Monday, November 29, 2010

Life/Writing...the Inter-Relationships

Just turned in a fellowship application. Now keeping my fingers crossed. I woke up pretty early today, went out to breakfast with a friend. Now, that was nice. It gave me the opportunity to start my day early. Although the downside of that is, I get tired early too, it totally seems worth it. I have been thinking of something lately. I am not someone who thinks there is only one route to becoming a writer or an artist. The texts we produce need to stand alone, and they do stand alone. They are capable of producing meanings which reveal things about the world at large irrespective of the writer/artist's biography. But at the same time, I think, a writer/artist's lifestyle is written within the text. There is only so much one can do to move beyond the constraints of one's life. If a writer hasn't ever thought of the need to do something in real life, chances are he/she wouldn't necessarily write about it in his/her texts. There are, of course, ways in which that absence will be written within the body of that text, and that absence itself might make the space for a whole host of other writers and critics to step in. But that absence, itself, will be felt, no doubt. As a writer, I think, if I am being truly honest to my art, there isn't much option other than to expand, and keep on expanding expanding...

Sunday, November 28, 2010


I am trying to finalize some of the fellowship applications. A painstaking process, no doubt. But hopefully, after Dec. 1, I will have some respite. The next deadline is not until December 31st. Hang in there, I keep telling myself. But I am anxious because I haven't had a chance to write much. I have scribbled a poem for Rachel's class, I have been writing the essays for the applications. But that's all. I am beginning to realize how dependent I have become on writing not just for expressing myself or reacting, but it's the only kind of therapy that works for me. Cooking helps too, but only in very limited ways. I am anxious to go back to writing poems and stories.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Researching Briseis

I didn't do extensive research on Briseis before beginning to write my poem. I did some cursory research from the materials I could readily get online. It was fascinating to realize that not a whole lot of modern writers have taken her up. And of course, in Iliad she does not get more than a few lines. I have long wanted to write about sexual violence.

In 2005, I had written a fairly confessional poem on rape. The feelings in there were raw, and most of the times whenever I placed it in a workshop, it had the effect of total silence. I can understand the reasons. Sexual violence does have that silencing effect in general. But when it is explored in a poem, people don't necessarily want to deal with it because they are scared of treading on some terrible personal experience. I would be too. Then again, when personal experience gets written into the body of a poem (or a story or novel), critiquing that text is helpful, and I would say, even an imperative. Because in doing so, a workshop helps a writer to communicate the complexities of that personal experiences more effectively.

But by 2010, I am fairly ready to create some distance between my personal experiences and that poem. Briseis' name somehow leapt from the page. In lots of ways, I think, it's because I have been thinking about the kind of role an occupying army plays. Kashmir,Manipur,Jangalmahal,Iraq, does the occupation look from the perspective of a woman? I wrote the first draft of the poem, didn't do a whole lot of research. Because I didn't necessarily want the research to overwhelm me or the yet-unborn poem. Rather, I wanted to explore the basic premises of this character, before launching into an exhaustive research.

But what I found out was, I can't really explore the vicissitudes of Briseis' life until and unless I familiarize myself more with the realities of her life. The material details. The details can be tweaked to suit my purposes only when I begin to "know" about them. So, now I am trying to go back to the research work. Especially since I have the basic outline of the poem, and I know where I want to go with it, I also know where I want to go with my research. I have ordered a few books, couple of academic monographs, couple of translations of Greek plays, and I might just check out some more from the library.

And here is what I am using as my springboard:

Friday, November 26, 2010

I Haven't Reached the Doneness Yet

I have reached the magic number 48 for my poetry manuscript. Honestly, it wasn't hard. I have never had any problem in reaching the minimum words/page limit. What I struggle with is, keeping to it. I now have 64 pages of poems. But I am not done. I know I am not. I haven't exhausted myself writing. I have barely laid out the bones. A lot more needs to be done. Feeling the bone with flesh, blood, wrapping the organs up in skin. I don't want to leave anything untouched. Who knows what future has in store! Maybe this is the only book I have in me! That's why, I know I need to give it everything I have, exhaust myself.

