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Interview with Sujata Bhatt


PNR 138...
with Vicki Bertram

VICKI BERTRAM: Could you tell me about your childhood: what kind of childhood it was, and then, maybe, how you think it creeps into your writing? Were you also writing then? When did you start writing?

SUJATA BHATT: I was born in Ahmedabad, India, in 1956 - and spent my first months in my maternal grandmother's home. In India it is a custom for women to go to their parents' home for the birth of their children and so my mother had gone to Ahmedabad for my birth. My father was working in Poona then and my parents lived in a flat there. Well, some of the crucial years of my childhood took place in India - in Gujarat and in Maharashtra to be more precise. I find it difficult to summarise or 'explain' my childhood. In a way, it's all there in my poems. Poems such as 'Muliebrity', 'The Doors are Always Open', 'Buffaloes', 'Udaylee', 'Living with Trains', (from Brunizem) and 'Maninagar Days', 'Understanding the Ramayana', 'The Daily Offering', 'The Echoes in Poona', (from Monkey Shadows) and more recently the poems, 'A Memory from Marathi', 'After the Earthquake', 'The Pope, Tito and the WHO', and 'My Mother's Way of Wearing a Sari' (from Augatora) draw heavily upon my childhood experiences.

For example, the girl who gathers cow dung in 'Muliebrity' is someone I saw on a daily basis. Of course, real incidents have to be transformed in some way to work as poems. In 'Buffaloes' I invent a character, 'the widow', but the memory of watching the buffaloes is mine. For some reason (I'm not sure why) my imagination seems to be continually sparked by those early years in India. I think, for many writers, their childhood is something very magical and special and they keep drawing from that for their work. For me, the fact that I had to leave India certainly made me think about it more. And this departure from India, this 'loss', as I felt it, prevented me from taking India for granted. Ironically, exile brought me closer to India. Also, the poems in Brunizem were written mainly when I was in my early twenties. (When childhood is not too distant - and yet, for the first time, it's distant enough so that one can begin to view it with a little more objectivity.) They aren't my first poems but they pick up on themes that I'd been working on as a teenager and they're more polished. Well, the poems I wrote when I was twenty were better than those I wrote when I was fourteen! And so, for example, 'the widow' was one of my themes, and in 'Buffaloes' I was happier with the way I handled it than in some of the earlier versions that I did when I was very young. In my third book, The Stinking Rose, I consciously avoided writing about my childhood. Why? Mainly because I wanted to write about other topics. And I wanted to write a different sort of book.

In order to further describe my childhood, perhaps I should describe my family background here: I come from a traditional Gujarati Brahmin family of writers, teachers, social-workers, musicians and scientists. We were and still are a closely knit extended family. My parents lived in close proximity to their siblings; thus I grew up with my cousins and uncles and aunts. Growing up with my cousins gave me this wonderful feeling that I had a dozen brothers and sisters when in fact I have only one brother. I am still very close to a number of my relatives. (And nowadays, e-mail is a boon to a family like ours!)

We were middle class but poor. My mother grew up in real poverty - her parents were forced to leave their village (where work was scarce) for the big city of Ahmedabad. My maternal grandfather was an engineer. He worked for a textile mill and died of heart failure at the early age of forty-one. I find it amazing that my grandmother (my mother's mother) managed to put all her children through university. I am moved by the hardships they faced.

My paternal grandfather was a writer and a teacher. He was an essayist, a short story writer as well as a translator (from Sanskrit into Gujarati). Two of my uncles (both of them my mother's brothers) are highly respected poets. They write in Gujarati. As a child I was aware of the fact that my uncles were not only writing poetry but that they could also recite it (from memory) and even sing it depending on the form of their poems. One of them in particular, Bharat Pathak, has always been and continues to be a source of great inspiration to me. Along with my mother he is a brilliant storyteller. In this way I grew up with the oral tradition.

