Tag Archives: Wislawa Szymborska

A Virtual Interview with Jan Benson and Agnes Eva Savich

Literary haiku poets Jan Benson and Agnes Eva Savich will be our features on Thursday, April 13, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Jan Benson is an award-winning haiku poet living in Fort Worth, and her work
has appeared in translation in several foreign languages. Her haiku have been published in many of the world’s leading haiku journals and magazines as well as regionally in “form poetry” magazines.  In 2016, she won or placed in three international haiku contests. She s a member of Poetry Society of Texas and The British Haiku Society, Jan Benson’s haiku poetry and public profiles can be viewed at The Living Senryu Anthology (http://senryu.life/poets-index/80-index-b/benson,-jan.html), The Haiku Foundation Poet’s Registry (https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/poet-details/?IDclient=1980), Twitter: @janbentx, Facebook: Jan Folk Benson.

Agnes Eva Savich lives in Pflugerville with her husband, two kids, & four cats. She has been writing poetry since she was 12 and haiku for over a decade. She has over 100 haiku published in literary journals such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, and Acorn, has been translated into 5 languages, and has placed in international haiku contests. She has an early collection of poetry, The Watcher: Poems (Cedar Leaf Press, 2009) and a first haiku collection in the works.

The Interview

CH: What first attracted you to writing? What is your first memory of writing?

AES: Writing was a vehicle for awareness of self. I was 12 and my two best friends and I were at a sleepover. Sometimes our group dynamic was such that two of us would be on the same wavelength, leaving the 3rd one out for a bit. On this occasion, faced with just my own thoughts while they were busy with something else, I grabbed a pink sheet of lined notebook paper and tried to write the stream of consciousness thought process I was experiencing of their bonding together and my feelings of alienation. When I read it to them, they cried (tweens and their emotions!) and I realized what a powerful tool for expressing and channeling emotions poetry could be.

Of course my next poem was a vehicle for the silliness of being young, called Ode to a Nerd, which we turned into a ridiculous rap (loosely based on the Beastie Boys) using a Casio keyboard and a cassette tape. So even in the beginning I knew poetry could also be a vehicle for the lightness of being.

JB: My first memory of an impetus to write was at age 26, one year after the birth of my daughter. I had been keeping a journal-style record of her days, using first person.

At her first birthday, I decided I had a life too and began to journal. The practice has continued to this day, though with a couple of interruptions. First, in the mid 1980’s when my mother was fighting cancer; Second, in May 2014 when a medical procedure in the hospital caused me to lose my brain… down to no capacity for speech, no short-term memory, no sequencing skills, no writing at all.

CH: What was your exposure to poetry while you were growing up?

AES: I can’t say that I remember reading much poetry in grade school, but by 8th grade they had us memorize The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe and I was also obsessed with The Jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (which I still have mostly memorized). I also went to Polish school (like a good little Polish immigrant in Chicago; all the way through high school), where they made sure we memorized the Invocation from Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz in Polish and would test us on it every year (yup, still have that in my brain too).

I was also heavily influenced in early high school by the poetry of Jim Morrison, and I’m sure I was introduced to the classics in my AP English courses. I was more into literature than poetry, but I did get a comprehensive tour of the fundamentals in a great poetry course I took at Northwestern University. From there I came away with a healthy appetite for Sylvia Plath, Gary Snyder, Wislawa Szymborska, ee cummings, Robert Pinsky, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Bukowski.

JB: The long made short, there was little poetry.

Mother occasionally read children’s books to my sisters and I. She had no inclination for poetry, except for songs and ditties. I clearly remember the song “Three Little Fishies” that had a chorus of: “boop boop diddum daddum waddum choo / and they swam and they swam / all over the dam.”

In 6th Grade we were putting on a play for the PTA that Spring and I wanted to be in the play. My English teacher insisted I could not audition for the play until I memorized Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain!”  Which I did, auditioned for the play, and took one of the speaking roles.

CH: When did you first start to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

AES: That was in high school for sure. I started my own zine with a friend; I submitted to the district student writing publication; my friend anonymously submitted my poem to her high school’s literary magazine where she had some editorial powers, just so I would see it in print; and I wrote about many experiences through the lens of poetry when they seemed to have meaning beyond just journaling about them.

The first poem that felt like a real work of art I wrote the summer I was 16 and attending band camp at the University of Kansas. There was a boy involved that I had a crush on and the poem I wrote about him afterwards really felt like a masterpiece to me! It was powerful to me that I could use poetry to describe an experience abstractly which would yield the same feelings in the reader that I had in the experience. It was also key that writing was a way to channel unrequited energy; he had a girlfriend back home or something, so it was just puppy love on my part, with no reciprocation or activity beyond talking. I would say after that summer, I felt like writing was my thing (along with playing oboe of course, which is what I was doing in camp, and still do to this day.)

JB: Truly, it was in a court ordered class for defensive driving after I was caught speeding in 2000 (Alvarado, TX) returning from a poetry fest in ATX.

In the car, as the officer was writing the ticket, I knew I was high on poetry, lost to the world of rules. But did not recognize myself as a poet until the class monitor asked our names, and what we do.

