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Rochelle Potkar

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

Rochelle Potkar is the alumnus of Iowa’s International Writing Program (2015) and a Charles Wallace Writer’s fellow, University of Stirling (2017). Her poem To Daraza won the 2018 Norton Girault Literary Prize UK. The girl from Lal Bazaar was shortlisted at the Gregory O’ Donoghue International Poetry Prize, 2018. She is the author of Four Degrees of Separation, and Paper Asylum. Lake Vostok and Skirt are her poetry films. Her upcoming book The Inglorious Coins of the Counting House was longlisted at the Eyewear Publishing, Beverly Prize 2019, UK and shortlisted at the 2nd Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize 2019, NY.  She has read her poetry in India, Bali, Iowa, Stirling, Glasgow, Hongkong, Ukraine, Hungary, Bangladesh, and the Gold Coast. You can follow her work on her website.

Photo of Rochelle Poktar

What prompted your interest in poetry?
I doubted I was a poet until my first piece ‘Knotted inside me’ was shortlisted for a prize. It used to be that I read international poetry to discover new continents only by the virtue of their poets’ penning of angst and mirth, strife, joy, and relief.  And then personally, poetry became everything: from water-for-the-thirsty to catharsis-at-3 am, to making sense of a complex world, to confessions to the universe, to intense love letters, to sneezes and coughs. Poetry’s telegraphic form, its condensed nature allows it to be highly personal and professional – a simultaneous schema.

What are you reading?
I am translating a riveting Marathi poet Sanket Mhatre’s work. Marathi is one of the 22 official languages of India. Mhatre’s poetry is simple yet deceptive, layered and textured. Consider this sample as he speaks of the Ganesha (the Elephant-headed god)

Plaster of paris: a few pieces


1.
Plaster of paris
or CaSO4.2H2O
We bring it home every year, thinking of it as God.
With the hollow purse of culture, we go to the workshop
to survey the clay idols
like a row of chastened impoverished school children.

For a moment we sense divinity in them.
We measure the price of that 20-inch make-believe, and book our idol.

The plaster of paris sculpture watches us go,

staring dispassionately at our receding backs
the way our bodies would regard the last breath

when it vanishes

Mother, of course, comments
that the idol contains a lot of spirit.

2.
Visitors drop by the house
relatives-shelatives
all as plastic as plaster of paris
speaking nothing even if they speak much.

3.
Outside, it’s Aarti prayer-time
inside, mother-father argue
the Aarti ups in volume
propelled from our guts and navels

after the Aarti, I convince myself
that: with this, God has become glad.

4.
An uncle turns up
who doesn’t speak much
he circumcircles God with the Aarti’s tray
eats dinner and leaves

Only later do we realize
uncle worked in Don Dawood’s gang. Hardcore criminal.
Like now we know – Ganesha naught it’s CaSO4.2H2O.

Both are gospel truths but
like gypsum

insoluble and trivial.

5.
In the presence of everyone, the idol is immersed
from young to old people are misty-shifty-eyed

On the wooden pedestal we get back a residue of riverbed
we worship the clump of mud
in this, the mud gets the status of Plaster of paris
appeasing-shapeasing Mother Earth etcetera.

6.
No damage to the environment.
So from this year onward we will bring home an idol of pipeclay
pipeclay dissolves obediently into water and consciousness.

7.
With new mud we play a new game.
We buy mud. We let dissolve it in water.
The earth’s truth. Buried into the earth itself.

How do you find inspiration?
From unexpected corners. I admit I have a deep engagement with life – sediments of its soil. The more you dig, the more you find underneath. And feelings produce ideas that might be termed inspiration. They can then be given robes of concept, character, place, phenomenon, catalyst or conclusion.

Where do you write?
By my Mumbai (Dahisar) suburban window that overlooks mango and coconut trees and hoards of yellow birds and parrots. I believe Orhan Pamuk when he talks of writers and their affinity to windows. I have written by this window for years, scrying through its most meditative frame. Apart from this, I have gazed through windows of Scotland and Iowa, Hong Kong and Goa and the experience is as deliberative as it is wide.

Why do you write?
It’s a compulsive urge to explore humanity and query and lose my senses in the process. It’s addiction, therapy, catharsis, obsession, hobby, and profession. As life moved on, it has pruned itself to exclude most things and include just a few. 90% of my life has got to do with writing. I inhale and exhale words and stories, with this weird wonder that I might be utterly dysfunctional to the society at large.

What is your advice for emerging poets?
Read international poetry for international dialects and to see the curation of a 360-degree view on experiential existence. Read your own countries’ native languages. Edit your poetry and allow time for a poem to grow in a crucible before putting it out on those lines under the sun. Poetry doesn’t pay in money, but it does in peace. Peace of mind is what the world of money is after.

What is the role of poets in shaping the future?
Poets listen to the heart beats of a changing society. They can document dreams, prophecies, and are sensitive to write about invisible things. But not many listen to such gibberish. Somehow what all poets wrote over centuries was the same poem. Each poem by every poet was a stanza to the epic of life. It was written over eras but in one moment. That’s why every poem is classical and contemporary. A grain of the sand bed. Water that must be unacknowledged for the fish to swim in.

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