Sudeep Sen’s [www.sudeepsen.org] prize-winning books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Rain, Aria (A. K. Ramanujan Translation Award), Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015(London Magazine Editions), EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House), and Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury). He has edited influential anthologies, including: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), World English Poetry, and Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi). Blue Nude: Anthropocene, Ekphrasis & New Poems (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) and The Whispering Anklets are forthcoming. Sen’s works have been translated into over 25 languages. His words have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Herald, Poetry Review, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Hindu, Hindustan Times, Times of India, Indian Express, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on bbc, pbs, cnn ibn, ndtv, air & Doordarshan. Sen’s newer work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta), Language for a New Century (Norton), Leela: An Erotic Play of Verse and Art (Collins), Indian Love Poems (Knopf/Random House/Everyman), Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe), Initiate: Oxford New Writing (Blackwell), and Name me a Word (Yale). He is the editorial director of AARK ARTS and the editor of Atlas. Sen is the first Asian honoured to deliver the Derek Walcott Lecture and read at the Nobel Laureate Festival. The Government of India awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture/literature.”
1. Your poem, ‘Love in the Time of Corona,’ has gained popularity across various media platforms after it first appeared in The Indian Express.
Love in the Time of Corona
I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of Him.
― Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.
― Bertolt Brecht
Faint indigo tints in the greys of your hair
evoke memory — Krishna’s love for Radha,
its perennial longevity, its sustained mythology,
its blue-bathed lore — such are life’s enduring
parallels. Fourteen years — yet my heart flutters
infatuated like first love. My hands fidgety,
palms sweaty, pulse too fast to pick —
I am not allowed to touch your face.
Cyber-flurry emoji-love cannot assuage fears —
or corona’s comatose cries. I don’t believe in God.
In thousands, migrant workers march home —
hungry footsteps on empty highways
accentuate an irony — ‘social distancing’,
a privilege only powerful can afford.
Cretins spray bleach on unprotected poor, clap,
bang plates, ring bells, blow conches, light fires
to rid the voodoo — karuna’s karma, infected.
Mood-swings in sanitised quarantine — self-
isolation, imposed — uncontained virus, viral.
When shall we sing our dream’s epiphanies?
City weather fluctuates promiscuously
mapping temperature’s bipolar graph —
tropic’s air-conditioner chill, winter’s
unseasonal hailstorm, sky’s pink-blue spring.
Blue-grey will moult into salt-and-pepper,
ash-grey to silver-white, then to aged-white.
My lungs heave, slow-grating metallic-crackles
struggle to escape the filigreed windpipes —
I persist in my prayers. I’m afraid of Him.
Hope, heed, heal — our song, in present tense.
2. Tell us the ‘story’ of this poem.
Sudeep Sen (SS): During the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, things were changing so fast around us that it was viscerally affecting our society — the play of politics, the way people thought and reacted, the changing culture of ‘working from home’ for the privileged and lack of work for the dispossessed, the gruesome images of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres in the unforgiving weather riddled by hunger and pain, the quarantine, the virus — how can all these not affect you psychologically as well. To make matters worse, the pandemic was accompanied by floods, locust attack, earthquakes, and more.
So when the novelist and editor, Raj Kamal Jha, of one of India’s leading newspapers, The Indian Express, asked me to contribute something on the pandemic for the editorial pages, he was probably looking for a sensitive and incisive non-fiction piece from an artist’s point of view. I am pretty certain he did not expect my response in the form of poetry. In any case, I sent him the poem ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ — and I must say I was impressed at his boldness to carry it in their weekend edition — “the first time that they had carried poetry” according to him. Thereafter, the poem took on a life of its own.
The former UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy selected it for a world project ‘Write Where We Are Now’, currently hosted on the Manchester Metropolitan University’s website. Among others, ArtVirus magazine (USA) carried the poem, and it is forthcoming in The Guardian newspaper (UK). A slew of translations have appeared — in French, Spanish, Serbian, Persian, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, and Hindi. Various editors have anthologised this poem in new books that have been recently published on the subject; and a filmmaker has made a powerful, avant-garde, creative short film on it.
