Continuing our Poet of the Month interview series, Shanta Acharya talks to Maida Salkanović about the pros and cons of writing from personal experience, crossing boundaries (both cultural and personal), and the price we pay for artistic freedom.
‘Ambala’ describes the narrator’s personal experience. Would it be wrong to equate the narrator with the poet here? How important is the role of the author’s personal experience in writing poetry?
As with all artistic creations, a work of art is both subjective and objective. Whether it springs directly from the writer’s personal experience, in my view, is not relevant. Inspiration can come from anywhere, the challenge is how well the poem communicates itself. It will be naïve to think that a poet can write successfully without great empathy.
Writers are chameleon creatures, even when they write about their personal experiences. They observe themselves with the detachment of an outsider. Sylvia Plath’s confessional poems are fine examples. It is safer on the whole not to conclude that everything one writes about is ‘personal’ for often even the so-called ‘personal’ stuff is transmuted in the process of writing.
I have written poems that originated from direct personal experience, but ‘Ambala’ is not among them. Over the past year, for example, I wrote several poems that deal directly with women’s issues, specifically relating to violence. None of these poems are based on my ‘personal’ experiences. ‘Nirbhaya‘ (published by Asia Literary Review and Muse India) was inspired by the death of Jyoti Singh Pandey who was gang-raped in a bus in Delhi in December 2012. ‘Alesha’s Confession’ (published in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing) was based on the honour killing of Shafilea Iftikhar Ahmed by her parents in Warrington, UK, in September 2003. ‘Ambala’ had the quickest turnaround. I wrote the poem within days of hearing a discussion on FGM on Radio 4, and sent it off to The Missing Slate. It was published online within a fortnight.
Do you find that poetry derived from personal experiences is often more powerful than poetry discussing the non-personal?
No, not necessarily. I’ve cited three poems above, which are not ‘personal’. I would like to think they were ‘powerful’ enough for editors to publish them. Besides, not all writing based on personal experiences take wings. The personal can stand in the way of the poet’s/ writer’s ability to express the experience objectively. It’s the skill of the writer, her/his mastery of the subject that matters, not the source of the inspiration. For some, poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” (William Wordsworth) For others, “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” (T.S. Eliot) As Niels Bohr reminds us, the opposite of a great truth is also true.
The poem touches upon the notion of privacy and symbolically entering each other’s worlds, crossing into each other’s comfort zones. What can we get from mixing different cultures, different worlds? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
This is an interesting question—the issue of privacy/ one’s space versus crossing such boundaries. When such passages occur naturally—innocently and unintentionally as is the case in the poem—it leads to unexpected revelations and connections. It is not just a matter of having the experience and missing the meaning. There is no sense of violation in the crossing. It is more a bridge, like holding one’s hand, when juxtaposed with the violation that Ambala has experienced in her past. When you ask what we get from mixing different cultures and different worlds implies an element of premeditation. In the poem there is no such suggestion, both women act instinctively, unconsciously.
Major discoveries are often made accidentally, at the margins. Ask any scientist, and they will admit to the role that sheer luck or chance plays in the greatest of scientific discoveries. What is needed is an ‘open mind’. Continents were discovered by sheer accident. Similarly, we find out about ourselves and the ‘other’ when we step out of our comfort zones. Sometimes, people as much as nations create the concept of the ‘other’ to define themselves. Remember Cavafy’s poem, ‘Waiting for The Barbarians’?
At the same time, we all need boundaries and value our privacy. Just imagine your phone being hacked or your email being compromised. We could not survive without our privacy, we need such protection, containment and self-definition. It is vital we respect each other’s boundaries—individuals as much as nations cannot exist, otherwise.
Yet there is something within us that compels us to take risks, without such an impulse we would still be living in caves. There are gains to be made by crossing into each other’s space, mixing up different cultures. If that opens up new ways of seeing the world, it can be a good thing. One can’t always be sure of the outcome though. People do not like change. Purity is often highly prized. We shun mongrels, the concept of mixed-race is anathema to many. Genetically modified food has its detractors. So, not all experiments are successful—Frankenstein’s monster is just one example. Not all transgressions lead to the Holy Grail. Nations go to war and remain in a state of conflict when boundaries are violated.
