Interviewed by Ziaul Karim
Ziaul Karim—executive editor of Jamini, an international arts magazine, and former literary editor of the Daily Star—sat down with Sudeep Sen to discuss the many influences that inform Sen’s work: Eastern and Western poetry, architecture, art, music, photography, and dance, most notably.
“Art in its purest form never reveals all,” writes Sudeep Sen, as evident in the unfathomable depth and beauty of a “Bharatanatyam Dancer.” This inspired line serves as a fascinating commentary on his poetry.
Sen expresses himself in a clear, crisp, logical fashion, while building his ideas line-by-line and stanza-by-stanza. The belief that ambiguity is at the core of poetic beauty does not hold true for Sudeep Sen. His poetic beauty works at a very different level.
However he may conceive a poem, the final result is always a well-knit fabric. If you try unravelling the threads of the fabric itself, it will gently reveal subtle layers, which otherwise go unnoticed to an everyday eye. His poems can be compared to a treasure-chest—they appear simple, concrete, and well-constructed but, on opening, start to “slow-release” their many secrets, splendours, and gifts. The voice in Sen’s poems is soft, gentle, though persuasive—one which murmurs and hums its mantra into our ear, a mantra that is, to quote the end of the same poem, “poetic, passionate, and ice-pure.”
Ziaul Karim: If I were to try and locate the central theme of your poetry—or by extension your weltanschauung—I think I would cite the line “I love the luxury of secrets” that is quoted as an epigraph at the beginning of Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems, published by HarperCollins.
Sudeep Sen: I suspect part of the reason why I was attracted to that particular line was because of what it implies—the fact that imaginative spaces occupy a zone of secrecy that is limitless, expansive, and full of mystery. It is a space that allows for creative unfurling of ideas and energies because so much of that area is unknown, untapped, uncharted, waiting to be realised, experienced and learnt. I am not sure that the epigraph entirely sums up everything I write about in my poems, or the essence of the book itself, but certainly it is true for a certain aspect of my writing.
I try very hard not to sound too political or overly cerebral. In fact, when I revise poetry, these are aspects that become very important to me as I don’t want to sound either overly politicised, leaning one way or the other, or consciously cerebral. I think that the whole point of a poem is lost if you cannot appeal to a wide cross-section of sensitive readers.
Different readers with different backgrounds bring with them a unique personal sensibility by which they understand and appreciate a piece of art, and all of them have a perfectly valid point of view. I imagine my audience as anybody who is literate and culturally-inclined in the widest sense of the words—he could be a banker, teacher, sports person, model, ice-cream seller, or working in the garment industry. I definitely do not write specifically for the English departments of universities, or students of English literature.
I write because I enjoy writing, because I enjoy language, because I enjoy how words sound when they are strung together in an interesting manner. If I consciously tried to insert sexy, politically correct terminology or jargon, references which are likely to be understood only be an English literature student (or an academic/critic), then I think I would be terribly limiting myself. I would feel claustrophobic if I dwelled solely in the inward world of academic discourse. My interests are serious and at the same time much wider—sports, popular culture, alternative music and drama, underground literature, and so on.
There is a lot of politics, comment, perhaps even a pinch of intellectualisation in my poems—how can one avoid what is around you in a daily sense? However, what I try to do is not make them obvious. And that can be quite hard because having written the poem/s, subverting the obvious is a serious challenge. Being understated and quiet is much more interesting to me than the other way around.
Often one reads poems that sound like statements, as if the only aim of poetry is to give expression to a set of ideas or agendas. In myopic terms, this kind of writing does not interest me as this could be done by a political speechwriter or ad-agency copywriter. To me, if you have an interesting thought, then how can you write about it without being obvious or blatant? There lies the challenge for me. So, it is a question of writing in a nuanced and textured way, with multiple levels, with various layers, all overlapping and distinct at the same time, as well as being lucid.
