What Happened to Tagore?

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 11.02.51 AMYou could visit India and never hear the name Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, if you don’t live in India, you may well have never known Rabindranath Tagore existed. But this was not always the case: recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore became one of the major influences in the formation of the India we know today. All the while, he wasn’t identified as a politician, social leader, or revolutionary: he was a poet. Or, as his contemporary Gandhi noted, The Poet.

And Tagore didn’t write poetry only either: he wrote the national anthems for both India and Bengal, he composed plays, gave speeches, and, in his later life, took up painting. He frequently traveled to Europe and other parts of Asia to lecture; he met with Einstein. So why does his name no longer resonant, especially among younger Indian poets and artists?

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Ruefle, Hokusai, and the American View of Asia

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Katsushika Hokusai, contemporary of Goya and Turner and Ingres, artistic godfather of Monet and Van Gogh, was recently the subject of an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. He’s been on my mind ever since. Most of us know Hokusai’s artwork from the image above, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Posters of “The Great Wave” are on sale right now if you’re looking to cover your dorm room in clichés. For many of us Hokusai is Japanese art, even if we don’t know his name. Or rather, precisely because we don’t know his name. We allow Hokusai to be a placeholder, an emblem that proclaims “I know this much about other cultures” but then turns around and whispers “I know this little about other cultures.” We treasure Hokusai precisely because we know and appreciate so little about Asian cultures.

The rugged spiritualists of American literature—I’m thinking specifically of Henry David Thoreau and Jack Kerouac—were obsessed with Asian cultures. They perceived Asian cultures as an alternative to American capitalism and the Puritan work ethic. Tired of Christianity but requiring ammunition to combat rampant materialism, they found a convenient new spirituality in translations of Asian wisdom texts.Continue Reading

“Digging out weapons in the arsenal of language” : An Interview with Meena Kandasamy

14011389075562meenakanthaswamiMeena Kandasamy is a writer based in India and London. She writes poetry and fiction, translates, and often uses social media to discuss issues of social justice. She describes her own work as maintaining “a focus on caste annihilation, linguistic identity and feminism.” She has published two collections of poetry: Touch and Ms Militancy. Her first novel, The Gypsy Goddess, was published by Atlantic Books (UK) and HarperCollins India in 2014.

The focus of this interview is a collection titled #ThisPoemWillProvokeYou. Kandasamy’s poems, as the title suggests, often rely on a direct relationship with the reader. In this interview, we discuss language, protest, translation, and the role of the poet in the world. 

John Rufo: Your newest chapbook, #ThisPoemWillProvokeYou, features a bifurcation: two sections, the first titled “Love” and the second titled “War.” Could you speak a bit about the inability of language(s) to successfully communicate and/or deconstruct, to commit war and to commit love? I love the poems because you use them to speak of things that don’t exist—or don’t exist yet—and do this incredible act of pointing, accusing, undermining the status quo, flipping off the crimes and situations permeating everywhere today through gang-rape, discrimination towards Dalits, and the loss of lives.

Meena Kandasamy: I do believe that languages are biased, fucked-up structures, clearly reflecting a lot of the status quo, reflecting the inequalities and very often reinforcing them. This does not mean that language does not contain the potential for revolution, or to serve as a call to arms. I’m with Toni Cade Bambara (who, to paraphrase very wildly) once said: “The role of the radical artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” I think language can be used to mask grave crimes (the language of United Nations reports, for instance), or to send across stereotypes, or even sometimes to denude us of all feeling, all outrage. Capitalism does this successfully—using happiness and beauty to sell—and to extend its interests without worrying about the imbalance and inequality. I think this one reason why the role of a poet becomes important—you are not only saying things but you are also digging out the weapons in the arsenal of language, you are reclaiming love, you are celebrating beauty.Continue Reading

Emily Dickinson: A Private Poet in the Digital Age?

Dickinson_handwriting Walt Whitman once wrote, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.” But around the same time Whitman wrote those words, living a just few states away from him was a great poet who had almost no audience whatsoever. She tended to send her poems only to a small circle of friends and family members, and she never published a single poem under her own name while she was alive. Nevertheless, Emily Dickinson would go on to become famous, and even to rival Whitman himself as one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century.