I agree the temptation to turn in the work the way it stands now is great. And who knows, there are so many publishers in this English-speaking world. Someone might like it. But that's not the point. I am not done with it yet. That is what matters for me. I have made some progress in the last ten weeks, and I value that progress. That progress, however, does not mean that I am done.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Longer Poems, Readers'/Editors' Expectations

I tend to write longer poems. It is not like I start with the intention of writing longer poems. But as I begin to go into the actual act of writing, it begins to get very tricky for me. I discover curves and loops within the words, within the characters' stories, and I need to explore those complexities. As such I have no problems with longer forms. In fact, I am drawn to this whole idea of novel-in-verse, and plan to write one someday myself. But longer forms pose two problems-- one, they are harder to workshop. Two, they are harder to send out to journals. Because, supposedly, all smaller poems should be able to stand alone. I sent out some of my Kiranmala poems. While my poems build up on the very familiar story outline of the Arun-Barun-Kiranmala stories, I don't expect my American readers/editors to know about them. So, the question is, do I have to write notes/introductory lines about Kiran for every poem I send out about her? I am tempted to say, not really. I am willing to add a couple of lines telling my readers where I am getting that story from. The thing is, no one would introduce me to the Bible stories in their poems, will they? There is this cultural expectation that I will come to their re-interpretation poems after reading Bible. The same is true for Greek mythology. That's why, when I write poems based on South Asian/Bengali mythology/lore, I expect my readers to do that work. I do tell them the name of the fairytale compilation where they can get the story most readily. But I don't want to do their work for them. The same is true for the editors of the journal. I know here I am showing a kind of artistic arrogance which no one expects from new writers and poets. There are days when I doubt that arrogance of mine. But I keep at it, because that's who I am. I would love to write an accompanying note/artistic statement explaining my take on Kiranmala if any of the journals ask me to do so. But I am not interested in being both the poet and the guidebook writer for my readers and editors.

About the workshopping part, I am less sure. Is it appropriate to impose on my readers too long a work? Besides, most of the beginning and intermediate writers who come to the workshops, are also learning to be readers. And here, I do have a distinct advantage over most of them, being a Phd candidate in Literature and what not. My graduate school years have succeeded to give me a kind of experience in critical reading of literature which I can't expect most people to have. But then, the question is, what to do? How to workshop my longer poems? If those are the only ones that I am writing?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Duck Recipe

The duck sat on my freezer for too many days. Meanwhile, I kept looking for recipes in the web. Most of them seemed too complicated for my grad-student kitchen. And then, I just decided to give it a try. I mean, you can't really go too wrong with the South Asian spices. Slow-cooking makes everything delicious, and somehow I happen to know duck wings should be cooked longer than chicken wings. So, here is my duck recipe. I still need to find a snazzy name for it. But for now, I will stick to the ubiquitous curry.


duck wings
mustard oil
pearl onions (pink)
garlic (two fat cloves)
ginger paste
two green chilies
tomato (1)
clove powder
cinnamon powder
cardamom powder
fennel seeds
curry leaves (so that it tastes vaguely South Indian)
coconut powder
cumin seeds
coriander powder

Time: at least 30 mins.

--Wash the duck pieces. Pat them dry. In a large bowl, mix mustard oil, red chilli powder, salt, sugar and all the other spices(clove, cardamom,cinnamon, fennel seeds). I have no clue about the amount. I sprinkle whatever looks good to the eye and feels okay in the fingers. Throw the duck pieces in. Make sure the oil and the spices get smeared on the duck pieces evenly.

--Heat the oil. When it's hot enough, throw in the cumin seeds. Let them sizzle. Then throw in the onion-pieces. I had them finely chopped. The big advantage of the pearl onions is that, you will have to work real hard to not have fine pieces.

--Then once the onions turn transparent, throw in the green chilies, garlic pieces and the ginger paste. Add a little bit of sugar and salt. Continue stirring and frying for about 10 mins.

--Then add the chopped tomatoes. Stir until they all turn into a mush. Throw in the duck pieces.

-- Fry them along with everything else for about 20 mins.

--Pour some water in the marinate bowl (not a whole lot. Just a little). Mix the leftover spices with the water well.

--Pour the water in the duck and spice mix.

---Stir some more (for around 7 mins.)

