Volatile Warmth: An Interview with Pratyusha

Pratyusha’s pamphlet Night Waters recently came out with Zarf editions. Following double launches in London (with The 87 Press event at The Roebuck SE) and Edinburgh (with Zarf at Typewronger Books), SPAM editor Maria Sledmere caught up with Pratyusha to find out more about her work around poetry, translation, geography, memory, lyric voice and influence.


What influenced you (texts, songs, events or otherwise) when you were writing this pamphlet?

There are several influences in the book: Octavio Paz, Parveen Shakir, Barbara Jane Reyes, Gulzar, T. S. Eliot, Anne Michaels, Agha Shahid Ali, Louise Glück, Adonis, A. K. Ramanujan, Etel Adnan, and of course, Mirza Ghalib. Lots of songs as well: Beirut, the ghazals, songs in specific ragas, and M. S. Subbulakshmi’s rendition of the Tamil devotional song குறை ஒன்றும் இல்லை which I grew up listening to. There are too many intercrossings to list.


Several of these poems work with translation: whether in the use of single words or lines across a poem (for instance in ‘bananamap’ and ‘Raga Megha Malhar’), or with Ghalib line translations in ‘nighttime ghalib’. Have you translated much before? What kinds of interpretative surprises occur in the process, does it prompt certain intimacies with the original text that you hadn’t expected?


I've been translating informally for about ten years now, but just haven't sent my work out anywhere because on the rare occasion I do, I always have trouble finding homes for it. It's not as easy to contact a remote subcontinental poet as it is to contact poets here (I translate a lot of Gulzar, and it's impossible to reach him); and well, Ghalib is dead. Most places won't accept poetry without official permission for the translation to be published, and generally I can't even establish contact, let alone obtain permission. It's rather a Eurocentric demand to expect everyone to be contactable over email. And poets in the subcontinent pay tribute to each others' work all the time without pre-established contact (but unequivocal acknowledgement, of course).


Translation is a naturally intimate process, a transcorporeal one. It's an act of osmosis: the language barriers are porous, and they invite fluidity, exchange, interpretation. There is a process, too, of refiguring: I want to find a space between a literal translation and a strong (re-)/(mis-)interpretation. Some words lend themselves more easily to this process than others. Ghazals are difficult to translate because one wants to preserve the beautiful, miniature form of the ghazal, too (accurately keep the radif, qafiya, etc). But I have had to let that go, because keeping the form of a translation can often end up looking farcical in the destination language.


Can you talk a bit about parenthesis in these poems, the way they work as echos, asides, a kind of dialogue? I’m excited by this idea of the ‘echo-poem’ which we spoke of over email, and was wondering if this is something you’d seen in poetry elsewhere before.


I cannot recall specific echo-poems of the sort that I write, although of course, there have always been asides, brackets, afterthoughts in poetry: it's my decision to stage these prominently. In my poems, these echoes are as important as the lines before them. They challenge, bewilder, change... It's not as deliberate a separation as two different speakers engaging, but it hints at a separate dialogic entity within the self, one that's always ready to speak back, one that runs a secondary internal commentary -- of rebuking, mocking, provoking, questioning, suggesting. 


Night Waters is rich with manifestations of process and change: the weather, the monsoon rains, the movement of clouds, the turn of a sunset, the ‘winter greens’. How do the seasons, or other markers of the year (for instance, months, meteorological trends or the astrological calendar) influence your affective orientations towards memory and space/place, and in turn your writing process? Do you, for instance, write better at certain times of year?


Growing up in the countryside and spending a lot of time out of doors, I have always been keen and aware of the changing of seasons: the slightest shift in the air, birds' migrations (and auguries), the skies before a thunderstorm... but of course there are the seasons of inherited memory too, the memories of my grandparents talking about summer (veyil)[1], monsoons (saawan)[2]. I haven't tracked when I write better, or whether that corresponds to the weather.

