Sudeep Sen: ‘The architecture of a poem is very important to me’

А starting point for this interview with Sudeep Sen is his poem ‘Language’, which we chose for our new Inkroci column — “Two-tongued sea” (Mare bilingue). ‘Language’ is an excellently composed poem from an architectural and constructional point of view, one that Andrea Sirotti translated brilliantly into Italian. We discussed with Sudeep Sen whether the presence of the epigraph he had chosen in the original poem was necessary — a quote by Italo Calvino: “Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally.” We decided to publish the poem in Inkroci without the epigraph, so as to not take away the pleasure of the readers, who will find the key to it in the poem itself. Here is the original poem (and its Italian translation).

In the meantime, I understand that he lives in New Delhi where he was born, and that he lived in USA (including New York) from 1986-1991, in London for over a decade, and in Dhaka for five years.

It comes natural to me to ask him, “But which is your mother tongue, Hindi?” And Sudeep Sen tells me: “I have three mother tongues — English, Hindi and Bengali.” I exclaim (with surprise) as he continues: “If I have to choose one, especially for my writing, it is English.” “Ah, Bengali” — I smile and ask him some questions that I know in that great language of poetry: “Ki korcho?”, “Ki boi porcho?” — and Sudeep, surprised, replies back in Bangla. And after this quick communication in two of his languages, we decide to do this interview in the one he speaks primarily about his poetry. And it couldn’t be otherwise, although I wish we had had pondered over long lunches on Sudeep Sen’s poetry a lot more.

I also watched a film made on his poetry, Silence, in which his wonderful voice resonates as we absorb his poems: ‘Delhi’, ‘Absences’, and ‘Silence’. I wanted to talk about them, and his filmography, because he had received a MS degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in 1989. His master’s thesis was a documentary film, Babylon is Dying: Diary of Third Street, which won a Student Emmy Nomination. After that he went on to professionally make several more documentaries and short films in the next 5 years or so.

But… it so happens, that I ask other questions, and he talks about other poems.

When did your aspirations to become a poet begin? 

I have been writing poetry since high school, while I was at St Columba’s School in New Delhi. Of course I read poetry from a fairly young age. I grew up in a liberal and educated family with a lot of poetry and music around me. Art, literature, philosophy, and the world of ideas in particular, had always been a part of my upbringing. As a child, my mother and grandmother would recite children’s verse and sing songs for me. I realise now that much of my interest in form, structure, sound pattern and rhyme scheme comes from hearing aloud the incantatory music of their prayers and songs, which I internalised over the years.
My parents and grandparents introduced me to the world of poetry. They would recite the great Bengali poets: Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, and Kazi Nazrul Islam; also Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantics and the Victorians. I came to learn many of them by heart. In school and college, I explored Hindi and Urdu poetry, discovered the Russians, Latin Americans, as well as Japanese and Chinese verse. Some of my favourite poets included Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Irina Ratushinskaya, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Basho, Li Bai, and many more. My uncle opened to me a wondrous window, a hitherto unsighted world of modern European poets: Vasko Popa, Guillaume Apollinaire, Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Rainer Maria Rilke, Johannes Bobrowski, Horst Bienek, and so many others. Also the Metaphysical Poets and the French Symbolists, in particular John Donne, Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Verlaine, fascinated me. Of course, growing up in the seventies, one could not miss Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. The congregation grew and grew, and through quiet osmosis, I was seduced into the world of sound, rhythm, word-patterns, ideas, syllabics, music, and language itself.
I was always convinced that writing poetry was extremely difficult (even though I thoroughly enjoyed reading it), and was best left to the masters themselves. Then one day in 1980 (I was in Class 10 at the time), daydreaming through a boring lesson in school, I penned, quite unknowingly, in perfect rhyme and metre, my first poem. Then followed those first few years when I wrote sheaves and sheaves of, what sometimes seems, embarrassingly “callow”, and sometimes naive poems. But then again, I feel there was a sense of innocence, idealism, seriousness, and honesty about them.

