CHENNAI: Love without a Story comprises poems that celebrate an expanding kinship — of passion and friendship, mythic quest and modern-day longing, in a world animated by dialogue and dissent, delirium and silence. The book is penned by Arundhathi Subramaniam, an award-winning author of 11 books of poetry and prose. Widely translated and anthologised, her last volume of poetry, When God is a Traveller, was the season choice of the Poetry Book Society, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. She has worked over the years as poetry editor, curator, and critic. The author talks to CE about her latest work and the world of poetry. Excerpts follow:
Do the poems in your book follow a specific pattern or are they a compilation of memorable moments from life?
None of my books of poetry have ever consciously been about a specific theme. And yet, I know that a manuscript is ready when I find that all the poems seem to collectively be gnawing away at a set of preoccupations. My earlier book, When God is a Traveller, circled the theme of journeys both real and mythical. This book circles the themes of love and time. These are ancient themes of lyric poetry, of course. But they’re markedly contemporary in tone and treatment.
Was penning down these verses cathartic?
These poems have certainly meant a journey of self-discovery. That is the magic of making poetry — its capacity to lead even its author to places she never knew existed. That is the intelligence of metaphor. It is always wiser than you are. The most significant discovery for me in this book was perhaps the deepening insight it offered into the process of ageing. ‘Song for Catabolic Women’, for instance, is an anthem to all women over fifty, women who’ve finally figured that they needn’t be tyrannised by biological clocks and cultural expectations. Who are no longer anxious to please, desperate to impress.
One poem from the lot that is close to you.
Probably ‘The Fine Art of Ageing’. It’s a cycle of poems that explores Avvaiyar, the iconic wise woman of Tamil poetry. She fascinates me on many levels: as a woman poet; as an old woman who voluntarily abandons her youth; as a female mendicant. And at the end, I see her as a woman who walks her life journey like a virtuoso: she is not bitter, she has learnt to forgive, and she is glad to walk her path, knowing there is ‘no sadly or happily ever after’; no longer looking for meaning or trying to make a deal. She reminds me that one can grow old without growing middle-aged; that one can look upon the world with a gaze unstained by neediness. She travels light and knows that every by-lane and alleyway is just another way home. She is probably the kind of person I’d aspire to be: ‘unhurried, forever out of step/always on time’.
The poems touch upon nature, family, gender and mythological aspects. What do you think would be the takeaway from the book for readers?
Interestingly, different readers have already found different takeaways. One reviewer zeroed in on the wonder of the poems on nature. Another spoke of the strong female protagonists. Another spoke of the lingering presence of Mumbai city. I hope the book offers readers its share of insights about love, loss, time and quest. But, I’d like the takeaway to be the essential joy of lyric poetry: clarity and mystery in equal measure. A language that is distilled and heightened all at once. Language aching to leap off the page. When I read poetry, that is usually the only takeaway that matters.
Your teacher and poet Eunice De Souza was an influencer. What do you admire about her style of writing?
Eunice wrote poetry of extreme spareness. I call it pressure cooker poetry — astringent and savagely ironic. It scorches. She was a formidable presence in my formative years. She could be legendarily acerbic and difficult, but she was inspiring as well.
From conception to completion — tell us about your process of writing?
All my poems go through multiple drafts. I usually write a few lines, put them away, and return to them some days, even months later. When the gaze upon it is fresh, it’s easier to see which lines can be weeded out. I’m quite ruthless about the editing process. Sometimes, a poem evolves as a collage of independent fragments written at different moments in time.
Do you like to experiment with other forms of poetry?
I don’t think my style has been static. My last book was very different from my earlier ones. And I see this book as quite different from my previous one. I see the poems as more vulnerable, and therefore perhaps braver. The form is more fluid, more mercurial. The tone is more buoyant. The craft is less tense. I sometimes think I’d like to write a single long poem cycle around one central theme or character. But as a reader, I think I’m more drawn to the thali approach — one which allows you a variety of flavours rather than a serial multi-course meal. So, I don’t know if I’ll ever really do the single poem cycle.
How has poetry helped in your personal growth?
It is the most direct and pleasurable verbal route to myself that I know. One recognises poetry even before one understands it. Reading a poem is to enter language at its most primal, its most alive state. Why do I read poetry? Because I emerge from it feeling distilled, clarified, quieted by the presence of verbal beauty, more deeply myself. And much less alone. I’d only like to say this: I don’t think young poets should feel there is only one way to be culturally legitimate. You have to be true to your taste and temperament, not be pushed around by the caprices of cultural fashion.
The book was launched today at Wandering Artist. The book is priced at `499.