Questions to ask poets

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Understanding Poetry: 5 Questions to Ask

Many people are discouraged from enjoying poetry because they claim it’s too difficult. Trust me. I’ve had those moments when faced with an enigma of words on the page.

One way I hope to lessen the fear of reading poetry is to show you how to read it—especially for more complex poems. These five questions will help you crack the code of many poems you might come across.

What is the imagery in the poem?

Understanding poetry begins with visualizing the central images in the poem. What do you see, taste, smell, hear, and feel?

Then figure out what those images have in common. For instance, in Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” the imagery centers around a broken down staircase and reflects personal brokenness and hardship.

What is the mood of the poem? (Or How does it make me feel?)

The imagery can help you determine whether the mood or feeling of the poem is positive or negative. In the poem above, the negative imagery conveys a negative, or somber mood. Yet the speaker shows her determination to overcome life’s hardships by saying things such as “For I’se still going honey” which in turn allows the poem to end on a more positive note rather than desperation.

Who is the speaker of the poem?

The speaker is the voice of the poem, and it’s not necessarily the poet. In Hughes’ poem, the speaker is a mother speaking to her son, while the poet is a man. You should identify the speaker by describing him or her as “someone who…” and fill in the blank. Does the person admire nature? Or does she have a message for someone? Maybe the speaker is complaining about something or questioning his life. In this poem, the speaker is a mother who is encouraging her son not to give up just because life is difficult.

What structural or stylistic techniques does the poet use?

Notice the punctuation, informal language and repetition in the poem.

Usually poets use structure and style to emphasize the message or reflect the meaning of the poem. In Hughes’ poem, the repeated line “And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” is a big key to the message he’s trying to convey. Also, the poem is written in dialect which makes it sound more like we’re overhearing part of a conversation. This makes it more personal.

What is the message of the poem?

All of the above questions point to the message the poet wants to convey. Consider the negative imagery that represents the hardships of life and the negative mood that contrasts with the speaker’s words of encouragement. Her words emphasize that she’s not given up and kept going despite the hardships. So we can guess the message the poet means to share is to persevere through hard times no matter what.

Now I know you’re probably thinking that was too easy. And yes, for teaching purposes I picked a simpler poem. However, if you get in the habit of looking for these things when reading any level of poetry, you will find it much more understandable and enjoyable.

Crack the code of poetry with just 5 questions! #poets #poetry

Do you have a special technique you use to uncover the messages in the poetry you read? Tell me below.

Questions We Didn’t Know We Wanted to Ask

The teachers who early in my life stood out—who made a difference in how I felt about school, about learning, about myself—have at least one thing in common: they were questioners. They asked questions of us—as individuals, as a class, as a part of a greater world beyond the classroom walls. In the margins of the papers and reports they returned to us were not just checkmarks or terse comments, but more questions asking us to go deeper, consider another angle or viewpoint—prodding at, through questions, our laziness or inattentiveness. Standing at the blackboard or lectern, the best teachers not only offered us precise facts, they dangled before us speculation, even wonder. And, as if the question marks had been sharp and inverted, I was hooked.

But questions, it seems to me, now have fallen out of favor. At all levels, there is an absence of essential, meaningful questioning. For our politicians in debate, questions are scripted from preconceived answers. In literature classes, we learn to ask questions for which there is only one correct answer: “What does Hawthorne’s Minister Hooper wear over his face?” rather than “How could such a veil change him into ‘something awful, only by hiding his face’?” Today, the question from a child’s mouth is too frequently something like “How did he do that?” referring to a special effect in yet another action film.

In my work with young writers, I try to give back some of the kind of questioning that continues to be crucial to my own growth, as a writer and as a person. I introduce (or, in some cases, re-introduce) this notion of questioning and speculation through one of the finest literary models, Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions (El libro de preguntas), translated by William O’Daly. Here, each poem is a series of questions. The poet asks and, without waiting for or providing answers, moves on to another question, then another, at times sounding like a precocious child who, in the torrent of asking, cares not for responses. As with all Neruda’s writing, the world—at its most trivial and its most essential—is his subject, and his language is invested with color and vivid imagery, forming a unique way of looking and asking.
Why didn’t both of us die
when my infancy died?

Do you hear yellow detonations
in mid-autumn?

From what does the hummingbird dangle
its glittering symmetry?

Is 4 always 4 for everybody?
Are all 7s equal?

What’s the name of the flower
that flies from bird to bird?

I have used Pablo Neruda’s question poems in grades 5 through 12, in ESL, bilingual, and all-English-speaking classrooms. Recently, I used them as an introductory first session with a fifth grade class. It was a Monday and I related how I’d been to a weekend family gathering where a lot of small children were present. I’d forgotten, I told them, how at a certain age children ask so many questions. How many of them, I asked, had younger brothers and sisters? And did they ever notice how their siblings asked a lot of questions? In response, eyes rolled, heads nodded enthusiastically. (Students, I’ve learned, are very interested in knowing about our lives outside the classroom, who we are “unofficially.”) Why do you think, I asked my students, that small children ask so many questions? “To find out stuff.” “They don’t know anything.” From across the classroom: “They don’t know any better.” Yes, I admitted, it is a way of learning, of finding out about the world. But as we get older, I proposed, do you think we tend to ask fewer questions? Silence, then some nods of heads, some “yeahs.” Why? “We know everything,” someone threw out, getting the laughs. “We’re supposed to know.” What? You’re supposed to know everything? “No, but lots of stuff.” “We’re afraid to ask,” from the back of the room. In the corner, “We don’t want to look dumb.” Oh, so if we’re going to ask questions, it’s better to keep them to ourselves. Is it dumb then to wonder aloud in the cafeteria line what you’re going to have for lunch—nachos or burgers? “Yeah.” Is it dumb to wonder aloud what you’re doing on this planet? What you might do with your life that’s different than the person sitting next to you? Different than anything anyone’s ever done before?

Prompted by my suggestions and observations, posed in almost all cases as questions, a lively discussion followed. (I attempt to divide most of my classroom time as one third presentation/discussion, one third writing, one third reading/sharing. For this lesson, I’ve learned that sometimes the discussion takes longer.) Some of the points explored during our discussion included:
What’s more important: the answer or the question?
What’s more powerful?
Do all questions have answers?
Do all questions have only one right answer?
How do we make discoveries about the world?
How do we find out about one another? (I ask students, don’t they want to fall in love with someone some day, maybe have a relationship? Needless to say, the difference in response between a fifth grade class and high school is vast!)
Do we all ask the same questions?
Do we all ask questions in the same way?

By way of these last two points, I attempt to direct students’ attention to how each of us has a perspective, a particular point of view, wholly our own. The questions we ask and the way in which we ask them say much about who we are. As writers, we call it, in addition to our point of view, our stance on life.

Next, I introduce Neruda’s book. I read excerpts aloud, choosing questions I think the students will find most interesting and engaging. (As with all the literary models I use, I try not to let vocabulary stand in my way. If necessary, I’ll list a few words on the board, providing brief definitions.) In ESL or bilingual classes, I read the excerpts in both Spanish and English, as we sometimes do in all-English-speaking high school classrooms where students have studied Spanish. In either language, it is impossible to miss Neruda’s distinctive use and love of language, his arresting images, his way of asking the questions. Some lines I use include:
Why do the leaves kill themselves
as soon as they feel yellow?

What did the tree learn of the earth
to confide to the sky?

At whom is the rice grinning
with its infinite white teeth?

When prisoners think of the light
is it the same that lights up your world?

Have you wondered what color
April is to the sick?

Who’s the magnolia kidding
with its lemon’s aroma?

In the sky over Colombia
is there a collector of clouds?

Why does the rain weep with joy,
with or without cause?

How do the seasons discover
it’s time to change shirts?
Though I inevitably get in response at least one “weird” and some giggles, Neruda almost always captures the class’ attention. I ask the students to notice the questions’ vast subject matter and the interesting and surprising ways Neruda has of asking the questions—for example, his playful tone and vivid imagery, his variety of sentence structure, his use of contrast, of personification, and of metaphor (for those classes where this has already been introduced).

