Burnishing a diminishing diamond
She is the author of Nirvana at Ten Rupees, described as one of the best first books of poetry to appear during the 1990s, was followed by her second collection Stet in 2001. She is also the co-translator of Freedom and Fissures, an anthology of Sindhi Partition poetry (Sahitya Akademi, 1998). She also recently edited an anthology of women’s writing (a SPARROW series). Yet, for Menka Shivadasani, the craft only gets better.
Her first published poems appeared in a newspaper at the age of eight. Even after her first `adult’ poem appeared in a magazine, she did not land a publishing deal for a long while. It took 12 years to bring out her second collection. “The first poem – I would call it verse really, not ‘poetry’ – appeared in a newspaper called Bharat Jyoti when I was eight years old. By the time I was 10, this paper had merged with Free Press Journal and six or seven of my poems had been published in these pages. This was due to the efforts of a journalist called Rajika Kirpalani, who convinced the editors that children ought to be encouraged; she died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 26, but left me a lasting legacy and a debt I could never repay. My first ‘adult’ poem appeared in a magazine called ‘Mirror’ in Mumbai, when I was sixteen years old,” recalls the poet.
“I took a long time to bring out a collection of poetry because I did not believe that one should be in a hurry to publish something that comes from such a deep space. Poet Nissim Ezekiel asked me several times why I did not want to bring out a book and I told him I would do so when I was ready – and that happened almost 10 years after he first asked me this question. A couple of years ago, the poet Keki Daruwalla wanted to publish my work as part of a double-decker from the Sahitya Akademi and I told him I did not feel I had enough new poems that I would want to see as part of a book,” she adds.
Voice for women
Since her poetic debut, she has done much over the past decade to talk about violence against women.
“While there are certain topics that I am concerned about, such as violence against women, I do not consciously choose a particular subject while writing a poem. I find that if one tries to write a poem with a specific agenda, there is a possibility that it will end up being mediocre. In my case, when something needs to be expressed, and the words have begun to take shape, the poem will find its way on the page. Having said this, I do find that much of my poetry has to do with women’s lives,” says the poet.
Does she typically go through several stages of revision, or is it a fairly quick process for her, to which she says, “It varies. Sometimes, when a poem has been working at a sub-conscious level for a long time, it can feel ‘finished’ within minutes of my writing it; there are other times when it can take years for me to be comfortable with it. Either way, I do believe that revision is essential; a poem is like a diamond – you see its true beauty only when it is carefully polished.”
Are there any poets or artists that she feels especially akin to? “There was a time when I felt – as many other women poets have, I suspect – very close to Sylvia Plath. In fact, when I mentioned this once to Imtiaz Dharker, she laughed and said – ‘Oh yes, we all go through the Sylvia Plath phase!’ Among Indian poets, it was Kamala Das, whose work I felt very close to, in spite of being aware of technical flaws in her poetry; when I was in my 20s, I knew her poem, ‘An Introduction’, by heart,” shares the poet.
In the last few years, in addition to writing poetry, she has spent much of her time curating literary events – as the Mumbai coordinator of the global movement, 100 Thousand Poets for Change, she coordinated a four-day festival of poetry in September. “I have also organised several other poetry-related events, for the Kala Ghoda festival; for the India Art festival, and as joint coordinator of the Culture Beat initiative at the Mumbai Press Club. I was one of the three founder members of the Poetry Circle in Mumbai in 1986. Though these events are always honorary and can take up a great deal of time, I get immense pleasure from meeting other writers and listening to good poetry by them and do not see myself giving up these activities,” says Menka.
Menka’s poems are extensively read. “While writing a poem, the last thing on my mind is the reader. I write the poem because I need to do so, for myself, and I would be more concerned about getting the words right, and the tone; crafting it as perfectly as I can. Once the poem is written, I hope to find readers who would take the time and trouble to understand what is being said, even if there are very few people willing to do this, those are the ones who would matter,” she says.
Future of poetry
“I think poetry will continue to survive even if publishers say no one is interested in poetry. This is because it comes from a primal space within each of us,” she opines.