Saturday, October 16, 2010

Cranky, YES!

Not even my best friend will be able to claim that patience is one my strengths. I tend to get particularly impatient when I can see the end, but will still need to slog some more to reach that end in the way I would like to. So, dear readers, I don't have anything smart or thought-provoking stuff to share with you. I am tired and cranky and the things aren't moving as quickly as I would like them to. Instead, a poem by one of my favorite poets of the moment. Federico Garcia Lorca.


If I die,
leave the balcony open.

The little boy is eating oranges.
(From my balcony I can see him.)

The reaper is harvesting the wheat.
(From my balcony I can hear him.)

If I die,
leave the balcony open!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Revelation Friday : How I Try to Write

Often times, it's hard for me to begin a poem. I would have a sense of the subject-matter or content, but I would have no idea about the first line. What that means to me is that, I am still not situated within the poem yet, my imagination is yet to assume specific details. During those moments, I find myself pro-castinating . No, I don't begin to clean my kitchen or my room when I pro-castinate. Instead, I waste my time on the computer. What gets me going then is, raising my ass from my bed, walking into the kitchen, beginning to brew a cup of tea. There is something in the tea-leaves turning the colorless water into a shade of honey-brown that calms me. It reminds me of the innate creativity of matter to re-create itself, to rejuvenate into different forms. I pour myself a cup of tea, come back to my workspace, begin to scribble, read a poem or two from the poetry books lying around (this morning it was Federico Garcia Lorca and Walt Whitman), and soon I begin to write. Not very good lines, mostly. But lines that normally propel the process forward, lets me get into the thick of things.

For me, it's this process of taking creativity by its horns that works best. A lot of the times I hear and read people write about the deeply "intuitive" nature of creating art. I agree it's intuitive to a large extent. But my own feeling is kind of like this: intuition or creativity doesn't really fall from the sky and settle into one's lap. One has to keep on doing lots of conscious exercise that would work on and develop one's intuition. By reading more, thinking more, analyzing more.

Yesterday, I got an email from the nice folks at UCLA Extension. I am one of the six semi-finalists for their annual Kirkwood Fiction prize. It does feel good to receive this recognition, even though it's very very small.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Kuntlesrroman II (via Lizzy Rosenberg)

Had been reading Liz Rosenberg's essay Journey Without a Map from the book Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems. She writes

I like a book to open outward. The more personal and particular poems tend to come at the beginning of my books, and the more public and larger poems toward the end. I think our lives do this , if we are lucky. At the start, we are more self-absorbed, and as time goes on, hopefully we become more and more aware of the people and voices and animals and things around us. We want to open up, like flowers. And our books ought to do the same.
This made me think about my own manuscript. It doesn't open outward in that sense. From the very beginning, it's mostly self-absorbed and outwardly drawn at the same time. Which, I think, is an apt way to talk about my life's journey too. I had laid claim to an "outward" life much before I tried to move inwards. Or rather, before I tried to find a relationship between the outward life I was drawn to and living-- ideologies, student organizations, little magazines, cultural and political collectivities, institutional structures--and me myself and my inner life. Consequently, a big part of my early youth was spent trying to write "political" poems. Which translates to, writing about people, places and times I knew nothing about, except as these abstract representations jumping on to me from pamphlets, manifestoes and books. There came a time, and it came pretty quickly too, when I couldn't keep on writing them. The political life I was living was too complex, the collective political activities I was participating in were too full of contradictions. I needed a different language to talk about them. And I could no longer afford to try to write "political" poems in that way. This was the time when I wrote some poems exploring my life as a young woman who was trying to find her space within leftist social movements and ideologies in an age when History had been proclaimed to come to an end (am I too old to remember that moment?), and my elders seemed to be too deficient in explaining these political realities in the language they have always spoken. For a long time, I didn't write at all. Except those on demand. And they were mostly "non-creative." I didn't know, again, how to find myself, how to experience my coming-of-age as a leftist when the Global Left was going through momentous defeats. I didn't know how to find that interrelationship between inward and outward. It is finding that relationship that now I call coming to voice. Not that one's quest for a voice ever ends, but I would say, it was the beginning of that process of finding my own voice. For me, it has been a lengthy, difficult and tricky process. I don't expect it to be otherwise.

