The Act of Writing Poetry
Born in 1967, Arundhathi Subramaniam is an Indian poet based in Mumbai. She is India’s country editor for the Poetry International Web, runs an interactive arts forum at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, and is involved in a number of the city’s literary enterprises, most notably the long-standing Poetry Circle, a diversely-attended work-shop which has met fortnightly over the past fifteen years for the purpose of “sharing, enjoying and anatomising” poems. She has published two collections of poetry: On Cleaning Bookshelves (Allied, 2001) and Where I Live (Allied, 2005), is the author of a prose study, The Book of Buddha (Penguin, 2005), and was co-editor of Confronting Love, an anthology of Indian love poems written in English. She was awarded the Charles Wallace Fellowship at the University of Stirling in 2003, and recently participated in a two week long UK reading tour, sponsored by Visiting Arts and the British Council.
Subramaniam writes in English, and is eloquent on the subject of poetry’s – and in particular, English language poetry’s – embattled position within the Indian cultural establishment. Set against the international success of ‘The Great Indian Novel’, and badly positioned to survive “the increasing spirit of cultural nativism sweeping across the country…\which sees the use of English as a reactionary throwback”, she laments the fact that “Indian poetry in English simply doesn’t count” to most people – in particular, to publishers – but also sees embattlement as at least implying “the recognition by the status quo of a potentially unsettling presence”. Although denying the idea of a “coterie” identity or set “criteria” in the Poetry Circle, she remarks that “its abiding collective passion for poetry” has prevented it from being “colonised by the spirit of purely academic enterprise” – “the more valuable contribution…has been the ‘artisanal’ workshop criticism.”
Subramaniam’s own poems are testimony to this sense of the art-form as something which, through a combination of necessity and choice, works quietly in the background, while still insisting on its own significance, and in its own terms. In ‘Another Way’, her poetic response to the Gujarat riots of 2002, she advocates an artistic stance which seeks to “leave no footprints/ in the warm alluvium,/ no Dolby echoes,” and which, by its sheer openness to possibility in the matter of its own making, offers up a paradigm of good politics (as Derek Mahon said good poetry should), and of open-minded, liberated living. “To swing yourself/ from moment to moment,// never racing to the full-stop,/ content sometimes/ with the question mark” is, the poem suggests, as valuable a way of “keeping the faith” as to thrust oneself militantly into the front line waving “saffron flags”, and her work is notable for its refusal to sacrifice poetry to propaganda. Light-footed and lyrically musical, sensuous and spare at the same time, although entwined with contemporary culture and events and, most predominantly, with the city of Mumbai, the poems engage with their external subject-matter from intelligent and unusual angles, frequently using an examination of their own procedures as a metaphorical bridge into something else, and vice-versa. In ‘Return’, for example, an old lover’s re-entry into the speaker’s home becomes conflated with the return of inspiration, “this dreaming playhouse of possibilities/ choreographed by another accent”. The poem develops into a meditation on the essential ‘two-ness’ of the artist – on the gap between empirical self and poetic voice, entities which come together unexpectedly and unpredictably in the “startled collision” of writing, where “the arm reaches out/ and finds/ with some primal riverine instinct/ a familiar lost tributary of self.” As the distantiation of self from body in the final image suggests, however (“the arm”, not “my arm”), this is not merely a self-fulfilling strategy, designed to do nothing more than document the means by which Subramaniam’s poems come into being. ‘Return’ elevates poetry and its way of ‘happening’ into a doctrine for a way of life, one whose emphasis on plurality, and the necessity of seeing things anew – of giving things the “space to test” themselves out – speaks volumes in a world of increasing polarisation, where identities are all too easily and rigidly formed.
Yet if some of the poems try to influence, and suggest better ways in which to shape the world beyond the written page, that world, in the form of the city of Mumbai, has invaded and conditioned their shapes at almost every turn, insinuating into the “dreaming playhouse of possibilities” its “insurgent cardiogram” of “flesh and mortar”, a “rabid wilderness/ of matter” which “refuses to yield/ to coercion or command”. Whilst poems like ‘Living Alone’ may advocate, and indeed celebrate the successful making of space, “long afternoons/ gliding through rooms/ and rooms/ of vacant mind/ recovered after years of subletting”, their battle, like that of the art-form itself, is hard won in the context of, and always threatened and enhanced by, the ever-pulsing presence of the “garrulous” city into which they have been born, and of which they are confirmed inhabitants. Even if not overtly present in the frameworks of such poems, the city is always leaning up against their bounds, breathing into them and colouring their awareness of the temporary privilege of escape – even working its way, sometimes, into the domain of language itself, which becomes a kind of symbiotic partner, an inseparable element of the great, heaving organism of the whole: “a sentence heaves into view/ deflected by leaden vapours”. As is perhaps inevitable in a boundlessly over-populated and commercially cluttered city like Mumbai, writing can by no means find immunity or synthetic ‘solutions’ easily, and the poems are both frustrated in their efforts to convey or delineate such multiplicity, and continually invaded by its bits and pieces, “an obstinate conspiracy/ between self-perpetuating/ coffee cups and the frantic/ bushfire of books laundry Chinese restaurants”.