Dickinson’s reclusive genius and her posthumous rise to the status of leading American poet have become legendary. For many poets, they even offer hope. If we can’t be understood and admired in our lifetimes, maybe it’s because we’re bold and challenging—and maybe, just maybe our “great audience” will arrive in generations to come. It’s the kind of thing that has led writers to keep typing when the world seems indifferent or even hostile to their work.

But when we tell the Dickinson legend we often forget that Dickinson didn’t equate her success as a poet with fame or with finding a larger audience. In fact, she may not have even wanted to see her verses printed at all. She embraced her obscurity in her own obscure way, writing

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?

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Review: THIS IS THE HOMELAND by Mary Hickman

HickmanHomelandThis Is the Homeland
Mary Hickman
Ahsahta Press, May 2015
80 pages
$18.00

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Mary Hickman’s first volume of poetry begins dazzlingly with “Joseph and Mary,” a poem carved out of Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this was done by dramatic erasure or by mosaic-like re-arrangement of fragments is hard to say, but however it was accomplished, it enchants. Hickman’s distillation of Joyce’s novel carries a distinct flavor of Stephen Dedalus, a Stephen who has perhaps changed genders, but is still a shape-shifting intelligence in exile, looking for a body it can call home.

The body may be the homeland named and claimed in the title. Names of the body parts appear frequently—forearms, hips, glands, knees, feet, spine. The poems sometimes invoke yoga (“The Locust,” “Woodchopper”) or chiropractic (“Spinal Twist”) or even the operating table (“Twelve hours his chest / cracked & / died”), but somehow our best efforts to name and claim the body leave an elusive remainder. “This is the homeland,” the final sentence of the first section of “Territory” confidently asserts, but by the end of the second section the poem is asking, “What land is this?” In This Is the Homeland, the body is both the only place we will ever live and a mystifying, unknowable other.Continue Reading

“We licked the dictionary off each other’s faces” : Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal: A Project for Future Children

Sal_tree_Np copy 2What’s wrong with being raised by wolves? In Humanimal: A Project for Future Childen, Bhanu Kapil investigates “the true story of Kamala and Amala, two girls found living with wolves in Bengal, India, in 1920” (ix). But unlike a crowd drawn to witness a re-enactment, Kapil’s book instead involves “trying to see it” (17) and the creation of a work of radical empathy. Of becoming, not speculating: a desire to “write until they were real” (41).

In this complex “re-telling of planar space,” Kapil records her trip to the site where Kamala and Amala briefly lived “as girls,” her own father’s journey to England from India, where “his feet resembled those of a goat’s” and her childhood (35 and 64). Ridiculed by children in London after returning from India while still in school, Kapil remembers: “When I grew up, I wrote about the bloodstream of a child as intermingling with that of an animal” (40). And this is a book of so many interminglings that the differences can hardly be marked by its end, if only because “I was frightened and so I stopped” (1).Continue Reading

“Little, safe boxes that contain trauma and violence”: An Interview with Jehanne Dubrow

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Jehanne Dubrow’s latest collection of poems, The Arranged Marriage, tells a difficult and moving story about the poet’s mother and her early life. The narrative gradually comes into focus for the reader through a sequence of beautiful, haunting prose poems—narrow blocks of words the poet likens to “newspaper columns” that convey her “poetic reportage.” Jehanne is also the author of four previous books, including Red Army Red, Stateside, From the Fever-World and The Hardship Post, and co-editor of The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an associate professor of creative writing at Washington College.

Matthew Thorburn: How did this book come to be? Did you conceive of it as a larger project from the outset, or did it come into focus as you were writing the poems?

Jehanne Dubrow: My mother has told me the stories that form The Arranged Marriage since I was a little girl: her exiled Jewish childhood in Honduras, her experience of being held hostage by a violent man, and her forced marriage in El Salvador which followed that trauma. These narratives are so much a part of me that The Arranged Marriage happened very organically. I wrote fifteen of the collection’s central poems in the first week and then spent the next two years building the rest of the book around those key texts.Continue Reading

Guns and Poems: Why is it (almost) impossible to write a great poem about guns?

Beretta_Stampede_Old_West_Revolver

Poetry has a history of violence.

