HYDERABAD: Subhashini Kaligotla’s poems are from a ‘post-modern home’ that fly above the peninsular country crossing internal landscapes, flapping the wings between mythological legends and cosmopolitan cities. The music thus produced is not just reminiscent of Shelley’s skylark but also echoes cadences of ancient history recorded by the poet who allows several worlds to percolate into one another. The texture that the reader receives is a cumulative perception of the poet’s several dialogues addressed to the many ‘selves’. This evolves as a collective in an ever-singing bird of radiantly bright plumage ebullient with its calls. The poet converses with us about her research work in history of art, her juggling to three continents, her continuous search for the implicit and the explicit. Excerpts:
You present a bird’s eye view of the subcontinent which several other poets of Indian diaspora have done before. How different, do you think, is your collection?
A bird’s eye view is a distant view by definition, and your observation makes sense because someone who belongs to the diaspora doesn’t inhabit the subcontinent in the same way. Such poets are often removed from the place of their origin by various degrees and hence may not have a strong connection. I was born here in Andhra Pradesh, but left at a very young age. India is in my writing but maybe is ‘glimpsed in passing,’ as one writer put it.
The title poem flies like a free spirit. Is it a poet’s departure, arrival or a continuous journey?
In the title poem, the bird is a metaphor and allows me to say something about a human being. However, as you have seen, birds appear throughout the book and help me speak about many things: the state of a relationship between two people, for instance, or the internal landscape of the speaker of the poems. But I am fascinated by birds in their own right, they need not stand for or represent something else. I love their songs and calls, their forms, their agility, and I am fascinated by their social worlds. I also feel that these creatures have figured something out that we are yet to figure out. They have figured out community and couplehood.
You are also an architectural historian of medieval India. How difficult does it become for a poet to limit such vast expanse of knowledge from seeping into the poems?
A very important skill in poetry is to know when to stop writing and to realise that you shouldn’t say everything that you know. Still, some of my knowledge and training in architectural history is in the book for instance, in the poem ‘Fear of Flying,’ with its evocation of the temples of Khajuraho my perspective on art is present. My studies have made me sensitive to physical forms and materiality and to the architecture of spaces; this is reflected in the form and arrangement of the poems in the book, and even in the cover.
You are widely published and anthologised, then why did it take so long for you to come up with your début collection?
First, I do want to make the point that poetry shouldn’t be rushed. You should publish what you are proud of. Look at the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who had a long poetry career during which she published a few slim but excellent volumes of poetry. I got my MFA in 2006 and won The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective’s (GIPC) prize in 2016. So, that’s a 10 year gap. But during those years I also began and finished a PhD in art history, from Columbia University. I was juggling art history and poetry. I also suffered two major losses during that period.
Finally, we should also stress how difficult it is to publish a book of poems. In the US, one of the only avenues is to enter manuscript contests that charge reading fees from 20 to 30 dollars per entry. This means that poets have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to try to find a publisher. In India, too, there are few publishing avenues for poetry, though in recent years we have seen small independent publishers like Poetrywala and GIPC emerge.
The judge of GIPC, poet Arundhathi Subramaniam writes that ‘the heart in your poems is a slippery, politically incorrect shape-shifter’. Your thoughts.
This is a beautifully formulated assessment of my work, and I appreciate it very much. Regardless of my intentions or the emotional experience that went into these poems, it’s up to readers to make what they will of the poems. At this point, they are as much theirs as they are mine.
You bring together the mythology and the reality with exquisite finesse. In that way are you also trying to invoke the divine in human?
Conversation with the divine is very important in the book. The last poem in the book, ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ approaches the the same through various moods, relationships, and voices. While writing this book, I was reading India’s Bhakti poets, and my interest in Bhakti is certainly a strong undercurrent in the book.
You don’t belong to one country, how much of rootlessness or the sense of belonging did you have to let go in your works?
I think the question of belonging, of home, or the correlative to that, the sense of rootlessness or alienation is another undercurrent in the book. I don’t think the poems answer any questions, and I don’t think I myself have been able to answer them. They are open questions that all of us, with multiple allegiances and senses of belonging, will continue to face.
How much do you see your book as an address from the subcontinent to other parts of the world?
That’s an excellent question as you are touching on the issue of audience. I wonder who’s the audience for this book. Are they in India or elsewhere? Who’s the audience in America? The title itself seems grandiose in that it tries to encompass such a vast realm, and makes one think of books of natural history too.
In the poem ‘Exile’, you write: ‘The world is sand/unfolding outside the pane’, whose world is it you write about? Do you think the tough art of putting words onto the paper is an exile in itself?
I’m writing about a world I was inhabiting at that time, in New York. The speaker of this poem is looking out at the city from a 20th storey window, from “high windows.” We can certainly connect the exile that this poem evokes with the one from myth, from the Ramayana, which is another strand in the book. But I also really like what you are saying about writing, and how we have to impose an exile upon ourselves in order to do the work of writing.
A lot of water flows into your poems through rivers and rain. How much deception does it, as an agent of Nature and a tool of poetry, carry and bust?
You picked up on an interest in water that is important to my work in art history and that apparently runs through my poems too, though I was not really aware of it. As an art historian I have been thinking for some time now about the relationship between medieval temples and temple clusters and water bodies, like rivers, natural springs, lakes, tanks, and so on. I will have to reflect further about your question, so let us leave it as a question.