3. What do you feel about collaborations between different mediums?
SS: I find it personally enriching to collaborate with like-minded artists. The film version of my poem ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ is the most recent example of artistic interplay and jugalbandi. Many filmmakers, musicians and dancers have responded to my work in the past. The following films: ‘Flying Home’ by David Wheeler & Michael Walling (UK), ‘Lines of Desire’ by Davina Lee (St Lucia), ‘Prayer Flag’ by Aparna Sanyal (India), ‘Silence’ by Ramanjit Kaur (India), and others are already available. The Kathak dancer Shovana Narayan has used my poem, ‘Prayer Flag’ as the opening sequence in her stage production ‘Shunyata’. Michael Walling has used my poetry for two stage productions, ‘Vesuvius’ and ‘BodyText’ produced by Border Crossings (UK). BBC Radio broadcast a radio-play version of ‘Vesuvius’. Annette Phillips of Music Unlimited (now a music professor at Berklee, USA) and Advaita have used my poetry as songs and performed them live for the ‘Rain’ show at the British Council; Aditya Balani has responded and composed music for my poems for our album ‘Kargil’, among others.
4. How was it working with filmmaker, Anirban Dutta? What is it about his work that made you go ahead with the collaboration?
SS: When the feature-filmmaker, Anirban Dutta, showed me the first cut of his film based on my poem, I was very pleased — not only because I love collaboration across artistic genres, but more because I admired Dutta’s visual aesthetics, his intelligent sense of pacing and haunting sound design. Working with him was easy – even though we have never met. We were mostly on the same page regarding aesthetic choices. He was very quick to respond. And the final result is here for you see and experience.
5. As a writer, how important is it for you to respond to contemporary social and political issues?
SS: As an artist, I cannot be apolitical — everything one does is ultimately political. Being an avid reader I am very informed on social and political issues, however, I am not always moved to respond with poetry. For that to happen I need to be moved or have something new and meaningful to add. Often I will just listen and absorb and at some point it may find its way into my writing. You will see that contemporary social and political (and historical) scenarios seep into my writing quite unobtrusively, through a process of osmosis. In poetry, the challenge is always how to make the writing universal and creatively fulfilling — ideally. Otherwise it can become prosaic sloganeering or protest poetry which, while it is an absolutely valid form of writing, tends to have a limited shelf-life.
6. What do you make of contemporary English poetry in India? Considering English can now be considered an Indian language, do you feel more youngsters are willing to work in this language as compared to say a generation back?
SS: That is a huge question. As you know, I have always been a big champion of Indian poetry and Indian literature at large. I have edited several special issues of international magazines/journals that are focused on Indian poetry — Lines Review (Scotland), Wasafiri (UK), Index on Censorship (UK), The Literary Review (USA), Prairie Schooner (USA), The Yellow Nib (Ireland) and others. I have also edited some landmark anthologies on Indian (and world) poetry in English — The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, World English Poetry, Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi), among others.
I have always maintained (and still do) — “the best English poetry written by Indians in the contemporary national and international literary arena is perhaps as good or superior to Indian fiction in English as a whole.” There is bravura, experimentation, risk-taking, innovation, erudition, and delightfully uninhibited and fine use of language by the poets here. The range of style, preoccupation, technique, is vast, various and impressive. Many ‘Indian’ poets are now part of the broader Indian diasporas across the globe. This diversity allows the poets to have an internal dialogue between themselves and the varied topographical cultural spaces they come from or are influenced by. Therefore, the poems create an inherent syntactical and historical tension — one that ultimately celebrates the written word, imagination, artistry, intellect, and humanity.