It was true a few hundred years ago, when bards wrote of knights and of great battles, and it is true today, when poets pick up their pens to write about the trauma of war, abuse, or repression. Whether they abhor it or glorify it, there is something about human violence that has always called poets into action. In fact, the link between history and violence is so intimate, you might even say that poetry is a history of violence.

Lately, as the public debate about guns continues in the U.S., I’ve thought about that history of violence. I know I’m not alone in thinking that the debate has grown depressing. Each side takes its familiar positions. Not only does nothing happen, you start to feel that no one is even listening anymore. I’ve found myself wishing the debate had a little more creativity, some space for openness, for change. And so, even though it might seem strange, I’ve begun to wonder what poetry could bring to the conversation.

So I started to look for poems about guns. And what I found was very surprising—there was so few of them. Searching anthologies and online databases I found countless poems about the effects of war, hate, and violence. But I found almost nothing about guns specifically. And I began to wonder why.

Maybe, I thought, the reason is obvious. Guns just aren’t poetic. They are blunt. They are obvious. There’s nothing subtle about them. I’m reminded of an episode of The Office where Michael Scott goes to his improv class and proceeds to ruin every single scene by entering with a gun. Guns are heavy-handed, and that’s one thing no artist wants to be.Continue Reading

“If I could I would cut off my lovers’ heads” : Eunice De Souza’s Nine Indian Women Poets

St._Xavier's_College,_Mumbai

“Anthologists invariably make enemies,” Eunice De Souza notes in her introduction to Nine Indian Women Poets. This anthology is unlike most anthologies, as De Souza takes up her editorial role to rally against universality, mapmaking, and flattery. De Souza isn’t seeking to make enemies, but she realizes that all choices for anthologies suggest other choices: those poets who are left behind.

For Nine Indian Women Poets is itself a corrective volume: here are Indian women writing poetry in English who have not only gone unrecognized by white canonical anthologists or critics (save the rare reader like Bruce King), but who have all written for upwards of twenty years without such recognition.

What makes these poets’ work strike sharply together? They all write in English; all own or disown this language, exploring its twists, barriers, and perpetuations. Kamala Das, the oldest poet in the anthology, draws English as: “The language I speak / Becom[ing] mine, its distortions, its queernesses / All mine, mine alone” (10). For Das, queernesses enable a crucial ownership of the language. The language allows one to name herself and others, so that Das, by the end of the same poem, proclaims: “I too call myself I” (11).

Mamta Kalia, the poet placed immediately after Das, writes: “I am no longer Mamta Kalia” (26). By contrast, Kalia’s poems revolve around a radical empathy that practices negation: “How close we felt / discussing our dislikes / sharing a few hatreds” (22). The venom of an evil actually engages us: it brings together those who feel invariably shunned by an unjust and misogynistic world.Continue Reading

“Poets should always take public transportation”: An Interview with Maureen Thorson

MetroDCIn her second book of poems, My Resignation, Maureen Thorson immerses us in the story of two people figuring out how to start a new life together. Her poems are finely textured, moving, and often humorous. She has a keen appreciation for the quirky natural detail or odd snippet of conversation that perfectly captures a moment—and her work shows us again and again how those moments add up to our lives. Maureen is also the author of a previous book, Applies to Oranges, as well as a number of chapbooks, and the founder of NaPoWriMo, an annual project in which poets attempt to write a poem a day for the month of April.

Matthew Thorburn: Would you talk about your process for writing the poems in My Resignation and putting this book together?

Maureen Thorson: The poems grew out of little notes and quotations that I jotted down in the months after my husband and I first moved in together. I knew I wanted to make something out of them, but I also wanted to preserve their “present-ness” by not reworking the individual snippets very much. So I ended up typing all the notes into 11×17, four-column sheets, trying to preserve as much as possible the formatting of the original, handwritten notes. Once I had four sheets filled, I printed them out and started drawing circles between bits and pieces that felt emotionally or narratively connected. I refined the poems by adding interstitial stanzas, or remixing bits of separate snippets together. For the final section of the book, which takes place three years after the moving-in period with which most of the poems are concerned, I relied less on this collaging process, but wrote more directly.

It took about five years to put the book together. Many of the first drafts I discarded, or folded together in trying to get a narrative arc that wasn’t forced, and which felt true to the sometimes fractious emotional process of becoming a couple.Continue Reading