Are you obliquely referring to Coleridge’s maxim “poetry is the best words in their best order,” or is that subconscious when you write? From an architectural point of view, it seems Louis MacNeice has heavily influenced you.
The architecture of a poem is very important to me, partly because of my own inherent interest in architecture itself. Had I not read English literature, I would have been an architect now. In fact, it was very difficult choosing between the profession of being an architect and teaching literature and film.
To me, a poem should not only be linguistically challenging. How it appears visually is an important factor to me as well. There are two kinds of structures—one, of course, is the use of rhyme and various rhyme-schemes, and the other is visual rhymes. And then, depending on how important structure is to that particular poem, it can have a considerably significant impact.
For instance, in the poem “New York Times,” I invented a rhyme-scheme—abxba cdxdc efxfe … and so on … the middle line, i.e., the third x line, in fact is the mirror-line which reflects the first and second lines with the fourth and fifth lines of each stanza. The other reason I used the five-line stanza-format in the poem is because the city of New York itself has five boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Staten Island. The other thing about this poem is if you turn the poem 90 degrees on its central axis, then a different kind of mirror-line mimics the shape of the island of Manhattan itself and its reflection on the surrounding waters.
Another poem, a book-length sequence, Mount Vesuvius in Eight Frames (subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio as a verse-play, and premiered in London as a stage-play by Border Crossings / directed by Michael Walling), is based on a series of eight etchings of a British artist, Peter Standen. The entire poem is set in rhymed couplets, reflecting the presence of two principal characters—man /woman, lover/other, life/death, and the other essential dualities. But they do not appear as obvious rhymes (like the translucent choral refrains in the poem)—they are wrap-around rhymes as opposed to end-stopped rhymes. The four stanzas in each section reflect the four seasons, the four sides of a frame, the four corners of a visual space. I also use alternating line-indentation for each couplet and stanza with the idea that the entire poem works on a cyclical principle. So, if you join all the stanzas together using the left-justified margin as a reference plane, they in fact fit in a perfect dove-tail joint.
The poem “Single Malt” is one grammatical line, without any full-stops, mimicking the way when whiskey, poured gently into a crystal glass, caresses its sides and subsequently the tongue’s palette. Hence the slim verticality of this poem’s structure.
In the end, typography and structure of a poem are just as vital as the inner spirit and content of any poem.
Right from the beginning of your career, your poems are brilliant examples of great control as regards rhythm and syntax, which is a testimony to your own interest in poetry as a craft. Later you went through creative writing programmes at American universities. Did your interest in the architectural aspect of poetry inspire you to go for a master’s degree in creative writing?
Thank you, those are very kind words. The creative writing classes I took in the United States were much later. I first started writing during my boyhood in Delhi. In India in those days, creative writing was only deemed as a hobby, albeit a laudable one. Nobody took it seriously, certainly not in a career or an academic sense. So, by the time I went to America and took my first creative writing class, I already had a typical South Asian bias against the teaching of creative writing itself. I thought, How can anybody teach you how to write poetry? You either had it in you or not, or so I was led to believe until then.
But what I did learn when I was enrolled in these workshops were aspects of craft, prosody, stylistics, and technique. It is very important to know and learn these things, and I cannot overemphasize their importance. We also read sheaves and sheaves of contemporary poetry, which is very exciting for me. Modern poetry has been given a bad name because people think that they can just write a sentence, break it up, and then rearrange it in a column format. It may be poetry for some people, but for most it is not. These amateur poetasters do not necessarily have the skill, technique, or the inclination to actually write in formal stanzaic patterns. When I say formal, I do not necessarily mean that it has to be always rhymed: there are other kinds of structures (blank verse, free verse, concrete poetry) involved. I think creative writing classes are useful if you are particularly interested in prosody, and because they teach you to think seriously and critically about contemporary writing itself.
