‘Poetry helped me breathe’

Poet-activist Jhilmil Breckenridge’s debut poetry collection ‘Reclamation Song’ follows the trajectory of her life and how she reclaimed herself

Published: 15th October 2019 07:37 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th October 2019 07:37 AM   |  A+A-

Jhilmil Breckenridge

Jhilmil Breckenridge

Express News Service

HYDERABAD: Jhilmil Breckenridge-poet, writer, activist, and the founder of Bhor a mental health charity, had to go through the trauma of a disastrous marriage, forcibly separated from her four sons.

It was writing which resuscitated her, filling her with a new breath each time she crumbled with the trauma followed by mental health challenges.

Her debut poetry collection ‘Reclamation Song’ is a registry of this journey which leads the reader to the space where she reclaimed herself emerging stronger. Excerpts:
Has confessional writing brought you more light, more strength?

Confessional writing has definitely brought me more light.

As someone who now teaches the James Pennebaker writing method to prisoners, marginalised people and women recovering from trauma and violence, there is a science to writing about your trauma that sets you free.

Of course, at the time I was creating the poems in Reclamation Song, I did not know that.

Writing down my experience and being compelled to tell my story made me feel better.

Your entry to the poetry scene was rather late. What brought you to it?

Studying in Indian schools where poetry was taught by rote did not speak to me.

Of course, I remember memorising Wordsworth’s Daffodils in perhaps Class VI, but that was it.

The thick tomes of poetry books just sat dusty in libraries and bookshelves for me, they did not call out to me.

After a difficult divorce and the kidnapping of my children by my ex-husband, I embarked on an MA in Creative Writing in London.

I was 47 years old at the time and the poetry module, when it came, transformed my very being.

We looked at Language, Imagination and the work of fresh, contemporary poets like Warsan Shire, Ross Gay, Maggie Nelson and many others. Poetry suddenly made me breathe again.

Why did you select the title ‘Reclamation Song’ for your book?

‘Reclamation Song’ was a poem I wrote one day when I was vexed by all the labels we are given, how we need to conform in this deeply patriarchal world.

The book was originally called Just One Breath, but my publisher, Dibyajyoti Sarma, thought it would make a good title.

We then rearranged the book in a way to showcase the story of one woman and how she reclaimed.

How much have you been able to reclaim from your life and in what forms?

Trauma and pain transform you, alchemise you. You never go back to the old you, you learn to live around the spaces and holes.

But in many ways, I am happy and at peace with all the experiences I have had. And isn’t that reclamation?

When the sea reclaims land, form changes. When we reclaim land from marsh, it changes as well. And so it has been with me, a new Jhilmil has been born through this journey and I live a day at a time, with joy and wonder at this beautiful world, all we can see and all we can do.

You’ve had a difficult childhood, especially with your mother. How much healing has the writing done?
I work in spaces of mental health and trauma.

We often speak of violence and trauma and how it affects people. But neglect is abuse as well. And so, yes, I had a difficult childhood—all the comforts and basics were there, but they came with emotional disconnect and neglect.

Writing has healed me significantly as the relationship I now share with my mother is one of seeing all she had done or not done, and making peace with it all. It’s finally what she used to say in my childhood, that we are friends.

I think that’s what it is now, that I am ok with being her friend.
You have written poems like ‘Maanjha’ and ‘A Ballad for Kashmir’, how much does India need the voice of poets?

In these times of extreme hatred, lynchings, the silencing of states and peoples, and open
saffronization, India needs poets more urgently than ever.

How do we make sense of the growing unrest if not through poetry? Bertolt Brecht wrote: “In the dark times, will there also be singing?

 Yes, there will be singing. About dark times.” The next collection I am working on has these themes as well as themes of peace. Harsh Mander has asked me to work on some peace poems and I think that is really essential for these dark times.

The poem ‘Just Call Me Jill’ has strong post-colonial tones. How much did you have to deal with it since you live in UK?

Normally, I don’t notice racism or I choose not to. I feel we are all the same. Unfortunately, the world does not work like that and the colonial past is always lurking somewhere.

Although personally I have not had to deal with racism and structural violence, I know it is there and so I chose to write it to honour and give voice to the margins.

We see several images of food in your writings. You are also working on an anthology on food poems and mental health. Do you think more than therapy the healing is inside us?

Food, sex, touch and pleasure are all vital to reclamation. The hunger of skin, the hunger of the body, the hunger of the soul—these are all themes that I worry about and write about.

The act of cooking can be a deeply spiritual and meditative act and has brought redemption not just to me, but to many people I know.

That is why the cooking as coping anthology came about, which is almost ready now. Therapy is a western model.

Before we had all these tools—therapy, medication, hospitals—we had meditation, art, writing, sculpture.

People found themselves when they immersed themselves in any form of art, and isn’t that just finding the journey to healing and joy by looking within?

On Bhor Foundation and your work as an activist…

I set up Bhor Foundation in 2016 because I wanted to inspire people to search for alternatives to the biomedical approach and also because I wanted no one to suffer as I had done.

To have gone through institutionalisation, forced treatment which was often more traumatizing than the trauma I was trying to heal from, these were all things I wanted to shield other people from.

I work as an activist because I believe one woman can change the world, one woman’s voice matters, and the world certainly needs change.

On days I feel weary and when I am asked why I do what I do, I say we are the world and it’s up to us to bring change.

Your Advice for female writers... 

Read. Go to cultural events and poetry readings. Go to art galleries. Walk. Hike. Spend time alone. Get rid of your smartphone or limit the time you spend on it.

Writing is a solitary act and it needs a certain clarity of mind. And in these times of constant social media bombardment, loud hoardings, the incessant music in our ears with our headphones, where is the silence to listen to birdsong?

To the sound of rain? Another thing that often helps is to join a writing group or create one. Writing is a political act, and women need to seize power. Writing can change the world!


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