Photograph © Hemant Sareen
(At the launch of Jeet's These Errors Are Correct)
Photograph © Hemant Sareen
The full text of the interview appears in 'M' Magazine, May-June 2007 issue, a New Delhi-based men's magazine. The interview took place in New Delhi on 9 March 2007.
The People’s Poet
Indian English poets are like missing persons. They exist in absence in the popular mind. While stellar Indian writers of fiction in English hog the limelight and pocket the million-dollar advances, Indian English poets seem to occupy a hinterland untouched by the market’s realities or its benefits, and most painfully, by people’s curiosity. Indian poetry in English is considered unnatural and redundant. There is much prejudice against poetry, and against poets. While poetry will never be accessible to those who do not appreciate its compressed expanse, poets are becoming accessible, drawing a new audience to the ancient urge to versify.
Jeet Thayil is one such mountain who has come near Mohammed. Having lived in almost half the world till his youth, Thayil’s poetry, drawing on such varied experiences, including his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, seems to have found resonance with our times, caught between old angsts and a promissory exuberance.
His last book of poems English won high praise from peers and readers, as he playfully, precisely, unfussily captures the multihued flares and rushes of contemporary living: the fast-paced to-and-fro of people and ideas, the heady fluidity of human relationships, man’s cheeky tryst with nature, and inescapable nostalgia.
In a conversation with Hemant Sareen, he reveals the impulses behind his poetry, and why Indian English poetry could be the next big thing in contemporary culture.
Hemant Sareen: When did you start writing poetry?
Jeet Thayil: I was fourteen and I wrote in imitation of Baudelaire and Bob Dylan. Strange combination, but they were my early models.
HS: Was that in Kerala?
JT: No, actually in Hong Kong. I was living in there, and we used to come to India every two years. We would visit Kerala, where I met my uncle. He introduced me to Baudelaire. He had a library full of books on and by Baudelaire. He was translating many of them [into Malayalam].
I had no idea what that introduction meant till much later. Because I didn’t know the facts about Baudelaire: that he was an addict, an alcoholic, and that he died of syphilis, things that make him such an unsuitable role model. But I loved the poems and I tried to translate some by myself. I wrote a lot of poetry in imitation.
HS: When did poetry become an adult vocation?
JT: That was much later. I wrote a lot of poetry, bad poetry, which I got rid of, and I am so glad that there are no traces left of them, and nobody will ever find them. I came to Bombay to do a BA, and at that time I started to read a lot of Indian and British contemporary poetry, including Dom Moraes', who was living in Bombay at that time. Again, I started to write poems, influenced by the writers I was reading.
Out of these poems, I destroyed many. But out of these, I also kept a few. Though I have to say, that I destroyed more poems than I kept.
By the time I got to thirty, I had twenty poems that I had not destroyed. And they went into my first collection Gemini.
HS: How was the Bombay of the late '70s? It's just been through the Emergency. Was it very political?
JT: It was not political. lt was freedom and innocence. Thriving kind of place. You could say whatever you wanted to say, criticise Hindus, Muslims, Christians. It was like a Cajun. The milieu was so hard and so democratising that there was no room for distinction. Everybody was equalised by the city. And that was a beautiful thing.
I came to India in 1977, after the Emergency. It really was never a factor. At that tim I wasn’t very politically inclined. Which I think now was a lack. I was very self-involved. Not at all aware.
In many ways the revolution that happened in Indian poetry in the 1970s was that it showed us that you didn’t have to write about daffodils and skylarks. That you could write about vultures and butterflies. You could write about grime and dirt, and these were fit subjects for poetry. A lot of earlier Indian poets never really wrote about these things. They saw English poetry a s kind of arm of English poetry.
HS: It seems Bombay was full of poets?
JT: Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, and Adil Jussawalla. They were the Holy Trinity, or you could say, the Unholy Trinity.
But for me during my BA at Wilson College in Bombay, they were the untouchables. They were beyond my experience. Although I had met Dom, when I was fourteen in New York where he and my father were colleagues at the UN, I had never really had the courage or the self-confidence to introduce myself to him.
