A Virtual Interview with Usha Akella

Usha Akella and Varsha Saraiya-Shah will be the featured readers Thursday, September 8, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman.

Background

Usha Akella has authored four books, scripted and produced one musical. Her most recent book, The Rosary of Latitudes is published by Transcendental Zero Press with a foreword by Keki Daruwalla. Her poetry awards include the Open Road Review Poetry Prize, Egan Memorial Contest Prize, Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize and the  Wine Poem Award at Struga Poetry Evenings.  She was selected as a creative ambassador for Austin in 2014-15. She has been invited to many international poetry festivals in Colombia, Macedonia, Nicaragua, Mexico, India, Turkey, Slovakia, Slovenia etc. In August 2015, she organized the first South Asian Poetry Fest ‘MATWAALA.’

She is the founder of the Poetry Caravan in Westchester County, NY and Austin. The caravan provides free readings at senior homes, women shelters and hospitals. The NY chapter has offered more than a 1000 free readings and the city of Austin proclaimed January 7th as Poetry Caravan Day. She will pursue a Masters in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, UK in the Fall of 2016.

The Interview

CH: How did you first become interested in writing poetry? What is your first memory of writing?

UA: I do remember the magical moment. I was very young; perhaps a fourth grader or fifth, studying in St. Anns, Hyderabad, and my English teacher Mrs. Eva read a poem about ‘The Naughty Boy’ by John Keats. That poem was an arrow and found its mark. I knew in a kind of dim witted, inchoate sense that that’s what I wanted to do too- write hypnotic sounds like that. I took my pen to paper for the first time. Rereading the poem, I am struck by it again- for I am much like that boy in the poem- it was really a metaphor for my self-I use the words marvel, wonder and bewilderment to describe my state of mind in response to life. Who knew!

For years, I’d forgotten who the poet was and looked it up this morning to answer the interview. What a delight! It’s John Keats who took my soul again with ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ as a Grad student in India. Keats and I go a long way! Thank you for starting my morning with this epiphany.

CH: When did you first begin to consider yourself a writer? A poet?

UA: Right around the time the Keats poem fell upon my ears, I guess. My mother says I announced I would be a poet when I was 6. That feels a bit of an exaggeration birthed from maternal pride. I wrote till I was 27 in Hyderabad without the notion of publishing, workshops, open mikes, creative writing programs, journals or mentors in Hyderabad. And I still wrote with no goal, as it was my form of breathing. (literally, as I was a chronic asthmatic while growing up.) The impulse to write was organic. It may be genetic as I come from a family of Telugu writers. No one asked me to write, there were no classes or prompts. I just wrote every day. If your primal response is to seek words to formulate you Self and the world you are a writer.  Through all my disappointment in my life as a poet I always remember that young girl writing for 20 years with no thought of external validation. For whom did she write?

CH: Your success as a poet has been marked by the publication of four collections as well as a number of prizes. What habits as a writer have contributed to your success? What stumbling blocks have appeared along the way?

UA: There’s only one habit- and that is ‘Write’. And the other is ‘Read’. You can’t give up as a poet- that’s a cardinal rule.

I have no fancy terms or guidelines- no favorite place or time, notebook, colored index cards, no inventions of comfort or superfluous embellishments of first world writers. I don’t keep a pot of sharpened pencils or a magical pen. I write anywhere, with anything that is available; Writing to me is a basic drive, it is unpretentious, and I keep it basic.  Maybe it’s my roots. I grew up with very little and we were never sustained by material definitions. Writing and the industry of poetry are two separate things.

I work hard I think, but I am incapable of routines. That’s a personal failing, perhaps. Struggles happen on two levels. Wanting to become the poet you want to be, requires dedication, honesty and work; it gives you a delicious unrest within. My weak links sting like ants: punctuation is a torture and I stumble on prepositions. I have to remind myself constantly about the premise of show and tell.

The stumbling blocks within the industry of poetry is another whole topic. It brings up issues of race, marginality and exclusion. There are walls and doors so politely construed they are invisible but exist. For example, I have been invited in the top tier world festivals of poetry but the local Round Top or most of the universities and colleges won’t acknowledge me as a poet. When you don’t acknowledge you make a person invisible, there is erasure from history, from the roster, from the industry. I am not called in for interviews when I apply for teaching posts or admitted to the local MFA/PhD programs. I’ve given up on the US, in some sense. ‘Matwaala’ was formulated as a very specific need for the South Asian poet to create ones’ own platform. And of course, there has also been support and kinship with some of the community of local poets and the city of Austin. I am grateful to them. I don’t forget these people.

CH: You’ve been invited to a number of international poetry festivals. How have these experiences shaped your sense of poetic community? How have they influenced your work?

UA: The invitation to international poetry festivals has had a volcanic impact on my view of the world and my Self. Since a little girl, I knew somehow, very early on that everything was ONE. Poetry has pushed me into the experience of that truth with these travels. So my poetics and my spirituality is the same. Poets belong to the world.  What I experienced in Medellin and Struga festivals is poetry as a mighty current; as a large open fist in poor countries;such generosity of hospitality can nowhere be found in the US; thousands of people present at opening and closing ceremonies like an olympics of Poetry;a reminder that Poetry is a pulse in the human soul. The industry of poetry is a more recent phenomenon.

Community for me is not local by circumstance. As a mother with a much-traveling husband my ability to physically participate in the local scene has been very limited. So the virtual community of poet friends the world over is my family and source of strength. I’ve learned to live with physical isolation and loneliness.  There is the curse of course all artists experience –being outsider in one’s own; the necessity of exile. I can’t seem to belong to the Indian community in whole either. Poets are always questioning and resisting something in the search for justice and harmony.

