This is perhaps one of the most exciting interviews of our time and we are happy to share this with you. Two poets, across time-zones, discuss opportunities of wider poetic representation of Asian poets in Asia with particular reference to poets from India, America’s select literary amnesia among others and ways to remedy the gap between poetry of the west and the east. Introducing Brendan Constantine in conversation with Linda Ashok. Interview edited by Srividya Sivakumar.
Linda Ashok: We are communicating across time-zones, Brendan. How many opportunities of poetry do you see around you?
Brendan Constantine: I’m in a guest room which has various things exiled; family photos, children’s books, a desk covered with art supplies, a toy horse, etc. Plenty of opportunities for poetry in this room, including the hum of an electric fan, a meteor shower outside…
LA: How lovely! Brendan, I want to ask you this: tell us about who you feel you are.
Brendan: That’s quite a question. My parents met and fell in love at a reading of Cuban revolutionary poets in New York in 1952. They identified themselves by turns as progressives, beatniks, socialists, and so on. They emphasized art as a practical and necessary mode of thought and communication.
My sister and I emerged in some ways hugely empowered and also slightly damaged. But more and more, I think the term ‘dysfunctional family’ is redundant. Who am I? I’m a modern urban artist, at once fickle and steadfast, and in this particular time warp, strangely without a national identity. There is a massive sense of the gulf between virtues espoused and those demonstrated; what I believe in Vs. what I represent.
LA: Interesting. What is the place of dysfunctionality in poetry?
Brendan: In many ways, (it is) a source because poetry seems to evolve from culture to culture. Once people develop spoken languages and use them for a time, they discover that their lexicon falls short or seems to. So, while they must reconcile virtually ineffable experiences, they are unable to in the true nature of speech. They must find a unique way to say extraordinary things. Thus we begin to speak unnaturally—using particular words, music, rhyme, counting syllables, abandoning grammar.
Language is both tool and malady. As a cognitive prosthetic, it allows us to categorize thought, no less than a prosthetic arm might help you carry water. But that arm cannot feel the water, cannot tell you texture or temperature. Likewise, a language may allow us to ‘describe’ our feelings.
The entire science of psychoanalysis seems based on the idea that if one can name their feelings, they can deal with them. The poet knows, however that if I TELL you how I feel, you will NEVER feel it with me. But if I can give you a simile, a metaphor, a lyric, an image, and we may share an experience, I will cease to describe things and seek to embody them. Thus poetry is the child of a HUGE dysfunction.
LA: How do you birth a poem?
Brendan: Sometimes it’s unbidden, at other times it is like a negotiation – as though the poem already exists and I am merely asking it how it wants to come into things. I ask, “Would you like to rhyme? How do you feel about short stanzas? And the poem says, “Well…”
LA: Undo me like Billy Collins did Emily Dickinson? [Smiles]. So are you traveling a lot?
Brendan: Right. This week, I’m in five different cities over five days, readings poems, traveling, arranging for a bed and a meal in the spaces between.
LA: So, you got a new book?
Brendan: No, merely a response to the last one and, more recently, the Opposites Game poem which has had a lot of attention for which I am very grateful.
LA: All your poems, no matter how dense the metaphor is, they have certain accessibility through your performances.
Brendan: Accessibility has become a dirty word. I haven’t sought to be accessible, but I do want to be ‘useful.’ It’s just making one single connection with/for another person and at most, offering an EMOTIONAL vocabulary to someone else. The modern doesn’t NEED anything that Sappho or Homer didn’t have. A microphone might be excellent, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
LA: You are born into a family of great actors. Have you tried acting too?
Brendan: I pursued acting as a teenager, but it got in the way of my drug and alcohol use. When I eventually got sober, I didn’t return to acting.
LA: I understand. Given the amount of involvement in your poetics, how well do you sleep?
Brendan: Not well! I should probably try it now. It’s late, and I’ve been traveling.
LA: That’s great. We will resume later. Good Night.
Read Part II here.