Even in personal interactions, in the most intimate of relationships, how far one can stray into the other’s consciousness is a mystery, it is negotiated between the individuals concerned. In ‘Ambala’ the transgression leads to understanding, compassion and friendship. But, it is not possible to predict how two people will react when the defences are down. We can say it is a matter of individual ‘choice’. Yet the concept of choice is often misunderstood.
One thing is certain—and that is ‘change’. Nature is constantly in the throes of change. Yet there are ‘natural laws’ that all of creation is subject to. It is a matter of finding a way through these apparently opposing forces. Everything has two sides—one benign and the other not so. This doubleness—of worlds, of words—is eternally present. Ralph Waldo Emerson warns us in ‘The American Scholar’: “All things have two handles: beware of the wrong one.”
The issue of female genital mutilation is generally underreported in the world media. Do you think poetry could be the medium through which people can raise awareness about this important issue? Can poetry be an agent for meaningful change?
Poetry can indeed be an agent for meaningful change, but that is not the sole purpose of poetry. Nor is it the job of poets to reform society. However, poetry is a way of raising awareness about social issues. When that happens, even in a small way, as it does, it is immensely valued. Having said that, there are poets who have reformist ideas, but society rejects them for any number of reasons—ranging from the poet’s inability to communicate as much as to society’s inability and unpreparedness to respond.
Rainer Maria Rilke once said that “for all the world’s sake something must be done. Those who have these disturbing thoughts must begin to do some of the neglected things … There is no one else at hand.” He was referring to events that were taking place in his lifetime. We are all exposed to our own terrors that human beings unleash on each other. For poets, doing something may mean writing a poem. Poetry makes things happen by changing the way we see things. In his ‘Defence of Poetry’, Shelley claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” For him there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. Would a Shelley be appreciated today? Each one of us determines the limits of our engagement. As Rilke reminds us, poetry is about everything.
In the contemporary world of heightened awareness about the issues of various socio-political groups, does a poet have a responsibility to raise important social issues or is she/he free to write about whichever topic occupies her/his mind? Are there any moral/ethical implications of writing non-political poetry?
Poets should be free to choose what they write. Freedom of expression is paramount. It is up to the poet to assume responsibility, and great poets have consistently done so. It is difficult to think of poets today who occupy the status that Homer had in his time. Even Plato (who was hostile towards poetry and poets) acknowledged Homer as the poet who “educated Greece.” By contrast, poetry seems relatively marginal in today’s large commercial and liberal societies.
“We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us … Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze it with itself, but with its subject,” said Keats. The poems that appeal most are the ones with a higher level of this quality of transcendence, shock of recognition, the ‘aha’ factor, the power to transform, a kind of a revelation, often of quite elemental aspects of life such as truth and beauty.
Poets today may bear no responsibility to write poems with a social/moral message. Yet this freedom comes with a price. As Adrienne Rich points out, “I’m both a poet and one of the ‘everybodies’ of my country. I live with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion and social antagonism huddling together on the faultline of an empire.” There is no escaping the world one inhabits. However free we might imagine ourselves to be, we are all part of a limited construct – be it intellectual, historical, spiritual, etc. To that extent, poetry like any other art form is complicit in the violent realities of power.
Yet poetry has changed lives and societies, helped victims through untold tragedies and literally kept body and soul together. As none of us is free of biases, what we ascribe to poetry speaks more of us than of poetry. Our limitations and prejudices influence all we think, do. Our world view shapes who we are. Like love or compassion, poetry is the highest altruistic response to the world. Through poetry we aspire to live more fully in our imagination, and in doing so we share a sense of belonging to the universe. “A good poem,” wrote Dylan Thomas, “helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”