Subramaniam’s Mumbai is a city bursting at both the material and the human seams, a site of endless paradox, of holiness intermingled with abject horror, and one in which the individual subject, like the poem, is both totally and terrifyingly anonymous, and, at the same time, involved in everything:
City where you can drop off
a swollen local
and never be noticed.
City where you’re a part
of every imli-soaked bhelpuri.
Accordingly, her attitude towards its “hope and bulimia” is two-fold: whilst the poems often display delight at the sheer variety and character on offer in a city “uncontained by epigram” – what MacNeice called the “incorrigibly plural” world – they also recognise, like MacNeice, the “spite” inherent in that world, and, whilst they don’t tend to indulge in the perhaps too easy practice of overt, hectoring social commentary, stray lines and images do indicate a disapproval of, as she puts it, the “status quo”, and a celebration of naturally engendered variegation (“Give thanks/ for the strumpet apparel/ of the rhododendron,/ the rococo benediction/ of fern”) goes hand in hand with a concerned awareness of both the monetary disproportion endemic to the city, and the commercial bulge afflicting its havoc-ridden skyline. Against the similarly marginalised populations of nature and the cripplingly poor, who, “perpetuating that third world profusion/ of outstretched hand”, have been forced to adopt “a certain cussedness” in order to survive, to create “ways of being ancillary…/ without resenting it”, she sets the ever-growing consumerist trend of “the great Indian middle class/ bloating steadily/ on duty-free”, filling up the remaining cracks and crevices with their insatiable demand for “things”. In such an atmosphere, the poems’ plea for “unransacked” space is profoundly and obviously, if quietly, political – an asserted need for the re-division, or re-apportioning of space, and for the recognition that all “things” do not have an equal claim on the space (or lack of it) “between tenancies”, that “foam and rubber” should perhaps give up ground to flesh and blood.
The heroes and heroines of Subramaniam’s poetry are things of stoical proportion, which are willing to commit to “asking the question/ that has been asked before”, to the continuation of “dated” and difficult rituals, or even just to “confirming yet again/ that it’s not about justice,/ just weather,/ just waiting”. These are all suggestive parallels for the act of writing itself, and particularly in the contexts she describes in her prose comments on the cultural establishment. Yet this should not suggest a laissez-faire aesthetic, or the idea that poetry trundles on endlessly, by and for itself, without much hope of, or interest in, the chance of making anything happen. Poetry is a vital force for Subramaniam – in both senses of the word – and, if its balance is precarious in a world which simultaneously hurts and ignores it, then it nonetheless remains, emphatically, an integral part of that world, and one capable of tipping it, every now and then, in the right direction. Days, like poems and, indeed, status quos, rest “on slabs/ angled precariously - / a fragile architecture of meaning” into which the tiniest thing can insert itself, given the space, and alter or bring down the whole. “Which is why”, amongst many other reasons, “this” – the individual poem and the act of writing poetry – most definitely “matters”.
Arundhathi Subramaniam was born in 1967. Based in Mumbai, she is a poet and freelance arts journalist. Subramaniam is the author of two books of poems: ´Where I live´ (2005) and ´On Cleaning Bookshelves´ (2001). She has also written a book exploring the life of Buddha entitled ´The Book of Buddha´ (2006).
As well, Subramaniam is a creative consultant at the National Centre for the Performing arts, Bombay; on the committee of the Poetry Circle of Mumbai; editor of the India domain of the Poetry International website, and heads a forum called ´Chauraha´ that promotes dialogue between practitioners of various artistic disciplines.
The Poetry Society recently hosted Subramaniam in the UK for two weeks (19-30 October 2006) during which she read her own work and discussed contemporary poets of India to a wide audience, in programmed events across the UK.
• 2005 - ´Confronting Love: Poems´, edited by Jerry Pinto and Arundhathi Subramaniam (Penguin Books India, 2005).
A collection of poems by Indian writers, written in English, exploring the theme of love.
• 2005 - ´The Book of Buddha´ (New Delhi, Penguin, 2005).
Explores the life and spiritual journey of Buddha.
• 2005 - ´Where I Live´ (Allied, 2005).
A collection of poems by Subramaniam.
• 2001 - ´On Cleaning Bookshelves´ (Allied, 2001).
A collection of poems by Subramaniam.