Then I go to a student model. What other young writers have written in response to the same literary model can be extremely useful. While there may be some copying or close imitating, hearing exemplary work of their peers can encourage and inspire students. With this fifth grade group, I read some lines from a list poem called “Questions,” a class collaboration by eighth graders at the Awty International School in Houston, Texas:
Why is sadness always pushing like a runner to overtake happiness?
Who decided “opposites attract”?
Why does crying help you smile?
Why do clouds move away from me?
Do I see the same moon that people in China see?
Why do people judge each other by their actions when their thoughts might
be more harmful?
Does anger make everyone feel like they’re on fire?
Why is depression made out of salt water?
Why can’t Monday be Wednesday or Sunday?
Why is ignorance so embarrassing?
Is pine-scented insecticide a good idea?
If our arm falls off during life, is it waiting for us in heaven?
Who decided to call this Earth?
Who came up with figurative speech?
Why are certain things inappropriate, and who decided?
How is it that there are more questions than there are answers?

Then students write their own lists of questions. I encourage them to be playful with language and subject matter, like Neruda. Nothing, I tell them, is exempt from wonder. Think back to the cafeteria line, the nachos versus burgers. What question might Neruda find in this? I urge students to free themselves from premature editing (the list format is good for avoiding this). Let your mind roam, I tell them. Consider the world with different, wondering eyes. Ask the questions you always or never knew you wanted to ask.

One virtue of this assignment is that no one can fail. Everyone has questions. Naturally, there will be the class clown, going not for the playful but the silly or the bizarre in order to win the laughs. And there will be those students who only come up with the obvious questions, ones that can be answered with a simple (and obvious) yes or no. But, with most students, I’ve seen how after an initial warm up, there is a loosening as they become more emboldened, how they fall into an almost rhythmic letting go.

During writing time, I walk around the classroom, encouraging, commenting, suggesting, helping to unstick the stuck. When appropriate, and with the authors’ permission, I read aloud good examples. The best results come from hearing a fellow student’s writing. The effect is often energizing. For the students who, after four or five queries, think they have exhausted their reservoir of unasked questions, I suggest they go back and look at what they have. Is there another way they might ask their questions, a more vivid word or image they might add?

Then, if time permits, I go around the room and ask for volunteers to read their work aloud. In this fifth grade class, because so many students wanted to read and our time was limited, I asked them to pick their two favorite questions and read them. This is my favorite part, where a certain magic, a wondering, takes over the classroom. In a climate where no question is deemed stupid or too trivial, where all questions are honored, so are our students’ ideas, thoughts, hopes and fears. As they admire the work of their fellow writers, they may also learn that someone else’s thoughts and anxieties mirror their own and a certain trust and empathy is established.

With this fifth grade class, I collected the students’ papers and, at home, put together a class poem. (Depending on the number of students and the quality of the work, I try whenever I assemble a class poem to take at least one line or image from each student.) Then I typed it up. (Seeing their work typed up enables students to get a truer sense of being a writer, particularly in schools were computers are scarce. For some of my students, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen their work “in print.”)

I brought the class poem to my next session. To enthusiastic response, I read it then posted it on the board. I also made certain that the school principal received a copy. Here then, from the Greenbriar School in Northbrook, Illinois, is the class collaborative poem:
We Were Wondering …
Why are rainy days called gloomy?
Does rain fall because God cries when a young person dies for no reason at all?
Why do flowers always bloom out and not in?
Does winter always have to come before spring?
How come people say the moon is made of cheese and not waffles, for example?
When someone tickles you, why do you laugh?
Why does anger feel like you are under a heavy weight?
Why do things we don’t know about scare us?
Why do we make mistakes?
Why did it take so long to discover the light bulb?
Why are there choices that are complicated to some people and not hard to others?
How come girls have long hair and boys don’t?
How come there are more girls than boys in the world?
Why do you see the word “men” in writing every day and not “women?”
Why do people have eyebrows?
Why do we get taller when we get older?
Why do dogs chase cats?
Does every living thing have a way of communicating?
Where does Jimmy Buffet get his songs?
Why is a piece of paper not as valuable as a dollar bill which is also a piece of paper?
Why do cookies disappear fastest when you’re not the one eating them?
How come cake is served at parties?
Why does everything have a name?
Where does time come from?
Are you in complete control of your life or does fate just give you paths?
Is there a limit to everything?
Is anything perfect? Anyone?
What happens if heaven gets too full? Will people get longer lives or will heaven be expanded?
How old is God?
When God created the earth, did he want it to have so many problems?
Do you have to eat and sleep in heaven?
I am what I am, am I anything more?
Is life a play and the ending already made up?

By our asking questions, we keep the curious, eager child alive in all of us. Neruda asks:

Where is the child that I was—
inside of me still—or gone?

For that question, we have the answer.

Michael Card once sang, “Is it true that questions tell us more than answers ever will?” It’s no accident, I think, that his commentary on questions was posed as a question, not as an answer.

There’s something comforting, I suppose, about hard data and definitive answers, and something less reassuring about the ambiguity of unanswered questions. What if, though, we allowed ourselves the space that questions offer? What if we opened ourselves to the possibilities that questions permit—the sort of possibilities that definitive answers can sometimes close off?

Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions is a collection of questions for question’s sake. Many are full of whimsy. Some are poignant, others pointed. But all of them create a space for wonder and imagination without the obligation of reaching a conclusion. Questions like

Is 4 the same 4 for everybody?
Are all sevens equal?

What color is the scent
of the blue weeping of violets?

Why doesn’t Thursday talk itself
into coming after Friday?

If I have died and don’t know it
of whom do I ask the time?

Poems ask wonderful questions, sometimes without including a single question mark. We’ve gathered a collection of poems with questions, some answered and some unanswerable. Have other favorite question poems? Tell us in the comments.

1. Sawdust

Why not lindendust,
hackberry, hemlock,
live oak, maple, why
name the remains
after the blade, not
what it cut—

only now do I see
that the air is full
of small sharp stars
pinwheeling through
every living thing
that gets in their way.

—Sharon Bryan

2. How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

3. Saudade

Like ghosts become flesh for the first time
we came to the land of the living
tasted the bread
sipped the wine
spoke the language of belonging.

In a tent on a hill walled by green
we gathered for one more meal.
I watched twilight
dance with candlelight
and breathed in a hint of truly alive.

Can you be sick for a home you’ve never seen?
Sometimes the curtain flutters,
and I catch a glimpse
of a fawn in the shadow
that bids me to follow.

I can’t. Not yet.
But I am coming home.

—Jen Rose

4. Ghazal 838

if you pass your night
and merge it with dawn
for the sake of heart
what do you think will happen

if the entire world
is covered with blossoms
you have labored to plant
what do you think will happen

if the elixir of life
that has been hidden in the dark
fills the desert and towns
what do you think will happen

if because of
your generosity and love
a few humans find their lives
what do you think will happen

if you pour an entire jar
filled with joyous wine
on the head of those already drunk
what do you think will happen

go my friend
bestow your love
even on your enemies
if you touch their hearts
what do you think will happen

—Rumi, translated by Nader Khalili

5. Miracles

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in
the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of
a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars
shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new
moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is
spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the
waves—the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

—Walt Whitman

6. Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

—William Shakespeare

7. Cracked

How long can this coffee cup last?
The one with the long crack, from lip to toe?
The one I rely on every single morning
for just the right proportion of coffee to milk?
I bought it, cheap, at a truck stop, in southern Colorado
years ago. It has everything I love on its painted face:
stars, pine trees, a bear roasting marshmallows.
I stick it in the dishwasher every day, but it never
gets clean. It has never failed me, ’til now.
Now I’m trying to make it last, against all odds.
Sip quick before the drips flood the countertop,
before it can no longer hold what I hold dear.
Both of you. Stop fighting. Get in the car.
Just past Oklahoma, there’s a truck stop
with a long row of uncracked cups.

