Abhimanyu Kumar and Debarshi Mitra engage themselves in a discussion that moves along several lines of thought: literary aesthetics, the Beat movement, the role of failures in poetry, among several other themes. Both poets have their ways of looking at things and place great importance on experience bringing authenticity to their works. While Kumar puts poetic intuition at the same level if not above craft, Mitra likes to create a world of his own in his poetic output, where the life of the mind, and memory are given precedence while molding the mundane into the sublime. This conversation is about all things poetry.
Debarshi Mitra: In the very first poem, “This is for the Poets,” of your collection, Milan and the Sea, which, I find, funny, bitter, cynical, and profound all at the same time, you have these delightful lines: “choose the revolting rubbish heap / over the field full of jasmines / the maladroit over the well adjusted.” I think these lines flesh out the guiding aesthetic principle of the book and the yardstick by which to evaluate the poems to follow. Would you agree with that statement? Why do you take this stance, or what are the implications of such an attitude?
Abhimanyu Kumar: Only yesterday I was reading about Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” in a book by American theatre director Richard Schechner. I must say I do not like plenty of other things he says in this book, Performative Circumstances: From the avant garde to Ramlila, but I take his opinion on theatre seriously. So what he says about “Mother Courage” is that she possesses bitterness and cynicism too, along with love and a finely honed survival instinct. It is through possessing the follies along with the virtues that we become fully human. Schechner’s pronouncements in the first third of the book are fairly Orientalist, if not explicitly racist. He spent a long time in Calcutta in the 70s-80s, and he riled the Calcutta theatre artists enough for them to stage a protest at one of his productions of MC in the city back then. It seems a sex scene featuring nudity did not go down well in particular. However, I believe one must preserve what is useful.
I think today there is an enormous pressure to appear well-adjusted and cheerful all the time. But I find that superficial. Poets are liable to be bitter and cynical, especially because no one frankly cares for poetry today—anyone who believes otherwise is mistaken. This is the age of Capitalism at its very peak, and as Adorno has noted, arts and especially poetry is essentially useless to Capitalism. The guiding aesthetic is Ginsbergian—Ginsberg was a devotee of William Blake, who said, The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. I include all follies under “excess.” I remember Spontaneous Mind; Ginsberg used to say that a line of folly should run through poetry. I have also been influenced by the thin volume called In Praise of Folly by the Dutch philosopher Erasmus. So, the lines you mention come from that philosophy.
Let me ask you now, in the introduction to your new book of poems, Osmosis, you speak of how Zen Buddhism and Theoretical physics inspire your poetics. Would you like to expand on that?
Debarshi: I am curious about many things, including Zen Buddhism, But I haven’t delved deep enough to comment on it. As for physics, I think my poetics is informed by it in the sense that it has helped me to look at nature objectively and to appreciate the symmetry and elegance of equations. I find it quite fascinating that natural laws form an intricate, complex, and ordered architecture. It is this precision and order that I think of when I think of beauty. Poetry is different from it and is complementary to it because poetry is fundamentally subjective, I guess. It acknowledges the fact of existence and that we experience things. The experience becomes its cornerstone. A poem that does not come from experience, however well crafted, is a hollow artifact for me. A poem is not a product. Soon sophisticated Machine learning algorithms will perhaps be able to generate the so-called good poems. But to me, it is utterly meaningless because it is mechanical and cannot reveal anything about human experiences or life. I have always been interested in these dichotomies, the threshold spaces separating the objective and the subjective. Through my poetry, I have tried to convey this and examine the minutiae, the specific, and the mundane. To look at oneself and one’s experience as clearly as is possible, by trying to detach oneself from it is where poetry begins for me.
One of the sections in your book is called “Chasing Ginsberg.” Allen Ginsberg and the Beats are also present throughout the book in terms of several references and themes. What would you say has been the legacy of Beat poetry to contemporary poetry everywhere? How would you describe Beat aesthetics in contrast to other schools of American poetry, say the New York school, for instance, which came much later?