But as I was reading Rosenberg's very helpful essay, I was wondering about the dichotomy between the "outward" and the "inward" here. It is, as if, there is no dialectical relationship between the two. I wonder, if Rosenberg's explanation of the outward in anthologies has taken as its naturalized basis the autonomous individual who comes to awareness of the outer rather than the individual in complex dialectics with many collectivities. And if yes, how will that dialectical relationship work in an anthology which tries to explore the formation of the individual as a process rather than the individual himself/herself?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tishani Doshi's Countries of the Body

A few days back, I finished Tishani Doshi's Countries of the Body. I have been trying to catch up on my Anglophone Indian Poetry readings. Particularly because, if I continue to write and publish, I will have to place myself within this argument at some point and I do want to educate myself before I go on to take up a position. I have been interested in Tishani's work, and I won't hide it here, she is a woman, and the very title of her book seemed like a possibility.

Her poems are well-crafted, no doubt. She is well-read, cosmopolitan (I mean, hell yeah, she has a Welsh mother, a Masters in Creative Writing from John Hopkins, and has spent quite a few years in UK). For example, she has a poem called At the Rodin Museum:

Rilke is following me everywhere
with his tailor-made suits
and vegetarian smile.

He says because I'm young,
I'm always beginning,
and cannot know love.

I am intrigued. But as the poem progresses, the language begins to recede more and more into cliches.

He speaks of the cruelty
of hospitals, the stillness
of cathedrals,

takes me through bodies
and arms and legs
of such extravagant size,

the ancient sky burrows in
with all the dead words
we carry and cannot use.

First of all, I am not feeling very good with the use of such words as "cruelty" and "stillness." For me, those words do not mean anything, and shows a lazy poet's mind which isn't trying to conjure up an image to convey those states of being. But also, I am wondering, who is this I? What is this I's historical location? How does this I locate himself/herself vis-a-vis Rilke or Rodin? What role does race, empire, class, gender, literary history play in that inter-relationship? Of course, as a literary scholar, who does museum studies on side, I can't help commenting on this total absence of delving into the politics of the museum-space. And this is what I find precisely problematic about Tishani Doshi's work. It's graceful, well-crafted, but has no sense of voice. Most of the poems have been written with a dis-engaged tone, which begins to sound like a celebration of the politics of apolitical aesthetics after a while. But it's more like, the poet is afraid of pushing her language to take a stance. Instead, she just describes.

I am inclined to say this is what one gets when one sticks too close to the American "Show, Don't Tell" maxim. For example, the poem The Fasting Season:

The rains have arrived
and my three aunts
grown maritally large
like watermelons
will starve and warm
themselves with prayers;
refuse water, food, spit,
and sex--imagine their bodies
as they were before

Beautiful! I have to admit. But I also cannot help asking, so what! I think, often times, when we push ourselves to ask that question to what we have written, that we also begin to delve into the possibilities and limits of representation in a particular form. And that's where, we also have to TELL. We cannot just stick to a kind of reel-realism which Tishani seems to be engaging in here.

Anyways, reading this book was important for my own self, and my own writing. It gave me a chance to think about how I want to write, and how do I develop my language that will accommodate my politics without encouraging a reductionist craft.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Too Many Incomplete Projects

Finished the long poem I was writing yesterday. A re-telling of a folktale I read in A.K. Ramanujan's collection. This is the first time I have tried to write explicitly about love, sexuality, political sub-culture, rebellion juxtaposed within an overarching theme of queer love. Not sure how it has turned out to be, but I can live with it for now. I have been feeling restless for the last few days. It's not that I am not working, but it's more like I am not finding the motivation to stick to a project and get it done. Part of it is the fact that I have way too many works-in-progress and while I know I need to finish them one by one to fruition to feel that excitement about something again, I also don't want to rush through them and then repent afterwards about the output. But, this grind is sometimes too much. The work maddening, and this coming back to the work-table everyday needs such huge amounts of discipline!

