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

Usha Akella has authored four books of poetry, one chapbook, and scripted/produced one musical drama. The Waiting was published by Sahitya Akademi, India’s highest Literary authority in 2019 and due for release in Spanish. She was selected as a Creative Ambassador for the City of Austin for 2015 and 2019. She is the founder of Matwaala the first South Asian Diaspora Poets Festival in the US. In 2018 she graduated with an MSt. in Creative Writing from Cambridge University, UK. She read with a group of eminent South Asian Diaspora poets at the House of Lords in June 2016. Her work has been included in the Harper Collins Anthology of Indian English Poets. She is the founder of the Poetry Caravan in New York and Austin which takes poetry readings to the disadvantaged in women’s shelters, senior homes, and hospitals. She is widely published and interviewed, has delivered keynotes, and has been invited to many international poetry festivals.

Photo of Usha Akella

What prompted your interest in poetry?
A recent creative non-fiction piece recalls the first hook, how the aural impact of poetry hypnotized me when I was about ten. Since then, sound patterns, aural echoes and the magic in rhythm has been an integral part of my poetics. Our cultural life in India is a deeply sensory-honed one. My childhood was the stuff of mantras and Bollywood blaring from loudspeakers during festivals. When I write, I am aware of poetry as incantation and mantra. I think a bit later on, as I grew into a more conscious poet, the magic of metaphor-making became the never-ending reason to write poetry. Metaphors are mystical reminders about the inter-connectedness of the universe. When we yoke dissimilar elements together, the poet reveals again and again that things are one, they exist in relation to each other. Perhaps, this is yoking Advaita and poetry!

What are you reading?
I keep a number of books on my table and sometimes read simultaneously. Whether this is schizophrenia or some whacky sane habit, I do not know. At the time of this interview, I am reading:

William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives, a masterpiece that has taken my breath,  the fiction in the recent New Yorker issues, Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Pakistani Bride, Dustin Pickering’s Frenetic/No Contest, The Many Uses of Mint by Ravi Shankar, Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, David Ray’s translation of Gatha Saptasati, Puroshottam Agarwal’s commentary on the Padmavat, Walking the Medicine Wheel by David Kopacz and Joseph Rael…

I try to read a bit of Swami Vivekananda’s work every day and I am learning to read and chant the Lalitha Sahasranamam. I listen to various Sanskrit chants every day. I mention this as listening seems to be a vital activity for me.

How do you find inspiration?
I think inspiration finds me in the midst of daily routines. A piece of art, an image or a news item can trigger me. Or the trigger is internal, coming from a meditative moment or a mood. I try to name the mood, follow the emotional arc of it. Sometimes, I work in blocks of creativity anchored to a manuscript I am focused on. For example, I am working on a women-oriented collection that began as my second-year thesis in my recent Cambridge studies. I am alert to women’s issues in history from various cultures. So, poems about foot binding, dowry, rape and FGM are finding their way into the manuscript. I do some research and try to find a door to lead into the poem.

Where do you write?
Mostly in my study, by a window that opens to a scene of beautiful oaks, grass, and a street that is like a moving arrow in front of my eyes. The poetry of the shadows and light on the grass holds an unceasing fascination, and the street is a symbol of many nameless things. I am surrounded by the books of other writers and poets, it is my haven and a temple. It is my home. Having said this, I have also said that a writer is rarely restricted in creativity by external surroundings. All that is needed are the implements of writing and that wonderful thing called the imagination.

Why do you write?
It is my form of breathing. Literally, I suppose. I was a chronic asthmatic as a child and youth while growing up in Hyderabad, which meant many days in bed by the window. I wrote to keep myself alive and feel alive. Perhaps, the writer’s sensibility in me was formed in those days. This predisposition to cast oneself as a witness, to stand apart and record both worlds that are within and without. To learn how to watch and listen to the world was formed by those days in bed. I think that the primary reason is unaltered, though I am no longer in the grip of that ailment. I write to know I am alive.

What is your advice for emerging poets?
My advice would be to keep writing as nothing teaches better than the page and the pen. The more you write the more you learn about writing. Through the process you learn to find your voice, you learn to discard inner demons that halt your stream. You also learn to trust feedback and relevant criticism when it comes to you. So, I guess I am back to the quotient of listening. Don’t write to be famous, write to be a good writer, all else follows. And write because you know you can’t live without writing or don’t write at all. Unless it is that dire a need in you, you can’t become a writer.

What is the role of poets in shaping the future?
Poetry is the record of human emotions in a time when the mechanization of human activities and processes are replacing our interactions. Ads tell us how to emote and in what language to emote. Emojis replace words, texting is abbreviating language with an impatience. Poetry exists to validate the inner life. It is a vital art form that is a tangible documentation of the potentialities of language to capture the dynamic movement of consciousness. So poets, make the case for the species of the human being, I suppose. And it is done poem by poem, heart by heart, and poet by poet. It wins wars in the battlefield that counts the most – the human heart.


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