Friday, December 31, 2010

Buying More Chapbooks in 2011

I have read a fair amount of poetry in 2010. Mostly American poets, full-length books. In 2011, I need to read more chapbooks coming out of smaller presses. If the global literary history is to be taken into account, this is where the most interesting things happen. And my own experiences in Kolkata and in this country aren't that different either. So, one of the things I am going to do in 2011 is to buy a chapbook every month. I love the form of a chapbook. It's concise, brief and allows for experimentations which full-length collections might not always allow. Although, most of the work I am doing right now are beginning to look more fitted towards longer forms like a full-length poetry collection, I still love chapbooks. I often dream about having a fine-art chapbook, collaborating with a visual artist. Maybe some day...but for now, I will settle for reading and buying more chapbooks.

Some Short Stories That Stood Out For Me

1. Brownies (ZZ Packer)
2. A Private Experience (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
3. Little Jack (Anton Chekhov)
4. Mr. Z (Oscar Casares)
5. Devadasi (Rishi Reddi)
6. The Capital of the World (Ernest Hemingway).

I must add this disclaimer that I am not a great fan of Hemingway. People do talk about a lot about his investment in a kind of machismo, but what is often left out of that discussion is his investment in an imperial masculinity. But somehow, I think, this is a story where he is trying to problematize a certain kind of performative aggressive masculinity by showing its inherent violence. Very unlike Hemingway, I must say.

End of the Year Rant

I have been thinking about the place of "biography" and "personal history" and the role they play in writing a lot these days. I still believe that texts writers/artists end up producing do have lives of their own, they are autonomous entities in themselves. But at the same time, I think, our personal limitations (which, to me, are never merely personal), the limitations of our social location do show up in the texts we produce. I am realizing this more and more as I am getting to know more and more writers, and reading their works. Some people I have met before I have read their works. Some I have read before meeting them. In both cases, their writings were trying to grapple with exactly the same kind of crises they were trying to grapple with in life. I have also come to realize, if someone is trying to deal with one's life-issues in a less-than-honest kind of a way, that would show up in the writings they would produce. Even if the writers themselves are not very conscious of it. If someone is trying to deal with life primarily through denial and evasion, that will show up in the art too. In short, art provides an artist with very little respite in that way.

In my own case, the more I have gotten into writing, I am finding that it has become harder for me to pretend, perform in real life. I have to be honest in my opinions to others. I don't have any problems if someone doesn't agree with me or doesn't follow the suggestions I have for him/her. What I find difficult is to keep on going in relationships where there is no space for my honest opinions. Where, in order to keep the relationship going, I have to suppress them or lie to the people. In the last couple of years, I have let go of friends with whom sharing an honest space was becoming difficult. In some cases, I was realizing that our differences were so huge that any attempt on my part to be the real me would end up breaking the relationship anyway. I didn't want to spend my energy in fights and arguments, because with age I have become very very wary of the energy I expend in such things.

Although, I will be the first one to say that arguments and fights can be extremely productive too. They can expand a person, force him/her to rethink certain opinions and locations, and lead to discovery of things about one's own self and the world. In other words, I am not that much of a lovey-dovey hippie who doesn't acknowledge how fruitful conflicts and contradictions can be. But I have also come to realize that one can have engaging fights and arguments only when one shares a basic level of emotion and a political common ground with someone.

I know I am not exactly an easy person to be with. I can be "critical" of someone's work or decisions in life. ( I think, the trendy word is "judgemental.") I do tend to (over)emphasize a certain kind of ideological framework when judging my own or others' actions. And "ideology" is not exactly the word most people during these sad times of ours want to take into account. Although, these are deeply "ideological" times. In every fucking sense of the word. So, most of the times these days, I tend to spend with my writing and my books. Yes, I do have a few friends. And I value them over more than anything else in life. Yes, I write for them. At the end of the day, I hope my writing will have something to offer to the friends I love. It will lead them to see me a little bit more. Beyond that, if my writings touch anyone else, it's a gift that I will humbly accept. But I don't expect that gift from the world. And in the last resort, if my writing doesn't necessarily make me a better person, I have no use for it or any other forms of art in my every day life.

