Urvashi Bahuguna – interviewed by Sharanya Manivannan

by TBLM

Terrarium opens on a poem about girls who “had the world at the instep of their sole”, encouraged to run like they mean it by Mr. Joseph, who treated them like he did the boys. It seems to capture so much about what this collection is about: girls and women, connection to the (literal, muddy) earth, the speed and sudden shifts in life’s trajectories. It’s also about a specific person, a teacher, and the effect he had on these girls. Who was Mr. Joseph – is this poem an homage to a real person, or is he a composite? And is there anything in particular about the effect of teachers, good or bad, which you have found to be either true or contrasting on the field and in poetry?

He is real. This is the hardest question – because I haven’t shown him the poem. I am embarrassed or afraid or both to show up to my old P. E. teacher and football coach and say: this is how I remember you this is what it means to me now. I struggle with real-world intimacy in a way I don’t in poems, I suppose. The emotions are true, I want to say them, to put them out in the world. Soon, I will tell him.

I suppose I see teachers I’ve learned under in classrooms or similar set-ups very differently from teachers out in the world. When you say, “the effect of teachers….in poetry,” I interpret that as teachers I’ve encountered in the world of poems. I might be mistaken. The first set taught a child, and the second set have influenced a more grown-up person. I was a little jaded up until I was twenty-one, twenty-two. So, when I look back, I marvel at any person who managed to teach me anything, who managed to pique and hold my interest, who stays with me in vivid memories. I met the woman who runs the library I went to as a child recently for an unrelated interview, and I thought she wouldn’t remember me. Instead, I didn’t even have to introduce myself. She remembered everything down to which books the library purchased because I was interested in them as a twelve-year-old. She introduced me, in passing, to someone who read the books that had been bought at my behest. I was smiling on the outside – inside, I was barely holding back tears. I was technically at work; how could I cry? The effect is so far out – I am a writer because I was encouraged to be a reader, I am also smarter, mentally healthier, have lived a richer life for the good teachers I have had the privilege to meet. Is every teacher this way? Of course not. The teachers I have met in poetry have had similar effects to the degree that they have deepened my appreciation for everything that is good, kind, thoughtful, nuanced, self-aware. There are uglier lessons too in both circumstances – perhaps the one I try to carry with me is that bullying and casual cruelty exist everywhere, that it isn’t my work to change how some people might see me.

When I think of teachers in my life general, it encompasses such a spectrum of people – loved ones, school and college educators, colleagues, editors, even acquaintances sometimes. Some things, good and bad, leave a mark.

You said, “I was technically at work. How could I cry?” Can we unpack this a little? When you write – whether that’s a poem about a real coach, who may or may not know by now that he is in your book, or a piece about an ex – do you experience elements of catharsis?

I have a complicated response to this question. That moment with my old librarian was special – it fortified me, reminded me how incredible some people are. Writing is me trying to bottle up moments that shook me, moved me, messed me up, put me back together. Part of why I wrote the poems in Terrarium was because I really wanted to make space for the good and the bad, to try and say convincingly, “this is so hard, but there are moments of grace.”

However, I am not sure I find the actual process of writing cathartic. Writing about my personal life engages a complicated spectrum of emotions and experiences. It utilises energy. It is an interesting moment to be asked this question. I’ve had a very rough few days in terms of my mental health. In these moments, I have turned to friends, doctors, gardening, rest, movies. All of the above provide therapeutic benefits. Writing, for me, is what I do after I have dealt with life, after I have stitched myself back together. It is a step after catharsis rather than the route to catharsis if that makes sense.

I am also torn about this question because the experience of writing my second book varied so drastically from the experience of writing Terrarium. Writing No Straight Thing Was Ever Made, a collection of essays on mental health, wiped me out emotionally and physically. I will say that I have found that writing can been cathartic for me in the long term. What I write about is something I end up spending time with. Over weeks and months, it does allow me to see more clearly, and clarity can be cathartic.

I had the privilege of reading an earlier manuscript of the book, when it was collected under another title, and I remember opening it onto the colourful “Queen of the Balcao” and feeling relish at the experience I knew would follow. Placed now after the eponymous opening poem this poem has a different pace altogether. It went from being a breathless introduction to an observant list. It’s so striking how the placement of poems within a book can do this – change the way one builds on the other, create texture, alter tone. What was your experience of creating the order like? What made you move things around, retain them, remove them – and to what extent were your editors involved? What was most difficult, and most effortless, about this task?

I changed the order multiple times – the manuscript went through so many versions. When I would remove a poem or add one in, it meant some degree of adjustment for the other poems as well – particularly the poem that came before and the poem that came after. I had a professor who always said I thought of every minor edit I made as a whole new draft. She was right, I think. I tend to be sensitive to small changes.