The subject matter of the poems and their poetic concerns are staggeringly large and wide-ranging. There is introspection and gregariousness, politics and pedagogy, history and science, illness and fantasy, love and erotica, sex and death — the list is centrifugal, efferent, and expansive. There is free verse and an astonishing penchant for formal verse — so you are likely to encounter a pantoum next to an acrostic poem, a triolet juxtaposed against a ghazal, lyric narratives and prose poetry, Sapphic fragments and Bhartrhari-style shataka, mosaic pastiché, ekphrastic verse, sonnet, rubai, poem songs, prayer chants, documentary feeds, rap, reggae, creole, canzone, tritina, sestina, ottava rima, rime royale and variations on waka: haiku, tanka, katauta, choka, bussokusekika, sedoka — the Indian poets are in full flight.
Though, I must add — that in the current scenario there seems to be a vast amount of poetry being “published” on social media. Much of this is terribly mediocre or worse. Some of it even finds its way into vanity publishing. Still, largely speaking — the best of Indian poetry is flourishing well and is in good hands.
7. You are a regular at different literature festivals. How do you imagine them in the post-Covid times? Interestingly, newer ones keep coming up, not just in major towns but also small town India. What do you say about that trend?
SS: You can already see the trend — most of them are resorting to an online format. Of course that takes away the immediacy and buzz of an actual festival on the ground — but it is the second-best option in these unusual times. The more festivals, the better all around for writers, readers, publishers and booksellers — it is a win-win situation. But an important lacuna that needs to be addressed is payment to the writers, which the organisers think of only when prompted to do so. This culture of ‘free’ is ultimately disrespectful to the writers and arts as a whole.
8. What are you working on nowadays? Any book on the horizon?
SS: Very busy actually. This year alone, my Selected Poems in Malayalam translation (by Syam Sudharkar) was launched at the Matrubhumi International Festival of Letters in January. The Sahitya Akademi poetry anthology, which I selected and edited, was on the stands in February.
And most recently, a 350+ page book of Interviews was published by Classix in Kolkata. This is part one of a set of three books — the other two being on essays and literary criticism on my work. Classix has done a wonderful job producing this book. Interviews contains a generous 350-page selection of the best conversations and interviews on my life and work — culled from over 30 years or so, of articles that have appeared in leading newspapers, magazines and journals around the world. International and national scholars, critics, writers and journalists have spoken to me in detail about the intricacies of my literary craft; about my preoccupations, interests and obsessions. These have now been collected and published as a book. Classix’ has paved the new way for a discursive literary genre that is almost non-existent in India. In times when mainstream publishers avoid poetry, it is laudable an independent one chooses to map a literary province where interviews and critical essays can be archived in a systematic and worthwhile manner.
There are several other books in the pipeline — My Typewriter is My Piano (Aark Arts) by Anamika, a 200-page book of ‘selected poems’ in English translation from the original Hindi, comes out in August. I edited, selected, introduced and co-translated this book. My own ‘selected poems’ in Hindi translation, My Body is the Stepson of my Soul, will be published by Vani Prakashan; and in Punjabi, Godhuli Lagna, by Autumn Arts. These are all ready, awaiting publication later this year. My book of micro-fiction, EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House), is currently on the 2020 Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize shortlist. Hopefully, a new updated edition will come out soon.
As part of my current ‘Museo Camera Artist-in-Residence’ fellowship — I am completing a project interweaving poetry, classical dance and photography titled The Whispering Anklets. My three-and-a-half decade obsession with classical Indian (and Western) dance will come together — simultaneously in a bookform, exhibitions, and live shows. This project is in collaboration with the internationally acclaimed dancer and photographer — Aditi Mangaldas and Dinesh Khanna respectively. Khanna specially shot Mangaldas for this project in a controlled space that included live dance, poetry, music and fine-tuned choreography. The book is an homage and tribute to Indian (and western) dance worlds, both at a macro and micro level — whether it is responding to an individual dancer, a specific dance performance, or aspects and nuances of dance as a whole. The project highlights the importance and intersectionality of the arts — how they feed off each other, how they commune with each other in a harmonious way through agreement and disagreement in political, intellectual and artistic views of these three diverse artists. Ultimately at the end, it honours friendship, and most essentially, it celebrates the essence of humanity, peace and creativity.