I wrote my first poems when I was eight. Given my background, I felt that it was a natural thing to do. I'm certain that I would have started writing even if I had never left India. Although my sense of being 'exiled' and an outsider has no doubt affected my writing as well as my 'need' to write. At around the same time I became the 'storyteller' for my brother, my cousins and friends. All my stories were told in Gujarati but my poems were written in English. I was pleased that I could use English for my poems because it enabled me to be different from my uncles. And it was because I admired them so much that I found it more liberating to write in English. I do come from a family that loves books. And I grew up during those years in India without a television. We just had radio. We didn't have a telephone or a car. And that provides a different sort of childhood, I think. The poem, 'My Mother's Way of Wearing a Sari' (in Augatora) gives a view of my daily rhythm during my early years. Later, in Poona my life was dominated by school. The school (St. Helena's, founded in 1918) itself was all right. But to be honest, the atmosphere there was quite oppressive and stifling. When I started the principal was English. I still remember her clearly. Her name was Miss King - and she was actually very nice and gentle. She was very tall and she had long honey blonde hair. But she didn't stay for long and soon we had an Indian principal, Miss Masih who was very severe. All the teachers were Indian and they were all women of course since this was a girls' school. We were instructed to be meek and submissive and had to walk about with our heads bowed - to avoid being accused of pride or arrogance. In subjects such as history and English we had to memorise many texts and we were told what to think about them. I remember feeling terribly disappointed that my own thoughts were not really welcome. And all along one was made to feel that to be a girl was a great misfortune. I remember that my mother was not too pleased with some of my teachers. And this was and still is considered to be one of the best schools in Poona. Although perhaps certain things have improved since my days. On another level, I had a great time with my friends, I was happy - and basically did well in school so I didn't have much to fear from my teachers.

In Poona, we lived in the Virus Research Centre staff quarters - so it was easy for my father to come home for lunch. Altogether there were four flats, and we lived in one of them. On top there was a terrace. Outside we had a wonderful garden which keeps turning up in my poems. (See, among others, the poem 'The Difference between Being and Becoming' in Brunizem). Given the ideal climate of Poona (it used to be one of the prized 'hill stations' during British rule), we, the children, spent a great deal of time outdoors in the garden. In those days Poona was very green and almost rural - and quite beautiful. Nowadays it is practically a suburb of Bombay. Still there are many places there that I recognise and I can see where and how new streets and buildings have continually cropped up.

Another thing that I remember about that time was that food (such as rice, wheat, lentils, sugar and milk) was strictly rationed in Poona. And fruits were a luxury that my parents could barely afford. One of my first impressions about America, when I was twelve, was the incredible abundance of food and the fact that my parents could easily afford to buy fruits.

I'd like to add that my mother has always been someone with whom I could share ideas. She went to university which was unusual for a woman in her days, and she studied Gujarati, Sanskrit and English literature. History was also one of her favourite subjects. I have recently found out that eventually she studied economics against her will, at her father-in-law's insistence. (She was married at a young age but fortunately was allowed to complete her university education.) To this day she bitterly regrets the fact that she was not permitted to fully pursue her interests in literature. In the poem 'Honeymoon' (in Augatora) I provide a glimpse of her relationship with her mother-in-law, which was far from easy. Nowadays she is eager to hear about my trips connected with poetry festivals and readings. I have the feeling that in a way, vicariously, she is very involved in my activities. When I think of my mother, not only do I picture her in the kitchen (as she appears in some of my poems) but I see her reading - reading late into the night, which she still does, even now despite her frail health. I must add that my parents were very much influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. (Gandhi wrote a letter to them when they got married - unfortunately he was assassinated soon after that.) My paternal grandfather, Nanabhai Bhatt, was an intimate friend of Gandhi's - he wasn't as politically involved as Gandhi was - not in a direct political way but rather in an indirect way through education. He (my grandfather) founded schools in many villages in Saurashtra (a part of Gujarat) in the rural areas for farmers who were mainly illiterate. These schools were Gujarati schools designed to help young people who would be living in farming communities. And that was a very radical step. He was also very much opposed to the caste system which was seen by many other people he knew as radical. And in his own way he supported Gandhi and was involved in the 'Quit India' pro-independence movement. It was known that Gandhi used to visit him frequently and discuss private things with him that were not to be discussed with anyone else. And it was also his friendship with Gandhi which landed him in prison. He was imprisoned on several occasions. (See 'Nanabhai Bhatt in Prison', Monkey Shadows - it's also in my Selected Poems). One of the unusual and ironic aspects about my grandfather was his love for Shakespeare and Tennyson, which I describe in the above mentioned poem. After Independence my grandfather was the Minister of Education in Gujarat - but he resigned very quickly because he preferred teaching to politics.

Did you show your work to people then? There is a poem in which you talk about reading your poems to an older man who says, 'Just continue'. So did you generally show them to your family or were they something secret?