—Megan Willome

8. On the Eve of Your Thirteen Birthday
for Jeffrey

the last day of twelve
was nothing special,
you said.
you didn’t dress for gym,
didn’t play four-square with
the others. only walked,
you said.

in English, you wrote
a myth…about Gusano—
it means “worm” in Spanish
you said.
this Graco-Spanish
worm-god found freedom,
you said.
but he led his people
back into the
earth to rule the Underworld
and that’s why he will
be responsible for
the zombie apocalypse.
you said.

and math was about
interest, like money and
banks, you know?
you said.
and you have homework
so you came home in
a bad mood and didn’t
want to talk about twelve
you said.

so i hushed and got out
the eggs, cracked them one-by-
one in the bowl and mixed until
those yellow eyes are gone; i
rubbed grease on the pan that is
swathed in black enamel
from years of cradling sweet
batter…and i poured more
in. you at the table building
up interest when the room
starts to smell like a birthday.

and suddenly, you are there,
beside to lick the batter from
the bowl. what time was I
born?
you said.

—Laura Boggess

9. Family Vacation

Blue fish burst from this morning’s tide
like applause, marking an end
to summer. When evening’s color falls, it’s
cottony pastels, the season’s best hour
to swim or bodysurf; the tourists gone,
a few fatheaded seals converge to frolic.
My father ventures farthest, sturdy as he is
amidst the swirls, crests, and currents:
a hurricane’s remnant. My mother’s illness
troubles her gait within a waist-high surf
that’s rough enough for the strongest swimmer,
much less a stem cell transplant patient
in her 60s. Tentative, amphibian-like, I’m
their adult daughter. Yesterday, I pleaded
with my mother to come ashore. “Don’t make me
dead before I’m dead, ” she shouted.
“Live a little”—my father’s refrain.
So I’ll scan the waves, I, who live by trying
to decipher signs: ride or rip tide? Recovery
or remission? And they plunge just ahead
of the water’s breaking, so that when it crashes,
it doesn’t crush them, but rockets them forward
as if to say, today, today, today.

—Jody Zorgdrager

10. Fragments

Do the shells still hear the sea,
though they are in pieces;
how deep does the hearing of the sea
enter into bone.

—L.L. Barkat

Photo by Jan Christian Teller. Creative Commons license via Flickr.

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How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.

“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland

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Will Willingham

Director of Many Things; Senior Editor, Designer and Illustrator at Tweetspeak Poetry I used to be a claims adjuster, helping people and insurance companies make sense of loss. Now, I train other folks with ladders and tape measures to go and do likewise. Sometimes, when I’m not scaling small buildings or crunching numbers with my bare hands, I read Keats upside down. My first novel, Adjustments, is available now.Follow Will

Latest posts by Will Willingham (see all)

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100+ Famous Authors and Their Writing Spaces

Hans Christian Andersen

“Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.”

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Harlan Ellison

“If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”

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Harper Lee (with Truman Capote)

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”

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Harriet Beecher Stowe

“Since I began this note I have been called off at least a dozen times — once for the fish-man, to buy a codfish — once to see a man who had brought me some baskets of apples — once to see a book man…then to nurse the baby — then into the kitchen to make chowder for dinner and now I am at it again for nothing but deadly determination enables me to ever write — it is rowing against wind and tide.”

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Heinrich Böll

“It’s true and it’s easily said that language is material, and something does materialize as one writes.”

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Henry Miller

“All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without the benefit of experience.”

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H. L. Mencken

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

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Hunter S. Thompson

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

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Ian Fleming

“Never say ‘no’ to adventures. Always say ‘yes,’ otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”

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J. D. Salinger

“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

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Jack Kerouac

“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.”

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Jack London

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

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Jackie Kennedy

“The deep desire to inspire people, to take an active part in the life of the country… We should all do something to right the wrongs that we see and not just complain about them.”

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James Baldwin

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

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James Patterson

“In my office in Florida I have, I think, 30 manuscript piles around the room. Some are screenplays or comic books or graphic novels. Some are almost done. Some I’m rewriting. If I’m working with a co-writer, they’ll usually write the first draft. And then I write subsequent drafts.”

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Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear… We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

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John Cheever

“The need to write comes from the need to make sense of one’s life and discover one’s usefulness.”

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John F. Kennedy

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

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John Fante

“For your information, a good novel can change the world. Keep that in mind before you attempt to sit down at a typewriter. Never waste time on something you don’t believe in yourself.”

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John Steinbeck

“And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”

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John Updike

“You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands. Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.”

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Joseph Brodsky

“It is well to read everything of something, and something of everything.”

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J. R. R. Tolkien

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

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Karen Blixen

“The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea.”

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Katherine Anne Porter

“I shall try to tell the truth, but the result will be fiction.”

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Kurt Vonnegut

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”

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Leo Tolstoy

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

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Louisa May Alcott

“Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.”

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Margaret Mitchell

“The world can forgive practically anything except people who mind their own business.”

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Mark Twain

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very.’ Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

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Marlon Brando

“Regret is useless in life. It’s in the past. All we have is now.”

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Max Frisch

“It’s precisely the disappointing stories, which have no proper ending and therefore no proper meaning, that sound true to life.”

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Michel Foucault

“My job is making windows where there were once walls.”

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Mickey Spillane

“If you’re a singer you lose your voice. A baseball player loses his arm. A writer gets more knowledge, and if he’s good, the older he gets, the better he writes.”

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Neil Gaiman

“A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.”

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Nigella Lawson

“It’s true that I wouldn’t have written the first book had my sister and mother been alive. It was my way of continuing our conversation.”

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Oliver Sacks

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

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Orson Welles

“If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

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Patricia Highsmith

“Obsessions are the only things that matter.”

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P. G. Wodehouse

“Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove.”

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Philip Pullman

“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”

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Philip Roth

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.”

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Pier Paolo Pasolini

“An artist, if he’s unselfish and passionate, is always a living protest. Just to open his mouth is to protest: against conformism, against what is official, public, or national, what everyone else feels comfortable with, so the moment he opens his mouth, an artist is engaged, because opening his mouth is always scandalous.”

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Ramón Gómez de la Serna

“Writing is that they let you cry and laugh alone.”

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Ray Bradbury

“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things…. You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

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Raymond Carver

“You’ve got to work with your mistakes until they look intended. Understand?”

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Roald Dahl

“A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.”

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Robert Frost

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

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Roberto Calasso

“Stories never live alone; They are the branches of a family that we have to trace back, and forward.”

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Rudyard Kipling

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.”

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Saul Bellow

“A writer is a reader moved to emulation.”

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Shuzo Takiguchi

“Now the globe suffers from severe nostalgia…”

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Want to radically improve your writing? Enter my free giveaway for a chance to win some of the best books on writing.

Simone de Beauvoir

“Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.”

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Somerset Maugham

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

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Stephen King

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

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Read more great writing advice from Stephen King.

Susan Sontag

“My library is an archive of longings.”

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Sylvia Plath

“Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences.”

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Ted Kooser

“Considering the ways in which so many of us waste our time, what would be wrong with a world in which everybody were writing poems? After all, there’s a significant service to humanity in spending time doing no harm. While you’re writing your poem, there’s one less scoundrel in the world. And I’d like a world, wouldn’t you, in which people actually took time to think about what they were saying? It would be, I’m certain, a more peaceful, more reasonable place. I don’t think there could ever be too many poets. By writing poetry, even those poems that fail and fail miserably, we honor and affirm life. We say ‘We loved the earth but could not stay.”

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Tennessee Williams

“When I stop working the rest of the day is posthumous. I’m only really alive when I’m writing.”

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Theodore Roosevelt

“I don’t pity any man who does hard work worth doing. I admire him. I pity the creature who does not work, at whichever end of the social scale he may regard himself as being.”

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Truman Capote

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”

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T.S. Eliot

“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands,
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

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Vera and Vladimir Nabokov

“A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.”

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Virginia Woolf

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

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W. Somerset Maugham

(I know I already shared a WSM pic, but I couldn’t resist the dog!)

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

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Wallace Stegner

“Hard writing makes easy reading.”

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Walt Whitman

“The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment — to put things down without deliberation — without worrying about their style — without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote — wrote, wrote…By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.”

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William F. Buckley Jr.

“I get satisfaction of three kinds. One is creating something, one is being paid for it and one is the feeling that I haven’t just been sitting on my ass all afternoon.”

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William Faulkner

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”

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William S. Burroughs

“Yes, for all of us in the Shakespeare Squadron, writing is just that: not an escape from reality, but an attempt to change reality.”