I don't write to please anyone. I don't write to impress anyone either. I write to know myself better. To discover and understand the world around me better. And the more I write, the more I believe that itself is a political act. Art is inherently political in that way. To deny that politics to art, is to be delusional.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Poetry Submissions

I haven't been in an aggressive submitting mode for a long time. Why? Because as much as I love reading and writing, I hate submitting. Along with all other aspects of po-biz. But but but...

I submitted five poems to five places today. I feel good about the poems, so I am keeping my fingers crossed. I have decided to submit to a few "better" places. Which means, mid-level to "big" places. By doing this, I am opening myself up to more potential rejections. But I think, it's time to take that leap. I think, I would have done this earlier. But the thing is, most of the "bigger" journals, need paper copies and a cover-letter to go along with it. The print-outs, the envelopes, the postage--I mean, these things cost money. Not to speak of the extra time. Which, as it shouldn't be a big news to anyone in my position, are both scarce in my life. But, I did it today. And feel good about it. Also, it was nice when the counter-clerk at the University post-office said, "good luck with those." These are the times I feel grateful for being in an University, in an university town.

2011 Bangla Reading Resolutions

1. Char Adhyay (Rabindranath Thakur)
2. Hansuli Bnaker Upakatha (Tarashankar Bandopadhyay)
3. Debjan (Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay)
4. Bakulkatha (Ashapurna Debi)
5. Aranyer Adhikar/Agnigarbha (Mahasweta Debi)
6. Ashtam Garbha (Bani Basu)

Morning Coffee

Morning-coffee with PB is one of my favorite times of the day. This is the time when we talk about literature, writing, academic work, politics, activism, art, film,neo-liberalism--basically all the things over which we have no control over--before we go on to take care of the to-do lists of the day. For one thing, we are both coffee addicts. So, it feels very nice to be still in a position where we can still afford at least a cup of good home-brewed coffee every day. I like my coffee without milk, and two spoonful of sugar. M likes his coffee with a little milk and no sugar. This is also the time when I realize what good friendship means. It is not about big, grandiose words. It is not about maddening excitement. But it is about sharing what stimulates me most with the other. It is about learning to expand myself, while trying to be in the other's shoes. It is about slowly nudging the other into creativity. It is about encouraging and nurturing the critical-creative in the other.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Fairytale Worlds"

I am not sure why folks say "fairytale ending", "fairytale reality" to suggest imaginary worlds where nothing ever goes wrong. I mean, fairy-tales are VIOLENT. And although things seem to work out at the end, they always do so at the cost of some immense violence done to at least one of the characters, mostly women.

I am trying to finish this particular sequence of poems done before the end of this year. From where I am standing now, it seems I might just be able to do it!

One of my mentors pointed out, that a lot of my poems are about the inherent symbolism of language. I haven't thought about it before, but I would have to agree. I have been taken up more and more by the act of writing itself, the politics of the writing process, the political limits of specific modes of writing. What can a manifesto do which a poem cannot? The sequence I am working on right now, thus, is more about a world where fairy-tales begin to lose their meanings rather than provide a coherent way of explaining it. It's a slippery terrain, and I am still struggling to keep my balance intact.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Visual Space In A Poetry Manuscript

While reading Ilya Kaminsky's Dancing In Odessa, I have been thinking of the importance of the visual space in between poems. Kaminsky's book is divided into five sections, with broad title headings. And that's what the reader gets in the Table of Contents. Looking at the Table of Contents, it might seem that this book is composed almost solely of long poems. It is only when the readers go into the sections proper, does he/she realize that these broad sections are broken up into smaller poems, each with a separate title. One can read them as one long poem, or as smaller stand-alone poems. From the perspective of a reader, it provides him/her with some more breathing space. It allows him/her to stop after every shorter poem, process it before moving on to the next one.