Photo by Anshul Uniyal

So, your first book or poetic appearance was…

My first “unofficial” book, Leaning Against the Lamp-Post, was a collection of poems written between 1978 and 1982. In 1983, relying on my incipient enthusiasm, I summoned up my courage, typed out about fifty poems from a much larger batch I had written up until then — and with the aid of a modest donation from my grandfather as his school graduation gift to me, took it to a local printer. They were cyclostyled through one of those now-extinct, messy, gargantuan machines (photocopying was still quite expensive then) and hand-sewn at the bindery by an old man who, until then, had only bound legal manuals and commercial reports with ubiquitous red cloth or leather spines with their titles stamped in gold. This was the first time he had bound a collection of poetry, and he did it with great interest and with the care of a fine craftsman. He was a poet himself, and wrote and recited in Urdu. He also knew Bengali (my mother tongue) fluently, having spent his early life in what is now known as Bangladesh. Perhaps it was propitious that my early poems were blessed by the tactile touch of a true poet. It would only be fair to say of my grandfather that his patronage made him my first publisher. As it turns out, this limited, hand-assembled, first edition of poems was to be my first “unofficial” book of verse.
However, my first “official” book, The Lunar Visitations, came out in New York in 1990. It was a result of winning an American poetry competition, where the winner got prize money and their manuscript was published as a book. I cannot believe that that was already 30 years ago!

Photo by Anshul Uniyal

What’s your preferred tool for writing — a word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.? A pen and paper? 

At first, I write by hand. The first few drafts are written with a pencil or a fountain pen. The tactility of a pencil’s graphite lead or the raw scratching of a fountain pen’s gold nib on paper is magical — it forms so much a part of the pleasure of the act of writing itself. So, for me it is a rather old fashioned way, and thankfully so.
After writing several drafts by hand, I then transcribe the text onto a computer. Thereafter, numerous rounds of revision and fine-tuning. Having said that, there are occasions when I have written straight onto the computer, but that is rare. Ultimately, there are no hard and fast rules — if an inspiration strikes me and I do not have my favourite tools, i.e. a pencil or a fountain pen and a sheet of white paper— then I’ll write on whatever is readily available, even on my skin.

What’s your process for editing your work? 

I tend to follow a strict editing regime — draft after draft after draft. I want no fat or excess in the final version of my poems. I like my poems to be lean and muscular, lithe and lyrical, intelligent and elegant — architecturally sound and well-built. And for that, you have to make them go through a rigorous cerebral gym and endless hours of sweat — metaphorically speaking.
The architecture of a poem is very important to me — partly because of my own inherent interest in architecture itself. During my days of apprenticeship, I consciously wrote using traditional strict forms, formal metre and rhyme schemes. Of course I have also written in free verse, but due to my penchant for formal verse you are likely to encounter a pantoum next to an acrostic poem, a triolet juxtaposed against a ghazal, lyric narratives and prose poetry, Sapphic fragments, mosaic pastiché, ekphrastic verse, sonnet, rubai, poem songs, prayer chants, documentary feeds, rap, reggae, creole, canzone, tritina, sestina, ottava rima, rime royale and variations on waka: haiku, tanka, katauta, choka, bussokusekika, sedoka.
As I became more experienced and skilled, I started innovating and experimenting, creating and inventing new forms and poetic structures. I also believe that a poem should not only be linguistically challenging, but how it appears visually is an important factor as well. For me, typography and structure of a poem are just as vital as the inner spirit and content of any poem.

Photo by Anshul Uniyal

What is your relationship (shomporko in Bengali) with your rhyme?