Abhimanyu: The legacy is everywhere to see if one knows how to analyze the zeitgeist. The environment was crucial to Ginsberg. So was the nuclear disarmament. So were LGBTQ rights. He was a Buddhist and exhorted the virtues of peaceful negotiation of conflicts—personal as well as political. He was technically a Trotskyite: his mother was Communist, a Russian émigré. But I do not think he believed in violent revolutions. He also predicted the Fall of America—one of his collections is named so. Youthful rebellion is the guiding motif of the work of Beats and a complete disregard of power, including literary power. They remained throughout in conflict with the literary establishment of their time in America. He found the New Yorker middlebrow and said as much. And while their detractors try to present them as sexist—a fact of the matter is that many women aligned themselves with the Beat movement, which despite its flaws, accorded them far greater personal and creative freedom. They may not have made great husbands, and I concede that. The cosmopolitanism of the Beat movement is also very important in my eyes and a check over petty nationalism or sub-nationalism, which aligns with the right-wing politics. I do not think any 20th-century poet had such a lasting connection with poets and artists all over the world like Ginsberg. In particular, he made lasting friends with the Calcutta literati—Sunil Ganguly and Malay Roychoudhury, although the two luminaries did not get along well among themselves. Even Schechner notes the presence of Ginsberg in Calcutta before he arrived.
In the introduction to your book, you also make the candid and courageous claim that the book has failed on all counts on which it has been based. What is the philosophical connection between failure and the practice of poetry in your view?
Debarshi: I think failure is central to the practice of poetry but not really in a material sense. The failure stems from the fact that it is quite impossible to render experiences in language. This is because languages are imperfect human constructs. The number of experiences that we have access to far exceeds the number of words we have for it. We cannot, therefore, have a reliable one to one mapping. Poetry also amplifies and exposes these shortcomings of language, because it operates at the very frontiers of it. Thus, one has to come to terms with this failure and learn to move on.
One of the poems in your collection is titled “On personal poetry/or how to be a dilettante poet.” Who is a dilettante? In an age of specialists and experts, why do you aspire to be one? Historically speaking, are you conscious of a poetic lineage that you think you belong to?
Abhimanyu: The concept of Dilletantism comes from the manifesto I wrote for The Sunflower Collective. It is to present a counterpoint, as the manifesto says, to what Goirick Brahmachari and I saw as the rampant ‘professionalization’ of poetry—some of whose characteristics we found to be an overemphasis on craft, the proliferation of residencies, and creative writing courses. I am of the firm opinion that writing cannot be taught and that most creative writing departments are fooling innocent students at the cost of dilution of poetic intuition, which makes poetry what it is. This makes poetry dry and dull to my mind. The poet cannot just be a craftsman. That is the job of prose writers, to polish and revise endlessly. The poet has other greater historical responsibilities which cannot be sacrificed at the altar of craft. The poet dreams for the entire community; the poet is a harbinger of the revolution or social change; poets represent a kind of moral power which even politicians lack and seek. Just see how many politicians try to pass off as poets. Turning a poet into a craftsman is always at the cost of diminishing the actual radical potential of a poet to address grave social inequalities, to present an alternate model of being and living, to display through his or her contempt of power that it is perfectly possible to take it on and to not fear it. Poets are the moral compass of a society, even if they are flawed themselves.
The historical origin of Dilletantism can be found in the works of Marquis de Sade, who claimed to be one, the first perhaps. Ginsberg gave it the name of IGNU. In theology, you may equate the IGNU with the Holy Fool. But remember, the owl is ever-present in pictorial depictions of the Holy Fool as a symbol of wisdom.
Reading the very first poem, “Airport,” in the times of Corona, is very striking. The landscape has been made barren. The shadow of the metallic bird is upon us in the sense of the degradation of the environment due to excessive industrialization and mechanization. And of course, the airport was singularly responsible for the spread of the virus all over the world. Do you feel there is an element of prophecy in the poem?
Debarshi: Thank you for your close reading of the poem. I suppose reading it in the times of Corona makes it seem prophetic. But that’s a coincidence. I presume the mechanization aspect of it was indeed on my mind as was the ‘neither here neither there’ nature of an Airport, the transitory nature of it. The image of the ‘metal bird’ also I suppose compliments the several other bird poems in the collection.
