fair share of literary criticism, and I am grateful to critics who unlock a text without anatomizing it. But there is an unfortunate strain of punditry that looks for sociology rather than sensuousness in literature – particularly literature from postcolonial cultures. This is unfortunate because it denies the singularity, the whimsicality of the individual voice, and looks instead for some constructed notion of cultural purity – a quest that tells us more about the seeker than the sought.  I believe my perspective is pretty deeply informed by the spiritual and cultural traditions of India, but I would rather not wave the ‘I am Indian’ flag to appease some dogmatic Western scholar or some jingoistic cultural policeman in my own country. So, rather than look for ‘Indianness’, I’d suggest that a reader simply look for poetry that seems fresh, startling, insightful, moving, in some way.

AD: I’m finding this hard to articulate on the page, but is there a risk of resisting one’s own identity in the resistance of others’ expectations? Or internalising such resistance so that we lose a sense of our own edges? There are aspects of my own cultural heritage that I feel don’t belong to me, and I’m only just coming to recognise this internal conflict as existing. Rather than try to reclaim those cultural aspects, I’m trying to refocus my resistance, to uncover and understand this conflict as an important site for my writing. How do you approach the conflicts within your own experience, how is this reflected in the writing?

AS: It’s a good question. I believe I was more in ‘reactive’ mode as a younger poet, but my work in the past decade or so is different in texture. I do remember asking myself once, “When I’m not reacting to a ‘Welsh critic who doesn’t find me identifiably Indian’ (the title of one of my savagely ironic poems), who am I?” That actually led me to a poem called ‘I Speak for Those with Orange Lunchboxes’. The poem became my way of talking about my tribe, my people – in that poem, my tribe was a chorus of unremarkable schoolgirls, who never became class monitors – rather than reacting to all those voices that told me how to belong.

With age, and with what is hopefully a deepening of my own spiritual journey, I realise that there are “tricks to turn rage into celebration”. That makes me less likely to write a rant, and more likely to write an anthem today, celebrating something that matters to me – some aspect of my cultural or spiritual inheritance, for instance – rather than dwelling on those aspects that I find disempowering. The anthem can be just as effective a critique as the protest poem.

Yes, there are times when one has to turn gatekeeper in order to defend oneself against other gatekeepers. But today, for the most part, I’d rather walk my own idiosyncratic path, murmuring my poem, humming or singing my song, rather than invest my energies in attempting to outshout the din. There are many ways to speak truth to power. My way would be to try and stay true to an integrity of tone in each poem. There are poems that need to wield the megaphone, and there are poems that need to invite a listener to quieter places.

AD: How do you see the relationship between socio-political and spiritual aspects in your writing? Is this reflected in your translation work, that when you move a poem across cultures you are making ideas or perceptions possible by giving them new language?

AS: I think I see almost all the work I’m engaged in – making poems, translating poems, writing prose around the spiritual, anthologizing, curating – as an act of translation of some kind. It’s all part of being ‘messenger between moon and mud’ that I spoke of earlier!

Also, turning spiritual is not about denying the present, but inhabiting it. The empowering aspect of the spiritual journey is that it allows you to inhabit the present a little more on your terms, enabling you to collaborate with your culture and your history, rather than be a passive recipient of them. So, when I choose to tune into or translate the voices of women mystics, or goddess poems in the Indic tradition, I am very aware that my choice has political implications.

When I anthologized the devotional Indian poets in an anthology called Eating God, it was primarily driven by my passion for sacred literature, but I also knew that this act of cultural reclamation was personal and political, all at once. By giving ‘new language’ to poems that have been around a very long time, one is repossessing them, and in a subtle way, shifting the discourse around them. It was important for me to present “bhakti” or devotional poetry, for instance, not as servile, grovelling verse in praise of the divine, but as passionate, spirited, often irreverent conversations with god.

AD: Given your background in dance, do you recognise any relationship between this and your writing?

AS: I suppose it’s no coincidence that I always look for ‘spine’ in poetry, Angelina – by which I mean poise, creative tension, precision, qualities that I’ve learnt to value in dance. And when I view dance or read poetry, I am always aware of the tension between gravity and aeriality – the need to be true to the ‘nowness’ of a moment, even while aching to leap off a page. I like the dance between the two that poetry is capable of. And I am fascinated by the way in which a Bharata Natyam dancer invokes the sacred without sacrificing groundedness – the way she reaches for the sublime without ever losing a sensuous connection with the earth. That’s the way I see the lyric poem – as a kind of verbal connection between earth and sky.

AD: What are you reading?

AS: The poetry of the Indian women mystic, Avvaiyar. Dennis Nurkse’s The Border Kingdom. Amir Or’s Wings. The Bloodaxe Staying Alive trilogy is always within arms’ reach. As is Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

AD: What are you working on?

AS: An anthology around the female presence in Indian mystical poetry. And a book of essays on women walking the spiritual path. But I’m also trying to follow the body’s rhythms – eating, sleeping, exercising, daydreaming – and not being too agenda-driven about work!

Arundhathi Subramaniam appears with Najwan Darwish, Atef Alshaer and Paul Batchelor as part of our Poetry and Translation event on Sunday 22 November; click here for more details and to book.