Well, yes and no! The poem you refer to is 'Swami Anand' (from Brunizem). And the incident described in the poem occurred when I was seventeen. Yes, I did show my work to certain people such as Swami Anand (who had been a close friend of my grandfather's and of Gandhi's). It would have been rude of me not to share my work with him - especially since he specifically asked me to do so. I also showed my work to some of my teachers in school - this was in America. I was very keen on getting feed-back so I could 'revise and improve'. But I kept my poems largely secret on various levels: 1. by not allowing most people - especially not my parents - to read them and 2. writing in a way that prevented the reader from knowing the 'full story'. And that was one thing I have always liked about poetry: that one can say a lot of things obliquely or in code. My parents knew that I was writing but that was something they didn't really encourage as it took away time that I should have spent on my homework! Also, they didn't take my writing seriously. They tolerated the fact that I wrote but they thought of it as my 'hobby', and as something I would 'grow out' of eventually. In a way, that was great for me because it guaranteed my privacy and I didn't have to live up to any expectations regarding my poetry. From the beginning, writing poems has always been intricately bound up with my life - it was not an academic exercise, nor was it a career move. It was my 'self' that I wanted to please.

When did you learn English? And when did you leave India? What was the reason for leaving? And how did you feel being in America? What can you remember about those early experiences?

I left India twice: first to New Orleans from the time I was five until I was eight, when we returned to India - and then later to Connecticut 'for good' when I was twelve. I learned English when I was five. But I have no memory of learning it! I describe this in my poem 'New Orleans Revisited' (from Augatora). Also the poem 'History is a Broken Narrative' (from Augatora) describes learning English in New Orleans first and then returning to India and learning a different type of English. This is the first time that I mention those New Orleans years in my poems. For some reason I tend to ignore that time and feel that I truly left India only when I was twelve. According to my mother, I was devastated in New Orleans when I realised that I had to speak English since no one spoke Gujarati, Marathi or Hindi - the only languages I spoke at the time. She has told me that I was very angry and resistant but after a month I spoke English. Although I continued to speak Gujarati with my parents. I do not remember this period, which is odd because I remember incidents that happened before this, in India. I think it's my brain's way of coping - by blocking out whatever pain I experienced then. Otherwise I have many good memories of New Orleans, I had many friends and I enjoyed school. However, I was not sad about leaving New Orleans. I knew and felt (probably from my parents) that our 'home' was in India. I had not really forgotten it. So when we returned to Poona (or Pune as it's now called) I felt happy and quickly felt 'at home'. And that was the year I started writing. However when I was twelve I was not happy to leave Poona and was quite miserable in New Haven, Connecticut. This time of course I was fluent in English (I had been attending an English convent school in Poona). But I missed the rest of my family and my friends - and I basically missed India. I missed the climate, the atmosphere, the spirit of the place. This time I found it more difficult to adjust to the move. There were very few Indians in America - let alone in Connecticut, at that time. And there were even fewer Indians who were around my age. Increasingly I felt alienated and out of place. However, I did enjoy school. For once I felt that creativity and independent thinking were actively encouraged. And we were learning a lot more at school in Connecticut than we had been in Poona. I used to spend a great deal of time at the public library in our neighbourhood in New Haven.

Both trips were connected with my father's work. He is a scientist - a virologist (see the poem 'The Virologist' in Augatora). We went to New Orleans because he had received a scholarship to study for a yet another degree. And then we went to Connecticut because Yale University invited him out of the blue, so to speak, to begin and establish a programme of virus research within their Department of Comparative Medicine. My father was the first scientist to start tissue culture in India and to investigate certain tropical diseases and viruses - he was a pioneer of sorts and many people admired his work. Actually he never really wanted to settle in America. He had received other invitations earlier from various institutions in the US but he had declined them all. However this invitation came at a time when the death of one of his brothers followed by the death of that brother's wife left him with three more children to support than he had planned to. Being the eldest he was responsible not only for them but also for his younger brothers and sisters. Financially he was at a loss. And so this sudden invitation from Yale felt like fate and seemed like the best way to keep the family together. All these years he has always sent money to many of our relatives. And as far as his work was concerned he felt that he received more creative freedom at Yale and better facilities to do the sort of research that would ultimately benefit countries such as India.

How was your writing affected by the move? What were your literary influences?