I’m curious, how did you stumble upon poetry while growing up? What were your influences? Since everyone keeps talking about literary influences ad nauseam, it would perhaps be more instructive to ask you about your non-literary influences. For instance, I’m aware that you are an accomplished musician. How has that informed your poetry?
Abhimanyu: It never felt like stumbling. It was something that came to me without making any efforts to seek it. As I gained consciousness, it was ever-present. My father was a literature graduate and very fond of the English Romantics and Modernists. His favorite is Eliot. So in a real sense, that was the first influence. Music can have a tremendous impact on poetry. In the Greek tradition, the two went together, and Plato said philosophers must learn both, along with mathematics, for example. Walter Benjamin wrote that all art aspires to the abstract condition of music. The Beats used jazz cadences to break their lines and to use syllables as notes in a jazz riff—that is how Howl is structured. So music is critical to me. Music and breath are the two central meters of Beat poetry. And regular human speech, which William Carlos Williams taught Ginsberg. The Beats are Modernists. People forget that they are very much in that tradition. Ginsberg admired Pound deeply, despite being a Jew, and we know what the politics of Pound was towards the latter part of his life. Kerouac was a great admirer of Joyce and Proust. He situated himself firmly in that line.
In the first few poems of your book, you outline a precise distinction between the life of the mind and the world that surrounds us. How does the poet exist in a world that is not made for him/her, in the sense of its priorities?
Debarshi: Well, I believe that the world isn’t made for anyone. Of course, there are grave injustices everywhere, even as we speak, which have to be remedied, but also in a perfect utopian world, one would soon realize that existence is perhaps accidental. The world just is, and there is nothing to be done about it. One reads and writes because it is akin to groping in the dark for anything that would help him to know better the world he finds himself in. So the life of the mind is a way of withdrawing into oneself and trying to make sense of the sensory information one is continuously inundated with.
In the afterword to your collection, you say that poetry is a form of prayer to you, an agnostic one, and yet later in the same essay, you say that it is not ‘holier than thou’ and term it ‘impure.’ Can you elaborate on that? What is the source of that impurity?
Abhimanyu: Prayers are never holy in themselves. They denote a desire for summoning the holiness within. However, for me, movement is holy. Stasis is unholy. Whatever moves is holy because movement comes from contradictions that move life. That is the essence of Marxist philosophy. Life is never pure: it is base as well as divine. And poetry as the mirror of life is like life, or it should be.
I sense violence and absurdity in the poem “Family Sundays,” for example, the image of the ‘decapitated’ wax turtle and crossing a one-way street by looking out on both ends. Would you like to comment on it?
Debarshi: Thanks for mentioning the poem. It dwells on three particular real-life events. We had that decapitated wax turtle on tour table, and in Delhi-NCR, it is indeed imperative to look both ways before “crossing a one way street.” At the risk of ruining it for future readers, I think what is interesting in my opinion about the poem is what links these things, which connects the wax turtle to the one-way-street. I guess, looking both ways to cross a one-way-street can be translated into looking back as one is to move unidirectionally towards the future. The wax turtle reminds our mortality. Since there are other poems about memory in Osmosis, I think this poem complements the others in a significant way.
Abhimanyu, how conscious are you of a readership while writing poems? Or, can one ever be not mindful of readership while writing? Do you think there is a voyeuristic aspect of this enterprise?
Abhimanyu: If the poem is addressed to someone, even without stating so, then naturally, one thinks of a reader beforehand. But in general, I think of readers in the abstract. I want the poem to move me first. If it succeeds, it will move others too. A good poem should make the poet weep, Ginsberg used to believe.
As we reach the middle of your book, it seems the poetic condition has been named: “Melancholy.” Almost every poem references to memory, through metaphors of mist or fog. What connects the two?