--- Throw the curry leaves in. Stir some more (around 5 mins.)

---Cover the pot.

--- Take the cover off after 5 mins.

---Add some more water. Add some coriander and paprika. A little bit of all other powdered spices referred above. Stir them well. Reduce the heat to "low." Let everything slow-cook for 45-60 mins.

Duck done. Now eat. With rice. Plain or biriyani-ed. I settled for the plain. Biriyani would have involved too much work for one evening. It was delicious. If there's any part of this recipe that doesn't suit you, or any ingredient that doesn't work for you, feel free to change it. Make it your own.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Revelation Friday

I have been busy writing grants and fellowship applications for a while now. I don't do a very good job of advertising my project or myself. So this is stressful. Also, I have lots of other bureaucratic things to take care of. I am not good in dealing with these either. Besides, there is also the anxiety. What if...what if nothing comes my way next will I will I finish my dissertation...all in all these are not the happiest times for me. But I am trying to focus and take one thing at a time. It does feel good to be able to take care of my things from the to-do list. And I have been. But what is missing is that nice feeling of getting done.It's not that I am slacking off. It's just that I have a horribly LONG to-do list to take care of.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why Myths? Why Fairy Tales?

I often wonder about the turn my poetry manuscript has taken. Why is it that I chose to re-write myths and tales and old stories? For one thing, I have always loved them. Plain and simple. Fairy-tales, myths and historical re-writings/revisions are my obsessions. Okay. But then, so what? I am finding myself in a space where I can't really get rid of the "so what" question. So, this post is really my feeble attempt to think aloud through some of the things.

To begin with, I am a wee-bit uncomfortable with the "confessional" poetry. Especially the way it has operated within the feminist poetry writing practices. I understand their historical importance, the importance of inscribing the "I" within the archive. But at the same time, I am a little bit wary of it now. I think, the "I" in the confessional feminist poetry often becomes an exocitized "I." And even worse, it tends to reduce itself to an "I" which only celebrates itself, but fails to be self-critical. At least, for the most part. I have often gravitated towards the "she" in my more autobiographical poems. I have always felt the use of the "she" puts a distance between me, the personal human being and the poetic persona. It allows myself to see myself as a character, and thus analyze myself more, contextualize and historicize myself more. To what extent I have been successful only future and readers can tell.

The tales and lores and the myth also perform a similar function for me. They help me to de-familiarize my material by providing a relatively pre-determined plot-arc. Of course, in lots of my poems I have broken the familiar plot-arc of those stories. But even in order to break them, I had to operate within them. So, the fairytales, lores and myths, much like the metrical and line constraints of a sonnet, sestina or villanelle, puts certain constraints upon me. I find these constraints liberating. They allow me to re-interpret not only the myths and stories within whose bellies I am re-instating my own story-poems, but they also allow me to think anew the material from life that I am writing about.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Putting Virginia Woolf in the Mix

I have been hesitant about putting the Virginia Woolf-A Room of One's Own poems in my collection. The collection, after all, is an attempt to re-write myths, folklores and fairytales. So wouldn't it be weird to put my series on A Room of One's Own in there? But then, I did. Because, while working on this collection, I have often felt the need to expand the meanings of the word myth. If colonialism hasn't been a myth, then what has been? If elite white feminism isn't a myth, then what is? As I worked through the poems, I kept wondering, myths are myths, after all, no? A myth is a representation, that is. A way to inscribe a mythmaker/writer's desires, dreams, frustrations and aspirations within the body of a story. One can say, it's not the real thing in that sense. Just a story. Something imagined. Constructed. Then isn't it going to incongruous to mix historical figures like Virginia Woolf with mythical figures like Cinderella and Briseis?