My relationship with Bengali is umbilically neonatal. My parents were Bengali, and I grew up in a home speaking Bangla in a Bengali neighbourhood in New Delhi. Hindi and English were my other mother tongues. So the cultural, historical, linguistic and literary tradition of the Bengali tongue has had a very important effect of my poetic cadence, texture, rhythm and early rhyme-constructions. One very good example is my poem, ‘Durga Puja’ [re-published later in The Dhaka Tribune newspaper as part of a larger sequence, ‘Durga Sextet’]:
https://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/arts-letters/2018/10/11/durga-sextet?fbclid=IwAR0BaatHgFB0zobWefUnS9fg72-hO5HusBUHeVIGXAAm8KhZgX1XzKcMcUo.
During the lead up to the puja celebrations, prayers are chanedt from Chandipaath. In the poem, ‘Durga Puja’, I try to replicate its languorous baritone rhythm and its song-like cadence, as well as its long-lined couplet-structure.
In the poem ‘New York Times,’ <https://www.amazon.com/New-York-Times-Sudeep-Sen/dp/0907326250>, I invented a rhyme-scheme — abxba cdxdc efxfe… and so on … — the middle line, i.e., the third ‘x’ line, in fact is the mirror-line which reflects the first and second lines with the fourth and fifth lines of each stanza. The other reason I used the five-line stanza-format in the poem is because the city of New York itself has five boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, etc. The other aspect about this poem is if you turn the poem 90 degrees on its central axis, then a different kind of mirrorline mimics the shape of the island of Manhattan itself and its reflection on the surrounding waters.
Another poem, a book-length sequence, Mount Vesuvius in Eight Frames <https://www.peepaltreepress.com/books/mount-vesuvius-eight-frames> (subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio as a verse-play, and premiered in London as a stage-play by Border Crossings directed by Michael Walling) is based on a series of eight etchings of a British artist, Peter Standen. The entire poem is set in rhymed couplets, reflecting the presence of two principal characters — man/woman, lover/other, life/death, and the other essential dualities. But they do not appear as obvious rhymes (like the translucent choral refrains in the poem) — they are wrap-around rhymes as opposed to endstopped rhymes. The four stanzas in each section reflect the four seasons, the four sides of a frame, the four corners of a visual space. I also use alternating line-indentation for each couplet and stanza with the idea that the entire poem works on a cyclical principle. So, if you join all the stanzas together using the left-justified margin as a reference plane, they in fact fit in a perfect dove-tail joint.
The poem ‘Single Malt’ (published in Wasafiri, UK) <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02690059708589569> is one grammatical line, without any full-stops, mimicking the way whiskey, when poured gently into a crystal glass, caresses its sides and subsequently the tongue’s palette. Therefore the slim verticality of this poem’s structure:
Another example is the poem, ‘Bharatanatyam Dancer’ (published on ‘The Poetry Foundation’, USA): <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57549/bharatanatyam-dancer>. In this poem, it might be interesting for readers keen on form to note that the line-end rhyme-scheme — abacca… dbdeed… fbfggf… — maps and mirrors the actual classical dance steppattern and beat — ta dhin ta thaye thaye ta. Also, the lefthand margin indentations match the same scheme and form.
There is also my book-length poem, Distracted Geography: An Archipelago of Intent (published by Peepal Tree (UK) & Wings Press (USA): <https://www.peepaltreepress.com/books/reviews/distracted-geographies-archipelago-intent>. It’s one long poem over 206 pages. The sparse elongated structure of the poem partly reflects the strength and surety of the human vertebra and spine, much like Neruda’s Odes that reflects the long, thin shape of Chile. The sections and subsections join together like synapses between bone and bone. The titles are translucent markers or breath pauses, not separators. The short two-line couplets echo the two-step footprints, a pathway mapped on the atlas. The 12 sections correspond to the 12 bones in a human ribcage, the 12 months in a year, the two 12-hour cycles in a day. There are 26 bones in the human vertebrae, and the 26 parts in the poem slowly assemble themselves and form a montage of tenuously strung lyrics. The 206 pages in this book match the exact number of bones in a human body.

Photo by Anshul Uniyal

Can you elucidate your engagement with the evolving forms in poetry?

I am constantly innovating with form and structure. This has allowed me to invent and introduce new forms (and structure) to the English poetry tradition, ones that did not exist before. Even as the voice and technique are in a constant state of flux and growth, there is always a distinct personal signature. It has been very pleasing to make an original contribution to this literary field. I hope I can continue to do so.

Do you have a poet whose voice or style you’re trying to emulate when you’re writing? 

No, none at all — even though I admire a lot of them, from the classics to the contemporary. But if I were pushed to rank my top three preferences — first would be the ‘God’ of Poetry, that wondrously undefinenable muse. Then the poet, Milton — how can you not admire a man who took 16 books to write one epic poem — Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained. And finally, it would be one of my mentors, the 1992 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Derek Walcott — his books, Omeros and Tiepolo’s Hound (both modern epics), are among my favourites.

Do you read books about the creative process? 

