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

Zilka Joseph was nominated twice for a Pushcart, and for Best of the Net. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Poetry Daily, Frontier, Kenyon Review Online, MQR, Review Americana, Gastronomica, RESPECT: An Anthology of Detroit Music Poetry, and 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium. Her chapbooks, Lands I Live In and What Dread, were nominated for a PEN America and a Pushcart respectively. Sharp Blue Search of Flame, her book of poems (Wayne State University Press) was a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book Award. She teaches creative writing workshops, and is a freelance editor and manuscript coach. You can keep up to date with Zilka’s work on her website.

Photo of Zilka Joseph

What prompted your interest in poetry?
When I was a child (in Mumbai) being read to by my grandmother and parents I think that I was already absorbing the language, rhythms, musicality and story-telling elements of poetry, folk and fairy tales, and mythology. So when I was able to read and after I grew up, my love of poetry only grew stronger. I have been reading poetry ever since them, but it was quite late in life that I began writing poetry seriously and getting poems and then books published.

What are you reading?
I read (and browse through) several books or journals at a time. Right now, I’m reading Ann Arbor poet Jeff Kass’ new book Teacher/Pizza Guy that just came out from Wayne State University Press, and a gorgeous collection called RESPECT: An Anthology of Detroit Music Poetry published by Michigan State University Press—I am honored to have a poem of mine included in it. Also, Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things, and the current issue of The Writers’ Chronicle which honors Joy Harjo (I’m delighted she has finally been recognized and has been made the U.S. Poet Laureate). And I’ve just ordered Arvind K. Mehrohtra’s new book— Selected Poems and Translations, so I’m looking forward to reading that.

How do you find inspiration?
How? I’m not sure. But inspiration and ideas find me. Ideas and thoughts come from nature, birds and animals, from everyday little things, the struggles and I face as a human being—in the outer (real and physical) and the inner worlds (emotional and spiritual) worlds, the daily tragedies, cruelties and injustices that I see or read about. Yet there are moments when the beauty of some living being or an object or event/story will move me, overwhelm me. Poems find me. I stay open and grateful.

Where do you write?
Mostly at my dining table which is my “office” as well, and while I am sitting on the couch reading or just looking out of the window. Sometimes when I travel I may scribble a few lines, but that is quite rare.

Why do you write?
Writing comes so naturally to me that I don’t really know why I write. I am a slow thinker and a slow writer—not prolific. But I know that when thoughts seem to be churning inside my head, the words spill out. I fill a few pages with words –it’s like being under a spell, or in “the zone”, as some say. Sometimes it’s deeply felt emotions, sometimes a simple meditation, or my mind arguing with itself, a sudden insight or some current news event. When I finish writing I look at the raw material and begin my process of editing, revising, refining, and making something beautiful from it. The “why” of that stage would be that I am then consciously creating art from my raw material—using my knowledge and craft to hone my poem to a level where I can send it out, hopefully get it published.

What is your advice for emerging poets?
Work with groups and instructors, if you like that interaction, but try new classes and teachers or groups especially if you feel you aren’t learning anything new, or are always with people who look like you and think like you. Get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. Read, read, read, attend readings/literary events, listen to interviews and podcasts—not just of writers/poets you like or resonate with but with those you don’t. Try and figure out what they are doing in their work, and keep learning and experimenting. But most of all “Know thyself”, so you can find ways to cope with rejection and the dark days that without doubt are a large part of the writer’s life.

What is the role of poets in shaping the future?
Some poets are activists speak truth to power, push for change (after all, remember what Shelley said!). Some are professors and teachers who can influence generations of young poets, some are educators in the community who work with all kinds of populations. We may never know how our poems affect someone’s life. But I think poets are some combination of truth teller, rebel, and seer, and have always been so in history and mythology. It may not be a safe or popular place to be, (we can certainly be harmed or even killed for our points of view, honesty and protests). If our words reach someone somewhere and resonate with them deeply, bring some shift in consciousness, (ideally something like Rilke’s “you must change your life” moment!), then indeed we are in a way, shaping the future—a poem at a time.

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