But then, I also began to feel more confident about the fact that those imaginations and constructions are born out of the real thing (s), I realized. I mean, if there wasn't any patriarchy, Grimms Brothers wouldn't have written Cinderella in the way they did. So myths are historical to begin with. And history often takes the shape of myths. I played with the two a little bit, mixed them up, brushed them against each other. The way the manuscript stands now, there is a section on my "mother-poems." Three poems on Woolf, one on the Bengali folktale Arun-Barun-Kiranmala, one a re-writing of a Bengali popular lore. Apart from the fact that mothers do not necessarily cut very impressive figures in Grimms Brothers, I was also intrigued by the fact that "foremothers" occupy such an important place in Euro-American feminist literary criticism. It is almost a trope. But do we always need to glorify our foremothers (and mothers)? Is it possible always to have an unproblematic relationship with our foremothers? These were some of the questions I was asking in these poems. I thought, it would be interesting to see how my more "straight" re-writing poems look when juxtaposed with my Woolf poems. Hence, the section.

For me, there is no Grimms Brothers fairytales or Greek epics without the mediation of British colonialism. So if this manuscript is all about re-evaluating my own social, political, feminist concerns as a Bengali middle-class, (too) educated woman, seen through the lens of popular folklore, tales and myths, then there is no escaping the colonial history or neo-liberalism. Hence, the section on Woolf.

I will be curious to see what my TRUSTED READERS think about it. If they even pick on this particular aspect.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review:The Heart's Traffic by Ching-In Chen

Ching-In Chen’s debut The Heart’s Traffic: a novel in poems defies all attempts of strict categorization. As a “novel in verse”, Chen’s collection is neither an attempt to explore through poetic forms the fragmented nature of human lives and existence through abstraction in a language that is beyond the boundaries of our everyday, nor is it an attempt to write in seamless narrative a well-defined story with neatly identifiable beginning, middle and an end. Instead, Chen, who describes herself as a “multi-genre, border-crossing writer” and a community organizer, offers us a bildungsroman told in poems which themselves refuse to stick to any linear understanding of chronology.

Divided into four sub-sections, on the outset, Chen tells us a familiar story – the coming-of-age of an immigrant Chinese girl. Xiomei, who is haunted by the death of her best friend, Sparrow. It is in her attempt to explore the psychic landscape of Xiomei’s mind that Chen also ends up exploring other issues such as the history of indenture, the intertwined nature of family history and immigration history, race, sexuality, gender. In fact, in Chen’s poems, all these seemingly disparate strands brush against each other to form a complicated quilt where the “personal”, the “aesthetic” and the “political” do not remain confined within strict compartments. Needless to say, Chen does not flinch from writing about “big issues.”

Think of the opening poem “Cooled Ghee: a riddle.” Written in the form of a prose-poem, the poem invokes the history of the Chinese coolies in the Americas:

Long ago, two temporary fathers lived in an unmentionable land far from home. Under the tear-dry sun, the thin father from the North sang the songs passed down from his youth in his clear voice. The tall father from the South collected the elements of water, sand, dirt, and green for his stories with no end, no matter how wide the field grew in the night while they mumbled to their lost families. When the almond-colored father bent his waist to the rhythm in the field, his legs grew into tree trunks (17).

The use of the form of a prose-poem allows Chen to tell a story without losing its serrated edges – in metaphors, allegories and symbols. Thus, without being too obvious or didactic, the collection establishes one of the primary themes that will be repeated throughout the book—racialized labor and the role it plays in the cultural construction of the Americas in general, and more specifically, United States of America.

Later, in the book, Chen continues with the theme in her poems “Ku Li”, “Coolie: A History Report” “Coolly: a riddle.” The first one, a riff on the word “Coolie”, and the second, an invocation of a middle-school or high-school student’s social science project work together to impress upon the readers the fact that the history of Asian indenture in the Americas, and more specifically in USA, has been erased from the official history.


built the

railroad, but




the party.







Obviously, Chen, here is exploring something as big as economic exploitation. But what is significant is that, she does it without falling back upon sentimental social realism. In fact, it is the very imagery of the coolies not invited to the party that prevents Chen from falling into the usual trap of sentimental protest poetry, while retaining the essential framework of social justice and anti-exploitation poetry.

Juxtaposed with the trauma of indenture of her ancestor, is Xiaomei’s own trauma of immigration to San Francisco. Here too, Chen explores all the usual issues of a post-colonial/ethnic poetics – colonial language, exoticization of Asian female bodies, loss of love and most importantly, what it means to be a queer woman of color. For example, in the poem entitled “Names”, Chen writes about the trauma of trying to learn a new language:

First to let go
of the murderous tongue,
end of the intimate and divine source
of the esophagus,
trained in the schoolbacked
wooden chair of youth,
ruler whack of pronunciation.