Amid all the negative noise in the world, my current book-in-progress, Anthropocene: Portraits of a Pandemic, is a quiet artistic offering — a testament to our fervent times where the ever-increasing ravages of climate change scar humanity, where right-wing Fascist politics overrides the silence of introspection, where the cleaving schism between the rich and poor becomes ever-widening, where racism peaks on an all time high, where toxicity among people proliferate, and fake news abounds. It is also an important contribution to the growing field of global eco-literature. Anthropocene: Portraits of a Pandemic ultimately is a prayer for positivity and hopefulness. It urges us to slow down, to consume less, to relearn how to love selflessly and expansively. — “Hope, heed, heal — our song, in present tense.”
Hope: Light Leaks
Late at night, light leaks — spilling
beyond the door’s rectangle edge —
a cleaving shift, its shape —
a partial crucifix, a new resurrection.
Light’s plane waxes, wanes —
viral load expands, contracts.
Lives matter in this blackness —
there’ll be light after the darkness.
9. Several writers have pointed out that translations keep them ‘sharp’ in the period they are not involved in original work. What do you feel about it? And what is your process of translation? Your earlier book of translations, Aria, won the A K Ramanujan Translation Award — and your new book, Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury), has been a spectacular success.
SS: It is not just ‘translations’, but keeping in touch with ‘writing’ and ‘reading’ everyday that keeps me ‘sharp’ — it is a riyaaz or practise. Unless they are commissions, translation for me is usually a labour of love – as I want to transmit to a wider audience in English what I might have enjoyed in another language.
The basic purpose and aim of translation for me is very simple — to render accurately both the content and form of the original. The process I follow is fairly logical and uncluttered — first mathematical, then oral, aural, tonal, and finally using a near invisible soft charcoal I fill in the subtle undertones, texture, depth, and recitative qualities of the original poem. Mathematically, I first transfer the exact metre of the original poem onto my worksheet; scan it to jot down the iambs and dactyls as it were. Then I read [or have someone read out to me] many times over, the poem in its original tongue — this further updates my notation taking. Thereafter I would make a glossary of all the possible meanings of difficult words and phrases, and try and see which English ones’ match most closely to the meanings of the original text. If the poem follows a certain rhyme scheme, then I attempt — a sometimes almost impossible task — to find words that best suit the end-rhymes without making it appear contrived or sound like a staccato-stumble stutter. Then follows draft after draft of what the translation would or should be. When I feel that I am nearing and closing in on the final versions, I take the same soft charcoal sketch stick to shade in the transparent quiet qualities, and if the final product retains more than ninety-five percent of the original content, feel, mood, and musicality — then I let it free to fly out of its nest.
But all along, the important thing for me is that the original poem must retain the poets’ original and dominant voice, and that my own tone as a translator ought to be as invisible to the naked eye or ear as is possible. Often this tends to be the other way around with many translators, and that seems rather self-indulgent on their part. Perhaps my process may seem conservative, but at least it is true to the tenor of the original poems — and that I feel is the best way of showing respect to someone who, in the first place, inspired and moved you to undertake the translation of their work. The second test for me is that the translated poem in English should be able to stand on its own and read as a good poem in English.
Here, I want to quote my Indian compatriot at the 1997 Jerusalem Poetry Festival where my love for translations first took root all those years ago. I entirely agree with and relate to what Vikram Seth stated in the introduction to his Three Chinese Poets: “Works of translation from languages I do not understand have had as deep an influence on my own writing as works I can read in the original. In some cases the translations have so moved me that I have tried to learn the original language of the work. In others, the form or the spirit of the writing has served as a template for my own inspiration.”
Sukant Deepak was, until recently, a journalist for India Today. He is now deputy editor for Indo-Asian News Service (IANS).