Varsha Saraiya-Shah’s first poetry chapbook, Voices, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her work has appeared in journals that include Asian Cha, Borderlands, Convergence, and Right Hand Pointing, as well as anthologies from Mutabilis Press, and is forthcoming in BorderSenses. She has studied poetry in Houston, New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, SquawValley Community of Writers–California, Reed College–Oregon, and San Miguel De Allende–Mexico, and was a poet-in-residence at Noepe Literary Center, Martha’s Vineyard, MA in October, 2015.
Saraiya-Shah’s work is inspired and informed by humans, literature, visual and performing arts, gardening, travels, and an untiring eye for the small wonders of life. She lives in Houston, and currently serves on the board of Mutabilis Press.
CH: When did you first become interested in writing poetry? What first drew you to poetry as a means of expression?
VS-S: I believe I got smitten with poetry in fifth or sixth grade. I wrote it in my mother tongue, Gujarati. (Gujarat is a western state of India.)
I think it was the fascination for words; what one can do with them. I’m sure my maternal grandfather’s poetic genes and the teachers gave me the seed of this art. All of it ignited a lifelong love for poetry. Being able to write and the freedom to play with words drew me in and will take me through.
I studied Hindi and Sanskrit as part of my education through high school. Poetry in each of these languages has its own cadence and persona. Recitations were part of the curriculum as well as cultural way of life. Acting and folk dancing were my two other intimate loves besides math and science. The dramatic monologues they demanded with the magic of harmonium and the beat of tabla — all of it have contributed to my poetic expression. Performing words on a podium gave me a chance to express myself, and also gave a sense of power over the social constraints in adolescent years.
Learning English as a second language began in the 8th grade; I was thirteen and learning to sing Mary Had A Little Lamb… with my teacher and classmates. I could not have imagined then I would be an English poet with my own book some day!
CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? How would you describe your identity as a writer?
VS-S: It came much later. I guess when Houston Poetry Fest published my first poem in 1999: Tuesday Night Reading, kind of a love poem for my privileged encounter with the poet, Robert Creeley at MFAH. As if I had arrived once again and knew, I have Miles to Go–– as Robert Frost expressed.
Winning contests for Gujarati poetry and debates deepened my interest and love for poetry. When I started writing voraciously in English after a long dry spell during years of corporate career and family raising, I sensed a feeling of being “born-again” as a writer.
Writing has always been part of me, rather than a separate identity. Being a financial professional (a Texas CPA with an MBA from California), I kept my writer side a secret during the grueling work years of “dress for success, failing is not an option, and work hard enough till you break the glass ceiling.” Though, I did enjoy all chances to do significant amount of business/technical writing. And, grabbed every moment I could to write a poem in pockets of 15-20 minutes at lunch hours and while waiting for my children to finish their music lessons or game pursuits. For last five years or so, I feel grounded in a writer’s mojo.
CH: You’ve studied poetry in a variety of settings, from Squaw Valley Community of Writers to Sarah Lawrence College and San Miguel de Allende. What has motivated you to seek these experiences? How have you gone about selecting the programs in which you’ve participated?
VS-S: I sought these experiences to grow and satisfy that deep hunger to learn from the masters, to get better at the craft and seek critique from my peers away from home base. A burning desire and innate curiosity to experience and enhance the creative process. To hone my calibre, to push myself in new ways while learning from others’ strengths. All of these led me to workshops in a variety of settings. Repute and the repertoire of the faculty have been prime deciding factors. Personal life and time constraints in which I could fit in these workshops also played a role in the selection process. Then I simply plunged in with faith on taking a chance.
CH: Engaging in formal study takes a good deal of commitment, as does maintaining a writing life. What is your writing process like? How do you balance writing with other activities in your life?
VS-S: I try my best to catch on paper hints of creative sparks, through arrival of a phrase on NPR or a fleeting emotion, or when reading good books. I’ve often pulled over from driving to jot down a few compelling lines. At times a whole poem. I’ve locked myself in bathroom for a few minutes to catch my muse in writing when children were young and demanded non-stop attention. Some developed years later in beautiful poems. My chapbook, Voices, has a few of those.
I’m a compulsive reviser. But, my role models are––great writers, say Donald Hall, who starts each revision with a fresh draft each morning and whatever it takes–– as many as fifty drafts to make a poem work. His book, Life Work delves into his process. Occasionally, I do a complete re-write of a poem when the umpteenth version is not working. Perseverance always prevails and patience with the poem helps me understand what it wants from me.
Balancing writing with other tasks is mostly a matter of discipline. I do have discipline and focus but easily get channeled into other pursuits. Good distractions, such as practicing on piano, or trimming a bush, or a bike ride, or picking up a book that’s poles apart from what I’m working on, actually help me with synergetic ideas. Sometimes listening to music or walking long distances help me move on from where I’m stuck or bring in a fresh thought.