HS: Where did this space for poetry come into Bombay? How come poetry caught the attention of the Illustrated Weekly of India and the Debonair which made and established poets?
JT: I think it was something to do with the seventies, the whole idea of counterculture. Things were in many ways more open at that time. That whole kind of dictatorship hadn’t yet been invented. Things were kind of more hopeful in many ways. But in about that time, the kind of writers who appeared for instance in Debonair’s literary pages, were amazing. Upamanyu Chatterjee, Boman Desai, Cyrus Mistry, Nissim, Adil, and Moraes. Imtiaz Dharekar edited this section. My first publication was between these pages.
HS: This was along with topless centrespreads?
JT: As the joke about Playboy was true, it applied for Debonair as well: often you bought it for the articles. This was specially true in the case of Debonair, the pin ups in it weren’t all that good.
HS: You write in one of your poems: ‘English fills my right hand, silence my left.’ Why is your left hand silent? Did you ever think of writing in your mother tongue, Malayalam?
JT: It’s a pleasure to be asked such a question, because it means you hear poetry as speech. [Not] just [as] words on a page. Reason why lots of us don’t hear poetry is because a legion of school teachers come between us and the poems. They tell us that poetry has to be about the great grand subjects and not about things that matter to you and me. And we forget that what poetry really is a man or a woman talking to you.
You realise that’s what it is when you go to a reading and hear somebody speak [out the poetry]. Which is why these days reading in Bombay, I can speak of novelists who are envious of the fact that poets get larger audiences than novelists do. To me that makes complete sense because poems are short.A poem can be merely a minute, two minutes. And you get it.That's a huge advantage.
In my first book, Gemini, there is line that says, ‘My mother tongue is not my mother’s tongue,’ because my mother’s tongue is Malayalam, but my mother tongue is English. It always has been. I spoke in English to both my parents. They spoke to me in English. I grew up breathing English and living in English. Although we lived in many different places -- Patna, Bombay, Hong Kong, New York, London -- for me the real home through all those moves was the language. And that was English.
Also, when I say ‘silence in my left hand,’ English is my right hand because that is the language I write in and also in the sense that you need silence to make the language come alive-- its silence, its pauses between words that provide music, provide the beat, that provides room for imagination.
HS: You talk of poets pulling larger crowds than our fiction writers. So you are saying that a ‘popular poet’ and ‘comprehensible poetry’ are no longer an oxymoron?
JT: Poetry reading is heard meaning. Its a spoken idiom. If you hear a poet speak a poem or read a poem, and you don’t get it, that’s a failure on the part of the poet. You really should [get it] because that is the pleasure of poetry. And it is a pleasure that has nothing to do with what it means. The last thing you should ask is, what does the poem mean. You should hear it. You should read it. You should say it out aloud, to hear what the words feel like in your mouth. With great poetry, you can feel it like a charge, like food.
HS: Pankaj Mishra observed that Indian poets are producing much better work than Indian writers writing fiction in English. How come poets are left high and dry as far as big advances and promotions by the publishers go?
JT: The beauty of poetry is that it has nothing to do with the marketplace. No poet has ever written a poem, thinking of an advance.
HS: Isn’t that deplorable?
JT: Ok, it would be great if poets made a little bit of money. But even in America, even the famous poets don't make money from their books, except for a handful, who teach and do all kinds of things to make money. In a way, that's not a bad thing because that gives these poets the kind of a moral authority that novelists don't have. And [gives them time] to work on their craft a bit more.
HS: I think Shashi Tharoor once said something about the Indian writer as being a good catch in public perception. So poets will be in low demand for years to come?
JT: Yeah, few parents would want to marry their daughters to a poet. And rightly so. Just kidding.
HS: But doesn't this culture of poverty put off potential poetry readers?