Yawn! On the other hand, as a friend of mine reminded me couple of days ago, no one can bite an elephant all at once. You have to take it apart bit by bit. So, I guess that means, I should put another pot of coffee on the stove and go back to revising chap 2 of THE DISSERTATION.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

food/memory post

I can't ever get the pastas right. Either I boil them for too long, or I drain them for too long. Something. Some little disaster always takes place when i am trying to cook them. Probably my MLM heritage doesn't go very well with Italian Anarchism!:))) My quick grad student food is rice. I put it to boil, go in to take a shower or check my email, come back after 10 mins, and it's all done. I am a perfect rice maker. And my comfort food happens to be bhat-dal-alu-dim shedhho, with a little bit of ghee/butter/mustard oil, green chily and salt. It's the simplest food one can think of. Just boil the potatoes, an egg, a cup of lentils, mash them all up together and with rice, eat with your fingers. Somehow, more than anything else, this simple mash reminds me of home and the quick meals my mother would often cook when an unexpected guest would drop by. Or those fever-filled days, when I would feel too sick to eat anything else. And of course, the boiled potato serves so many different functions in so many different kinds of Kolkata street food. It is one of the bases of phuchka, the basis of aloo chat, bhelpuri... and now that it's Pujas again, and my ninth consecutive year of not witnessing it, phuchkas happen to be one of the things I most sorely miss. Yes, my phuchka-memories are not devoid of people. But those are too complicated to write about in a food-memory kind of a post. But the thing is, I have never tried to make phuchkas at home. And I don't think I ever will. Phuchka-eating in the street signify to me a kind of public-culture of food which wouldn't really feel the same if made in the domestic space of one's home-kitchen. For example, phuchka is possibly one of the first street-foods which had always been associated more with girls and women than with men. know quite a few rabid male phuchka-addicts, true. But what I am trying to say is that, the kind of gendered norms that have historically prevented women from inhabiting the space of the street tea-shop or chayer dokan, for example, has never really been applicable when it came to phuchkas. Rather, it was always understood to be women's food.

A possible topic for exploration? A Cultural History of the Phuchka? Sounds quite scholarly, no?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Revelation Friday

I am a snob. An intellectual snob at that. No, I don't expect people to enroll in expensive schools, classes, institutions etc. to earn and accumulate intellectual/cultural capital. But I do expect them to make use of their brains, to think, to push themselves into realms which are beyond their comfort zones. And I think, all of these come from an intense engagement with life, which includes written texts, but is not limited to it. But I am especially annoyed with people who have relative material privilege and basic intellectual/cultural tools to do the work of thinking, but doesn't. I must say, the "creative" circuits in both India and US, are full of these kind. Like this filmmaker I met couple of summers back. She has made lots of documentaries, which are fashionably political, but never really push the buttons too much. And while talking about one of her films, I ended up asking questions which kind of problematize the very basis of her theoretical presumptions on which the film was based.

She said, with a sweet smile, and an accent, which only the old Anglophile elites in India possess, "Well, I am not an academic."

I hear this statement a lot. In different ways. And my answer is, "Well, you don't have to be. But that doesn't mean you don't really have to be aesthetically, politically, ideologically rigorous if you're not an academic. Also, if my academically (!) gained knowledge disrupts your basic presumptions that easily, probably the medium you're working in, is too weak to accommodate complexities. Which, I know, is not the case. So, what it means that, YOU are not doing the work, not thinking enough."

I do meet these people on a regular basis. Sometimes they intrigue me initially. I keep in touch for a while. And if after some time, they fail to stimulate me intellectually, I slowly withdraw. This normally tends to happen exactly during the time when these folks have just begun to like me a little bit more than the ordinary.

This is something over which I have ambiguous feelings. I don't think it's nice or desired to judge people based on their intellectual prowess. Or more precisely, what I perceive to be their intellectual prowess. But at the same time, friendship is not a charity. So, if an individual doesn't really interest me in the long run, I don't see any reason why I should continue keeping in touch just from a sense of duty or a feeling of righteousness.

I know I am opening a can of worms here, and the issue is not as simple as I am making it sound and read here. Hopefully in my future posts, I will be able to point out to some of the contradictions and complexities regarding the reality I am revealing here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Reading Now

I can never read poems too quickly. Some prose-fiction, I can finish in seconds, but not poems. I need to go over each and every word carefully, stop myself to get my eyes used to the imagery, need to stop in the middle sometimes, and then roll over to the next word. On an average working day, I can normally read three poems well. I might gloss over some more. But that's not reading, that's more like preparing myself about what is to come next.

