I write poetry because I write: An Online interview with Nabina Das

Author of Footprints in the Bajra, a novel
Into the Migrant City, a book of poems


Dupur Mitra: Why do you write poetry?

Nabina Das: Poetry feels to me like natural expression. I write poetry because I write. Because I have to express.

Dupur Mitra: Do you think poetry plays any role in your society? If yes how and if not why?

Nabina Das: Are you asking if poetry plays a role in particular in MY society or the society in general? I feel poetry is still misunderstood. People think poetry should be all about mollycoddling and weak-hearted sighing and is fit for only those occasions. What role can it play when reason and realism are thought to be alien to poetry? For the society in general, I like to believe that poetry strengthens dissent and debate. But it’s not some god’s hand that bestows poetry with that power. We humans ought to figure out if poetry should play any role in the society. If we fail, poetry fails. It’s not even poetry any longer then.

Dupur Mitra: Who are your major influences as a poet?

Nabina Das: Rabindranath Tagore loomed large on me till a very long time. I still consider that a major influence. I even wrote a poem mentioning that. But influence is like a river. It flows from a trickle to become a bigger mass and often meanders and merges with various other sources. Shakespeare and all the canonical English poets; Ghalib (I read him in the Nagri script); Nirmalprabha Bordoloi and Hiren Bhattacharya of Assam; Neruda, Lorca and Hikmet who I read in school in translations – you may call them influences. Okay, Jibanananda Das too. There so much still coming. A poet’s influence cannot be done and over with.

Dupur Mitra: What does being a poet mean to you?

Nabina Das: It means I am myself. I guess a banker or a haberdasher can say the same thing. Except that I’d not ever be a banker or a haberdasher. Being a poet makes me smug and inventive about ordinary things I see people agonize about.

Dupur Mitra: What is poetry?

Nabina Das: Who the heck knows! In Creative Writing classes we tell students poetry is primarily verse. That’s just one part of it. Poetry is rhythm, music, sensation, sensibility, words, and also wordlessness – all of it. I can recognize poetry but not readily define it.

Dupur Mitra: What are your observations about trending of world poetry?

Nabina Das: None really. Is there a trend(ing)? Apparently Ron Silliman is supposed to embody one trend. Critics ascribe another trend to Billy Collins. Or to Robert Hass. We have learnt about Language poetry as well. I think poetry always evolves, without which it cannot be poetry. You can twirl its tail a bit, powder its nose. All for effects. It can’t be a banker’s excel sheet or a haberdasher’s bauble list. Not poetry. I’m not being elitist here at all. I simply think poetry grows as we do with time and situation. Anyone who thinks they are writing poetry in the manner of Shakespeare and thinking s/he is cracking it well, is stopping poetry from growing. So one may say, here the trending of poetry has flagged. All ‘trending’ leads to one goal – poetry.

Dupur Mitra: Can poetry movement improve poetry? If yes how, if not why?

Nabina Das: Why would poetry require improvement, for god’s sake? It’s not the banker’s new-fangled calculator or Blackberry, or the haberdasher’s newly varnished showcase. It’s not a tech thing that it must improve. Poetry just evolves and comes to be. It’s only about possibilities, not improvements.

Dupur Mitra: What is your opinion about today’s world poetry movement?

Nabina Das: I’m cynical about anything that calls itself a “world movement”. Several smaller ‘movements’ contribute to what we read as poetry, globally or locally. We may write poetry in different times and spaces, but the only movement one can associate with poetry is to keep taking poetry out in the world – to the bazaar, to the street corners, to the chai-shop, to bus-stops, and even to the grocer’s labels! Seminar rooms and university cliques that parade as centers of (world) poetry movements must be sidelined.

Dupur Mitra: What sort of poetry do you tell students to write?

Nabina Das: All sorts. I have stopped imitating Shakespeare and Tagore at 16. They can too, if they are done with the exercises. I advocate knowing the rigor of formalism but I don’t see how one can expect to dazzle with easy schemes. Having said that, I most certainly want students to write a sestina or a villanelle once in two months. Mostly, I tell them to get over the notion that they should only write about heartbreaks or daffodils or a loving mother. Let poetry search out all possibilities. It’s not about just writing down some words; it’s about understanding how the world has evolved around us, changing our lives and thoughts.

Dupur Mitra: Where do we get to read your poetry?

Nabina Das: I have published work in several international and Indian journals and anthologies. Some are available online. Most recently, my work has been included in “THE YELLOW NIB: Modern English Poetry by Indians”, published from the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Queen’s University, Belfast. There may be a few old poems on my blog one can access — http://nabinadas13.wordpress.com/. My collection of poetry “Into the Migrant City” is forthcoming from Writers Workshop, India.

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