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Winston Churchill

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy then an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

Bravery bonus: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

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A blank page always provokes a little nudge of resistance, like a donkey refusing to step on a bridge

1) Do you come from a literary background?

Yes and no. There were poets and writers in my mother’s family but not close to me. Her mother, Nora Barlow, n�e Darwin, was one of Darwin’s grand-daughters. Others, Nora’s cousin’s, were the poet Frances Cornford and artist Gwen Raverat whose book Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood I knew well. My daughter Gwen is called after that Gwen. But mainly my mother’s family were scientists, while my father’s were classicists and teachers. What they had in common though was music and books. Reading was everything. My dad used to read aloud to us: he read me David Copperfield when I was ten, and I did the same for Gwen. My mother’s brothers, growing up, used to compete at dinner to see how many times each could get their father to get up from table and consult a dictionary or encyclopaedia to solve a question that arose in conversation. I remember him doing that, my grandfather: kneeling on the floor, glasses pushed up to his forehead, poring over the Oxford English Dictionary. When a small grandchild came crawling over the page he very gently put out an arm to hoosh him off without looking up from the words. My dad would look up dictionaries at table too. Looking things up on Google just isn’t the same as exploring a book!

2) What writers did you enjoy reading as a child?

I loved the Jungle Book and Just So Stories: I knew the poems in them by heart. I had a fat black book called The Book of a Thousand Poems and loved the animal poems in that. Classics I read over and over again: Little Women, Heidi, Dr Dolittle, The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald; The Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, Huckleberry Finn – I read and re-read them constantly. But animal stories were central: Black Beauty, a story by A J Dawson called Finn the Wolfhound and the original of Bambi. We didn’t have a TV: reading was the great thing.

3) Did you write as a child?

Yes, all the time. Poems sometimes – my mother once told me she had a poem from when I was three but I think she’s lost it – and stories all the time. It wasn’t particularly encouraged by my parents, it just seemed a natural thing to do.

4) How did you get started as a poet?

It started and stopped at first. I studied Greek and Latin at university but had always done English too, and loved the poets I studied for O and A level: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Yeats, Keats, Tennyson, Shakespeare, I found they were in me in some way. And then more writers came in, Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Browning, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill. Now and then I would write a poem but never sent it anywhere. I didn’t know writers, I didn’t have a model for publishing anything; though I had a few poems published in the school magazine. It was only when I was a graduate student, writing a thesis, that I started writing poems more seriously. And when I had my first tenured job, teaching Greek at Birkbeck College in London, poems were getting more concentrated and I thought, I must do this properly. So I gave up the job to live freelance – and published my first pamphlet of poems the next year. After that it was a poem here and there in magazines until Hutchinson agreed to publish my first full length collection – and it went on from there.

5) Do you find writing easy?

Yes, though a blank page always provokes a little nudge of resistance, like a donkey refusing to step on a bridge. I write fast and then re-work over and over. A lot of my income comes from writing for newspapers, and when you have a deadline, you have to go: the donkey has to get to the other side and the bridge is the only way over!

6) Describe your working day

I usually wake pretty early, boil water for tea while going into the garden to see what’s happening, work to the first cup of tea and then know I’m really getting into it when the tea’s done, and I make a pot of black coffee. That structure – tea first, then coffee – is the accompaniment to getting going. Then I keep writing for as long as I can, depending on other commitments. I used to take the dog for a walk as a break and really miss that (as well as the dog itself). Now I just carry on working.

7) Do you do much research?

Masses. My most recent book The Mara Crossing, is a mix of poems and prose about migration. It starts with cell migration and goes on with birds, which took about three years of research. The whole book took seven years to write. The research stiff is interspersed with vignettes of my daughter in the garden, at a time when she was in her early twenties and going out to work, off and on, in Colombia, in South America. Growing up is a kind of migration too, isn’t it? Mothers watch their children move on, move out. But above all: I wanted to make the migrating birds and animal do the work of showing how dangerous and difficult migrating is. So by the time we reach people, readers really know that. The overall point of the book is the twining of human and animal, and empathy for other people. I was completely overwhelmed recently when the Scottish Refugee Trust got in touch and asked if they could use a small poem from it, ‘Choice’ as a basis for a short film. It is a fantastic project makingithome.net and I felt very humble: the women who made that film had brought all their harrowing experiences of losing a home, in Zimbabwe, Algeria, everywhere, and trying to make a new one in Scotland, to bear on their responses to a few short lines of my poem.

You can see the films on their website: they should be shown to everyone who works at the UK Border Agency.

8) How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages of a poem

Usually as a line, words that pop up when I am thinking of something else and I have to write them down. I might be sitting in a concert or driving the car. Then, when I’m at a table and have time, a draft comes pretty rapidly. Then I re-work and re-work. This stage might take several days. Sometimes I leave it as it were to dry, and come back to it in a week’s time

9) Do you show your work in progress to anyone?

I used to – not so much now. The process of writing a poem is molten, I wouldn’t usually show it to anyone till it’s fixed and settled. With prose, yes – I host a writing workshop at home for other writers and we often read chapters to each other.

10) How did you manage to fit writing in with other demands on your time? Are you good at managing your time?

God, time! I don’t know if I’m good at managing it. How I get by, is by always putting work first and not doing what seem the non-essentials – like sometimes, not tidying the house. Can I say that in Good Housekeeping? I love my house, we moved recently to an ex-council house with a large square walled garden and re-did it – it was a building site for six months – and now it makes me very happy, the colours and textures and feel of it. But you know, the cupboards aren’t always tidy?. (sigh) You can’t do everything. Or I can’t.

11) How do you relax?

Music. I sing in a madrigal choir once a month and a chamber choir every term. It is wonderful to put everything aside and just join other people in singing.

12) Who are your favourite living poets?

A lot of my colleagues – Jo Shapcott, David Harsent, Paul Muldoon, and older contemporaries like Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill. I discuss their work in my two books 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and the Journey, which came out of a newspaper column I write in the Independent on Sunday. That was designed to get people who didn’t think they liked poems to read some, and share their reading: to introduce them to new poets. I had a lot of fun in the process.

13) Who are your favourite dead poets?

Oh, wow – the whole bunch, from Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath to Homer and Shakespeare.

14) Tell us about some of the books you’ve enjoyed in the past year…

I loved Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour: she is a great hero of mine, I admire the way she makes natural history and ecology part of human lives in a really intimate and vivid way: this was what I wanted to do in my novel Where the Serpent Lives. And also in my recent poetry collection The Mara Crossing which interweaves animal and human.

15) Are there any types of book you don’t enjoy reading?

Not keen on science fiction; and I can’t read badly written novels; the language has to be alive and alert to hold my attention.

16) How did you first get published?

I sent out poetry collections to about a hundred small presses and one editor picked me up: I shall always be grateful to him. Since then there have been over twenty books – I look at the list on my website, ruthpadel.com and marvel: how did it get so long? But that guy, John Welch at a little press which I don’t think exists now, The Many Press, he called it, gave me my first helping hand.

17) Have you ever had a work rejected?

Often – often! Every writer has. And it goes on. Partly it is a question of taste, your work will appeals to one editor and not others. There is a two way flow between the work and the reader, and some readers turn away from what others adore.

18) Can you give any advice to someone wanting to write and publish poetry?

Read as much as you can, find out the poets you admire and read their poems closely, maybe learn them by heart, work them into your own soundworld. No one ever wrote a good poem who isn’t a passionate reader and lover of other people’s poems too. Go to poetry readings, join workshops, share your work with other people, then start sending it out to magazines. But research the magazine, to see if the kind of poetry it publishes is the sort you would want to write. Go on Arvon courses, or to the Poetry School if you live near London. There is lots of help out there these days; and a whole lot of communities keen on sharing ideas about poetry.

19) In addition to your poetry, you have written a novel and numerous works of non-fiction. Is there any form you enjoy writing more than others?

I loved writing the novel and am now writing another, set in Crete – where I used to live – in the Second World War. There was a kind of freedom, an exploratoriness, in writing a novel which is quite different from the discipline and economy of writing a poem. But writing poems is the one that feels like home.

20) Do you enjoy promoting your books and meeting your readers?