Becoming aware of poetics from other countries has been profoundly educative to pitch my own aspirations as a poet and understand what I would like to achieve. Take some Eastern European poets for example- the suggestive power of the poem dominates- that echoes with the Sanskrit concept of dhvani in poetry. There’s a gossamer, cultured and fine effect in poets like Nikola Madzirov. At times I like that. Or to learn that Filipino poetry has a long history of oral traditions is akin to traditions in Sanskrit history. Or the hypnotic  magic via repetition in the ghazal. To be able to make connections is a treasure hunt.  The appeal of Poetry for me as sound or as chant may be rooted in the Sanskrit slokas and hymns that abound in my life.

It has recently dawned on me that my own organic poetics would fall South to the border. The rhythms, power of the image and metaphor, outreach, tumult, energy and bread of the form in South American poetry is what I instinctively produce. More and more, I become restless with the contemporary American voice in poetry; the MFA factory manufactured voice. It is too constipated for me.

CH: The Rosary of Latitudes, now out from Transcendental Zero Press, is your fourth book. How did you select the work that became that book? How was the formulation of this book different from your earlier work?

UA: “Rosary of Latitudes” is specifically hinged on travel- inner and outer and the effect of each realm on the other; a place shapes my work, my poem shapes the place; a poem has a convex-concave rhythm. Did Northrop Fry say this? The book was formulated gradually as I traveled; I was stunned and marveled at what I was experiencing so travel articles first became the means to capture details as I have the most short termed memory you can find; I wanted to hold a country in my palms as waters to gaze in; the book got longer and bigger in its concerns- identity, immigration, home, self, memory. But it reflects what is in all my work- I am looking for my Self everywhere, for home.

CH; When I think of your work, what often comes to mind is its strong spiritual bent—for instance, the poems of Kali Dances, So Do I bring with them resonances with the ecstatic Sufi poems of Rumi. How do you see the presence of spirituality in your poems?

UA: I come from India. I cannot escape religion or spirituality or mythology; it’s dislodgable. My sensibility is shaped by it. The Vedantic  quest for the self is perhaps the underlying anthem to my work. I look for reference points from my cultural heritage. My poems seem to broadly fall around two poles- Kali and Rumi. Poems of transcendence from the centering self with underlying Sufi joy, bewilderment and marvel. And poems of immanence, of the body, rage from the black goddess, poems of activism, fighting patriarchy, racism, gender inequality. These are my obligation to write as a woman, my duty to the planet. I am peaceful now in the acceptance that both strains are a vital part of my soul not contradictory, but complementary.

CH: Among your many accomplishments, your founding of the Poetry Caravan in Westchester County, New York and Austin, Texas stands out as a way to extend poetry’s reach in the community. How did you first arrive at the idea of a Poetry Caravan? What has kept you working on that project?

UA: The poetry Caravan was birthed in the knowledge that Poetry is a great healing power. And I must take it to people who are incapacitated to experience its joy or avail of opportunities; that poets can make a difference every day and need not win a Pultizer to be validated as a poet. I wanted poets to feel this empowerment. When I read to a senior (sometimes there is just one senior waiting for you) I come back with a peace and validation unlike anything. It leaves me with the basic awareness of what poetry is and can do. Touch one heart at a time. Make bridges. Alleviate loneliness. The very quiet and true mission of poetry.

CH: India has a strong tradition of poetry, one that you have helped extend both through your own work and by contributions such as organizing the MATWAALA South Asian Poetry Fest in Austin in 2015. Which Indian poets have inspired you? If you were to recommend two Indian poets whose work has not received the attention it deserves in the U. S., who would they be?

UA: There are so many great voices in Indian English Poetry both in India and abroad. I have to spill out names in a long tongue to do justice but you’ve asked for two. I will mention two names of senior poets -Keki Daruwalla and Dilip Chitre. Fabulous anthologies have come out in recent years acknowledging so many poets Sudeep Sen’s Harper Collins anthology, “Dance of the Peacock” etc. I feel a sense of pride for all of them.

CH: I understand you’ll soon be at Cambridge University, UK, working on a Master’s in Creative Writing. How did you decide to embark on this path?

UA: Cambridge was destiny I guess. I don’t have the luxury of going away for long term studies as I am a mother.  UT Austin was my first choice as a mother-poet. I unfortunately had a very unpleasant experience in the application process that I don’t want to elaborate. If we are to walk guided by the wounds in our life, we would be paralyzed. Jack Hirschman says broken-heartedeness is the sign that the heart is alive. Poetry is a finally an inner guide and sustains us irrespective of outward signposts of success and failure.

It was my husband who discovered the low-res programs in Oxford and Cambridge and so here I am on the threshold of 50, going back to school fueled by the desire for knowledge. I found the interview process intense and fair, fair even when I was rejected by Oxford last year.

CH: Please name a few of your poetic influences. What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

UA: I read multiple books at a time- a schizophrenic method. So here is what’s happening now- Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Lorca, John Burnside, translations of Urdu poetry, Lewis Turco’s Book of Forms, Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem, Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. Also some drama and short stories on the Cambridge reading list.

Poetry influences: Eliot, Romantics, Rumi; woman poets- Sexton, Kamala Das, Plath, Olds, Mary Oliver;

Absolute favorite- Yehuda Amichai;

Poets who fuel me- Whitman, Octavio Paz, Szymborska, Nazim Hikmet, Keki Daruwalla, Ram Prasad, Mohammad Dawish, Nguyen Thieu, Nikola Madzirov.

And so many poets I like, I hope I will be forgiven as I cannot name so many.

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