JT: Not the readers, but [potential] writers. Personally, I have no idea why a young person writes poetry. You have to be crazy, because it is very hard work, first of all. You start to do it, say, in your twenties, and its not until you're in your forties that you really understand what you are doing, or you have any idea if it was good. So, it takes years to learn your craft. Two, there is no money. Three, any kind of fame, if it comes, comes so late that you don’t even care at that point. With fiction, everything is much faster. So why would anyone want to write poetry, is really a mystery. That young people still want to and continue to write poetry is a beautiful thing. Poetry is one of the few things that has not been contaminated by the market place. That’s why we should worship it.
HS: You went to New York for your Masters in Fine Arts (MFA). What could a writing course have taught a published poet?
JT: Nothing. Its not going to teach you why to be a poet or how to be a poet. What it can do is to introduce you to other poets and writers, and show you the possibility of making a life out of poetry. Its going to give you constant ways of measuring yourself against others and it will sharpen your craft. But its not going to give you talent. You either have it, or you don’t. It’s not going to give you a gift, but if you have it, it’ll help you.
HS: That sounds like how they talk about an MBA from IIM or any other professional course?
JT: Absolutely. It is a professional degree. There is nothing mysterious about it. One of the papers I opted for was on the meter in poetry. The professor spoke for hours on this very technical subject. But each and every line she spoke, you could take it down and read it as a well-written essay later.
HS: What did New York do the the poet Jeet Thayil?
JT: Taught him humility, for one thing. And it taught me that once you leave the small pond that is English language poetry in India, out into that big ocean you are nowhere because there are so many poets who work so hard at their craft, who produce a book every other year, a book of 100 pages, are writing everyday. It really teaches you that you have no business calling yourself a poet unless you are working on it every day. That’s the fact of it. In India, a lot of our poets write a book and for ten years don’t write another one, because that one book book, they think they need in terms of fame and acclaim and all of that. You can write half a book and be invited to sit on a panel here. It comes too easy. Really, it comes too easy. And that can go to your head. You think you are a great poet, when really you are nothing.
HS: You read your poems, record them in collaboration with musicians. Now you have chosen ghazal, another poetic form that is specifically meant for performance. How did this idea of poetry as performance come?
JT: Poetry is performance. Poetry has always been an oral art. In the beginning, it were the bards. They read for hours to gatherings around the fire. They represented a certain poem and that poem they would recite for for hours. At that time, poetry was like the movies are today, entertainment, full of revenge, murder, and blood. And all this was in a poem.
But what has happened in the twentieth century is that we see poems as dead objects becoffined in a book. Now its coming back as a public art. Poets are out there reading their work. People are listening. They are winning audiences. Its a great thing, a beautiful, musical thing.
But for me, its two separate arts. Writing poetry, sitting alone there [points to the corner of his barsati-study where his desk with an ivory-and-glass pedestal iMac]. Sometimes, I write 50 to 70 drafts of a single poem. I work for months on one poem. The difficult ones take that kind of work. That work, that art, has nothing to do with the other art which is reading [the final poem] in the public. That is theatre. And it is a totally separate thing. Its new skill which you learn just by doing it.
When I started reading in the ‘90s, I was really bad at it. And I was very nervous. I remember one of the first readings I did was at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I was reading in a small tent and in the big tent you had big names like Rohinton Mistry, [HS: Salman Rushdie], Salman Rushdie, though I’m not certain he was there, but they were all certainly the bigger names. The poetry tent where the bunch of us were reading was really far away from the restroom. So, after reading, I got nervous, had to puke. I remember going out of the small tent walking quite a distance to it. Got there. With great relief puked. Looked at myself in the mirror, and thought what an idiot. And then realised I could hear someone else puking . It who turned out to be Ben Oakley, who was reading in the big tent.
HS: Who or what inspired you to write ghazal?
JT: Only one thing. And that was reading Agha Shahid Ali. I had read ghazals, but never taken them very seriously. I really thought of them as a kind of pop, disposable form associated with Jagjit Singh ghazals my mother used to listen to. I didn't trust it.