When I was twelve, I started to write more than ever before. And I was quite prolific during my teenage years. Right from the beginning, in India, the English tradition was very present for me. My earliest models were Christina Rossetti and Walter de la Mare. At the same the time, the Indian tradition was equally present, first in the form of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the classic Akbar and Birbal stories (for children) - as well as Gujarati folk tales and poems. Of course, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are epics that accompany one throughout one's life.

Once I arrived in America, I was confronted with the American tradition as well. Twentieth century American poetry has clearly shaped me. I read all the 'great masters' at a young age - and I was attracted to completely different sorts of writers such as Eliot and Williams or Bishop and Stevens. Of course, the English tradition was continually present: I was also deeply moved by Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf. And I should not underestimate the importance of the Irish tradition to me during those years, in the form of Yeats, Joyce, and Kavanagh. At the same time I was reading a lot of literature in translation: writers such as Lorca, Neruda, Borges, Rilke, Celan, as well as Akhmatova and Z. Herbert - to name a few. And I kept in touch with Gujarati poetry. But all along I felt that no one really spoke for me, no one had a life as strangely disjointed as mine - and so I felt alone in my writing, I felt that my writing did not 'fit in' with either the Eastern or the Western tradition. The poem 'Search for My Tongue' (in Brunizem and in the Selected Poems) grew out of this feeling. It was only after Brunizem was completed that I started reading other Indian poets who were writing in English such as A.K. Ramanujan, Nissim Ezekiel and Jayanta Mahapatra - among many others. And yet, in many ways I also felt separate and different from these writers.

And did you manage to go back to visit your family and friends?

Yes, I did. And that further strengthened my bonds with India and with my family and friends there. By the time I was seventeen I wanted to go to university in India.

Yes, I was going to ask you about that choice. What happened?

My father was totally opposed to that idea. He was very keen on my having an American education. At that time he expected me to become a scientist, like him. So for my undergraduate studies I went to a small liberal arts college near Baltimore, Goucher College. And after my first year I was actually glad to be there.

What did you study?

I started out studying science, which was what my father wanted. But then, during my second year I took a course in philosophy which made me change my plans. In the end, I received a degree both in philosophy and in English. A 'double major', as it's called there. And yet, I remained interested in science (especially biology) and had continued to take a large number of science courses which enabled me to work at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School for a while.

Well, from the beginning I felt that it would be 'wrong' for me to be a scientist because I was not as passionate or obsessed about science as I was about writing and literature. And the first course in philosophy that I took forced me to confront my mistake.

Did your father accept your decision?

Yes, he did with some misgivings. And for a long time he was worried about how I would fare. It was the first time I did something contrary to his advice. Given my background, it was a drastic step for me. He felt that I was taking a big risk but I felt that my life would be false and ruined if I became a scientist. My mother, on the other hand, supported my decision to study philosophy and English. She sympathised with my interests. As I mention above, it's only recently that I've learned about how her desire to do more work in literature was thwarted by my paternal grandfather.

And did you enjoy English and philosophy at Goucher College?

Yes, very much so.

Because those years, and the American experiences generally, don't feature very much in your poetry, do they? My sense was that the poems that are set in America were much more recent, they were an older person's perspective.

That's right. Usually I cannot write about something if I'm right in the middle of experiencing it. I need to have a certain amount of distance from my subject. And yes, it is only recently that I can also write about a topic that is set in North America.

Yes, like that lovely sequence of 'Freak Waves'. So what happened, then, after college? Did you decide, 'I'm going to be a poet'? Because you went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, didn't you? How did that come about? And what was it like?

After college I worked at a variety of jobs (especially as a research assistant at the JHU Medical School) for several years and I also travelled to Europe for the first time. Meanwhile I was still writing poetry. And then I reached a point where I wanted to return to an academic environment. At first I was torn between English and philosophy but then I felt that a creative writing programme would be the most suitable option for me. I decided to apply to the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa because I had heard many good comments about that particular writing programme. One of the main things I was interested in was the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree, which I hoped would help me obtain a teaching position at some university. I didn't expect the degree or the programme to 'make me a poet'. In some ways I already felt that I was a poet (much of Brunizem was already written) - and I have always felt that my success or failure as a writer depends entirely on me and not on some external source.

I had already taken a creative writing workshop during my undergraduate years with the poet Eleanor Wilner - who, since those days, is my true mentor and the perfect or 'ideal' reader of my work. I still share my poems with her and depend on her comments. She has been one of the greatest influences on me and my writing.