Debarshi: I think what connects melancholy to fog or mist is the veiled nature of it. One is partially visible through fog or mist. One can also disappear in it. This is also quite interesting to me: I have to disappear, be fully or partially erased, or be obliterated. Reading or writing is also an exercise in disappearance, aesthetically speaking. Melancholy often feels like wanting to be one with the ‘not me,’ the non-self, away from everything else, which continually seems to reinforce the idea of the ‘self.’ I find it quite liberating to be released from the confines of the ‘self.’
Most of the poems in Milan and the Sea refer to very personal, intimate moments such as the poem “Amsterdam” and your poems on ‘Milan.’ Do you ever worry about how much of yourself is being revealed through your poems? Does it make you feel vulnerable? How do you deal with it?
Abhimanyu: Revealing oneself and becoming vulnerable is the very point of it. Literature is nothing if it is not private literature being made public, as Ginsberg put it. So no, I never worry about it. The vulnerability itself is like a form of strength, as Kierkegaard notes in Fear and Trembling. It is the highest form of strength, perhaps.
Would you say that your poems are imagist in the original modernist sense, in the tradition of Pound? Who are the poets who inspire you?
Debarshi: I think I should refrain from commenting on whether my poems are imagist in the original modernist sense. But I enjoy reading Pound and the other imagists. I’m inspired by William Carlos Williams, Matsuo Basho, Han Shan, among others.
One of the recurring but less visible presence in Milan and the Sea is that of death. You refer to it several times, be it in the poem, “Manifesto for a Wasted Day,” where you are reading about Agha Shahid Ali’s death or in “Lament for Linus,” where the boatman says he will rest soon. You mention in the afterword that poetry “favors death over life.” How acutely are you aware of your mortality (and of others)? Do you find it liberating in a sense?
Abhimanyu: I am aware of it almost on a daily basis. It is my companion, in some sense, an old friend. It is liberating in my case, but when it concerns others, it causes me anguish. I have depression, but even before it was diagnosed, I was always conscious of death. It is also a philosophical dilemma, and Camus dedicated The Myth of Sisyphus to resolving it. The question of suicide, if one finds life absurd, will sooner or later present itself. So in a philosophical sense, I was aware of it from much before. Depression makes it visceral. Death is always around as a possibility. The only way to live while being so starkly conscious of death is through the means of love and to be kind to oneself.
Many of your poems use the metaphor of the bird. Is it a stand-in for the idealized poetic self, able to see from above, freed from the earthly push and pull, the distractions, the sorrows?
Debarshi: I suppose the metaphor of the bird is interesting to me because of the accidental nature of a bird sighting. It is here at one moment and in the next, nowhere to be seen. It is also a metaphor for detaching oneself from the immediacy of one’s experiences, taking a “bird’s eye view” of things. Pun intended!
In your book, you make several great and impressive references to the Bombay poets. How do you think contemporary poetry (and your own) is different from Indian English poetry of the 70s, not just in terms of quality but also in terms of the thematic content?
Abhimanyu: A lot of contemporary IWE poetry, if not more, apes it or revolves around its orbit. Poets with direct connections to that period are also still around, so that is natural. They may have been successful in drawing the attention of mainstream publishing at the fag end of their careers, but I do not find that such a great achievement. Unlike the Progressive Writers’ Movement or like a similar grouping in painting, IWE poetry never had such a group. At the same time, Nissim Ezekiel did establish and nurture a specific tradition of poetry. At the level of form, there is some exciting work—Dom Moraes, Eunice D’ Souza, Dilip Chitre did important works overall and developed the craft substantially. But I think it also degenerated into an obsession with the form at the cost of poetic intuition. Good poetry always has a sense of prophecy—be in Homer, Milton, or Dante, then Blake, Yeats, Ginsberg. All good poetry presents deep insights and commentary on the human condition; it is never an art object in the sense of pure aesthetics—something you hang in your drawing-room. Then there is poetry which has a biting politics—the poetry of Rita Dove, or Amiri Baraka. Or it has a unique point of view, abiding concerns which touch and speak to others. In IWE poetry, I see concerns for which I use the term Academic for want of a better word, override everything else—poems seem to have been written to be read in conferences, or for critics to appreciate. Among Bombay poets, perhaps only Kolatkar is free of this—his spirit is akin to someone like Ghalib in some of his poems—the drunkenness and the abandon that he displays in them. That is another problem with IWE poetry. It speaks only to other poets of the tradition. It has little interaction with the larger life around it or other artistic movements.
