Interview of Ranjit Hoskote, by Kaartikeya Bajpai


Poet, cultural theorist, curator – Bombay-born Ranjit Hoskote plays all roles with equal prowess. Having authored more than thirty books, ranging across poetry, art criticism, cultural theory and translation, Ranjit Hoskote has duly earned himself a distinct place in the country’s contemporary arts scene. At the recently concluded Poets Translating Poets Festival that enabled a unique transcultural exchange of poetry, he attempted to touch upon the subjects of the continuing relevance of poetry in South Asian Culture and how poetry lends relief both as a lieu to imagine and as relief from everyday troubles.

  1. The recently concluded Poets Translating Poets Festival featured a rather special exchange of poetry – a transcultural, non-linear exchange of poetry in a variety of languages, uniting people for the cause of art. How would you say such exchange adds to the culture of poetry itself, at large?
    A: The culture of poetry is a culture of polyphony, of counterpoint, of sawaal-jawaab, of jugalbandi, of voices coming together and bringing dissimilar energies together to produce unanticipated results. Translation is the lifeblood of a potentially global poetry. The act of crossing from one language to another breathes a different kind of life into the text that is going across, into the poetic consciousness that is participating in the process. It is a process that emphasises the magical unpredictability of encounter. The Poets Translating Poets Festival, initiated by the Goethe-Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan Bombay, is a fine example of how we can develop a platform where these possibilities of transformation can be nurtured
  1. You presided over a session at the festival whose subject was The Culture of Poetry in South Asia, which attempted to touch upon the culture of poetry as both an imaginative good and a redemptive counterpoint to daily attritions. How do you choose to arrive at the alliance between the two?
    A: Poetry is not an activity confined to the ivory tower. It suffuses the heat and dust of our everyday lives with a transformative energy. The voice of the poet enacts, even performs, the liberty of the imagination, the imagination’s power to generate a zone of liberty for itself, however temporary, ephemeral and vulnerable. From his perspective, the culture of poetry is a guarantee, an assurance against the kind of attritions to which everyday life subjects us. It reminds us of the power of language to overcome the banalities of the everyday. It restores the wonder, fear, beauty, anguish, all the visceral and affective currents that course beneath our daily consciousness, which is linked to task, project, protocol and routine.
  1. Another session that you were a part of at the Poets Translating Poets Festival was regarding the role of institutions in sustaining a culture of poetry, be it festivals, residencies or publications. In that context, the Poets Translating Poets Festival plays the role of an able, innovative institution that encourages a unique transcultural exchange. What do you believe has been the most significant contribution of the festival in sustaining the culture of South Asian poetry?
    I believe that cultural institutions across the world are in flux today, as they question their own agendas and mandates, and as they engage with new audiences. Whether the museum, the library, the gallery, the concert hall, or the archive, cultural institutions must make a transition from the ‘container’ model to the ‘platform’ model. Instead of being containers of objects, they must be platforms for experiences. The festival, as a format, is well placed to act out this transition effectively. Poets Translating Poets take its place alongside a number of other initiatives that sustain South Asian poetry within an expanding global community of poets and set of conversations about poetry. The act of bringing poets together in a space of hospitality is a vital act – PTP’s most significant contribution is the interlinear mode of translation on which it is based, with poets in very different languages working to understand on another, to attend to the specific textures, tonalities and phrasal shadows of one another’s writing.
  1. How does most of your poetry take initial shape – do you have certain themes that occur to you first when you are writing or is your poetry largely based on visual images that you later choose to connect with themes?
    My poetry has many different starting points: a story that has long haunted me, a phrase that leaps out of the newspaper or a book, a strong visual image that imprints itself on my memory, a misheard sentence. Themes never precede poems for me; rather, themes may be inferred from poems. I trust the mysterious line that announces itself and follow it into the labyrinth of language. I keep a journal of fragments, and visit it constantly, like an archaeologist working in the reserve collection of a museum.
  2. From Zones of Assault to Central Time, how would you say your work has undergone shifts, if at all – thematically, structurally or any other way?
    A: I think the passage from 1991 to 2014, from Zones of Assault to Central Time, marks several cyclic movements from me – from the poem as artifact to the poem as spoken flow, to now, most recently, a stage where I try and bring together diverse forms and strategies of articulation that possess me, ranging from classical Sanskrit and Latin poetry to the cadences of the nazm to the cut-ups, found texts and aleatory methods of avant-garde poetics, to the music of Terry Riley and Steve Reich.
  1. Your translation of the verses of the Kashmiri saint, Lal Ded in I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded is a delight to read. What would you say is the most significant aspect that one must pay attention to, in the process of translation?
    Thank you so much for your warm response to I, Lalla. Translation is a process that demands various kinds of attentiveness – to the sense of the original, to the shape of the words with which you will render it, to the original context of the utterance and the contemporary mirror in which you see it, to etymology and the shifting valency of words, to the strata of meanings that have been applied to the original. The translator must be prepared to switch strategy, to discover fresh archives, to leap from unglamorous dictionary-trawling to enchanted leaps of phrase. Above all, the translator must produce a poem that works well in the target language. I have no patience with theories of translation premised on awkwardness, the idea that a fluent translation is inauthentic. Awkwardness is not the only way to communicate the enigma and strangeness that attend a text brought over from another language.
  1. Central Time has an unusual architecture, with its hundred poems. What was the idea behind choosing such structure for the poetry?
    I was playing with the idea of the shataka or century of poems, a classical form of anthology in Sanskrit literature, which could mark a specific moment in a poet’s life, or the work of a poet’s lifetime, or a collection of poems by different hands. Could one reflect a cycle of seasons of the spirit? Could one mark emphases of place, of element, of subject, within such an architecture? Those were the formal questions I was working with.I had in mind a homage to Bhartrihari, the great Sanskrit poet with whom we associate the Niti-sataka, the Sringara-sataka and the Vairagya-sataka – and whose work I have been translating for a number of years. I was also thinking of a favourite collection: Kenneth Rexroth’s translation of classical Chinese poetry, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.
  1. You have been engaged in the arts for decades now, in various capacities. Do you see a difference in how poetry and art is perceived with the advent of time, technology and progress?
    I agree that contemporary forms of technology seem to be of a radically different magnitude and effect than previous forms of technology. However, we tend to naturalise technological shifts and ruptures, so that they become our normality. We have forgotten, for instance, how the invention of tube paints completely transformed studio practice, allowed artists to paint in the open air, and underwrote what we call Impressionism, with its emphasis on movement, and the recording of sensuous impressions of the passage of time. We have forgotten how photography and the cinema seemed to rob painting and sculpture of meaning and relevance – yet painting and sculpture are with us today. And indeed, in the work of many splendid artists, such as Bruce Conner, Matthew Barney and William Kentridge, to name only three, the various arts – music, cinema, theatre, performance, drawing, opera, sculpture – come together in startling, brilliant new constellations. New technological and contextual challenges are to be embraced as stimuli by artists, not to be feared as disruptions of the status quo.