The Poetry Parnassus at the Southbank Centre, London runs until Sunday 1 July. In the poetic whirl, Nicole Fordham Hodges joins Saradha Soobrayen, who is representing Mauritius, for a conversation about poetry.
Nicole Fordham Hodges: The Southbank Centre's Poetry Parnassus, with poets from over 200 Olympic countries represented in a packed week of readings and events, is to be the UK's largest gathering of world poets.
Yet poetry most often has private origins and an intensely personal nature. Your poem 'Three Moments' contains three beautifully distilled moments of desire. It was dropped from a helicopter in the 'Rain of Poems', which launched this week's event.
How do you think the intense moments of your poem - and of poetry generally - will face up to this huge scale? Do you anticipate a small quiet corner for a poem to come alive in somebody's mind?
Saradha Soobrayen: The Poetry Parnassus festival has the potential to be overwhelming as well as intensely exciting. I imagine there will be intimate places around the Royal Festival Hall where you might experience curious moments of poetic bliss as well as heady poetic confusion.
The speaker in the poem 'Three Moments' is trying to recapture and offer up aspects of the dance of intimacy. Like a lover, a poem can enter us in many ways. It may seduce us privately through sight, smell, touch, taste and sound, and publicly through surprise on the first hearing and through recognition on the second reading and perhaps in a third instance, a poem connects us to something bigger than ourselves: the tribe, the community, the global, the universal.
NFH: How do you feel about being part of this global event?
SS: I feel very honoured to have been chosen to take part in the festivities under the flag of the island of Mauritius, and to be writing within a tradition of Mauritian poets from a variety of locations, backgrounds and cultures. My imagination knows no boundaries and as a writer I have felt more and more attuned to an internationalist way of thinking and seeing.
I am also in awe of the sheer dynamism of the poets and spoken word artists taking part; the risks and difficulties they have faced just arriving here. During my first Parnassus engagement at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, I heard how the Cambodian Poet Kosal Khiev was detained overnight. In collaboration with English PEN and Speaking Volumes, Parnassus poets will be co-leading readings and workshop for detainees during the festival week. The act of maintaining border control goes against the act of poetry which respects otherness and embraces commonality and unity.
NFH: Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to, or hoping for?
SS: I am looking forward to the debates and discussion at the World Poetry Summit and the Freedom of Expression conference, which focuses on issues, faced by poets caught in border and identity struggles and national and international conflicts. I am also excited by the multitude of voices from around the world: Poetry from seven of the 30, 000 Pacific Islands and Arabian Gulf.
I hope to experience poetry that is both intimate and familiar as well as unnerving, ecstatic and fun. In particular I am interested in the quirky free events: Poetry Karaoke, the Parnassus Secret Gig, and the Modern Poetry in Translation Launch event which is showcasing a handful of Parnassus Poets published in the recent MPT Parnassus issue.
NFH: Do your Mauritian roots influence your poetry, and the way you use language?
SS: Buried in the grounds of my poetic grammar and language are the roots of unspoken Mauritian Creole. I was never taught my mother tongue but learnt through over hearing and code breaking my family’s animated discourse. Over the last few years I have attempted to capture the voices of unmet and lost family members. In the poem Mon Chi Baba, I tried to imagine my grandmother’s voice to hear her emotional register though writing in English first and then with the assistance of my parents I created Creole versions. This process has been documented in an essay ‘One foot in England and One foot in Mauritius’ from ‘Getting it Across’ Series 3, No.8, Modern Poetry in Translation Magazine.
NFH: Your poem ' My Conqueror ' is in the voice of the Island of Mauritius. It is very different to the rest of your work, though it draws upon the language of desire as metaphor. Could you tell us more about the writing of this poem?
SS: I was asked to contribute to a postcolonial queer issue of Wasafiri magazine and so wanted to find a way of bringing both these identity constructs together. I read ‘Journey to Mauritius’ by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, which was published in 1773. The process involved making conscious choices almost like dragging images and facts out of a cupboard, and seeing how best to place them, the result is less ambiguous and less open to interpretation then my other work which just comes on its own accord and needs to be handled more obliquely.
NFH: 'My Conqueror' has been much anthologized, yet you recently redrafted it to include the homelands of the Chagos Islanders. What moved you to do this?