But to return to Iowa: Yes, it was a 'useful' and valuable experience for me. One is not 'taught' how to write, one isn't 'taught' anything. None the less, one 'learns' so much (if one wants to) in a very short space of time - it's almost surreal. My time in Iowa was one of the most exciting, magical, challenging, irritating - and above all, confusing periods in my life. Yes, it was wonderful, and I repeat, magical. In the end, the most important thing I learned was to trust my own judgement, to follow my own instincts regardless of everything and everyone else. It was a good programme for those of us who were self-reliant, didn't mind working hard and didn't mind drowning in relentless self-questioning. I am still in touch with many of the writers I met there.

Another thing I liked about Iowa was the International Writing Program (IWP) where writers from all over the world were invited to be basically present for a semester. These writers were free to use their time as they saw fit. Many of them, of course, spent their time writing but they also gave readings and talks and I found their presence quite stimulating - especially in a place like Iowa. I also took several translation workshops run by Daniel Weissbort (who has now returned to England). And that was also the time when I began to translate Gujarati poetry into English. I truly enjoyed Danny Weissbort's classes.

So the impetus to get published, how did that form itself? Because you commented earlier on how private the instinct has always been.

Well, to begin with, the workshop environment eliminates the privacy and secrecy of a poem. So, especially at Iowa I had started to feel that my work was fairly public. Early on Eleanor Wilner had encouraged me to send poems out to magazines. (Although I've never been very good about sending work to magazines - something which I hope to change now.) Later, when Brunizem was complete she encouraged me to find a publisher. Meanwhile, Danny Weissbort suggested I try British publishers. And I realised that eventually I would have to begin publishing if I wanted to 'get anywhere'. Also publishing is a way of 'letting go' of old work which is sometimes necessary in order to begin new work. Three years passed between the time Brunizem was complete and Carcanet published it.

And why Carcanet?

PNR was the first magazine to publish my work in Britain and soon Carcanet expressed an interest in my manuscript. Basically they were the first to accept it.

And how does it feel when a new book comes out? To go back to the secrecy thing, really, because in some of your poems there is a very strong voice that seems to be autobiographical, and generous about what it's giving. So how does it feel to have that work out in the public arena?

It feels strange in various ways. Well, after I submit a manuscript I've always felt very sad and empty. And once the book is out, the feeling of emptiness is even more pronounced. For me, the happiest moment is when I'm in the middle of a book. Or the best time is when I'm in the middle of a poem and it's going well, but there's still a lot to work on. I am at another level of being then. It's almost as if I'm in a trance. But after something is finished I feel that it has gone away from me, it's out of my hands - and I feel as if I have lost something. And I find that the only cure for that is to begin a new poem and a new book. To go back to the voice in my poems: I believe that the 'I' in my poems is someone different from the 'I' in my prose, and is not exactly the 'I' who lives in the world. In fact, sometimes I wish that in my daily life I could be as confident as the voice in my poems. So to some extent, from the beginning, I have a sense of the poem and the voice in the poem as being 'other' from me. The voice in my poems comes from a different source from the voice in my prose. In my poem, 'The Voices' (in The Stinking Rose) I've developed this idea (which is more than an idea - it is my experience) that I feel connected to more than one voice and that each voice is 'true' in its own way. No matter how autobiographical a poem is I feel that once it's published it has a life of its own, separate from mine. On the other hand, shortly before Brunizem came out, my parents came across a copy of the manuscript (in my room) which they read - and they were quite shocked and upset by it. They felt dishonoured and they strongly disapproved of many of the poems in it, such as all the erotic poems. They felt that I was breaking all their taboos by writing about things that should not even be mentioned. For a while we were not on speaking terms. There was a major rift between us which my brother helped to resolve. Nowadays they seem to be more relaxed about my work. Although the fact that my books were well received by the public did help.

One of the things that's so striking and lovely about your work, is its sensuality: the eroticism of your writing. Students love 'White Asparagus', and there's that beautiful poem about your daughter's birth, where you talk about the feeling of loss, an immediate physical feeling of loss. I was very struck by that. And I was also thinking about what you said about when the book comes out...

Yes, the same feeling.

Yes. It's interesting that, the sort of connection between different forms of creativity. I wondered if you could say anything about the eroticism in your writing? Is that something that took a long time to be able to give expression to?

