Shikha Malaviya is a poet, writer and teacher. She is founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Project, an online archive of Modern Indian Poetry currently under development. She is also co-founder of Poetry in Public India, a poster project showcasing Indian women’s verse with fine art, in various public venues across India. Her book of poems, ‘Geography of Tongues’, is slated for release in November 2013 and is published by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.
How do you decide what to write on?
The decision isn’t up to me alone. The subjects/events/emotions often show up like a friend, at my doorstep, that I have to let in, not knowing or able to ask how long they’ll stay. My poems are mostly autobiographical and inspired by family, history and mythology. All of these are intertwined in one’s day to day living.
Give us a short list of living poets that you’d recommend.
This is an unfair question - how do I limit myself to just a few and to only those living? There are so many poets whom I admire and revere. Apologies in advance to those who aren’t listed. Indian poets in English – Manohar Shetty, Ranjit Hoskote and K Satchidanandan are three poets whose work I am reading and really enjoying these days. As a young student, Meena Alexander’s flowering verse and Eunice De Souza’s wit really impressed me as well. The powerful feminist and spiritual voices of Meena Kandasamy and Arundhathi Subramaniam are so relevant in today’s world. And then we have fresh powerful voices like Vivek Narayanan. For poets in English not connected to India – there is Carolyn Forche, Eavan Boland, Harryette Mullen, Li-Young Li, Kamau Brathwaite, Richard Blanco and the list goes on.
And I must mention, even though he is not with us anymore, Arun Kolatkar. His verse should be mandatory reading and a rite of passage for any aspiring Indian poet writing in English.
How old were you when you wrote your first poem and what was it about?
I wrote my first poem when I was eight years old and I still remember it. As a class assignment, we were asked to write about spring. My poetic efforts were as follows: In spring/ everything is born/ Baby trees/ baby plants/ and of course/ mosquitoes and ants.
How long does it take to complete a poem?
Typically, each poem goes through a few drafts-mostly tweaking in the form of changing a word, fixing a line break or clarifying an image. I ruminate over most poems in my mind for a few weeks before I commit them to paper. Revision is every writer’s not-so-secret tool that turns a piece of coal into a diamond. I have a few poems that I have held on to for 10 years, because one word doesn’t sound right or the rhythm is off. It’s a very intuitive process. If and when a poem flows out without needing any changes, it feels like a divine gift.
Your favourite reads.
I love reading all sorts of poets/poetry-modern, post-modern, translations, prose poetry, traditional verse - you name it! One can learn so much from reading and studying every form. I love the imagery and passion of Pablo Neruda, the emotion and spirituality of TS, Eliot, the wit and philosophy of Arun Kolatkar, the quiet fire in the verse of Gwendolyn Brooks. There are too many poets to name and honour here.
Did you ever think of changing course?
Whenever I have asked myself this question, my mind brings up a wall. There is a refusal to believe I should be doing anything else. Poetry feels right. It’s as simple as that.
When you write, do you imagine a reader?
I have never imagined a reader. Writing poetry is such a solitary and meditative process. It is almost always a dialogue with one’s self. When we share a poem, it’s an offering to that altar which is the world.
Tell us about your first publication.
A. My first poems, believe it or not, was published when I was in fourth and fifth grade, in a district-wide literary journal. My poem on Spring, which I mentioned above, was the first poem of mine ever published. But seriously, as an adult, I started getting published in my early 20’s. I can’t remember which poems came first, but there were quite a few in the 1990s.
The future of poetry.
In this digital age, poetry should be acknowledged and promoted as a powerful form of communication – as are tweets, texts and status updates. Poetry will always be an important part of human expression that stays with us. We just need to figure out how to integrate it in today’s fast-paced life.