Right now, in my reading list:

1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

2. Diwata by Barbara Jane Reyes

3. Jalpai Kather Esraj by Mridul Dasgupta

4. Out on the Main Street by Shani Mootoo

K├╝nstlerroman I: Why It Took Me So Fucking Long...

I said to a friend of mine recently that my sociological eyes developed much earlier than my writerly voice. I have been a reader forever. I learnt my alphabets pretty early, and had begun to read in both English and Bengali by the time I was three. I had written too. I wrote my first story in third grade, other short stories in high school, poems in college. But I never had this systematic urge to write in the way I do now. I would finish a poem in two days, and then I wouldn't think of setting pen on paper for another six months, and I would be perfectly fine with that. I wouldn't feel empty or cranky because I haven't written.

Also, I was a pretty active participant in the anti-SFI leftist student movement in Kolkata. Which meant, I needed to write leaflets, pamphlets, political analyses etc. These writings emerged from an urgent need to create a political community rather than a personal engagement with “creative” expressions through writing. During the same phase, I also began to write non-fiction essays on gender. Most of them were readings of cultural texts, although there was one which mixed a lot of memoir-style narrative strategies with political-sociological analyses. Although, I wasn't aware of these writing/narrative issues during that time. What I was more concerned about was this need to communicate a politics, a way of seeing.

What is more, I avoided the more writerly-literary types. I knew a fair number of them. Some of them I was friends with. But mostly, I preferred to keep a respectful distance from that “creative” crowd. Most of them seemed blissfully and pitifully devoid of any sociological observation, knowledge of social history, politics of writing and cultural production. And I conceived of myself as a politico, more than an artist/writer. Art was a personal thing. Something I enjoyed doing in my own time. Although, there was also this reality that I would be mostly take an AWOL from all my political activities (and school work, of course) during the second week of November. That is, the film festival week in Kolkata. Or during the days of Kolkata bookfair. So, basically the way I see it now, my early youth was a lot about this inability to create any kind of conversation between the aesthetic and the political. I think, there are complex historical reasons for it. It's impossible to delve into all of those in this blog post. But one thing I have been wondering, in the last few days, that if my being a girl played any role in my avoidance of the “aesthetic” and the “literary” during those years.

I saw myself, then, primarily as a reader, a critical recipient of art. Not as someone who is creating it.

I mean, by no means I am unhappy that it turned out this way. I don't think any writer worth his/her salt can write anything remotely worthwhile without being a keen observer of the “social” and the “political.” Or, if I have to break that statement, without an awareness of the fact that existence itself is a powered thingie, and as writers, in order to make sense, we need to be able to represent the ways in which that power works in forms. And then, of course, forms, in themselves are implicated within complex configurations of power. So on and so forth. If I hadn't spent nights writing leaflets no one really cared about, I don't think I would have ever felt the urge to write a story about a teenage girl's relationship to smoking. But still... why was I so evasive, and clearly nervous about letting out my “creative” side?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Revelation Friday: Late Edition

I am scared of cold. I do fine in summer. I rarely have heatrashes, I never use sunscreen cream, I never wear sunglasses. My excuse for the last one is, I already have thick glasses, and do not want to taint more my vision of the world. But cold? That is another story. So, in middle-October Texas cold, you'll see me wrapped up in three layers—a pullover, a coat and a scarf. Oh yes, I have also been known to wear woollen hats which cover up my ears not just adequately, fully.

It's highly unlikely that I will pass on a paid trip to New York during the Christmas week, or a chance to workshop with Toni Morrison or Amitabha Ghosh in January in Boston, but it's highly unlikely that I will show up for an academic talk after 8 pm by a famous white, East European known-to-be-Marxist male academic star or a mysterious female academic-alchoholic from my own hometown in mid-November Philly. I would rather prefer to stay indoors, curled up in my bed with a cup of tea or cocoa or coffee, reading, writing or yapping about things over which I have very little (read no) control.

And yes, I sleep wrapped up in my inordinately ugly blue blanket at least nine months every year. The three months I spend every year in Kolkata, during the summer, I have been known and seen to wrap myself up in a cotton shawl after 2 am. While the fan revolves over my head in maximum-speed.

I think, the word in Bangla is, sheet-kature.