“Jan, I’m a poet”

CH: How did you become interested in Japanese poetry forms? How did they become the focus of your work?

AES: I became interested in writing shorter poems as a way of having fun and communicating experiences and feelings in a more condensed way. There’s this awful website, poetry.com, which back then had a couple of fun haiku contests going: magnetic poetry, where you had to make a short poem with only their given subset of words, and a “haiku this photo” contest. So for about a year I wrote a bunch of these pseudo-haiku, having no idea what the form was really about in the literary world. I threw a lot of metaphorical, poetical dense word clusters into 5-7-5 syllable, three line format and rejoiced at this neat little art form that could encapsulate my writing without having to go the distance of a full length poem!

But then I wanted to know what was being written in the ‘professional’ world of haiku, so I went and picked up a copy of Cor van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology. By the end of the book, I knew haiku was a much more complex and nuanced writing genre, far beyond the 5-7-5 form definition being thrown around by school teachers and mass media. Eventually I joined the Haiku Society of America, subscribing to the foremost haiku journal Frogpond, where the true literary power of haiku as a genre really blossomed for me.

JB: In 1999, Fort Worth, at one of the various poetry venues, I made friends with a haiku poet and got interested in the concept of juxtaposition. I had to adjust my mind to the “new” rules, moving well away from my “elementary school” understanding of 5/7/5. I joined the group, workshopping and writing haiku, until I moved to S.C. in 2001 just after 9/11.

When I scratched my way back to Texas in 2010, I immediately picked up the practice again, learning even more devices and advancements in the genre.

In May 2014 when I lost my brain, it was a slow recovery. After about 9 months I thought I might be able to do haiku again, as a therapy. Haiku requires an equal balance of right and left brain activity.

After struggling alone, I joined The Haiku Foundation (online) for their haiku workshops. There I met the mentors, Alan Summers (Britain) and Marion Clarke (Northern Ireland), who were patient with my limitations.

CH: When I think of haiku, I think of its precision and richness. For me, it connects to and opens into the natural world and the movement of time. How do you experience haiku?

AES: Yes, for me haiku is the singular expression of a brief moment of time in which I feel deeply some facet of or delight in the meaning of life. Often this moment feels inexplicable, intangible, so all I can do is write down its details and recreate the scene so that the reader might too feel the subtle poignancy. Rooting it in season elicits richer commonly shared connotations and draws those in to add further flavor to the haiku.

JB: While I do use haiku as a therapy, I find it opens nature in me and provides a connectedness to the universe not before experienced.

Truthfully, I experience haiku through the academics; the research of this growing form is unlike any other under the umbrella of poetry. The devices are not at all common to Western genres of poetry and are a challenge to approach and sort out. Incorporating just the beginner level haiku devices has seen me grow to international notoriety as a haiku poet. I will gladly be sharing those devices during my presentation at BookWoman on April 13, 2017.

What encourages me forward are the ever unfolding and new devices that can grow my current catalogue of haiku and never allow the work to become boring.

CH: How has the practice of short forms influenced the way you approach writing?

AES: When I wrote longer poems, I would wait for inspiration to strike me. I am a natural introverted watcher of things, so inspiration would come at me just from being in the world.

With haiku, that happens sometimes, but most often I consciously create space for the inspiration to happen. I pointedly observe the details of the world around me and try to conjure forth what’s special. Sometimes it’s like tuning fully into a radio station and a perfectly formed cluster of words will come at me! But I am ok with editing that later, or taking incomplete pieces as they come – I spend a lot of time, say a lunch hour, just jotting down plain observations and then seeing on the page how these juxtapositions interact, and then try to dig deeper into what else I’m experiencing while observing the natural world. What thoughts was I just having, what else is going on in life, what memories just popped up out of nowhere? And then I apply that layer to what I’m observing and see how those things cook together.

A lot of my haiku get born that way. Staring at a pond full of lotus flowers and realizing I was just thinking about whether I’ll have any more kids, and how can I package that moment into a poem. Or even being in a work seminar and realizing the sound of everyone shuffling their papers has a magical feeling, and trying to capture that in a poem. I’ve also realized that not everything I write has to be amazing – some haiku are there just to be bridges to the really good ones.

JB: Oh, Brevity! Power and Joy are thy names!

I do believe it might do well to clarify here, that English Language Haiku is currently the most broad expression of the genre, and even the writers of Japanese haiku acknowledge its domination in the world of short-form poetry.

CH: When I think of your work, I think first of your haiku. How have the Japanese forms in particular influenced other writing that you do?

AES: Writing haiku has really sharpened my Occam’s razor: the simplest way to write something is the best way! I’m very influenced by the brevity and simplicity of haiku, which is rooted in my earliest literary love: Hemingway. I like to find a simple, direct, and clear way to say something, which then elicits connection and emotion. When I write a longer poem or prose, I wind up gravitating towards simplicity. When I edit an initially dense word cluster, I see how many words I can cut away for it to still have meaning.

JB: As I am yet recovering my brain capacity, I am all-haiku all-the-time. But yes, even in correspondence I notice and count on the resonance of words. Well worded brevity can be a powerful influence.

CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer? As a non-MFA writer, what paths of growth have you followed?

AES: I self-assign myself a lot of reading (online and print journals, forums, and books) as well as involvement in the haiku community. I have a robust journal and contest submission schedule (Google calendar) and tracking system (Excel spreadsheet) for all my haiku. In the early days I was a frequent participant in several yahoo discussion groups where many of today’s best haiku writers were active, and now it’s mainly Facebook groups and The Haiku Foundation Forums.

The kill-your-darlings path of workshopping poems in online forums is particularly conducive to growth. I am protective of my haiku but without question I have gotten very valuable feedback that’s nudged work towards a polished gem as seen through others’ eyes – because ultimately haiku belongs just as much to the reader as the writer. It’s all about recreating your experience for someone else to experience in their own way. It’s amazing what depths are added when you bring another person’s viewpoint into evaluating your work!

I also think it’s important to collaborate. I’ve participated in renku, which is collaborative writing where there’s a leader and you take turns (sometimes competitively) adding to a chain of haiku according to specific rules. I’ve also started collaborating, notably with Jan Benson, on haiga, which is art or photography combined with a juxtaposed haiku.

I also try to push myself into presentation roles such as leading a haiku workshop at an Austin Writergrrls retreat, speaking at Waco Wordfest, and reading at BookWoman events. I am also planning on attending my first Haiku North America conference this fall in Santa Fe, NM. Immersing myself in workshops and lectures and meeting many of the haiku community in person will be an amazing experience.

JB:  Being classically trained as a musician in my youth did teach me discipline. One of my therapies prior to returning to haiku was regaining my musical knowledge. To this day, I will put down a haiku journal to listen to a concert or musician. Pop music as well as classical do the same for me…replenishing my spirit!

A learned drive is now built into me. I enjoy researching the academics of haiku. Further, many of the BBC and PBS series of dramas feed me. As well, I avoid images of war, and greed.

CH: Please tell us about poets whose work has influenced yours. How has your work changed in response to their work?

AES: I pick up clues that influence my writing from reading my favorite haiku poets. Jack Kerouac’s haiku teaches me that haiku can be cool; Chase Gagnon teaches me to stay authentic and that urban grit and detailed personal experience are amazing in haiku; Marlene Mountain teaches me that one line haiku can capture the multisensory gist of a moment in as little as 5 words; Jim Kacian, John Stevenson, and George Swede all teach me that what seems like a fleeting thought can be a universal truth; Chiyo-ni teaches me to appreciate nature juxtapositions with the eyes of a child; Johannes S.H. Bjerg teaches me to dive head-first into the abstract; Jan Benson teaches me to dissect and clarify the possible interpretations of words; Alan Summers and Mark Brooks teach me to be playful with nature and thought; Alexis Rotella teaches me to look for the true delights in any given natural scene; Jane Reichhold teaches me about tenderness and deep listening; and finally Peter Newton, whose work I am most heavily crushing on right now, inspires me to write about the indescribable by catching seemingly disparate clues out of thin air and putting them together like a chef using exotic ingredients to create a multi-dimensional experience. There are so many more that are universally delightful and inspiring, but those are some of the specific lessons I’ve picked up from this set of poets.

JB: In the haiku world, these dozen poets most influence me:

Marlene Mountain (USA), for her brevity.

Johannes S.H. Bjerg (Denmark), for his experimentation in the form

Roberta Beary (USA), for ubiquitous presence, and feminism

Debbie Strange (Canada), for her unique expressions of nature

Chen-ou Liu (Canada), for his tenacity to publish and be published

Agnes Eva Savich (USA), for her sophistication and knowledge

Brendon Kent (Britain), for his whisper-soft juxtapositions

Marietta McGregor (Australia), for her unique images

Ben Moeller-Gaa (USA), for nuances in Midwestern observations

Marion Clarke (N.I.), for her deft hand at shahai (photo haiku)

Michael Smeer (Netherlands), for his international mentorship

Alan Summers (Britain), for his ability to teach students the value of a close

read in haiku and mentoring others to see themselves as “more-than”.

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

AES: I’m usually in the middle of like 6 books (it’s ok, with haiku you can skip around!) but the most recent favorite I’ve read is Christopher Patchel’s Turn Turn. He’s the kind of writer that whatever piece I read in whatever journal his work pops up in, I immediately feel like he’s reached into the deepest nethers to illuminate a universal truth and simultaneously stretched the boundaries of what haiku could be. He is currently the editor in chief of The Haiku Society of America’s Frogpond publication. I highly recommend his book, each poem is delicious like a French pastry baked from scratch.

JB: I read at least three books a week online. Fortunately, haiku has many PDF files on specific sites that one can access for free.

The most recent perfect-bound book I’ve read is the international anthology, “Wild Voices”, in which both Agnes Eva Savich and I have poetry. We will be reading from this book at the BookWoman Event.

 

 

 

 

 

A Virtual Interview with Varsha Saraiya-Shah

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

Background

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.

The Interview

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”.

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.