I love it! I love doing poetry readings. I recently did one in Chiswick in which I was asked to read favourite poems from other people’s work as well as my own and I love that too: I just enjoy sharing ideas and language. I have recently been curating a series of Writers Talks at ZSL London Zoo, because I wanted to highlight the fantastic conservation work the Zoological Society of London does, which the zoo funds. People don’t realise always – the zoo is there to promote understanding of conservation and works in over fifty countries to protect animals in the wild. The animals actually in the zoo are endangered species which are there as ambassadors, to protect and support their wild cousins. My own talk will be on tropical birds on July 16th. (visit the London Zoo website zsl.org) and I’m looking forward to that – poems and words on hummingbirds and birds like the Amethyst Starling, in among the birds themselves, with a top conservation scientist there to explain about how ZSL is protecting them. Talking about books, sharing them with people, is an act of generosity and communication, and I love hearing what other people see in them, how they connect with their own lives.

Ruth’s latest book The Mara Crossing, �14.99 is published by Chatto

Read more author interviews:

20 questions for Eowyn Ivey

20 questions for Kate Figes

20 questions for Aly Wilks

20 questions for Judith Kinghorn

20 questions for Louise Doughty

20 questions for Liz Jensen

Image credit: Manousos Daskalogiannis

An Interview with Poet Javier Zamora

This is the third in an ongoing series of interviews and essays we’re running alongside the release of the fifth season of the Organist, the arts-and-culture podcast we produce with KCRW. This piece coincides with our latest episode, Borderlands.

– – –

Javier Zamora is a poet whose work explores the troubled terrain of memory, place, and the intertwined, deeply political fates of his homeland of El Salvador and his current home in the United States.

When Zamora was nine years old, he crossed the border into the U.S. by himself to reunite with his family, who had earlier fled to escape the Salvadoran civil war. His latest collection, Unaccompanied, documents that journey, chronicling the perils of crossing the desert alone, the psychological impact of an omnipresent threat of danger, and the longing for a lost motherland, one filled with natural beauty.

The first time I spoke to Javier was in the fall of 2017, when his book had just been released. We recorded the interview in his home in San Rafael, CA, the town he grew up in after migrating to the United States. I spoke to him again in early summer 2018, over the phone. He was thousands of miles away, in the house he grew up in, in the coastal town of La Herradura. It was the first time he’d been back since he left for the United States nineteen years ago.

These two sections are excerpts of the separate conversations we had. They have been condensed and edited for clarity.

— Hannah Kingsley-Ma

– – –

SAN RAFAEL, 2017

There’s a lot in this book about the trauma of the war and the violence in El Salvador, which is separate from the beauty of the country, and the feelings you have of missing it, and remembering it fondly. I wonder if you feel like there’s an absence of those beautiful images in the way that Americans see El Salvador.

I think the media only portrays us as gangsters, especially now, with the Trump administration. Or as unaccompanied minors—which I was. I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate that part. I wanted to show the beauty without seeming exotic, and I’ve gotten that critique as well.

I got asked this question at a reading yesterday: why so many trees and fruits? And it’s because I grew up in a house where we had five different types of mango trees. We had bananas, we had coconuts, we had soursops, sweetsops, everything. I could just walk up to a tree and eat it. We had different types of animals. We had iguanas, we had dogs, we raised our own chickens, we got eggs from the chickens that we grew. And I could walk to the beach. I could go pick up a crab and eat it. That was the childhood that I think I missed a lot growing up here in an apartment complex in San Rafael.

How did you know what shape the book was going to take?

I didn’t. I didn’t know the shape that the book wanted to be. I just wanted a book that would be read without any section breaks, but I think that the content of the book calls for stops. Because it’s intense, traumatic work.

How did you know that writing these poems was the work you wanted to do?

My very first poem that I wrote knowing it was a poem was called “Mi Tierra” — my land. It addressed what I left, and I’d never had that medium to release all that pent-up anger and angst and longing. I liked it, I kept on doing it, I kept going back to the page. I wrote other works and then eventually I was writing about my immigration story. Because I didn’t see those stories on paper as poetry. I kept on looking for work . It wasn’t until 2010 that I found the poet Javier O. Huerta, who was an immigrant and who immigrated here. But still I didn’t find any Salvadoran immigrant who had written something. So when I started writing I felt this need to see myself on the page. Kind of like what Toni Morrison says: write a book that you want to read. I think that was what I was yearning for.

One of the things that struck me is that even the parts that were really traumatic and really harrowing were still kind of beautiful. Was it strange, that process of beautification? Making a poem feel resonant and lush in the way a poem is, when writing about something so stark and brutal?

Art is beautiful. And I think that is the pressure in revising these memories — these poems… If somebody I was with was reading this work, I want them to read it and see some beauty in that experience they went through. Because I think the best poems are beautiful, and beauty doesn’t have to be happy. Beauty manifests itself in different ways, even in a traumatic experience.

I think being a kid — immigrating when I did as a nine-year-old—I could still see the beauty and the nature around me because I wasn’t so aware of the danger. And it’s only after growing up that I began to realize, oh shit, I was so close to death. You know, having cravings in the desert because you’re hungry and thirsty is not a beautiful thing.

Now that your book is being received and written about, is there anything around the narrative of the book that you feel is not being said? What do you wish people knew that they don’t?

What people are not saying about the book — and I wish they would — is that there have been children immigrating to this country since before we made headlines two or three years ago. At the time I was not the only child. It’s been happening for years and years. It just happened to peak recently. I wish people would pay attention to that and look at the patterns. And also mention the political poems in this book that directly address the hand the United States has in refugee crises all over the world.

I think another part of the book that I want to be acknowledged — and I think this about all the accolades that I’ve had — is that you may think that I am a good immigrant, that this is what could happen when the quote-unquote American Dream is satisfied. I don’t feel like I’m in no fucking dream. And it was important to me to include poems where I say, “I’m literally fucked up,” where I’m drinking, where there’s a lot of despair. Because I think those are the realities that even Dreamers and good valedictorians go through. And I think there’s a lot of pressure to be the good immigrant who graduates from UC Berkeley and has straight As, you know? I certainly felt that pressure, and it wasn’t happy and it wasn’t a good time trying to fulfill those roles that the media and the politicians want us to fulfill. I think they want us to fulfill it so they can leave most of the immigrants out…You’re either a complete criminal or a straight-A student. But most of us are in the middle.

What sounds do you associate with crossing the border?

I think silence. Or no — it’s like the lapping of waves on the boat. Even in the desert, I craved the water. And I craved being close to the ocean. Because that’s where I grew up. And that’s the sound of my hometown.

I think I was lucky because my elementary school separated us . There were five of us that had immigrated, days or weeks from each other. And we all had to get counseling. This counselor made me retell to her what had just happened, and she made me draw. So I have this book that I drew with her, and that helped me a lot. And it helped me forget what I had just gone through.

On the way up here, we inherently learn to keep some things private… These are all the things that get tied to you. And counseling helps, unlearning all those things that helped you survive but are not healthy in the regular world.

Is it hard talking about it now? Talking about it so much?

It’s actually good. Having the book out, it literally distances something inside of me from my body. It’s regenerative and healing.

Do you have people approach you after your readings saying, “This is something I’ve never seen before that really speaks to me”?

Yeah, I’m really touched when immigrant students come up to me. The coolest story was at the very first reading. Somebody bought a book — she’s a poet, and she works at a restaurant. She has a Salvadoran coworker. She was reading the book, and the coworker was drawn to the cover. And she asked, “What are you reading?” She said it was a work by a Salvadoran. The co-worker said, “Oh, can I see it?” And she gave it to her. The poet saw that the Salvadoran coworker kept on reading and reading, and she asked to borrow the book. She borrowed the book that night and she came back the next day and said thank you. And she was crying. She said, “I’ve never seen a book that talks about El Salvador and the experience that I’m going through.” This was like September, right before my book officially dropped. It was like a blessing. I was crying. I was like, this is why I wanted to write this book.

– – –

LA HERRADURA, 2018

When you interviewed me for the first time you were at my home, in the garage. And now I’m talking to you from my living room where I grew up.