The very first time I ordered the poems was difficult in a way that is hard to convey because it sounds dramatic. I completely panicked that the poems simply did not belong together. I read tons of articles available on the ordering of poetry manuscripts. They only induced more panic. What helped me, eventually, was acknowledging to myself that the poems covering multiple disparate themes was alright because they were reflecting the varied segments of my life. I was the common theme I’d been searching for. Someone asked me recently if the frequent use of the word “I” is part of my style, and I think the right answer would be that I use the “I” to meet people at a certain intimacy. This is a roundabout way of coming to the sections I adopted in Terrarium.

The sections were a way, even for me, to make sense of the collection. Initially, the sections had names. My editor, Subhashini Kaligotla, suggested I try simply numbering the sections instead. One of the methods I find personally useful is to incorporate suggested edits most of the time. I sit with the change for a while and see it if feels right. The numbers felt right – they gently split the poems up.

As you said, the first poem was “Queen of the Balcao” for a long time. It was Subhashini again who suggested I shift it to second place. When I look at Terrarium now, it makes complete sense to me that we start with a poem that’s quite grounded. There’s so much that I don’t see as a writer that a good editor is able to.

The hardest part was the beginning (which I have described) and being asked to take a particular poem out. The latter was the only time I remember feeling irritable during the process. It wasn’t irritation at the editor, but the process caught up with me at some point – there’s a point at which edits can exhaust one, and I simply stepped away from the poems for a few months after that. Editing is a very healthy and necessary part of the process, but I was mentally tired by the final round. The in-between parts came more easily for me. I have incredible writer friends who guided me with ordering.

To me, the most vivid poems in the book deal with the environment – there are many lines on beauty, such as on birdwatching and flower-finding – but there are also oil spills and beached whales and impending tsunamis. Where would you trace your own appreciation of beauty to? Does it have its origins in knowledge of decay, of what is happening to this planet, or does it come from another place?

I don’t think I really appreciated naturally occurring beauty till a few years ago. I have this distinct memory of standing in an overgrown cemetery looking at the trees sometime in 2015 or 2016 and realizing I am experiencing wonder. That feeling had been suppressed by depression for so long. When I had that moment, I was deliriously grateful. Wonder was so, so rare. I found that everywhere I went where there was greenery or a natural water body or even just a wild weed, this feeling found me. The previously unnoticed detail utterly enthralled me. I know the language I’m using is a bit “flowery” but that’s what it was. I sought it out more and more. The knowledge of on-going and impending and imminent decay made that feeling stronger. I am truly afraid, saddened by losses to our biodiversity. It provides me with an urgency to seek it out like time is running out because it is.

Tell me about how you brought potted plants into your life, and about the walks you take around your neighbourhood. These facets of your everyday sometimes make their way onto your social media, as well of course into your poems.

I started container gardening because I would wake up in winter, draw the curtains, and see the smog where I should have been able to see sky, nearby buildings, trees. The windowsill in my room, and the balcony became spaces to erect living walls between myself and the pollution. It took some time for me to develop the relationship I share on my social media – I couldn’t tell one plant from another, didn’t understand that each one required different care. there are plants on every available surface, each and every bright spot in the apartment. It has been really healthy for me to have something that’s removed from people but still alive. I walk when I can, when the weather allows it in the neighborhood and nearby forested areas. It brings together physical exercise and the natural world – both of which improve my mental health.

What are you like as a traveller? There is a strong sense of place in your poems, and I wonder: do you set out on “literary pilgrimages”, seeking experiences?

No, I wouldn’t call them literary pilgrimages. Especially in the last few years, all the pilgrimages have been in pursuit of people or ecology. The poems do draw from that because those are two of the most nourishing aspects of my life. I associate a place with how it made me feel. I am devoted to details because they’re so essential to the experience and the vitality of the memory. Did I experience terror in that place? Loneliness? Love? Why? I try to draw that out, make it understandable to myself, and make it as tangible as possible for the reader.

I read your fundamental preoccupation as a poet to be change: seasonal, climatic, in the heart and body, within human intimacies. Would you agree with this, at least in part, or otherwise?

I had a teacher who once told me one of my primary interests as a writer was fluidity. Even the most dependable person experiences seasons, tires out, doesn’t show up sometimes or struggles to. That is one very specific example, but I think change and variability are an inherent part of the world we inhabit right now. The path I’ve found myself on has been filled with change – beliefs challenged and amended, patterns noticed and corrected, health compromised and managed, mistakes made and learned from, relationships broken down and re-built or detached from. On a smaller level, I am interested in moments of surprise and disappointment – both evoked by change. I feel seasonal changes deeply, as many others do, each season making me see things differently, bringing back a different struggle. I can’t help but be interested in change because I experience it acutely. I am also interested in renewal and deterioration in the natural world as markers of hope and dangerous descent. The change around us – or the call for it – I find worth paying close attention to.

“When my body reaches for & does / not arrive, my girlfriends hold / me as their own in a portico / of light welding into possibility.” So begins a poem of gratitude towards a list of friends. Friendships between women and the fraught but powerful bonds and ruptures within family seem to have more weightage in this collection than romantic or sexual relationships. Was this a conscious slant, and what influenced it?

