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Interview with Vivek Narayanan (Part I)
I first met Vivek Narayanan here in New York City at the Beats in India: A Soul of Asia Symposium hosted by the Asia Society, which I blogged about back in June. I really enjoyed talking with him, and he agreed to being interviewed via email once he returned to India in August. Because it’s a bit long, I’ve divided the interview into two parts.
Vivek was born in India to Tamil-speaking parents, grew up in Zambia, did undergraduate and graduate work in the United States (continuing with the latter in South Africa), and moved back to India in 2000. His first book of poems, Universal Beach, was published in 2006 by Harbour Line Press in Mumbai, and his poetry has appeared internationally in a variety of print and online venues. He’s also consulting editor for the journal Almost Island.
Alan: If someone asked me to outline a few general trends in contemporary U.S. poetry, I might be hesitant to do so because of the risk of both generalization and overlooking something important. Nevertheless, I’m going to ask you if you could provide a brief introduction to a few aspects of current poetic practice in India, especially among younger poets.
Vivek: It’s especially hazardous to speak of Indian poetry in general terms because there are dozens of languages with active literary scenes and histories. Nevertheless, since you ask, a few broad, tenuous points about the national scene as seen through my restricted vision:
There are no especially influential aesthetically or formally motivated “movements” today that would really be comparable, in verve or sense of purpose, to the different kinds of “new poetry” or “progressive poetry” movements that sprouted in many Indian languages after independence. The most significant recent shift, in many Indian languages, has been the rise of literary poetry by Dalits and other lower castes, and this began to be significant in some languages by the early ’70s. More recently, Dalit poetry has been less innovative on the level of form but, since Indian dialects can be very heavily marked and shaped by caste, the rise of Dalit writing has sometimes meant a transformation in the language and linguistic registers of both poetry and prose.
The fact that India is home to many languages has led to various kinds of rhetorical wars between languages and literatures; often this has meant a collective attack on English as a somehow “inauthentic” language, and sometimes this has also meant less publicized wars between representatives of languages other than English, jockeying for position on the national stage. For years, I think, there was an unproductive standoff between what I like to think of, to simplify, as the relative superficial and derivative quality of a lot of English poetry written in India and the relative parochialism of much poetry written in the bhashas. This is all changing dramatically, and the complex linguistic ecology of India is, for my money, coming into its own in various ways. English has become more integral, as a daily part of life, across class and caste, across India, than ever before; at the same time, many other languages are slowly coming into a new cosmopolitanism and confidence. Younger Indian poets are more free of linguistic anxieties, more nonchalantly multilingual than ever before. There are interesting bilingual magazines starting up. I’m excited to see where the cross-pollination leads.
The internet is completely changing the way young Indian poets read. This is true everywhere, but note that in India libraries are very badly stocked, bookstores are flooded with pulp, and importing books or purchasing them off the net can be prohibitively expensive. Access to the internet can be very cheap in India; in Africa, as a contrast, it is often expensive. So young Indian poets lean very heavily on the net for their reading matter, which is to say that their reading is sometimes broader but also thinner, all singles and no albums, if you know what I mean. To try and counter this, to be in touch with complete collections of world poetry, some of us are constantly getting entire books photocopied for each other.
I often find myself joking that, although creative writing workshops are often disparaged and dismissed in India as worthless and imitative, even dangerous, many poets write as if they had attended a creative writing course. Which is to say, they write, in whatever language, in the conversational, narrative, free-verse style that has become, for the most part, the “comfort zone” of international poetry.
Alan: You and I met at the Beats in India symposium. The day’s panels and presentations centered on Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, and Joanne Kyger’s 1962 trip to India, with particular focus on Ginsberg’s visit to Calcutta and his desire to meet poets there. Have you encountered any equivalent to this kind of poetry sojourn? Have you met any U.S. poets visiting India? I know that you’ve met your fair share of poets while here in the United States. Is the internet replacing the need, or desire, for poets to travel this way?
Vivek: At the symposium, Eliot Weinberger asked Gary Snyder if young poets today no longer took that kind of daring, soul-searching, transformative trip, the kind that we know both he and Snyder took, and I remember that the younger poets in the audience went on the defensive a little. There might be some uncomfortable truth in what he was suggesting: do poets today travel more for networking than soul searching? (Though it’s also worth asking how many American poets, even in “those days,” went as far as Ginsberg did, living in India for nearly two years.) At the same time, Alan, you remembered a trip you took “on the rough” in India in 1999, dipping your toe in the very same Ganges as Allen Ginsberg, though it was perhaps a little more choked with bones and industrial effluent by then, and I remembered the poet Michael Scharf, whom I met in India and again in the United States, who’s now gone off to settle in the small, distant, difficult-to-access Northeast Indian hill town of Shillong, in the state of Meghalaya, which oddly just happens to have produced an inordinately high number of Bob Dylan impersonators as well as Indian poets writing in English, and, indeed, I remembered my own long hitchhiking trips across the USA in the early ’90s, back when brown men with beards were not yet quite considered dangerous, sleeping on the side of the road or even the highway or, a little earlier, traveling through Mississippi, the landscape somehow reminding me of the Africa I grew up in, sleeping in parks or abandoned houses or with people I met, hanging out with different sections of the American underclass who took me into their lives with startling generosity, without batting an eyelid. Later I traveled in similar ways in Africa and India and elsewhere, but those initial trips in America were crucial, and were possible for me precisely because I was an outsider. On one hand, this meant I was partly a cipher to those I met, not easily locatable in terms of social or cultural or caste background, and that gave me room to maneuver; on the other hand, it was my lack of information that freed me up, the fact that I didn’t really know that much about where I was going, didn’t pre-judge what kind of situations could be “dangerous” or harmful or not.