I thought it was going to be emotionally tough to be here. But it’s been quite the opposite. I feel like a chapter of my life that has haunted me for a big part of my life — nineteen years — is finally closing. And it feels… it actually feels like closure. And I don’t even know how to describe that.

The way you write about your home in your poems is so full of longing. What is it like to be faced with those same images that you generated in your poems? Does it feel like you’re living in your poems a little bit? That you’re now walking amongst the images you’ve used repeatedly in your poetry?

It’s cool to be walking amongst my poems, but it’s also cool to be surprised by the things that my memory didn’t write, and couldn’t remember, and are all around me. And nature. I can pinpoint why I like nature so much now. Because it’s all around me. I think that’s why some people have categorized me as a nature poet. And I think it’s because of my childhood, and the house that I grew up in.

I wonder what it’s been like to experience this news cycle, with stories of children separated from their families at the border — while you’re in El Salvador.

I can feel it more being here, what people don’t understand about the situation in my country… By the time the sun sets, nobody walks in the streets. Everybody is at home. And I think that is the result of the violence and the fear. I go to sleep at 9 p.m., 9:30. My family doesn’t say that it’s because of the fear. But I can feel the fear. And I know it’s because of fear, and the violence. It didn’t use to be like this.

The book has been out for a while now. Have you been surprised by the way people are responding to it?

I’ve had other friends who are poets who have published books, who mostly read to white audiences. I was very afraid that was going to happen with my book. I’ve been very lucky; I’ve only read to two predominately white audiences — meaning more than fifty percent of the people in attendance were white. And I’ve probably done around forty events or more. The other times it’s been predominantly people of color, and predominantly Latinos. If we had an idea of who my target audience would be, it would’ve been Salvadorans. And those people have found that book.

The best experience that I’ve had is an entire class in Washington D.C. read my book. And some of the students were Salvadoran, or of Salvadoran descent — some of whom had recently immigrated themselves. Those students translated my work into Spanish, and read it before I went up and read my own poems. And that to me was what I intended. That was amazing. I couldn’t ask for more. If that was the only reading that I ever did, I would die happy.

– – –

Listen to the latest episode of the Organist to hear more from our interview with Javier Zamora and excerpts from his poems. In addition, you’ll hear from Porter Fox, who navigated the U.S.-Canada border, from end to end, by canoe, freighter, and rental car, encountering an increasingly policed border, Native American uprisings, and the unmistakable impact of climate change.

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By Zinzi Clemmons July 27, 2016

At Work

In 2014, I heard Solmaz Sharif read “Look,” the title poem from her debut collection. Look inserts military terminology into intimate scenes between lovers, refashioning hollow, bureaucratic language from the U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms with a human touch. (Even the collection’s title has an alternate military meaning: per the Department of Defense, a look means “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of influence.”) At a time when the U.S. automates acts of murder, Sharif insists that war is still personal—perhaps today more than ever. In one of its most quoted passages, she writes, “Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made / of our language / to NEUTRALIZE / the CAPABILITY OF LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS / like you.”

“By simply placing words from the Defense dictionary in small caps, and deploying them in scenes of intimacy,” John Freeman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Sharif has begun the process of renaturing them, putting them in the readers’ hands for examination.” Look confirms what I’ve known since 2014: Sharif is poised to influence not only literature but larger conversations about America, war, and the Middle East. I spoke with her about her influences, the role of the poet in today’s world, and the stories behind Look.

INTERVIEWER

In an essay you wrote for the Kenyon Review, you said, “When I am asked to describe my poetry on airplane flights, at dinner parties, I describe it first as ‘political.’ Then, ‘documentary.’ And these two things seem to, for some, preclude aesthetic rigor.” There’s a popular conception that overtly political can’t have aesthetic value—that a political message degrades the aesthetics. Is your work a deliberate effort to rebut this notion?

SHARIF

Clichéd, bad writing often means clichéd, bad politics, and vice versa. Aesthetics and politics have a really vital and exciting give-and-take between them. I think June Jordan is an exciting example. She was politically astute and radical, but she was also a classically trained pianist, so when you’re reading her work, it’s incredibly music driven and decided. It’s exciting for me to think of poets that are allowing their politics to also be shaped by these aesthetic considerations, and wondering when the poetic will lead you to the kind of political surprise that a dogmatic approach wouldn’t allow. These are the artists that live on the fringes of what is aesthetically and politically accepted.

When I say “living on the fringes,” I’m thinking of Edward Said’s idea of the “exilic” intellectual pursuit. It’s this artistic presence continually outside, questioning and speaking back to whatever supposed “here” or “we” or “now” we’ve created. The word fringe is belittling in a way I don’t intend—I mean a nomadic presence, or a mind that is consistently on the run, and preventing these political moments from calcifying.

INTERVIEWER

I’m interested in how your family came to the United States, and how you experienced the country as an Iranian immigrant.

SHARIF

The dominant narrative of Iranian exile or displacement in the U.S. is one that’s about people who were supporters of the Shah, who was a dictator, and were forced to leave after the Shah was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution. That’s not the only narrative, though. My parents were students in the U.S. in the late seventies, and as the revolution picked up steam, they went back home to Iran, and left again in 1983, and I was born en route out of the country. We moved to Texas so my dad could finish his studies there, and then we moved to Birmingham, Alabama, so my mom could finish her Bachelor’s there, and finally we ended up in Los Angeles when I was in sixth grade. It was the first place I lived that had a sizable Iranian population. There’s actually an Iranian population in Birmingham, but LA has the largest outside of Iran. At that time, it felt dominated by upper-class, well-to-do Iranians who were more into assimilation than my family or I was. I felt immediately ostracized by this group in middle school, when I came. I don’t mean to make it sound like everyone was rich—they weren’t. We weren’t. There are many different Iranian presences in Los Angeles, but I just didn’t have access to them.

No matter where I went, I was outside of whatever community I found myself in, so that even when I arrived in a place where there was a lot of “me,” I was totally outside again. That probably influenced my artistic impulse—to go back to the exilic intellectual—to stand outside of and look into, and constantly question and interrogate the collectives that exist. It’s easy for me because I’ve never felt a part of any of them in a real way.

It’s been important for me to write down as many narratives as I can, other narratives around the Iranian Revolution and the Iranian presence in the U.S., and also the possibility for Iranians to build coalitions with other Third World groups, as Iranians did in the seventies and eighties. That’s the community I come out of. There’s also a rift that happens between first and second generations, because the second generation has woken up to the fact that assimilation is not just a matter of your accent or class or education—there’s an “in” that you’ll never be in because of who you are.

There’s a lot of anti-Black, anti-Arab, anti-Indian, and anti-Pakistani—and on and on—racism within the Iranian community. But my experience is one of obvious allyship between these communities. I’m more interested in what brings us together and what our nearnesses are, but this can sort of dumbfound some members of the Iranian community. When I was sixteen, I went to this Iranian feminist conference, and Angela Davis was the key speaker. She referred to us all there as “women of color,” and some of the women in the older generation were squirming in their seats. It was the first time I’d heard the term, and I thought, that’s it. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to name. Whatever struggle is deemed optional or needs to be postponed, that’s my community. But that statement didn’t make too many people happy at the time.

INTERVIEWER

Look, to me, has a very female point of view. Women’s relationship to combat—though it’s changing with the evolution of war itself—is usually more oblique. We often play more supportive roles, though our experience is no less devastating. Is there significance to approaching war and surveillance as a woman?

SHARIF

Before I was even a poet, when I studied sociology, what I wanted to look at were media representations of women—Palestinian women in the New York Times, for example. How are women described by media, or by state-sponsored language, in warfare, and how is that representation used to justify state-sponsored violence? Women are often purposefully brought into descriptions of what war is—to justify the rescue of a nation, or to justify its decimation by showing its entire people as despicable or threatening, for example. By default, war seems to be just what happens to men on the front lines, during wartime. The boundaries of warfare—who it affects and who it doesn’t, and for how long—are very much divided along gendered lines, historically. I definitely wanted to challenge those lines.

INTERVIEWER

The book’s power is in its observations of the long-term effects of wars on individuals and families—some of its less-discussed casualties. I think part of the reason you’re able to take this view is because you’re a woman.