I think the reason why you don’t see any sense of displacement in my writing is because I’m actually a very rooted person. My rootedness comes from my family and the way I was brought up. I’m first and foremost a Bengali writer who just happens to write in another Indian language, that is English. So, my cultural and intellectual spaces are very much defined by the fact that I come from a thoroughly Bengali milieu.
I am also fortunate to have grown up in a trilingual situation—I spoke Bengali at home, Hindi on the streets, and English at school, not by design but by circumstance. So, this wonderful tripartite situation was such that I could slip in and out of several mother tongues and languages. At the same time it certainly made it linguistically richer, and we as South Asians are very lucky because of that.
I come from a typically liberal, educated, middle-class Bengali family who have always been an immense source of strength for me. So, that kind jargon-ridden “postcolonial” displacement you are talking about is very alien as a concept to me, and even more difficult for a person with my background to rationally understand.
The other aspect of this is that I grew up in the capital city, Delhi, which is a very cosmopolitan place; it has a curious mix of the First and Third World atmospheres, depending on where you are or what you are engaged in at any given moment. So wherever I have travelled subsequently, be it a cosmopolitan place or a rural one, I was somewhat familiar with that new place from before; at least I was never in a state of cultural shock, however remote.
We, in India, have been exposed to the Western culture, along with our very own, from our early childhood, so neither culture is unfamiliar to us. So, when one is actually inhabiting these so-called Western (and Eastern spaces), they are places one feels equally at home. In fact I quite enjoy being in both worlds. I love the taste of singara, sandesh, kabab, and phuchka; and at the same time I love blue cheese, smoked salmon, wine, and single malt. I do not personally see any conflict in these two worlds; rather, I feel lucky and infinitely richer in experience, since my taste buds as well as my intellectual and emotional terrain can accommodate all of that happily and simultaneously.
Is it, then, your transnational self that writes “I / am going home once again from another / home, escaping the weave of reality into another / one, one that gently reminds and stalls / to confirm: my body is the step-son of my soul”?
The poem “Flying Home” partly reflects the transnational quality I have been talking about. Many writers and artists nowadays are in this sort of situation. When I’m going from one home to another in a plane, which in itself is such a peculiar kind of controlled space, it is a sort of perennially transitional home, a home that is elastic; it all depends on how you visualize space and how you demarcate geography. To me, that in itself is an interesting concept, one that allows for an expansive canvas. So, I suspect there is something inherent in me that makes it very difficult for me to feel displaced.
Poetry and dance are constant sources for your poetic inspiration. Through your poetry you constantly refer to other forms of art and its architectural beauty—for example, in the poem discussed earlier, “Bharatanatyam Dancer.”
Absolutely. It accurately reflects my penchant for various sorts of art-forms, in this particular case, the South Indian classical dance. But I’m equally interested in music, film, theatre, live and performance art, and more. If a particular dance or a particular painting, or even a particular piece of dramatic writing moves me, I may write about it directly or obliquely. And “Bharatanatyam Dancer” is a clear case in point.
An aspect of the poem that may interest you is the architectural and topographical mapping of its poetic structure. I invented another rhyme-scheme for this poem that reflects the actual dance-step pattern on stage that is in consonance with the bols and tals, in this case—ta dhin ta thaye thaye ta … abacca dedffd…—the actual rhyme-scheme of the poem itself. That of course is only one thing. The more important thing is that I was completely moved and entranced by the performance, skill, and beauty of the dancer herself, Leela Samson, so I had to write the poem. It was almost written for me by her, I didn’t have a choice. The whole process was quite magical, really.
As is perhaps evident, I do enjoy writing about other art-forms that have inspired or moved me in some way or another. In fact, my new collection of poems I am currently working on is called Blue Nude. The title poem is a sequence that has been inspired by Henri Matisse’s cobalt-blue cut-out figures by the same name. Then there are other poems in that book that were inspired by photographs, drama, film, and other media. So one can say that the central unifying theme of this book-in-progress comes from my pleasure and response to the genre of creative arts itself.