Perhaps, it’s me, perhaps, it’s the way traditional lives are set up – people get married and live with their partners or similar, but I felt like romantic love was at the forefront of our stories. I definitely made the mistake of buying into this idea that it was all-important. Maybe it is for some people. But I knew what the glue had been in my life. I knew what had held me together, and with the exception of one, possibly two men, it was women who did the lifting, the holding, the picking up the pieces. Terrarium was driven by that, I think. My flatmate and I played badminton after work to keep ourselves sane. Even when we were tired and annoyed and depressed, we did that together. We needed it. It sounds simple, but to have someone in your life who will say yes, who will be there – I wrote about those friendships because they were joyous and comfortable and they worked hard. I wrote about family because it was complicated, but it endured, because it accommodated (I don’t want to romanticise this, it was not linear.) Romance is compelling and I have written about it in Terrarium, but to not give equal space to my friendships and family would have been a distortion. Romance doesn’t complete me, all of these spheres come together to do that.

Terrarium was published by The Great Indian Poetry Collective, an independent publisher. What are your thoughts about poetry publishing in India today, specifically in English? For instance: what avenues are available and to whom, what sorts of trajectories can an emerging poet aspire towards, what is a cold truth you had not been prepare for before, and now want for others to know?

There isn’t an organised distributor for small presses in India – something like SPD Books in the States. The link between an independent publisher and bookshops, publisher and festival book stalls has to be established case by case. It takes time to work out, it isn’t always smooth. Most bookstores will be wary of stocking books directly from the publisher rather than through a distributor. There is missing infrastructure. On the other end, media publications aren’t as keen to cover books of poetry as they would be to cover novels and non-fiction. I say this as someone who writes regularly for some of these publications. That’s changing – more poetry is covered than before, but there is hesitance in covering a book (and giving it standalone space) that won’t have a wide readership. In some ways, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We don’t associate poetry with pleasurable reading as a society – it’s more a niche genre we hear about now and then, a small shelf (if any) in the bookstore. I do find that online marketplaces (not ignoring all their problematic aspects) have been good for poetry in India. It’s easier to procure a wide range. Personally, I believe that poetry publishing is still finding its feet in India. A lot of people, including GIPC, do excellent work towards expanding and strengthening it.

The avenues for Indian Poetry in English…there’s prizes like All India Poetry Competition (which has an entry fee), Toto Award for Creative Writing (no entry free), Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize (no entry fee). There’s the Sangam House residency. There are journals to submit to – I have listed some of them here and here. I applied to all of the above. Some worked out. Some did not.

I don’t know if there is a particular trajectory an emerging poet in India can aspire towards. But I am going to try and share what I have learned from other people and my own experiences of being a practicing poet in India: poetry is a particularly under-read genre, it is okay to have a small audience, work on your craft and a small, attentive audience may find you, they will make your heart sing, do not expect too much, celebrate the small wins, put the poems or the manuscript out there and then disengage as much as possible, sharing poetry is wonderful but have many, many other avenues for nourishment including writing only for yourself, competitiveness and comparison will only hurt you – never lose sight of the fact that there are far more poets than there are accolades, edit, learn from free resources by reading interviews and listening to podcasts, edit some more, search out writing communities (online or otherwise: not always easy but worth looking for), notice when it doesn’t bring you pleasure anymore, read old favourites, put it away whenever you need to, submit to everything but submit only what is truly ready (there will be trial and error, that’s fine), don’t take rejection as a sign, there will be demotivating and scary moments, be nice, support other poets, and don’t make the mistake of valuing poetry over people.

Your next book, No Straight Thing Was Ever Made, is non-fiction – specifically, personal reflections on living with mental illness. You said earlier that the process wiped you out mentally and emotionally. What was it about the work you were doing that compelled you to see it through? Who did you imagine, as you wrote, to be your reader for this book?

I saw it through because I couldn’t fully understand why I was struggling to write it. I was scared but fear didn’t seem like a good enough reason to stop – it was definitely powerful enough to make me want to stop, but I couldn’t justify stopping. There were other reasons – when I spoke to my editor or friends or family about quitting, they’d tell me to stay with it a little while longer. That’s how it happened really – I worked on a chapter at a time, and that made the process possible. The question about audience is a good one. I didn’t have this problem with Terrarium, but with No Straight Thing, I kept imagining an audience who would think me self-indulgent. That was very uncomfortable – I didn’t want to see the very real, very repetitive struggles of mental illness minimised. I had to put audience out of my mind to write this. I remember posing these questions to myself: will I be okay if people don’t receive these essays well? Have I tried my best to write the most self-aware version of the story that I can at this time? When the answer was yes, I was able to really breathe for the first time since starting the project. I wrote it for myself, for other sick people – to make the experience comprehensible to their loved ones and mine perhaps.

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