SHARIF

I think you’re right. There’s the old personal-is-political adage. But then, to be a woman is also to know that your body and your self and your mind are subject to and delimited by power at every turn, even in your own house, in your own lovemaking. There is no part of your life that has not been somehow violently decided for you by a narrative that was established before you were even born. This is not only true for women, right? It cuts across various identity strata—queerness, race, class, ability, et cetera.

But to have that sense of precarity or vulnerability questioned and challenged by misdirection—for example, when you’re told that you’re overreacting, that what you think is going on isn’t actually happening—this is how the U.S. largely deals with warfare. They say, The war is no longer happening on this block, what are you talking about? That’s something that’s natural to my experience as a woman, and something that seems necessary to expose over and over again. I want to talk about how far-reaching these effects are and how intimate these effects are and how there’s no part of our bodies or desires that are not somehow informed or violated by these atrocities. This is a conversation that began with my own gender.

Audre Lorde’s essay on erotics was a huge influence on me. When she talks about the erotic as a dark feminine power, that’s an argument that could be made here, but I’m not as comfortable making that argument myself anymore. I think all of these questions—what is femininity, what is darkness—and I’m so up in the air about them myself that I don’t really know what to say, other than that I feel, as a person and especially as a woman, that I am under constant threat and attack, and it’s not just me that’s happening to. Somehow, I want the work to show that every time you’re washing the dishes, every shower, every grocery trip—that’s all informed by this violence, whether we’re seeing it or not.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a constant awareness of surveillance in your work—in one poem, you mention that you start every phone call by saying, “Hello, NSA.”

SHARIF

The U.S.’s surveillance capabilities are not lost on me, and we’re pretty aware of this history—or maybe we’re not, actually. It’s definitely been in my awareness over the course of writing this book, and it’s something I did want to highlight. When we think of political repression, for example, or of a police state, we think of something that just happens abroad in Eastern European countries, or in Iran, whereas I understand America as the nation of COINTELPRO. How do we realize, again, that all of our lives, no matter who we are, are being surveilled, some more than others, and that we’re living in an increasingly repressive environment? How do we realize that whatever we see to be happening “there” has already happened “here”?

INTERVIEWER

The poems in Look are united thematically—the majority of these poems include rewritings of terms from the Department of Defense dictionary. I find this kind of conceptual project very interesting. Did you set out to write your first book in this way, or did it morph over the course of writing?

SHARIF

It became much larger than I anticipated, and I had to just stop it, basically, because it’s a conceptual frame that could continue ad infinitum, which is true of a lot of conceptual practices. I did not know it was going to be what it is. I discovered the dictionary in 2006, and it was another year or two until I actually started using it. I thought I was just going to write one poem that deals with the dictionary—then I realized I could write a whole book in response. As soon as I realized that, I started looking at other books that do similar work. M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong! was a huge influence. That came in a later iteration of the manuscript. Later, too, I was directed to Code Poems by Hannah Weiner. Earlier on, there was Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead. Martha Collins’s Blue Front invited and encouraged a more personal narrative. With each discovery, the manuscript would shift in response—I’d think, This has already been done, or, I haven’t tried this thing yet, I didn’t realize I could do this. It started as a rewrite of the dictionary, and wanting to redefine the terms to reveal the truth beneath the terms. It then evolved into revealing those terms as a part of our lives everywhere, daily in the U.S. I think the last major piece that went into it was the long elegy, “Personal Effects,” that I wrote for my uncle, and that was probably when I thought that it was pretty much done. That was the last major piece the book needed.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve seen you mention June Jordan over and over in interviews. I know that you studied in her Poetry for the People (P4P) program at UC Berkeley and list it as a huge influence in your development as a poet. I came across this quote from her—

The task of a poet of color, a black poet, as a people hated and despised, is to rally the spirit of your folks … I have to get myself together and figure out an angle, a perspective, that is an offering, that other folks can use to pick themselves up, to rally and to continue or, even better, to jump higher, to reach more extensively in solidarity with even more varieties of people to accomplish something.

Can you talk a little about the program and why it was so important to you? What do you think your role is, as a poet?

SHARIF

There’s this vein of self-affirmation that runs through that generation of radical poets—this need to define and affirm a collective identity that is otherwise despised. That’s actually one place where I feel I split off. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s just because I think of poetry, right now, at least, in the way Dunya Mikhail, the Iraqi poet, described it—as diagnostic, rather than curative. I think June was a poet of vision, and I think that I’m more reflective. I haven’t quite gotten to that moment of vision yet. I just trust and know that certain lives need to be looked at very closely, and need to be grieved, and need to be considered—and affirmed, I guess.

The P4P program was the most rigorous education I’ve ever received. It’s an amazing pedagogical model that June Jordan set up after decades of teaching. My understanding is that she was teaching an African American poetry course in the African American Studies department at Berkeley, and a women’s poetry course in what was then the Women’s Studies department, and she’d walk into these classrooms, and one class would be predominantly African American men reading African American poets, and the women’s studies classroom was predominantly white women reading women poets separately. She thought, These two classes need to be in the same room, and they need to be talking to each other. That’s how she came up with P4P, which was housed in the African American Studies department.

Each year, the program would focus on three different ethnic groups that we would have to learn to somehow define and describe a history of. When I took the class, it was one of the few—if not the only—class that was teaching Arab and Arab American poetry on campus. She started doing that right after the first Gulf War started.

As a student, you were in a class that you’re co-teaching with other undergraduate students and members of the community. You see a poetry that’s not being taught, and that you yourself know zero about, and instead of just lamenting that you’ll never have the expertise, you just figure it out. You read as much as you can, and you get up in front of the class and give a lecture. Maybe you fail publicly, but it has to be done. When you see work that’s not being done, you go and you do it. You don’t wait for someone else to.

I haven’t really seen a model that is so pedagogically complete and radical anywhere. It was her attempt at Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beloved Community.” It was the closest I’ve gotten, for sure.

INTERVIEWER

Jordan was all about building multicultural alliances. I wonder how you, as an Iranian American, interact with the various racial justice movements in America that—at least at the moment—are dominated by discussions of anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism.

SHARIF

I think we need to be very, very specific in naming the racism, the multiplicity of racisms, we face. Meaning anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism, for example, must be named and highlighted. This does not preclude my own involvement or visibility as an Iranian American, and I shouldn’t be the measure by which this conversation is had, anyway. I think the more specific we are, the more inevitable it becomes to see the relationship between various powers. If we are naming the arrest of black men without charge and without trial, for example, well, I have something to add to that, something that wouldn’t be added if the conversation remained “we all face racism.” The more specific we become, the more obvious the relationship between these oppressions, the more dangerous and visionary the conversation.

You ask about movements. I do want to step back for a moment and say I believe all action is political, and poetry is an action, so I believe poetry is political, period. I have a hard time, though, saying that my poetry is activist, or that poetry in general is activist. For me there’s an important distinction to be made. I don’t want to front. As political as my work might be, and as much as I might be thinking about how these things play out globally, as much as I might think or write about anti-Black or anti-Latinx racism, I haven’t been to a meeting in a long time. That’s the most direct way I can put it.

Zinzi Clemmons’s debut novel, What We Lose, is forthcoming from Viking. She currently serves as deputy editor for Phoneme Media, and lives in Los Angeles.

Arundhathi Subramaniam, one of India’s best-known contemporary women poets, has a most natural prowess and elegance with which she brings verse to life. A poet as well as a cultural curator and critic, she also explores spirituality and relishes the contradictions and complexities around her in her verses.

With four published books of poetry, alongside contributions to various anthologies and journals, this lyric poet is an important presence on the map of Indian poetry in English. Excerpts from an interview:

You have four published books of poetry – the themes ranging from relationships to god, from love to urbanisation. Is there a recurrent theme you keep returning to?
The first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves, contains in germinal form many preoccupations that developed in later books: the city, relationships, gender, home, love, quest. The next book, Where I Live: New and Selected, circled the question of belonging – or unbelonging – as a source of unease, rage and celebration. That intensified into a kind of dark elation in the new poems in Where I Live, where the poems are erotic and existential all at once.

