Sunday, July 22, 2012

<< Reflections on Why I Write What I Write >>


I have been trying to think of the issues and themes that have guided my poems in the recent times. When I first began to write seriously again, I was writing two kinds of poem – a kind of high lyricism with a very strong sense of “I” and an overload of images, and what can be called speculative poems, exploring myths, fairytales and such. I was avoiding the so-called “confessional” poems because I was hyper aware of the ways in which as a woman, and especially a woman-of-color who is also a citizen of a Third World nation, whatever I write will be read as overtly autobiographical. Now, I don't like the term “confessional.” The word appears to be overtly hierarchical, bringing to mind vastly Christian notions of sin, guilt, priesthood. Even if I ignore the religious overtone of the word, it is hard to be inattentive to the ways in which the word circumvents notions of social power, guilt and wrong-doing. Now, I have nothing to “confess” in that way, having been totally dismissive of the heavenly “F”ather and highly questioning of the earthly one. Yes, I am a sinner in most ways, and I celebrate my sins. In fact, the sins I have committed are highly connected to my notions of social power and resistance, and if I have to indulge in a prayer, it would be something like this : “Dear Universe, give me the power to be a better sinner and sin in more and more creative ways.” So, that is why, I repeat, I am not a great fan of the term “confessional poetry.” Autobiographical poetry, yes. Memoir-based poems, yes. Life-story poems, yes. But not confessional ones. Then again, even when I was writing the high-lyric and speculative poems, I was being autobiographical. I haven't written anything to date that hasn't passed through my consciousness-- in some way or the other.

The way I see it, what goes on under the label of “confessional poetry” in American literary circles, have facilitated the opening up of certain things as legitimate subjects of poetry – women's lives and worlds, women's work within the family and the social relationships that encompass familial lives. The body of poems (and by now, it is a HUGE archive, mind you) that constitute the so-called “confessional poetry”, have succeeded to evolve a language which leads the writers to reflect upon the forms of structural power that invade the lives within families, the drudgery that is domesticity, the little (and often almost invisible) ways in which women resist or do not resist. The “I” in such poems are often highly gendered, and if I have to sum it up in one sentence, these poems have made it possible to make the everyday configurations of gendered violence a legitimate topic of poems (and I would argue, lyric poems too. But that's the topic of another post.) I am not claiming that the “confessional poems” are solely focused on gender. Neither am I claiming that they have been only written by women poets. In lots of ways, "confessional" poems have also made spaces for the writers to write about violences of race and class, and the intersections of such categories as gender. But, inspite of that, I do think that the confessional poems have given gender a form of visibility that is unique in many ways.

Now, the thematic and political concerns of these poems had always been my concern too. I wrote about similar topics and themes, but I also concealed myself within the folds of a “she.” Sometimes, I would write deliberately obscure imageries and call them avant-garde. But, after a while I had to confront the fact that I am really hiding behind language, I am hiding behind stories and the so-called narrativelessness/problematization of narrative etc. etc. I was claiming I was doing. And I needed to face myself if I had to continue writing. So, I turned somewhat consciously to the “confessional” poetics. I tried to be less afraid of the “I”, and I began to write poems whose raw materials were derived more directly from my own childhood, my own youth – my own life-history, so to speak.

A lot of those poems are raw. They are sometimes really really angry, sometimes overtly sad. A lot of them are not good poems as such. But they did two things for me: they lead me to see my own family as a site of violence. I could not hide behind broad, big, macro-level claims of how family as an institution is itself patriarchal, how family is a site of violence blah blah blah. These poems made me confront how my own life within my own family has been extremely violent in a totally benign kind of a way. How I have been shaped by patriarchy. How my mother has been shaped by patriarchy. How my father has been shaped by patriarchal notions of masculinity. How my mother has policed her own life, and mine. It is not that I was totally unaware of these things before. But once I began to write these poems, I had to vocalize what I could only grumble about in the darkness of my own room and mind. I had to delve into the details, I had to find a viable language for these facts, stories and histories. And that opened up my voice in very important ways.

It was okay to feel sad in my poem. It was okay to be angry. It was okay to call a spade a spade. And...and...and...it was okay to make my persona do things to claim her voice which I could not always do in my real life, but wanted to.

First of all, they led me to see how our notions of love are themselves coded in violence. And families and familial loves-- the most benevolent and benign of them – are implicated within very strange, but totally foundational forms of economic transactions and inequalities. In short, writing these poems made me see the fact that there is no “free” and “equal” love in an unfree and unequal world. And one of the profoundest acts that poets and writers can engage in, consists of tearing apart the veils and masks of our love languages. Now, I would be the first one to say, my parents are not terrible people. Within certain middle-class parameters, they are generous, gentle human beings who have tried to give me a good education and a love-filled childhood in the way they understood it. I don't have anything dramatically bad done to me when I was a bad. I wasn't sexually abused by my loved ones, I never had to think about where my next meal is coming from, I never had to worry about my school fees and such. And these are all tremendous privileges in a nation which has such high starvation and child mortality rates as India. But then, I cannot say my childhood was violence-free. Neither can I say my anger, the sense of violation I have often felt, are baseless and trivial. My life, like that of a lot of others, has always been implicated within banal networks of evil, and it is that banality that these poems gave me the courage to explore. And explore more.

I don't think “confessional poems” are the only kinds of poems I will write for the rest of my life. I do want to keep working on the other kinds of poems I had drafted, give them more complete, definitive forms. But these “confessional poems” have given me the means to explore myself a little bit more which other kinds of poems did not necessarily do. Definitely not in the same way.

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