Not anymore. When I was starting out as a student, especially during my days in the USA studying English and Creative Writing at the universities there — many of my professors introduced me to books that taught the art and craft of writing. They were useful then, in as much as that I was exposed to the technical aspects of form and structure — something that deeply interested me then, as it does now. But after my apprenticeship years, I have not read books about the creative process.
The more you write and gain experience, the more internalised the writing process becomes. This includes the craft and the use of various forms that the constellation of poetry holds within itself — the whole process is both centripetal and centrifugal, organic and constantly evolving, hopefully in the right direction.

Do like to see your poems translated into Indian regional languages?

Sure — it is always a pleasure to see them dance in another tongue and come alive in other languages. I am a translator myself as you know, so it is something I personally care about a great deal. Many of my poems — individually and in book-form — have been translated into many Indian languages such as Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Marathi, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Oriya, and more. It is wonderful that my country folks in different parts of India can access my English poetry in their local languages.
It is also a thrill that international audiences have an entry into my world of literary writing through translations into languages such as French, German, Italian, Spanish, Galician, Turkish, Hungarian, Swedish, Norwegian, Romanian, Croatian, Serbian, Macedonian, Arabic, Persian, Korean, Chinese, Malay, and many more.

Please share your thoughts on the necessity of poetry during these hard times of the pandemic?

Nature has always inspired writers and artists. I have not been immune to this attraction either. However, I have noticed that with the passing of time, the celebration of nature in my poetry and prose has been tempered with warnings of what this irreversible change in climate means for the earth.
My poems, for instance, often dwell on the theme of excess. Having lived in Delhi for most of my life and braved its predominantly hot weather for decades, I have often written on aspects of ‘heat’. Heat annoys, repels, inspires and exasperates:

Heat outside is like filigreed sand on my skin —
swift, sharp, pointed, deceptive, furnace hot.
(from ‘Heat Sand’)

In the early 2000s however, I lived in Bangladesh for some years. As a result of living for half a decade in the region of the ‘two Bengals’ — West Bengal in India and Bangladesh — I published a book titled Monsoon that was later republished as Rain.

It is bone-dry — I pray for any moisture that might fall from the emaciated skies — // There is a cloud, just a solitary cloud wafting perilously — // But it is too far in the distance for any real hope — for rain.
(‘Drought, Cloud’, Rain)

The book, Rain, reflected and meditated on the various moods and effects of rain — its passion and politics, its beauty and fury, its hope and hopelessness, its ability of “douse and arouse”. In some ways, it was a book on aspects of climate change — even though I confess that I did not overtly set out to do so, at least not consciously.
During the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, things were changing so fast around us that it was viscerally affecting our society — the play of politics, the way people thought and reacted, the changing culture of ‘working from home’ for the privileged and lack of work for the dispossessed, the gruesome images of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres in the unforgiving weather riddled by hunger and pain, the quarantine, the virus — how can all these not affect you psychologically as well. To make matters worse, the pandemic was accompanied by floods, locust attack, earthquakes, and more.
At the same time, with the country under a lockdown and no transportation allowed on the streets, with offices and industries shut—Delhi started showing signs of regeneration. It was extraordinary how quickly we saw signs of nature healing itself — clean air, blue skies during the day, starlit skies at night, the skyscapes during dawn and dusk everyday utterly spectacular, and the constant elation of silence. Outside my window, the sparrows, the bees and the butterflies were back — and for a while it felt like the Delhi of yesteryears, the one I had grown up in the 1970s & 80s.
In this period, I would spend two to three hours in the evening on my terrace — reading, walking, watching, calling out to neighbours, eavesdropping on birds, “listening to the stars”, and photographing skyscapes. I took to capturing the skies from exactly the same vantage point on my terrace day after day — and the selection of photographs in this book will give you an idea of the varied vivacity of the ever-changing canvas.
Amid all the clamour of public rhetoric and widespread distress, this book is a quiet artistic offering. It is a testament to our fervent times where a fascist political din overrides the silence of introspection, where the ravages of climate change scar humanity, where the cleaving schism between the rich and poor becomes ever-widening, where racism peaks at an all-time high, where toxicity amongst people proliferates, and fake news abounds.
In Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation, my new book that I wrote this year during the pandemic — you will experience the wider (and my personal) struggle with pollution and co-morbidities; the sharp rise and fall in atmospheric pressures, unusual heat spikes; unseasonal rain and hailstorm; invading oceans swallowing up coastlines around the world; floods; cyclones, devastation; illnesses — physical and psychological.
Even in the most spectacular sights, one sees the “terrible beauty” that is contained within. We know that the sunsets are more redolent due to pollution in the air — and that certain geological features are stunning because of the impurities they contain. In ‘Akrotiri’ on the volcanic Grecian island of Santorini, we see:

sand-soil compacted mineral
paintings — rainbow reserved normally for the skies.