No, the erotic poems were not difficult to write. They were written spontaneously, impulsively - with a great need to write them, a need to break certain silences surrounding female sexuality - but without any audience in mind. And, of course, the earliest ones were written when I had no thoughts of publishing. Also, I did not see myself literally in these poems - but myself looking at some 'other' self or at another imagined woman in the poem.

Do you write to a routine? I mean, do you start at a particular hour, or do you wait for a mood? Or do you decide you can do a bit of analysing of something you wrote previously, one day, and then another day you'll work more on what comes up? Can you say a bit about how you write? I want to ask you as well about the form, because it's very noticeable how much you use the line break, and how often you use internal spacing. As far as I'm aware, you haven't written much that's metrically orthodox. And I wondered if you could say a bit about how the form comes to you.

I do and I don't write to a routine. After my daughter was born and while she was very small I used to write whenever she slept. Once she started kindergarten and school I began to write in the mornings - while she was out. If I'm in a strong writing phase or if I have deadlines to meet then I'm writing day and night and I have practically no time to spare for anything else. When I'm absorbed in a poem it won't leave my thoughts and I won't be able to truly concentrate on anything else until it's finished. Conversely, if I feel empty or unable to write then no amount of sitting at my desk will help. I do work on several different poems at the same time - and then if I'm stuck on one, I switch over to another one where I might make more progress.

Sometimes my choice for a poem is determined by the subject or the topic. The structure or the form of the poem and the rhythm, cadence, metre, tone, diction, syntax within the poem all come together with the subject matter. The poem comes out as a piece, as an organic unit, if it's going to work. Frequently, what happens to me is that I might have one line in my head and if I write it down it leads to more lines. Then, in a few hours or a few days I might have a poem. A poem has to have its own life and its own rhythm - just as a baby is born with its own blood in its veins. When I'm writing a poem it has to come naturally. The poem has to create its own form while it is in the process of being written. I cannot impose a form upon it. Of course, in the end I have to polish it up until it sounds right. I always have to read my work aloud while I'm in the process of writing and revising. When I feel that I have a certain rhythm in my mind that's connected with the images and ideas, then I feel that I'm able to write. When I have a phase where I feel that I can't write, it usually means that I have no music in my mind, or no thoughts that are working in a way connected with music. Also, I feel that the poem has to have a certain energy to begin with - and when I'm writing this energy has to appear and take over, so to speak. I attribute my style and my voice to sheer luck. In a way, I am blind to my own technique. Ultimately, I rely so much upon instinct and intuition.
I have written sestinas and sonnets in the past. The first draft of my poem 'Muliebrity' (in Brunizem) was a rondeau. But it was quite sterile, in my opinion. The poem as it is now is much richer and it has still retained a certain circular movement. I find that writing in strict, traditional forms has never worked for me - although I enjoy reading writers such as Richard Wilbur who are good with those forms.

How would you compare or evaluate your books?

In a way I can't evaluate my books because that would be like trying to evaluate and judge my life. I don't regret any of my books and I don't have any favourites. One thing to notice right away is that all my books are different. I don't imitate or copy myself - to my great relief. I was lucky that the different ideas or different styles just started to happen by themselves. And there have been plenty of changes in my life since Brunizem came out and that has also affected my writing.

Do you think, if you couldn't write, you would be physically ill? Is it that strong an urge?

Yes, absolutely.

One of the things I did want to ask you about was your use of visual capacities. A lot of your poems are very strikingly visual, and it's also clear that painters are very important to you as inspiration. And I wondered if you could say a bit about that, perhaps?

Sometimes the light in a painting will clarify a private incident for me in a way that no amount of reasoning and 'thinking' can. I suppose I've always been a visual person and I've always been interested in art. I used to paint and draw a lot during my teenage years. In fact, it was something I did well into my twenties. And actually I would like to start painting again.

In my poem 'The Fish Hat' (in Monkey Shadows) much of the poem was already in my mind when I saw Picasso's painting during a trip to Amsterdam and looking at the painting made everything fall into place for me. So several different inspirations and experiences fused together in the writing of that poem. More recently, in my 'Ria Eng Poems' (in Augatora) looking at Ria Eng's sculptures somehow freed my imagination to create stories and lives and even names (which she kept then as titles) for her figures. Also, she told me a little bit about how she created the sculptures: the materials she used and the various methods - and I used that information to some extent, as in the poems 'Birthday Totem Pole' and 'Beeswax and Snakeskin Head'.