In my manuscript, right now, I have at least five long poems. They are not titled separately (except for one). And even the one that is titled that way, I don't follow the one poem-a-page convention which Kaminsky does. When I was working on the manuscript, I thought, I don't necessarily need to go for that, since I am writing long poems. But on reading Kaminsky, I am thinking, maybe it is good to provide the readers with some more visual blank space. It makes it easier for them to process the individual poems, thus strengthening further the impact of the work I am trying to do. So, for the next round of revisions, I will try to use that one-poem-a-page convention, and see where it takes me.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Poem Sequence

Have been trying to write a series of poems which would chart the processes through which fairytales begin to attain contradictory meanings in the lives of Bengali women. I do not want to exoticize fairytales in my poems. Rather, I want to open up a personal/political history of reception of the fairytales from the perspective of Bengali middle-class women. It is an inter-generational history, and that's why, also has to be multi-vocal. I am struggling with the use of the pronouns in this particular sequence. There are too many shes. I am still trying to find my ways around it. One thing I have realized in the last few months. Writing is a form of art which needs intense engagement with the world. Craft is important, but it is just one element in the equation. What one needs to do is to keep on enlarging one's world. That happens with continuous interactions with the social world, and and and...reading. What I am trying to say is that, most of what we call inspiration, is, in reality, back-breaking work and successful appropriation of the work that is being done by others. For example, I had been reading Kwai-Yun Li's The Last Dragon Dance, a collection of short stories about the Kolkata Chinatown. The book is not "great" by any means, although very very interesting and raises lots of questions about diaspora and representation. But what it did for me was to give back a sense of place, which I am desperately trying to etch in the words of this particular poem sequence. Once the whole book would be completed, it would be interesting to go back and see how Kwai-Yun Li has begun to reside in my poems! Yes, I am the one who would be writing these poems, but I am not alone in this. I am, in fact, in writing something, thrusting my own voice within already existing collectivities.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Title: Inking the Hyacinth

For a while, I didn't know what the title of the manuscript is going to be. Then, I played with a couple. Now, I have settled for Inking the Hyacinth. Most of my readers loved this name, I have a special place for this particular poem. It was written during a time when I was trying to grapple with the idea of creativity in lots of different ways. But what is most important is that, this title represents in ways more than one the essential notions of creativity which the manuscript is all about-- the symbolic role of writing, gendered notions of writing, women, the different modes of resistance that one can embark upon through acts of creative expression. I am happy with it.

For the last couple of days, I have been writing poems which I am planning to include in the manuscript. I am hoping, they will go towards contextualizing the project a little bit more. The work I am doing now is exciting, but it is also daunting at times. I keep asking myself, will I retain my steam till the end? Do I have the capacity to move into such depths? I don't know. But I am trying.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Exploring Directness in My Poems

I have just finished a workshop with Rachel Kann. Rachel's overall feedback to me was: I need to challenge myself to write more directly. I have been thinking about that a lot in the past few days. I do have a tendency to play with language, with the inherent symbolism of it. But I think my tendency to use indirect language comes from two things:

1. Having grown up around lots of ganasangeet, and people trying to write "socialist-realist" poems, plays and stories, I have a tendency to keep myself deliberately away from what I call Red Sun and Internationale Aesthetic. I want to explore the political through different kinds of images, through different kinds of symbolisms. Hence, a lot of my indirect explorations.

2. Since I also write short stories, essays, and political pamphlets, I don't always feel the need to explore experiences and languages in straight, direct ways in my poems. I feel my prose can do that better, in a different way. What I therefore, try to do in my poems is to explore the abstract, the magical. I like to stretch the limits of an image, a word, a sentence, the inherent symbolism of a form.

But it is also equally true, my writing tends to get more indirect and immersed in language and image plays whenever I am not exploring something very deeply. In short, in my own writing, obscurity in the guise of beautiful language often follows my own lack of clarity about a topic. So, when Rachel pushed me to think about more direct ways to write my material, she had done me an immense service in trying to make me see something.

I am trying to think this through as I am revising my first manuscript.

