Mustansir Dalvi

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

Mustansir Dalvi is an Anglophone poet, translator and editor. He has two books of poems in English, Brouhahas of Cocks (Poetrywala, 2013) and Cosmopolitician (Poetrywala, 2018). His poems have been translated into French, Croatian, and Marathi. Dalvi’s 2012 English translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s influential Urdu work Shikwa and Jawaab-e-Shikwa was Taking Issue and Allah’s Answer (Penguin Classics). It has been described as ‘insolent and heretical’. He is the editor of Man without a Navel a collection of translations of Hemant Divate’s poems from the Marathi (2018, Poetrywala). Mustansir Dalvi was born in Bombay. He teaches architecture in Mumbai.

Photo of Mustansir Dalvi

What prompted your interest in poetry?
I have always been interested in poetry. I made a deep acquaintance with Shakespeare through Classics Illustrated Comics before I was eight, and that interest has lasted a lifetime. My initial interest in poetry was piqued by the fine verses that were a part of our English textbooks from the very early years. In high school, we discovered the words of T S Eliot, Pound, and Yevtushenko. In college, I was lucky to get access to several vinyl records of spoken poetry (from the British Council Library in Bombay), particularly T S Eliot and Dylan Thomas reading their own poems. In our misbegotten rock and roll youth we obsessed over the words of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and The Doors, particularly ‘An American Prayer’. Studying to become an architect I missed out on a proper education in the liberal arts, and I still wish I had that.

What are you reading?
Many things. I am currently immersed in Arundhathi Subramanium’s new book of poems Love Without a Story. I admire her poetic control and restraint while writing about herself. I have read Ranjit Hoskote’s ode to the littoral Jonah Whale several times. I find kaleidoscopic richness in his many allusions. I keep reading Arun Kolatkar’s work, especially his poems in Marathi, particularly as I have translated several of them. Beyond poetry, I have just completed Shanta Gokhale’s exquisite autobiography One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body and am about to embark on Amitav Ghosh’s latest book Gun Island. I also have a great fondness for graphic novels and am currently reading The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth by Ken Krimstein.

How do you find inspiration?
Like a magpie, I am attracted to shiny objects. I find inspiration everywhere. In no particular order: in my city (Bombay), on the west coast of India, in travel (most recently to Egypt), in history, in Apocrypha, in architectural details and in beautifully made objects. This is not a comprehensive list. I am not particularly inspired by the personal and the intimate.

Where do you write?
On my laptop. I have almost completely stopped writing poetry by hand. I do tend to save lines on my smartphone, when I feel that I will forget. I do tend to mull over a poems for days, even months before I put them in writing, and when I do sit down it does tend to come all at once. But working on poems after they are written is often the greater pleasure for me, and it is something I do consciously and enthusiastically. The first draft is the hardest, and often when I look back I have no recollection of writing it.

Why do you write?
I write to be read. This is a clear position I have taken since the time my first poems were published. I relish feedback and have been fortunate to have poet friends who can give me that and enrich my writing. I have never looked upon poetry as a personal activity, and have always seen the process as one of collegiality and sharing.

What is your advice for emerging poets?
As above, mostly. Write to be read, or write to be heard, as the case may be. Whatever is written put it out for others to see and use that as part of the process of your poetic practice. Form communities of poets. This is vital as one can get a feel for the times in terms of the way our world and everything in it is expressed through poetry. This can never be done alone. Read the very best from the past but be aware of what is contemporaneous. That is where your practice lies. Don’t worry about posterity.

What is the role of poets in shaping the future?
By easing the burden of the times, heavy on the shoulders of readers, by giving them the words that can, to some extent, alleviate those burdens. By subjecting the future to the shock of the familiar, to the joy of the everyday, and to the awe of the cosmic. By this last, I mean new scientific knowledge, not metaphysics. By providing words that others can carry.

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