CH: What was it like to be poet-in-residence at Noepe Literary Center? How has this experience shaped your work?
VS-S: It was a challenge to stay focused day after day since the nature is so abundant and unique at Martha’s Vineyard (the kind I am not used to in my Houston’s city life). Initially I wanted to play all the time. I was the only “poet” in residence; the rest were fiction writers, memoirists, creative non-fiction writers. Though, they introduced me into their challenges of writing life as well.
I learnt that I need more discipline but it’s harder and different for a poet than a writer who’s doing x number of pages a day and writes within a framework/plot, whereas a poet doesn’t. The residency reinforced my understanding how important it is to just write each day without any excuse, though I still make many and often. Also the experience underscored: Read, read and read some more, to be a better writer.
CH: Your chapbook, Voices, will be coming out soon from Finishing Line Press. How did you select the poems for this book? How did you go about finding a publisher?
VS-S: I wanted each of the poems in this collection to have an expression: an inner or outer voice. Whether it was a sweet potato growing roots on my kitchen table, or a man with one earring precariously leaning out from his window I waved at in traffic jam. Sky and its myriad manifestations, a piano telling me pay attention to me, an art exhibit that triggers a new dialogue with the faraway motherland. At the end, all those poems made a cohesive collection.
I sent the manuscript to Finishing Line Press for New Women’s voices competition. I didn’t win, but they liked my collection and offered to publish. So, I accepted it.
CH: You list gardening among the inspirations for your poetry. How does the world of gardening inform and intersect with your work?
VS-S: Gardening is about life, about surprise (a poet’s candy) and demise, about living in the present moment and accepting decay. It reminds me all the time: Begin Again, whenever I get frustrated with certain poems. There’s no ego. No fear of growth or contraction. A weed asks for as much attention as a beautiful plumeria blossom or a wild flower. Wish I would spend more time out there but for the heat and mosquitoes, that often keep me from interfacing with my lovely space, eh!
CH: I’ve found working as an editor with a small press (in my case, Dos Gatos Press), to be a very rewarding experience. How has being on the board of Mutabilis Press informed your views of writing/publishing?
VS-S: Cindy, I concur fully with you; my work with Mutabilis Press has been rewarding indeed. I have been involved with Mutabilis from its conception days at Inprint Houston. Through this small service, I feel like an integral part of my writers’ family here and elsewhere. I’ve come to understand and appreciate the arduous process of selecting for an anthology through reading pages and pages of submitted poetry day after day. It has taught me “how to read a poem” as an editor as well as a poet. My ability to discern from good to mediocre has grown tremendously. I also work as their treasurer; a stint using my left brain. I appreciate the vital role small publishers play in promoting poetry which is hardly a lucrative business. It is sheer labor of love for the literary arts and service to humanity. I feel grateful to be a tiny part in that endeavor.
CH: Please name a few poets whose work has influenced yours. How does your work reflect that influence?
VS-S: That’s a tough one to answer since I read many of them simultaneously. And, there are numerous new poets too that I find inspiring and energizing my creativity.
Here’s a few of the many who’ve influenced my work: Octavio Paz, Jorge L. Borges, R. Maria Rilke, Rumi, W.Szymborska, Edward Hirsch, Tony Hoagland, Robert Creeley, Robert Hass, Naomi S. Nye, Sarah Cortez, Lorenzo Thomas, Reetika Vazirani, Mark Strand, William Stafford, Antonio Machado, F. Garcia Lorca, Jane Kenyon, Ruth Stone, Yehuda Amichai, Anna Akhmatova, Rabindranath Tagore, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Gulzar, Ghalib.
A lot of these poets invite me in to emulate their voice or style. Or, like a jazz artist, take me into a “Call and Response” spin. Others linger under my skin till the inspiration ripens. I’m a product of multi-cultures, so I find translated poets intriguing and challenging for my own expression i.e. blending of my roots and experiences as an Indian American.
Western and Latin American poets’ teachings have instructed my work the most. Especially studying the craft books like Richard Hugo’s “A Triggering Town” and Edward Hirsch’s “How To Read A Poem”, and “ The Demon and The Angel”. Late Lorenzo Thomas was my first English creative writing teacher; my Reverend Poet. Thanks to him, thanks to Naomi Shihab Nye, and also to Edward Hirsch for giving me “thumbs up” on my talent in my early years of writing. Their initial advice on how I need to read a lot of contemporary poetry and spread my wings, to submit, share, and work with my community of poets. Their advice nurtured the roots of the tree I am now. A communion received in my early forties when most successful poets have published at least a book or two. I knew I had a lot of catching up to do, to continue the new chapter of my writing life as an English poet. Many thanks to Inprint Houston for giving me a sanctuary, kind of an ashram to study poetry.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
VS-S: Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen — An American Lyric”.