PS. the word ganasangeet in Bangla means "people's songs."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Revision, Taking Out Things

KRA's suggestion was that I need to trim down my manuscript. I have decided to take out the series on Briseis and the Crow/Sparrow poems. Both of those series need more time to ferment, and more space to bloom fully. In fact, I think, both of them will do good as stand-alone chapbook projects. That way, the collection I have can also become a much more focussed one on fairytales/folklore and the Woolf re-writings. I have some ideas about the revision, let's see how it develops.

Have finished revising chapter two of the dissertation. Need to send it out to the co-directors.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Writing Notes in Poems

My post-colonial training had taught me to be suspicious of readers who want the "ethnic" writer to do the work of the native informant. I am against providing extensive notes for the poems I am writing. I don't want to explain the historical context of the Arun-Barun-Kiranmala story too much, I don't want to provide a glossary of each and every Bangla word I use in the poem. Instead, I want the reader to do some amount of work. I want them to look things up. I want them to think about the world I am writing in. But after getting back the manuscript with KRA's detailed feedback, I am wondering about certain things. For example, I have learnt that not only shouldn't I take for granted my American readers' knowledge of South Asian/Third World fairytales, I shouldn't also take for granted their knowledge of Greek mythology. Like, I discovered very few of my readers recognized who Briseis is. This made me think about ways of reading a lot.

One can argue that Briseis is a minor character. So it's not too hard to miss out the segments where she appears. But on the other hand, "missing out" on things also reveals ways in which we are taught to see things in a text. If an epic is all about valorizing male military heroes, and most of the readers go to the text expecting that and without questioning the basic premises of male martial heroism, chances are they would miss out on lots of things. What this means is that, any writer who is "revising/rewriting" into existing narratives, is also trying to show the readers different ways of reading the canon. As a poet, I have the responsibility of opening certain doors for the readers. And I should do that. If writing a slightly longer note helps me in that task, I will do it. Because at the end of the day, it's not my erudition that's at stake. What is at stake is that I am trying to show the readers that there are other things to think about while they approach a very familiar canonical text. That arrogance, that I won't really add a note to it, I would rather have the readers struggle through it, seems to be kind of an academic elitist exhibitionism which I can do away with.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Food and Growing Up

I didn't grow up eating lots of poppy-seed (posto) curries. My mother wasn't especially fond of them, and would tell me, posto is more of a ghoti thing. Meaning, it's more of a food that belongs traditionally to the people who are from West Bengal than us, the bangals, who are originally from East Bengal(now Bangladesh). Bengali cuisine is not something one easily gets in US. In lots of ways, Bengali food doesn't share a lot of the characteristics of Punjabi food, which has come to be understood as the India food in US. It's not as spicy, less greasy, more flavorful. Spices are used more to season things rather than to blunt the original smell of the vegetables, fish or meat. It does frustrate me sometimes that I cannot walk into a Bengali restaurant and order the delicacies I have grown up eating. On the other hand, I do like the fact that Bengali food hasn't been assimilated into the mainstream of American food cultural, the commercial culinary tourism. Whenever I cook something Bengali, I feel as if I am cooking up a secret, which I can (and do) share with my loved friends and only loved friends here. Today I cooked posto-murgi (chicken with poppy seeds). It is not something I have had ever tasted while growing up. But I would consider this dish irrevocably Bengali--the phoron (throwing of whole spices into hot sizzling oil), the poppy-seed paste, adding a little bit of sugar for the whole dish to have a caramelized taint. It does make me think about what constitutes authenticity when it comes to food? How does one take into account the regional/local/familial variations? What do those variations reveal in terms of the social historical and political dynamics of things? I made it based on these two recipes here and here. The result was delicious. The poppy-seeds gave the chicken pieces a very different kind of texture.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


In one of the list-serves I am in, there is a discussion on whether an MFA is necessary for being a poet/writer. Well, I obviously I don't have one. Although I tend to think, it's going to be nice to get a chance to read/write extensively as a writer-in-training for two/three years. And and is my dream to get an MFA someday. Not because I think the degree will be prestigious, or I need another graduate degree. But it would be nice to get that structured time when I am expected (and paid) to write, write and write. It would be nice to be within a community of writers, it would be nice to get some intense feedback. Although from my classes at UCLA Extension, I also happen to know that it's not going to be easy. What I write/will write will not be easily accessible to folks. My politics, the place I am writing from will be lost to many (most). But still, it will be nice to have that time to write.