In only one of your poems, “Rain in the City,” perhaps a human figure is visible: the boy on the sidewalk asking for a change. How do you see this?
Debarshi: Yes, it recently dawned upon me that this is the case. I wish I had a smart answer to this. The only reason the book isn’t populated with more human figures is that I’m necessarily a loner. Barring family, I don’t interact with friends daily. My work doesn’t require me to interact with a lot of people either. So I am mostly alone a lot, and that becomes quite apparent in these poems In addition to that, I have always thought of writing/reading as rather private acts, a way of being more fully alone. So naturally, the poems also reflect that.
Reading your poems, one gets the impression that yours is a life lived in abandon. All your poems seem to come from specific experiences, from everyday moments and explorations. How accurately do you think your poems portray who you are? The real question, I’m trying to get to is that of identity and authenticity. What is authenticity in literature? Does it always have an element of artifice?
Abhimanyu: Authenticity comes from knowing oneself, and one’s subject matter well: from self-awareness, or from true suffering. An element of artifice in a literary work is like a wrong fact in a journalistic piece. It delegitimizes the whole job. I have found journalism to be excellent means in keeping the authenticity intact of my literary work, even if I use nothing from it in the poems for the most part—it informs my literary work subliminally.
Debarshi: One of the most striking features of your book is that it is quirky and idiosyncratic, which gives it (for want of a better word) a certain kind of texture. In one of your poems, you say that you have a “dislike for odd numbers.” Why do you hate odd numbers? Or a certain bespectacled gentleman who harangues the nation at 9?
Abhimanyu: Odd numbers lack the roundedness of even numbers. They seem abrupt to me. I like a sense of harmony in things. Plato also equates the Good with the Harmonious in The Republic. And the Good is what human life must be oriented towards. The anchor is guilty of intentionally destroying the secular fabric of our nation. He is a criminal. I am happy he is being investigated by the police for his crimes.
What are you working on as your next project? How have you faced the challenges of publishing so far, whether it be in journals or books?
Debarshi: I’m translating some of the poems of Swadesh Sen, the legendary Bengali poet of the late seventies. I don’t know if they can be called challenges, but I have faced quite a few rejections. I think that’s part and parcel of being a writer. Of course, rejections can be disappointing. But, I think one needs to develop an understanding of whether the poem/piece is up to the mark irrespective of the external parameters. Book publishing is more challenging because it entails monetary investment on the part of the publisher. So one has to actively promote one’s book and try to boost sales. These are things I’m not necessarily very fond of. But I suppose it has to be done.
What about your own experiences? How easy/difficult was it to get a book out? What were the obstacles you faced?
Abhimanyu: I started publishing fairly late. Only after I started working as a journalist did I start to send my work out—around 2009-10, I think. I too used to believe that it was vain to send one’s work out in a philosophical sense but poetry lightens the pain of living of oneself and others, and to reach others, especially strangers one must send the work out for publishing. I have also faced rejections. The thing to remember is that poetry is a subjective exercise and it is important to be true to one’s own aesthetics, philosophy and politics. Book publishing has always been difficult for poets and one has to be aware of certain realities and be flexible enough to achieve this. Poetry books are never best-sellers and publishers who are driven by commercial interests will never make their costs by focusing on poetry. I feel collaborative methods should be explored without bringing in the poetic ego. But at no cost should there be made arrangements in which the poet ends up paying everything from his or her own pocket. I was lucky I never had to pay anything directly to my dear friend and publisher, Dibyajyoti Sarma, to publish my first book. I aided him with a very small amount when he started his press, Red River. Later on, when he had the means, he published my book without charging me anything and gave me enough copies to sell so I made on the day of the launch itself what I had contributed as a friend to his venture in the very start. I think this was a good method in which a new poet and a new publisher collaborated without exploiting each other.