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Five minutes with

Nabina Das

"I write because I feel that living on words and the experiences they generate is an extra nourishment one can have other than just eating, sleeping, and living on."

Five Minutes With is a series of interviews with contemporary poets from India.  

Nabina Das has authored five books of poetry and fiction. Her poems appear in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Indian Literature, Caravan, Poetry at Sangam, The Indian Quarterly, Economic and Political Weekly, Dhaka Tribune, The Yellow Nib Anthology, and Six Seasons Review, among several others. Her latest poetry collection is SANSKARNAMA (Red River, 2017, India). A 2012 Charles Wallace, a 2012 Sangam House, and a 2011 NYS Summer Writers Institute creative writing alumna, Nabina writes and translates occasionally in English, Assamese and Bengali. She has been a writer-in-residence at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, has lectured and read in universities in India, the UK and the USA, and is a Creative Writing instructor in classrooms and workshops. An MFA in Poetry from Rutgers University (Camden, NJ), and a Masters in Linguistics from JNU, Delhi, Nabina has worked in journalism and media for about 10 years, and is the co-editor of 40 under 40, an anthology of post-globalisation poetry (Poetrywala, 2016, India).

What prompted your interest in poetry?
I’m thinking of an apt response. What makes people interested in a stunning sunset? I’m taking off of Susan Sontag’s observation in “An Argument Against Beauty”. This is what poetry elicits too. It arrests our senses even when we aren’t matured enough to grasp the intricacies of the craft of poetry. It could be the literary craziness at home my parents encouraged, or just the way folks around me beat all odds. My childhood has been spent reading Kazi Nazrul Islam, Rabindranath Tagore, Toru Dutt, Nazim Hikmet, Kamala Das, Sarojini Naidu, Subhash Mukhopadhyaya, Sananta Tanty, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Langston Hughes, and many more. Later, the Anglo-Saxon canon was available via the Indian school system. That was successfully sidelined — albeit temporarily — as I ventured on to explore more poetry in Indian languages as well as in English by Indian poets. Our postcolonial history and political challenges prompt me to keep poetry in my arsenal.

What are you reading?
There’s no pronounced poetic lineage I subscribe to, although my father wrote poetry privately and most of my older relatives were immersed in the oral song and poetry culture. All this was heightened by the fact that the parents were of Partition generation, having spent their childhood in an undivided India. Because reading was of paramount importance in our family, I’ve read diverse poetry since a very young age. So I can say in a way books mentored my growth. Eventually, by blogging and through other publications, I made some friends in poetry. K Satchidanandan, the eminent poet writing in Malayalam and English, encouraged my writing, published me, and kept a good word for me whenever I faltered. Keki Daruwalla, who introduced my book Into the Migrant City, also supported with his candid critiquing. They are my long-distance mentors, so to say. Of late, several others have come into my life, not perhaps to be termed as mentors, but as well wishers and facilitators — Mangalesh Dabral, Mona Zote, Nirupama Dutt, Peg Boyer, Kazim Ali, Dorianne Laux, and a few others. I’ve enriched my writing experience from the young and older alike.

Right now I have a bunch of books by young and new poets on my table. Very consciously I’m avoiding reading the hyped up names. I feel reading new voices can make us, those that have been writing for some time, more empathetic to and aware of the need for a fresh diction in poetry. Learning never stops. And because Sufia Khatoon, Huzaifa Pandit, Nikita Parikh, and Amit Saha are some of the poets I’m reading, I’m also learning to re-locate my own work. I’m looking forward to reading Abner Pariat more, as well Aruna Gogulamanda.

How do you find inspiration?
Honestly, I cringe at the word ‘inspiration’. It seems an easy way out that discounts labor, craft, and a quest for knowledge. This is not to say, poetry cannot come to someone in a flash, as what is called epiphany. But for me, there are more steps involved. I’m ‘inspired’, if one insists, almost 24×7, but I seem to prefer my sweat drops to de-mystify the process of writing. And as it happens with all writers and poets, influences play a big role in such an ‘inspirational’ journey, and this is where the poets from the last question matter.

Where do you write?
In all places of chaos and upheaval. In railway stations — if you know the bustling noisy Indian rail stations, in airports full of distractions, while walking in a protest march, while traveling in the metro train (I love public transport), and even while teaching a class or a workshop. The latter is a furtive effort because I ask my students or participants to be attentive. While they perhaps are, I sneak in a line or two in between my speaking and explaining. When ideas pop up, can you be really immune to them! BLUE VESSEL (2012) was written almost all during US-India transits. INTO THE MIGRANT CITY (2014), a product of my understanding of memory and experience as an individual lodged within the post-Partition, post-colonial and post-globalization space of discourse, delineates a physical and metaphorical plane where I wrote these introspective poems. The latest collection SANSKARNAMA (2017) — a rather direct political howl — was written nearly on printed news reports that rankled my peace of mind. Almost each time I take on the mantle of a flaneur, physically and virtually — a woman who travels, walks, moves, loiters within and without the spaces of a city, an urban space, a building, a mode of transport, a (hu)man-made institution. These are the things that concern me in a philosophical way and I write on the back of my hope or despair.

Why do you write?
I write because I feel that living on words and the experiences they generate is an extra nourishment one can have other than just eating, sleeping, and living on. I’m feral that way. I scavenge and brood into the darkness of the heart and the world, looking for words. As I was growing up, at our home — a seemingly regular but a chaotic place in terms of thinking — political and poetry meetings happened from the time we almost opened our eyes. And understanding poetry was not from printed books alone. Songs of paddy sowing, boatmen’s chants, women singing at water filling, revolutionary songs — all these occupied my formative years. The personal was truly political for us even when I was too young to realize it.

Where I come from, poetry is no pastime, although no one pays a poet for what she gives to the world. The sort of political and social climate I have grown up witnessing in Assam, my home state, can only be directly addressed by means of poetry and art. Patriarchy, caste segregation, class wars, and environmental plunder — I’d imagine a few reasons such as these ones are enough to steel a poet’s pen. Hence I write.

What is your advice for emerging poets?
Certainly to read widely and then keep writing. I distance myself from providing a manual for emerging poets in bullet-points, although it is a popular form these days. Unless one reads widely and with a political will to understand what shapes those writings, the poet will not emerge with enough philosophical edge.

What is the role of poets in shaping the future?
Personally I feel as a poet, my role in shaping the future has been to at least create a thinking space, if not a Utopia. I would urge fellow poets and emerging poets to recognize the fact that a ‘transcendental’ art such as poetry is deeply rooted in the socio-economics of the society. Poetry happens in peace times as well as during conflicts. Both have their respective virtues. As a woman who’s vocal against Brahminical traditions, rightwing Hindutva attacks, and patriarchal mores, I believe the theme of our poetry will encompass all that history has handed down to us. Our role as poets in shaping the future should be — as I have said elsewhere — to question and to be in charge, to allude to the May 1968, slogan raised during the civil unrest in Paris: “Ne me libère pas, je m’en charge.”

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