Menka Shivdasani

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

Menka Shivdasani, a Mumbai-based writer, has four collections of poetry, Nirvana at Ten Rupees, Stet, Safe House and Frazil (1980-2017). She is co-translator of Freedom and Fissures, an anthology of Sindhi Partition Poetry, and is the editor of an anthology of women’s writing, brought out by Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW)in 2014. She has also edited two anthologies of contemporary Indian English poetry for www.bigbridge.org. In April 2019, her poetry collection Frazil was awarded a Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize Certificate for ‘excellent contribution to literature’. Menka has been organising annual poetry festivals since 2011 for the global movement, 100 Thousand Poets for Change. In 1986, she played a key role in founding the Poetry Circle in Mumbai.

Black and white portrait of Menka Shivdasani

What prompted your interest in poetry?

I was about eight when I first began composing verse; writing rhymes about pet dogs (imagined), the sea close to my home, and strange people I had never met but who seemed very real to me. Some of this was published in a newspaper, thanks to a freelance journalist called Rajika Kirpalani, who read the work and convinced the editor that it was important to start a children’s page and encourage youngsters. Of course, none of this was poetry as I would understand it now.

I continued writing as I grew older, filling notebooks in school, sitting in the last row so that I could zone out of lectures and write. Once, my Hindi teacher caught me and told me if I must write a poem in class, I should at least do so in Hindi!

At 16, I had the good fortune to be given a letter of introduction to Nissim Ezekiel, who was seen by many as being the most influential Indian poet writing in English at the time. Nissim spent a great deal of time looking at my work, emphasising the importance of craft, and introducing me to fresh voices in contemporary Indian writing in English; he also published some of my poems and gave me opportunities to participate in radio and television programs focusing on poetry.

I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, and at the right stage in my life, because this was the period, in the mid 1970s, when I was opening my eyes to new poetry and the Clearing House poets had started publishing their work. Gradually, I got to know other poets like Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla (who ended up publishing my first book in 1990 under the XAL-Praxis imprint); Keki Daruwalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Gieve Patel, Saleem Peeradina and Arun Kolatkar; also Imtiaz Dharker, Kamala Das and Eunice de Souza. Their work was eye-opening and showed me new ways to write poetry. In addition, I was in touch with several younger poets like Santan Rodrigues (who published the little magazine, Kavi). In 1986, I co-founded Poetry Circle with Nitin Mukadam and Akil Contractor and got to know several others like me who were writing and looking for platforms and connections with other writers. I am also interested in Sindhi cultural and heritage issues, approaching them through the lens of poetry. When the Partition of India took place, the Sindhi community, to which I belong, lost their land, their homes, and gradually, their language and culture too, as they struggled to rebuild their lives and assimilated into other cultures. Many Sindhi poets who lived through the experience have written about this; I have worked on some translations of this poetry with Anju Makhija and a poet called Arjan Shad, who belonged to this generation of poets and who knew many of them personally. It was published under the title Freedom and Fissures by Sahitya Akademi.

What are you reading?

My reading tends to focus on poetry, and especially that by women, but at the moment I am reading Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose and Poetry, introduced and edited by Rakhshanda Jalil. It features work by Saadat Hasan Manto, Mulk Raj Anand, Bhisham Sahni and other stalwarts, responding to the massacre of innocent people. Winston Churchill is quoted as saying in 1920: “An episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of British Empire…an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”

How do you find inspiration?

It can come from anywhere but now, increasingly, I find I need long silences to pave the way for poetry. This is difficult in a city like Mumbai and I do not always have the opportunity to get away as much as I would like. I go for weeks, months, and sometimes years without writing a single word. A newspaper report, dead bees in my balcony at my home in Goa, a strange dream…anything can metamorphose into poetry, if I give it sufficient time and thought. My experience as a journalist writing about women’s issues when I was in my 20s certainly impacted several of my poems and I think it continues to do so today. I met several women who had suffered domestic abuse, and also spoke to parents of young brides who had been killed over dowry demands. The poems are not directly about these situations, but they have found their way into my work. My poems have been described as feminist and people have been surprised by the violence in them. Once, when I was concerned that I had not written for a long while, I put down a ‘blank’ line that could go anywhere–One day he said–and in 20 minutes I found I had written a poem. A critic used it to illustrate what he called ‘intimidacy’ in poetry by women–intimidating through intimacy.

What I can’t do is write ‘travelogue’ poetry as soon as I visit a place, or write about an incident that has just occurred. I need to absorb the experience and let it develop subconsciously as I go about the rest of my life. I also take a long time to get comfortable with something I have written. Earlier, I would share a poem only after I had let it lie around quietly for a few years; now I have realised I do not have the luxury of that kind of time anymore!

Where do you write?

The poems can happen anywhere, but as I said before, increasingly I need silent spaces. There was a time when I could write on the backs of bus tickets on long rides, and even on the palm of my hand when I did not have access to paper. My prose poem, Diary of a Mad Housewife, happened in the office of a business magazine I was working in; I was single then. I have no idea where it came from. I find the Evernote app on my phone a great boon today and have several drafts of unfinished poems on it, which I then email to myself so that I can work on them at leisure. I once wrote a poem on my phone when I was in the ICU with tubes attached to my veins. I thought it would be the last poem I would ever write.

Why do you write?

When a poem is ready to appear, does one really have a choice?

What is your advice for emerging poets?

Responding to the world around you with sensitivity is a given, but I would tell them to also pay attention to the craft and not be in a hurry to publish before the work has a chance to mature. I find too many young poets are in a rush to bring out their books, and with technological advances, it is easier than ever before to do so. But, as I have said elsewhere before, a book of poems is not just a calling card or an ego boost; if at least a line or two of your work stays in the reader’s mind long after he or she has read the poem, then hopefully, there is something to your work, and for this to happen, it is important for poems to go through a process of evolution.

If I were to summarise some principles of writing good poetry that I believe have worked for me, this is what they would be:

1)If you want to write good poetry, first read good poetry.

2)Pay attention to craft and to what may seem like little details.

3)Be willing to revise, as many times as necessary.

4)Let your work mature before you allow it to be published.

5)Learn to value silence, so that you can hear the sound of your inner voice. Then stay faithful to it, and true to yourself.

What is the role of poets in shaping the future?

I believe poets play a huge role because they respond with depth and intensity to a world that is in constant flux and disarray. I do not think war or conflict will end simply because poets are talking about the need for peace, but certainly they hold a mirror to what many people believe but sometimes find difficult to say. It is important to give voice to these thoughts, and sometimes poets can do so effectively. I organise a poetry festival in Mumbai every year for the global movement One Hundred Thousand Poets for Change and it includes a children’s event, where we get school children to write on issues such as peace, the environment and much more. Of course these poems will not help them to change the world or make them better adults but I do hope that someday, they will look back on these poems and remind themselves of how they once believed that war is evil, peace is necessary and it is important to speak up for what one believes in. It is a little optimistic, but how else can one survive?

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