There were also a few non-MFA people in the listserve who described themselves as auto-didacts. Now, I tend to think, anyone worth his/her salt in anything, has to be an auto-didact. There is no class, no school in this world that will teach one everything about something. What courses/programs do is to provide one with certain openings. My Phd program has provided me with certain openings. It had allowed me to walk in through some doors. And that is indeed a huge advantage over people who do not get that opportunity to have those doors opened to them by some program/course/school (it can be an advantage too, though:)). But what the PhD program had done for me was to provide me with time to read and think about the world and cultural productions almost 24/7. Think about them in a really intense way. If I didn't get that chance, I don't think I would have thought seriously about taking up writing. I would have written fleetingly, but I wouldn't have taken it up in the way I have done. But then, there were a lot of things I had to teach myself even within the program. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

So, if I have to sum up my opinion, it goes like this: an MFA wouldn't necessarily hurt. Because it would give you lots of structured time and space to write. It will give you a community. It will give you mentors. It will provide you with lots of openings, that is. Now once you walk through the doors opened by the program, you will still have to stumble around, teach yourself how to stand straight, and how to walk forward. Don't expect the program will do that work for you. But on the other hand, if you decide not to go for an MFA, that is not the end of the world either. You can still learn things.

There is no one way to writerhood. But whatever way one choses, one has to work damn hard, examine oneself closely, and get into the habit of being honest with oneself. Even if that hurts.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Revising Dissertation Chap 2

I am trying to revise chapter two of my dissertation. It is not proving to be easy. It is not that I don't have a grip over what I want to say. I do. But where I am struggling, is how to say it. A lot of the comments I got back from my advisor and the other dissertating colleagues is that, I need to paste more signposts before I launch into specific arguments. That is where I am struggling. It is as if I know where I am taking my readers, but I am not necessarily keen on telling them where I am going to take them. I think, I need to see some other dissertations to see how this has been achieved. Or maybe even book chapters. Natasha Tinsley's book? Christina Sharpe's book? LM's dissertation? That's what I will do tonight. Also, I need to make a quick library trip. Books I need to pick up:

1. Stephanie Li's Book
2. Louise Gluck's Ararat
3. Nationalism vs. Internationalism

Will do that tomorrow morning.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Conflict, Writing, My Poems

One of my co-workshoppers in the UCLA Extension class I am taking said something interesting about my poems. According to her, my poems have a sense of conflict which is largely missing from the poems she reads. This made me think a lot about readership. For one thing, I don't really know who she reads. But the poets I read and love to read, all engage with conflict, and sometimes multiple forms of conflicts. Maybe I read "political" poets more. Although, I would say, all poems, all texts are political. It's what kind of politics they are engaging in, and how, that makes all the difference. I am thinking, what does it mean to write about conflict? That there are inequalities in the world? That people who do not enjoy power and privileges question their own locations, and ultimately engage in resistance? That we all occupy contradictory material and subjective positions in life? All of the above?

Something I need to think about more.

This somehow also makes me think about Mary Pipher's book Writing to Change the World, which I just finished. It has lots of great insights to begin with. But, what I find lacking is specifically an engagement with the question: how does one write from a place of simultaneous anger and hope? What if one is expressing one's love in writing through an expression of anger? Personally, I think, Pipher is not that willing to deal with systemic dimensions of power. Consequently, she also does not think of writing as something that can sharpen the contradictions inherent within the workings of power. At the end of the day, although I don't think she intends it that way, the book ends up suggesting ways to dissolve the conflicts, rather than let them ripen.

If I have to be non-pc about it, it's a little too hippie-dippie for me. Although there were some great insights, from which I can learn. Also, she has a good bibliography of all kinds of books-- children's books, novels, memoirs---and I need to dig into some of them!