It wasn't until I heard Agha Shahid, and read his rules about ghazal that I realised what profound depth there was, what subtleties, what pleasure and delight there can be in a ghazal.
HS: Agha Shahid Ali who died in New York, was a typical poet in exile. He was full of angst for the plight of his land and people of the war-ravaged Kashmir. You are on the other hand a global citizen, modern, and with not much regard for angst. It seems strange that such two different poets share a common form of ghazal.
JT: I am not the kind of poet who never likes to meet people, who sits alone with all those clichés about poverty that you have to starve, you don’t care about anything, you just sit and write in poverty. Those are clichés, and they are damaging. And they are not true.
I enjoy meeting people. If I read a ghazal in a room full of people and there is one person there who does not respond, I feel I have failed. Its just the way it is. I don’t want to be in an ivory tower. I want to connect to people.
The reason I disregard angst is, because for decades I had made it my country. That was where I lived. Angst was mine, and no one else’s. I owned it for decades, and it was the most unproductive property I ever owned. Because nothing comes out of angst, except alcoholic delusions, many, many wasted years. The only thing that matters is good work. If it helps you produce good work, great.
HS: You seem to be advocating against substance abuse. Do they really don’t help the artist or his or her art?
JT: I think, the idea that you have to be unhappy to create is a cliché, hugely damaging, and when you come down to it, a lie.
HS: What about mental stimulation?
JT: It can come from anything. It does not have to come from alcohol. It can come from a cup of coffee. It can come from a conversation, a meeting with somebody you like. It can come from a flower.
HS: You must be addicted to something?
JT: Coffee. I am as obsessive about coffee as I was with other substances.
HS: What are you writing these days?
JT: Well, I am working on a book of fiction, a novel. I'm also editing a book of poetry, 60 Indian Poets, for Penguin, which is a kind of recasting of an anthology I edited for Fulcrum, a magazine in Boston. I will also be recasting it the third time for a British publisher.
And, I just completed a 100-page book of poems called, These Errors Are Correct, which I hope to issue along with a CD with collaborations that I made with musicians in the US, Italy, and in India.
HS: The critic Bruce King wrote in the review of English that you are after bigger things as you seek to place yourself successfully in larger frames of myth and history. This ability of self-projection recalls John Keruoac’s persona in On The Road, whose humanity, openness, off set his self-seeking egotism so that you never question yourself why should you be reading about a restless youngman.
JT: I have read the Beats a lot. Kerouac never entered poetry but the sensibility of the Beats certainly entered my life. I think that sensibility has to do with openness to experience, to be out there, in the street, on the road, rather than in your study building castles in your mind. It's about going out and putting yourself there. The word ‘Beat’ comes from ‘beatitude’ which is a kind of Buddhist idea of love. Kerouac coined the word because he wanted a word that would encapsulate what these writers felt and what they were trying to do, which was giving themselves to the world, to life, to other people. Something very beautiful.
HS: Is that your ideal of both literature and life?
JT: Absolutely! I think that’ what my poetry reading is all about.
HS: Did your irreverence come from the Beats too?
JT: Yes, it certainly did.
HS: And your humour?
JT: No, not from the Beats.
HS: So where did that come from?
JT: No, it took me a long time to be humorous, to learn to allow humour to come into a poem. That’s something very recent. I couldn’t have done that before English. Its only with English that I learnt to lighten up, that it was ok to joke in a poem.
HS: May be you had grown in self-confidence?
JT: I think, I took myself less seriously. I allowed myself to be a little looser, freer. Its a beautiful thing to have people laugh when they read your poem. I think, when you are young, your ideals about the world and yourself are very rigid. Young people, it’s not true, are open-minded. Very often they are very rigid about rules. And you have to grow older to grow younger in some ways.
HS: You are about to come out with 60 Indian Poets. When do you see a time when school children will be able to name 6 Indian poets?
JT: Hope soon. Years after this anthology is available, hope it will be part of their syllabus. It has all our great poets. I don’t see why this book cannot be taught in school.