It is also not hard to see how, for Chen, writing about the trauma of language-acquisition is also a way to write about the traumatic nature of the very classroom itself. Or, educational institutions in general. A few poems later, in “A True Tale of Xiaomei”, she writes, “At school the next day, the girls would gather ‘round and I would unfold/The Great Outlandish True Tale of my pathetic mother,/ married off at age three,/ to an evil rich man as second wife/concubine./ How she squeezed sorrow out of her pounding chest./ How he beat her for that first daughter (me!)” Obviously, one can locate in here the usual re-cycled tales of an Asian/Chinese woman’s victimization repeated in here, but what is especially significant, is that it’s Xiaomei who participates in that myth-making. Thus, the cultural agency is shifted on to the Asian woman-writer herself, who participates in a form of self-Orientalization, only to debunk that very impulse later on in the same poem:

Never having a lover with my own family face,

I headed home to empty bed.

I cried for all the erasures within myself,

for the sand I had thrown on my mother’s memory,

for my hard back.


Thus, the tale that Xiaomei had churned out for her classmates about her mother, was, in reality, a form of erasure within herself. An erasure that is replicated in her inability to find a woman-of-color/ Asian woman to love. “Never having a lover with my own family face”, thus, becomes a somewhat indirect way to write about the essential whiteness and embedded racism of many of the queer communities. Xiaomei, thus, tries to make sense of her life within multiple forms of loss and amnesias.

Chen does not believe in making it easy for her readers. Thus, she does not explain herself, nor the cultural contexts she writes from. Yet, the poems of the novel write themselves in multiple forms—haiku, haiboun, ghazal, villanelle, sestina. The range is impressive, and reminiscent of the multiple cultural/historical/ideological communities/voices Chen is writing about. It is, as if, Chen is committed towards exploring the essential hybridity of poetic forms, in the same way she is committed towards exploring the complexity o the material she is dealing with.

And despite the complexities, Chen rounds off her verse-novel with a kind of hope : “Xiaomei dreams herself a clearing of green,/ a gathering of cool stone,/ a locking gate.” As she goes on to list the things Xiaomei dreams about, as readers, the readers ease themselves into a nicely-closed arc which, while preventing itself from providing a traditional novelistic climax, does offer some place from where “bruise-haired” women can begin to hope to be raised to “sea of sky.”

What Happened During the Hiatus

1. The first draft of the chapter 2 of the dissertation was completed, feedback received from the writing group. Now I need to go back to it and do the revisions before I turn it in to my co-directors again.

2. The first draft of the poetry manuscript has been finished, and has been emailed to a couple of TRUSTED READERS.

I have been trying to process what I have learnt from these two first drafts. I am still a little jaded from the efforts (especially since I still have a lot of fellowship applications to write), but I will try to process those feelings here a little bit.

a. In order to finish, you have to begin.
b. In order to begin (and finish), you have to have a basic level of trust and confidence on yourself. You have to believe that you have something to say to this world, and what you'll finally produce will mean something to people around you.
c. Once you go thick into the process of writing (or making/exploring of any other kind), you will be forced to face questions you haven't faced before. You can avoid them, or you can delve into them.
d. If you avoid them, your work, sooner or later will show traces of that evasion.
e. If you take those questions by their horns, you will find yourself in spaces where you haven't treaded before. You'll learn a lot, your work will begin to attain an intensity it didn't possess before.
f. Your questions will give birth to new projects. You will literally see how one project births itself in the belly of another.
g. You'll find that your training (whatever the nature of it might be) has many gaps.
h. Your projects will demand that you do some more reading and writing.
i. If you take the challenge up, you'll grow. If not, your work will suffer. You'll try to compensate by being extra performative, you'll succeed. Mostly, not always. So it's better to prepare yourself for the hard work than to reveal before the world your holes.
j. It's essential to admit that you possess those holes. We all do. Then work to fill them up. A writing project does both--shows you your holes and then gives you a chance to mend them.

Now, before I lose all my steam, I better go back to that LONG to-do-list I have waiting for me on the kitchen counter.