Several literary techniques and forms have been used to show our world’s passage from utopia to dystopia — so you will see on display, formal and free verse forms, prose poems, fragmented prose, flash and micro-fiction, and more.
“Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me,” Sigmund Freud had once remarked. Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation while engaging with the most urgent topics that face humanity now — climate change and pandemic — is ultimately a prayer for positivity and hope. It is time again to slow down, to consume less, to love more selflessly and expansively.

Hope, heed, heal — our song, in present tense.
(from ‘Love in the Time of Corona’)

*

KEY POETRY LINKS:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sudeep-sen [Poetry Foundation, Chicago, USA] https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/poet/14009/Sudeep-Sen [Poetry International, Rotterdam, Holland] https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/sudeep-sen [British Council, London, UK] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIAigwTR1JI [Jaipur Literature Festival / video live reading] https://www.youtube.com/user/MrSudeepSen [YouTube for three poetry films] https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/poem/14057/auto/0/0/Sudeep-Sen/Offering/en/tile [the poem ‘Offering’ / text & audio] https://www.poemhunter.com/i/ebooks/pdf/sudeep_sen_2012_6.pdf [Poem Hunter: poetry selection]

F I L M S on SUDEEP SEN’s Poetry

SILENCE: a triptych (poetry film / 5 mins), based on the work of the internationally acclaimed poet SUDEEP SEN | Director: Ramanjit Kaur, Music: Tanmoy Bose, Cinematography: Anshul Uniyal, Editor: Rajdeep | YouTube Premiere on Nov 22, 2020 | At the Berlin Flash Film Festival (awarded Honourable Mention Citation) + featured official selection at various national & international film & literary festivals.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkOMcIPZq7M

CROSSING THE LINES OF DESIRE (poetry film / 12 mins) | based on the work of the internationally acclaimed poet SUDEEP SEN | Director: Davina Lee | Music: Aditya Balani | Starring: Germaine Joseph, Claudia Edward & Natalie la Porte | Assistant Director: Ashline Sankar George | Production Manager: Julianus Felix | Production Assistant: Vicklan George | A DAVINA LEE FILM (12 mins)
https://youtu.be/jkTPWESULg4

PRAYER FLAG – (poetry/dance film / 6.29 mins) — is a creative collaboration between Sudeep Sen, Shovana Narayan & Aparna Sanyal. Credits: Poetry, Narration & Title Design: Sudeep Sen; Dance & Choreography: Shovana Narayan; Director: Aparna Sanyal; Camera: Basit Sanyal; Editor: Pooja Iyengar: Producer: Mixed Media Productions
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sg5N2BSNNDA

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Emilia Mirazchiyska
Emilia Mirazchiyska (1972) lives and works in her hometown Sofia, Bulgaria. She is the editor in-chef of Scalino publishing house which has in its catalogue two anthologies, compiled and edited by her: “Materinità possibili “(Italian edition – October 2011, Bulgarian edition – April 2011, coeditor Rayna Castoldi) and an anthology of short stories “Saluti a Dickens”, 2012. The latter has an English version too – “Greetings to Dickens” (15 Christmas Stories) with authors of eight nationalities: David Albahari (Kossovo, Canada), Iana Boukova (Bulgaria, Grееce), Soledad Cordero (Spain), Denitsa Dilova (Bulgaria), Sara Ferraglia (Italy), Ivan P. Hall (U.S.A.), Noémi Kiss (Hungary), Lyubov Kroneva (Bulgaria), Stoyan Nenov (Bulgaria), Dimitris Nolas (Greece), Gloriana Orlando (Italy), Alessandra Porcu (Italy), Milen Ruskov (Bulgaria), Zsuzsa Takács (Hungary) and Reynol Perez Vazquez (Mexico). She translates poetry from Bulgarian into Italian and from Italian into Bulgarian. Her professional aspirations in translating poetry broaden every month and scope other languages as well.