SS: Many of my published poems are so well crafted and tightly formed like pieces of fine furniture there is hardly any room for changes and yet within ‘My Conqueror’ I discovered a space for the Chagossians. I woke up one morning to Adrian Mitchell’s great poem ‘To Whom it May Concern’, which was written in the 1960s “Tell me lies about Vietnam”, and the final verse remixed in the 21st century: “Tell me lies about Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan, BAE Systems, Israel, Iran…”. I first learnt about the illegal removal of 2000 Chagossian Islanders from the Chagos Archipelago between 1971 and 1973 after watching John Pilger’s documentary ‘Stealing a Nation’ which describes how Great Britain and the United States exiled the entire population of the Chagos Islands. The islanders were forcibly removed, misled, and left to live in squalid conditions in Mauritius and the Seychelles, in order to make room for a joint UK/US defence base. It was after seeing the frail and defiant women describe how their husbands and friends had died of ‘Sagren’, died of sadness, that I realized I hadn’t quite captured the full extent of the colonization of Mauritius and the lesser dependencies and surrounding islands.
NFH: Could you tell us more about your poetic process? You have mentioned the difference between poetry which is 'dragged out of a cupboard' and poetry which 'just comes', so how does something become poetry?
SS: During the writing process I like to remain in the unknowingness. I aim to stay for as long as possible with what is not being understood or expressed and instead experience what is felt or sensed. The poet John Keats described this as Negative Capability: ‘that is when [Wo]man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, without any irritable reaching for fact and reason..’ This emotional state could be compared to a feeling of transition or conflict where indecision and tension arise out of incompatible needs or ambitions of equal intensity.
I find that tension and intensity is necessary for the writing of poetry and the reading of poetry. Within any poem is the sheer concentration of the writer as well as their intensity of thought and feeling and there is also the unexpected interplay of image, rhythm and sound which is discovered and embodied by the reader who shares the responsibility in allowing something to become poetry.
NFH: Your poetry is saturated with the language of the body. The tongue is a recurring image. You seem to bring out the physicality and bodily-ness of the act of speech. In your poem ' Like cold air passing through lips' even rhymes have a weight: 'my head heavy more with rhymes than sleep.' Could you tell us more about this, and about the place of the physical in your poetry?
SS: A residing spirit for me is the poet Walt Whitman who wrote the poems ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ and ‘Song of Myself’. He was able to inhabit a page of poetry both physically and imaginatively. My process of writing poetry is both a physical and mindful act that requires the body to be aware of the possibilities of language that rest in the mind and on tip of the tongue. The act of writing poetry gives voice to a preverbal, unspoken self.
My method is to cultivate a particular type of attention, which is about being in the now, in the reality of the moment. This requires a process of letting go, allowing openness, allowing silence, allowing voice and breath to do the work. These bodily interventions all resemble poetic devices akin to line breaks, sense breaks, enjambment and the turning and twisting of thoughts. Writing in this way utilizes the senses and accesses the physical sensations as well as the spiritual. Perhaps the insight and clarity gained by adopting a whole body-mind approach may increase access to the spaces beyond imagining or knowing and create a resonant connection with the intuitive self, while maintaining a tangible connection with the wider world.
NFH: Have you ever engaged explicitly with disability, illness or dis-ease within your poetry?
SS: I do experience Whitman’s writing through the body and this has been heightened perhaps due to living with the chronic condition Lupus that manifests in a variety of symptoms and metaphors. Essentially my body is attacking itself and doesn’t recognize itself, which could be interesting to explore in a second person narrative voice: an internal conqueror. I am yet to be satisfied with my embryonic attempts of writing around Lupus perhaps due to the strain and procrastination in trying to write about a personal and private subject.
NFH: In the original Olympic ideal, poetry and sport were different forms of beauty to be celebrated. There did not seem to be such a split between mind and body. The Southbank's Poetry Parnassus reaches back to this vision. But what are the poetic ideals of Saradha Soobrayen? Do you have a vision for poetry's future? And for your own future, as a poet?
SS: My own vision for poetry’s future lies in acknowledging its past within the language of the present moment. As poets we are writing within a tradition that stretches behind us and ahead of us. I can only echo Walt Whitman’s call to the next brood…
‘Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me, and answer what I am for;
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than
Arouse! Arouse - for you must justify me
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.
I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully stopping,
turns a casual look upon you, and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.
'Poets to Come', Walt Whitman.
Published at http://www.bartleby.com/people/WhitmnW.html
The Poetry Parnassus runs until Sunday 1st July, with an astonishing number of events, many of them free. Poets reading include Jo Shapcott, Simon Armitage and Seamus Heany. See http://ticketing.southbankcentre.co.uk/poetry-parnassus
Saradha Soobrayen is reading alongside other Island Poets in Call and Response: Island Poetry - in the White Room from 5pm – 6pm, Saturday 30 June.
She is also part of the UK tour of the Parnassus, appearing in the Derry Clipper Festival 5-6 July.