At the moment I am working on a series of poems connected with the German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. My forthcoming book, A Colour for Solitude, is concerned exclusively with Modersohn-Becker, her paintings and her relationships with people such as Rilke. In a way I've been working on this book for almost eight years - doing the background research. I am particularly interested in her self-portraits which are unusual and radical for a woman of her time.

At the same time I'm writing poems about completely different topics - as my poems can't be stifled or forced. So the poems not connected with Modersohn-Becker will go into another collection.

I wonder if you could tell me a bit about the importance of dreams in, and to, your writing?

Dreams are important to me - and sometimes they can be powerful. A dream, however, is not a poem. One has to be very careful when using dream material in a poem. There's always the danger that the dream fails to come to life within the poem or that the dream doesn't allow the poem to acquire the freedom it needs in order to become a poem in its own right. Myths pose similar problems. Sometimes a dream will clarify a poem that I'm in the process of writing. Sometimes lines will occur to me in a dream. My poem, 'The Dream' (in Augatora) is an example of how a dream literally turned itself into a poem. It was a very vivid dream - and the poem basically wrote itself.

How has science affected your writing? Earlier you mention that you remained interested in science. And you have a number of poems, especially in Monkey Shadows, that explore scientific themes.

My laboratory poems are all drawn from my experiences - they were unexpected, unplanned poems as most of my poems are - they were poems that needed to be written. My desire to research certain topics such as the plant 'garlic' for certain poems in The Stinking Rose or to know more about the patterns of waves and floods (in addition to reading historical documents) for my poem 'The Hole in the Wind' in Augatora is no doubt an influence from the scientific approach. It is a desire to be accurate and precise. Also, if I'm writing about another species then I like to know as much as possible about that species - even if I don't use all the information in the poem. Of course, there are so many imaginary details in the above mentioned poems - it's as if my imagination needed some hard facts to dive off from.

Obviously one of the most significant hallmarks about your writing is the polylinguism - the Gujarati and the English - and, presumably, also the experience of living in Germany. You must speak German, I suppose? When and how - or why did you move to Germany? And could you talk about the complexity of the different languages feeding into your work?

I moved to Germany shortly before Brunizem was published. My husband is German - he is also a writer. I had met him during my first semester at Iowa. He had been invited to participate in the International Writing Program. We had stayed in touch and there came a point when we felt that we would rather stay together than apart so I moved to Germany. I didn't know any German at the time. We communicated in English (which we still do) since his English is quite perfect. But then I did study German after I came over. And I do read a fair amount of poetry in German.

I had studied Spanish and French at college. Spanish, because I wanted to read Lorca in the original and French, because I wanted to get to the essence of Sartre. Ideally, I would like to be fluent in at least a hundred different languages. Each language offers a different perspective on life, a different way of organising the world. I find it tiresome and simplistic when people claim that one language is absolutely 'better' than another.

I am fascinated by Steven Pinker's work. In his book, The Language Instinct, Pinker demonstrates how language and thought are two different things and how thought is not dependent upon language - nor is it determined by language. And that thought is possible without language. And it is only if and when one wants to express thought verbally (as opposed to say, musically or mathematically) that one searches for 'the right words', so to speak. I find that very true if I consider my own experience. When I am most deeply absorbed in writing a poem I feel that I am 'translating' images, and sounds, rhythms, and an emotional 'tone' into words.

I have never been monolingual, so I don't know what that feels like. I think sometimes I experience my languages like a concrete medium: like different colours of paint, for example. I'm intrigued by the way various languages coexist in one mind, the way they might clash and interfere with each other - but also the way they can enhance one another. It may well be that knowing all these languages and having had to live in different languages makes me more conscious of 'the right word' and of feeling that any given language is almost like a separate being. On another level, perhaps knowing several languages just means one has a larger vocabulary, or that one knows a few more words. I am no doubt influenced by this but I cannot provide an analysis of 'how' it affects my writing in concrete or exact terms - because so much of this influence is unconscious. Although occasionally it emerges 'consciously' and playfully as in 'Search for My Tongue' (in Brunizem) or more recently in the poem 'A Detail from the Chandogya Upanishad' (in Augatora). Well, in any case, English is basically the only language I write in. And ultimately, I do feel that it is 'my' language.

I wanted to ask you about your feelings about 'the woman poet', the significance of your sex. Could you say a bit about what effect you think that has, or has had, over your writing?