 

Can you talk about some of the choices you made in terms of spacing in the poem ‘Navigation’?


The choices were not deliberate. Some words tumbled together in one word. Others didn't: they pulled distances apart, drifted into spaces, slept in the gaps.


There seems to be a general turn towards the occult across poetry right now, with for instance Rebecca Tamás and So Mayer’s recent anthology, Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry. What are your thoughts on these trends? Do you see your own poetry in any sort of ritual, gift or spiritual tradition? I’m interested in, for example, the way that you use certain forms of lyric address and dedication, but also motifs such as scent, spice and colour.


I'm not sure how to approach occult, because it's not a tradition that I see myself as being part of, and there's not much I know about it. My poetry is embedded in ritual and spirituality, but those come from deeply intimate memories, experiences and traditions that are not part of what I understand as Western occult traditions. I come from a very mixed South Asian/subcontinental heritage and have grown up with an amalgamation of rituals important to different parts of my family, as well as traditions that I have absorbed living in other places. As for scent, spice, and colour – these are simply part of everyday life and figure in my sensory/tactile approach to my writing.


I love this idea of poetry as a kind of ‘warmth’, in terms of expression, community, voice, image. When reading these poems or hearing you performing them, I experience this warmth, this sensory generosity that invites a mutual liveliness. And the way there are these softer, more conversational lines: ‘Didn’t mean to play Beirut again’. Does this idea of warmth or even comfort resonate with your experience in writing itself?


Aloofness in poetry is an interesting trait, but sometimes I wonder if it covers or restricts volatility. For me, the volatility is what makes poetry compelling: it should be like lava, with scattered fragments of tephra, stilling to igneous rock. These flows and stoppages are what carve the landscapes of poetry: these inclusions, fragments, both the gentle softness of certain lines and the heat-current of memories. These come from an instinctive trust, and a place of warmth. The poetry is not confessional, and nor do I intend it to be -- but the lyric voice is one of warmth, of address, of a compelling invitation to share a space. I think that's why lyric draws me in particularly. It is a voice that doesn't shut you out, a voice that insists on building an open landscape and on a visceral level, perhaps as an immigrant, perhaps as a racialised subject, that warmth is very important to me.

 

There is such intricacy to this collection: whether you are referencing the miniatures in a visual history of Shah Jahan’s reign, or types of Hindustani classical raga. Do you see lyric poetry as ideally poised to negotiate and even curate different media and cultural histories within the sensory realm of voice? Would you say the forms you are generally interested in reflect this eclecticism?


The lyric voice is intuitively a indication of other times, other tides; I write in the tradition of many others before me. Lyric poetry naturally weaves in references and suggestions of other histories, in art and music, and sometimes those of trauma and memory – Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is perhaps an obvious example that comes to mind; her referencing of both the lynching photographs and of Serena Williams’ matches shows the versatility and embodiment of lyric poetry. The open field of lyric poetry gives us a chance to address and recall histories, to invoke muses that reside elsewhere, or deep within a heritage. Formally, this eclecticism allows for the poetic voice to gain a sort of expansion that assists in remembering, retelling, and reforming.


Could you say a little about the title?


The title comes from my dreams, in which rivers, seas, oceans recur, but often at night, often both inviting and illusory, both impenetrable and protective. In these dreams, as in this book, I traverse journeys: this book becomes a canoe, these words become a river. The waters of my life: the Hooghly River, the Mahim Bay, the Rhine River, making their crossings. 


Finally, I was wondering if you could shout out to any other poetry pamphlets you’ve read and loved that were published this year?


I really liked Callie Gardner’s Naturally It Is Not, which is a full-length book, and Dominic Hale’s Time Zone, Imogen Cassels’ Arcades, Maria Sledmere’s Existential Stationary; I look forward to reading Nina Mingya’s Field Notes on a Downpour.


~


You can purchase a copy of Night Waters from Zarf editions here.

 

[1] In Tamil

[2] In Hindi

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