And in the most recent book, When God is a Traveller, the central focus is journeys. Journeys of all kinds – real and mythic, with images of past and present, colliding all the time. There is an encounter with Mrs Salim Shaikh on a Mumbai local train as well as encounters with archetypal figures like Shakuntala and Kartikeya. There is a fascination with personal gods or ishta devtas as well as a deep revulsion at the religiosity of modern-day Varanasi. Basically, while there’s a fascination with the sacred, there’s a mistrust of dogmatism on both sides of the sacred-secular divide.

So what has stayed the same is a relish of contradiction, the textures of ambivalence. Poetry is a place where a moment can mean many things all at once. That’s always drawn me to it. It still does.

I love that you view yourself as a “lyric poet”. What attracts you to this form over others?
When I look back, I realise that what excited me about poetry as a child was its capacity to soar and dive, skate and swivel, be terrestrial and aerial all at once. All those are qualities of lyric poetry, aren’t they? A lyric poem is a place where language can be unexpected and startling, where language longs to be unstarched, untethered, unbound – free of the staid rhythms of everyday prose; of the tyranny of beginning, middle and end; of past, present and future; itching to defy gravity and yet capable of obeying it with a certain wonderful inevitability. It’s language at its most heightened, its most alive. It’s that mix of defiance and alignment that makes a lyric poem what it is – a buoyant compound of sound and sense and silence.

Who are some of your biggest influences in your poetry?
My influences are as varied as Wallace Stevens, TS Eliot, Adrienne Rich, Basho, Tukaram, Akka Mahadevi, Sangam poetry, Denise Levertov and Neruda! I admire AK Ramanujan as poet and as translator, and Arun Kolatkar as well. And there are many poets whose work I enjoy, who are too numerous and varied to name from John Burnside to Savithri Rajeevan and Manglesh Dabral!

What is the state of contemporary poetry in India?
Contemporary Anglophone poetry in India seems to be bristling with activity. There are lit fests, poetry competitions, performance poetry sessions, spontaneous addas, and quite a flurry on the internet and in social media, in particular. Something’s definitely in the air. And that’s to be celebrated.

Of course, when a form is suddenly on the upswing, there will be a fair amount of indifferent verse as well. That’s inevitable. There do, however, seem to be several distinct, self-assured and skilled voices that have emerged on the scene and that’s exciting.

On another level, it takes time for even the most assured voices to truly become themselves. For craft alone does not make a poem, and neither does mere inspiration. There’s a particular mix of innocence and experience, of assurance and bewilderment that is integral to a creative process – and that takes a long time to arrive at. Probably a lifetime. It’s part of the much larger journey of growing into yourself.

“Give me a home
that isn’t mine
where I can slip in and out of rooms
without a trace”

Does knowing that your poems are published and out there in the world validate your being a poet or are you content knowing they’re out of your system?
Well, having the first book published in 2001 certainly was an important moment. And later, when certain forms of affirmation came along – responses from certain poets whose work I admire, for instance, or being shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize – they definitely helped. So, there’s no doubt that a measure of external validation helps. But with poetry, more than any other literary form, where the external validation is low-key and muted, the primary gratification is the process itself.

How much of your poetry do you “receive”, especially being the spiritually inclined person that you are?
I was always riveted by poetry. And so I made sure I never strayed too far from it. It was as simple as that. You merely hang around the places that excite you, isn’t it? I think most of my learning in all spheres of life has been by following a hunch about where to hang out. And I’ve learnt best by simply being around, observing, listening, inhaling.

Craft is important to me. Rewriting, reworking, forgetting, retrieving – these are rhythms that matter to me. They are part of the joy of making poetry. I don’t see the inspiration and the perspiration as oppositional categories. They go together.

But in more recent years, I do feel there is a change in the way I write. Not what I’m writing about but how I do it. I’ve relaxed a little more into the process and trust it to lead me. I’ve realised the process is wiser than I am.

Do you think you were meant to be a poet?
Nothing so grand, certainly! But I’m definitely a good listener – and my understanding of verbal texture and timbre, of image and pause, my ability to detect dishonest notes and clunky constructions comes from years of listening to poems. That probably helps me as a practitioner as well.

Can you work anywhere or is there a certain space and quietude required to write?
Since I travel a great deal, there isn’t a single place anymore. Airport lounges, flights – those are good places to scribble random lines. And my bed is a good place to revisit those lines and work with them. I like the process to seem as undoctored as possible, so that it feels like play rather than work, doodling rather than penance. So, no desks for me – that would be too formal, too deliberate. You need a studied carelessness to write a poem. A kind of lazy guile. And ball point pens and books that allow me to scribble in the margins – that’s my thing. Many of my poems have been birthed in the margins!

Quiet definitely helps. I need a lot of it anyway, more than most people I know. But on occasion, a bustling café can offer just the right mix of dynamism and stillness. While others are busy leading their lives, you can quietly follow the course of your poem. That’s fun!

Since you do poetry readings often, what is the relationship between your speaking voice and writing voice?
I enjoy reading poems out loud. I am conscious of the poem as a spoken utterance even when I’m writing it – I hear it as I make it. So there is a certain pleasure in sharing it with listeners and allowing it to rebirth itself in sound after its earlier incarnation in ink or print. The pleasure is in vocally following its contours, settling into its pauses, aligning myself with its rhythms, and rediscovering its architecture each time I read it out loud.

What do you see as the role of poet in modern-day society?
What it has always been: to offer the reader the sheer pleasure of living language, reclaimed from the frozen world of cliché – language shivering between sense and no-sense, between meaning and no-meaning, sound and pause. And in the process, to offer insight, consolation, companionship, sanctuary, recognition, epiphany, awareness.

Of course the poet has to be sensitive and alert to the world around her – its history, its politics, its ecology, its culture, you name it. But poetry is born when all that she has absorbed has been so deeply internalised that it is an utterance that arises from her marrow, her bloodstream.

Poetry is verbal magma. That’s why it’s so explosive, so magical, so incredibly alive, and has to be handled with such care. It’s language that’s subtle and dangerous all at once.

“It’s taken time
to realise
no one survives.
Not even the ordinary.”

How does one even begin to judge poetry? Is there some yardsticks that help you define a “good” poem from a not so great one?
For all its subjectivity, it’s certainly possible to evolve criteria to assess the effectiveness of a poem. And that’s because a poem is a verbal entity. For instance, it’s not the emotion that makes a particular love poem successful, but how the emotion is expressed. There are ways of working and refining the “how”. That’s the craft of poetry, which can be as exacting as the work of a weaver or goldsmith.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Yes, I often do imagine a certain type of reader when I write – my version of the ideal reader. Sometimes this might resemble a friend or fellow poet I know. At other times, this might be a person I wish I knew. Basically, this is my idea of a subtle, attentive, fine-tuned listener, asahrudaya. If I’m certain that a poem has been fashioned with a measure of care and rigour and honesty, I stand by it. If it doesn’t find a sympathetic reader, I might simply grow more protective of it!

What is your stand on translating poetry?
Well, I’ve been editor since 2004 of the India domain of the Poetry International Web – a website largely devoted to making quality translations of contemporary Indian poetry available to a wider readership on the net. I often think of the vast wealth of world poetry – from Homer to Bhasa, Omar Khayyam to Dante, Akhmatova to Rilke – that wouldn’t have been available to me without translation. Translation is a necessity – a desperate necessity, a way by which the world becomes a more intimate and vastly richer place.

I’ve translated contemporary Tamil poems (with Ambai or CS Lakshmi) for an anthology on Chennai, and some contemporary Gujarati poems (with Naushil Mehta). Also some poems by the 18th century Tamil Bhakti poet Abhirami Bhattar for the anthology of Bhakti poetry that I edited, Eating God.

But can a translated work truly do justice to the original poem?
Much may be lost in translation, but much is also gained. And a curiosity about other voices from other contexts is essential if you don’t want to inhabit an insular and self-absorbed literary universe. Above all, translation is an exercise that makes you a better listener and often a better poet. It’s excellent sadhana, besides being a great deal of fun!

What are you currently working on? Also, what are you reading at present?
I’m working on poems, but it will take a while before a book is ready.

And I’m reading eclectically, as always – Tamil siddha poetry, revisiting Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to GH, poems by George Quasha, a commentary on the Yoga Sutras.