So this is one aspect of the foreign “sojourn,” the search for alienation that opens up the space for a self to reinvent itself. Fundamentally, it’s about the importance of experience. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but I think there was a scary “pure” postmodernist sort of moment, one that some poets are still stuck in, when all was irony and referentiality, when bodily lived experience, the evidence of the senses and the innards, was considered essentially worthless. We’re coming out of that now, returning to our bodies as a counter to the compelling but subtly distorting and deeply obscuring mirror of the internet (read: my understanding of the American poetry scene while sitting over here with less access to physical poets or physical books from America), but we have to be able to do it without relying on the naïve and simplistic identity categories of earlier generations, or the essentialism. The Beats in India symposium revealed to me a fascinating, doubled set of what might be called “productive misrepresentations,” with the Beats projecting an imaginary, exaggerated spirituality onto India and the Indians projecting a similarly inaccurate freedom onto America. But in the ’60s, it was still easy to dramatize one’s journey as “West vs. East” in ways that look comically silly to us now. In recent years we’ve been trying on “U.S. vs. India,” a similar—albeit more concrete—binary, and you still see this, say, when Bush meets Singh or in the dying, ridiculous gasp of the multiculti movie (Outsourced, anyone?), but this is clearly not right to me either. It will be a challenge for poets to—slowly—reconceptualize experience and the idea of travel without falling back on identity- or nation-state based categories, and then manifest this in their practice with each other.
Alan: For the past couple years, you’ve worked in Delhi at the Sarai Programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the former of which was co-founded by the artist group Raqs Media Collective. Did that experience—particularly the Raqs Media Collective’s conceptual documentary approach—have any influence on your own thinking about poetry?
Vivek: Yes, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from interacting with all the people at Sarai, as well with research fellows from CSDS, its older parent organization that has long been committed to the idea of the “public intellectual,” interacting with a great number of colleagues that are involved in all kinds of innovative research and practice, including, certainly, the founding members of Sarai: Raqs Media Collective, the anthropologist/urban theorist Ravi Sundaram and the philosopher/historian of film, Ravi Vasudevan. There’s a spirit of restlessness, exchange, and collaborative invention that is very alive. The attempt has been to create a space for intellectual engagement outside of formal academia and academic departments, one in which, for instance, art is not just assigned to the realm of emotion but is also seen as a valid way to think about the world.
I’ve learnt a lot through Sarai’s thematic obsessions, which try to sniff out new ways of looking at Indian cities and the South Asian and global “now” that go beyond the old rhetoric of “development.” Partly as a result of being here, I think, I’ve also moved beyond thinking of myself as a Poet, thinking more about poetry as a practice or set of practices than as some kind of innate identity. And yes, there’s a sense, that animates the work of Raqs, where a document of the massive changes in our environment could be made through a whole range of inventive forms and formal explorations, not just via the old, tired, categorical, heavily narrated form or mode that we think of when we hear the word (yawn) “documentary.”
Alan: In an essay you wrote entitled “Four Ground-breaking Things In Five Issues of Civil Lines or, Ways to Get Your Head Out of the Postcolonial Sand,” a brief history of the journal Civil Lines, you mention a sociological and journalistic imperative in Indian writing, both fiction and poetry. Can you talk about this a little more? Are there ways of circumventing this imperative that don’t entail lapsing into an imported mode of European belles-lettrism or U.S. blockbusterism?
Vivek: There is a great deal of energy and activity and change on Indian streets that, unlike say with the United States, has not really been documented; one feels the need to bring it into print, and many Indians are happy just to see something that they know well described nicely in a book, to experience that recognition. Many non-Indians, needless to say, are curious, one might even say voyeuristic, to know the “plain facts” of what goes on. Looking at it less cynically, it seems also a shame, and a tragedy even, for literature to give up seeing, observation. But when the writing is in English, the question of audience is complex, and the question of legibility is troubled. To whom are these worlds being made legible? An Indian or international elite? So I guess it’s the ease, the supposed transparency, not to mention the streamlined commercial viability, of the journalistic or sociological mode that sometimes troubles me.
So the question would be, how might we propose different, alternative modes that still incorporate seeing, the evidence of the senses, without smoothening it all out and making it easy chewing? I suppose I’ve already answered this as best I can, for now, in the previous question. Recent Indian writing has been extremely timid and unadventurous with regard to form; the “innocent, simple writer” is an image that’s carefully constructed, duly championed in Indian letters. I’m not saying that a “transparent” narrative form can’t be brilliant and profound, you understand, just that it shouldn’t be a dogma or an imperative, that there should be more space cleared for plurality and the innovation of literary forms.
I should hasten to add that my (unoriginal) comment about the “sociological and journalistic imperative” applies specifically to Indian writing in English. Writing in some of the other Indian languages can at times be very subjective or full of rhetorical flourishes—which, as you can imagine, is a different kind of problem.