Part of the reason I have poems about women's experiences (such as menstruation and childbirth) is because I tend to write out of my own life - it is my life that I am trying to understand. In many poems I've changed things or put in a lot of fiction: often I have a female character who is not me, but an imagined woman in a different time and a different place. Of course, in some way these imaginary women are connected to me. In my opinion 'women's experiences' are universal subjects. People can forget that half the population is female and that pregnancy and childbirth are experiences that also affect men. Also, there is so much silence connected with the female story and the female voice - I have grown up with that silence in my family - and so on another level I feel that I am trying to break a private historical silence. So yes, being a woman has had a major effect on my writing. For me the mind and the body are very closely connected. I am certain that my poems (even the ones about 'neutral' themes) would be completely different if I were a man.

I remember as a girl in India how I dreaded becoming a woman, how upset and disillusioned I felt when I got my period for the first time - because everywhere around me I could see that women were treated as second class citizens, or worse. I'm pleased to see that my daughter is so much more relaxed and calmer about it. Of course, she is growing up in a different time and place - Western Europe. Also, I've consciously tried to give her a more positive image of womanhood. At the moment I'm working on more poems exploring the 'udaylee' theme - for what I have written in Brunizem about menstruation (as I witnessed and experienced it in India) is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. My mother has started to break some of her silences with me. And I have been recording her memories of her childhood. For me, those are some of the most exciting and moving stories - those of her life from her perspective - told now when she is old and it's just the two of us and there are no elders left to prevent her from speaking. And even my father, if we include him in our conversation, is happy to just listen. And her memories illuminate some of the confusing parts of my childhood - and in turn clarify for me my own relationship with my daughter. I don't know what I will write about these experiences - poems, stories, who knows? But in the end this is what really matters to me.

Do you think that you can see a difference in men and women's poetry?

Yes and no. On the one hand, there are always some poems that are so obviously male or female. On the other hand, certain poems are 'neutral' and don't seem to be imbued with gender. And then, there are some poets who are quite good at adopting a persona or voice of the opposite gender - thus blurring the distinctions even more.

Can you say a bit about how you feel, as a poet who must often be asked for some kind of political comment or analysis on India...what do you think your role is, in that respect?

One of the traditional roles of the poet is to be the spokesperson, the most articulate speaker for the nation, or for the tribe. Given my family background, I have always felt intimately connected with Indian politics, history and social issues. And so, I've always felt 'responsible' and acutely aware of the situation in India. On the other hand, as a poet, I feel that I should also just write about anything that moves me: animals or plants, or whatever - and not be someone who is constantly making political statements. I don't know if that makes sense?

Yes, it does. I mean, there seems to be a very strong implication in your work that people can't understand a place without experiencing it, and so it would be futile for you to even try to be giving them a sense of what it's like. I think you say, you know, 'Go there and do it. Don't ask me what hunger's like', etc.

Yes, that's from the poem 'Go to Ahmedabad' (in Brunizem). And that's exactly what I feel. In any place, and especially in India, the history is so complicated, the situation today is so complex, that one cannot make general statements. One cannot 'explain' it in simple terms. So I think it's better, sometimes, just to reveal, or to describe something, but not to present a solution, not to say: 'This is how one should understand it.' Instead, I prefer to ask: 'Well, how can one understand it?' Or, how does one begin to understand it?' And perhaps one can never 'understand' certain things. One just tries to. But it always remains a mystery, or it always remains unsolved. Obviously, there are situations where this does not apply.

Yes. You often seem to use poems as the place to think things through, and you ask some very big questions in them, like, 'Which language has not been the oppressor's tongue?' And 'What is worth knowing?' And various others. Can you say a bit about that? Is poetry the place for thinking things through?

For me, poetry is a place where there are tensions and contradictions in the language, and also in the things being discussed. So, yes, I feel that poetry is a place where things can be questioned and examined.

You were in India recently after a long absence. What was that like?

Emotionally it was a very intense experience - in a positive way. I'm still in the process of sorting out the trip in my mind. I revisited most of the places of my childhood. And also explored parts of India where I had never been before. I felt very close to Poona and to Ahmedabad - at times I felt that I had never left. And then there were moments when I re-experienced all the pain I had felt during my various departures from India as a teenager - and as a woman. In an odd, surreal way I frequently felt that 'this is where I truly live' - this happened a lot in Poona. And when I returned to Germany I didn't really feel 'far away' or distant from India. But maybe that's because I know that I will be going there again later this year and that I hope to travel to India on a more regular basis.


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