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.
Brendan: Good Morning Linda. I am ready to resume our conversation.
LA: Great. So Brendan, what are your thoughts on poetry by Asians living in their own countries?
Brendan: I must say, access to Asian literature – as you specify – is curiously limited. Westerners pride themselves on being able to see and identify with everyone, but the list of authors we might find actually shrinks to who feels ‘safe’ i.e. “Do they write in English?” Translation presents concerns too. How can we hope to fully appreciate Tagore? What subtleties and regional and temporal nuances are lost?
LA: But what should precede this is the respect that they too have creative expressions, know the craft, that they use the language better than their erstwhile colonisers. Of course, translation poses a challenge but colonization and globalization have helped in this regard. You’ll be shocked to learn how people here have forgotten their own languages. And speak in English and think in the language.
Brendan: Of course. I am talking about when work is translated from Japanese to English Korean to English and so on. I am the LAST person to judge another’s English. I barely speak it myself. But when I read Rimbaud, I know that I will never fully understand it. We had a collection of Tagore in the house where I grew up, but I don’t know that I had exposure to anything modern until the 80’s and a book of Mehrotra, whom I believe lives in England.
LA: Mehrotra was in England when he chaired at Oxford but now he lives in India in the hills.
Brendan: Really? Not long ago I read a piece about Kabir for which he’d done some gentle translations.
LA: Many western poets disappoint me in how little they know our poets and their work. While American poetry is a part of Indian university syllabus, I wonder if Asian, particularly Indian poetry is in the American university syllabus.
Brendan: I know some, but as I say, we seem to isolate while simultaneously congratulating ourselves on our worldview.
LA: How do you suggest non-American poets go about bridging the gap?
Brendan: The cynic in me contends with the optimist. Last year my students responded very well to Arundhathi Subramaniam. But even three big names do no justice to a huge repository of poets writing in English. No. Not even close. There is also this very unsettling UNSPOKEN aspect to how poetry is taught here.
I mean, even in some of the most inclusive classrooms, where teachers are making some effort to acknowledge that there are modern poets in India, slam poets in Tokyo, that Vietnam has modern poetry contests etc. Even in such a climate I feel as though students walk away with the impression that poetry is a thing that started in Greek and Latin and then just sat on its marble ass waiting for Chaucer to show up. The assumption is that everyone else’s poetry started later and with a Western playbook. And if you ask, the response is, “Oh course not. I know other countries evolve their own poetry…” But it’s never reflected in the curriculum.
I do believe that we are at a very promising place. I think a lot can be done, it has started moving, albeit very slowly. Next must be the wherewithal to act.
To say OK, I’m going to publish an anthology, set up readings and push the hell out of it. I’m going to find money and bring authors to this country and demonstrate to an audience that this is rare and it shouldn’t be rare.
LA: That’s a good thought. Thank you. It takes a very perceptive human to say this. We have the IOWA program run by Christopher Merrill. That is a one in a million opportunity. It funds one Indian poet from each non-western country for a gathering every year. We are grateful to him.
Brendan: Wondrous. I’m unfamiliar. Well, how do you feel about Meena Kandasamy?
LA: Meena is a great poet and novelist and a good friend. Although we are different in our poetics and aesthetics but hands down she is an important, raw and uncompromising voice who also champions Dalit writing.
Brendan: She was an eye-opener for my class. For my young students, raised by screens, Meena defied their concept of what a modern writer may be like. They found her glamorous, in a good way.
LA: Hmm. I get that. See, would you call the flies racist because they gather at light? Always the opposites. I am fine with that. What is essential is that Asian writers should be seen as more than their skin and their poverty and their rice staple.
Brendan: I don’t think it’s just limited access here – I think there have been factors which reinforce this misconception, a dynamic by which the West ‘needs’ these stereotypes.
LA: Forget winning, there’s this Canadian poetry prize that has never found a single Asian poet writing in English outside America and Canada worthy of its shortlist in the last 10 years!
I can comment on British poetry and poetry from Vietnam, China, Korea. How many Indian poets have you seen being featured in Ploughshares, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Narrative?
Brendan: I’ll put it this way – not many. But let me ask you this. Are you familiar with the Sister City idea; it links cities in other countries as ‘sisters,’ as potential conduits for relations. Mumbai and Los Angeles are considered sisters. At least by this endeavour, there should be a more aggressive use of this principal. What if sister cities actually shared authors?
LA: Yes. Why not?
Brendan: What if each year Los Angeles hosted authors from one (or more?) of its sister cities and then sent some abroad in exchange?
LA: Sure. Let me know how can I help. Coming back to your poetry, how would you like people to remember you?
Brendan: Do you mean presently or when I die? I have NO illusions as to leaving ANY sort of legacy. I don’t think it’s something I’m owed or something to expect. Like I said, the most successful I will ever be is to maybe meet one person who says, “You wrote this thing and it stayed with me…”
LA: Amen. This is a perfect way to wrap up this interview.
Read Part I here.