Thank you for spending time with me today to answer some pivotal questions. Let me begin by asking how difficult for you is it to find your audience? What role do editors and publishers play in helping you discover who that audience is?
I am about writing for writing sake. I write because I am, I am because I write and the two keep each other in balance. My facebook, twitter, and wordpress blogs serve as delivery channels to place my work out in the ether – from there as you know many factors come into play towards building a consistent and committed audience. Overarchingly, I think of my audience as a set of concentric circles expanding outwards. Like the rings around Saturn – iridescent, ever present, together yet separate.
Within the innermost circle, are a few readers who sustain by just reading – they are eyeballs to ink that every writer needs irrespective of whether they understand the craft or the context, they understand what that written piece means at its very basic level. They care because they value finding expression to what they also are touched by, moved by, care for, are angry about but do not go about stringing into words – watching a child smile in sleep, a squirrel in the yard, a caricature of a neighbor, unspoken pain or debilitating illness, a shared meal, unequal conditions of hunger, etc.
Then there is the active middle ring in the circle usually formed by meaningful communities that nourish by critiquing, reading and offering their own work to read; in the process growing each other’s audience as well as honing each other’s craft – this is both online as well as in person. I have a few of these forums and stay aligned to them, grasping at every learning and teaching moment.
The largest, most difficult and most detached section of the audience circle is where editors and publishers play a pivotal role for writers. Without this there is a limitation to how far a writer can reach in and unravel who the audience is. This could mean finding mentors like yourself who take the time to listen, read and react to a new author’s work. This is also where the end to end supply chain becomes critical and where a gap exists for eager voices who may not have the resources to go full throttle towards building an audience. I don’t understand the full spectrum of the publishing industry but clearly there needs to be better coupling, and understanding of the joint responsibility between the poet and the publishing community. The poet being responsible for getting their work out, reading, writing, submitting and the publishing community ensuring an engagement with new, global, diverse and experimental voices.
Lastly, someone said this to me many years ago and it is great advice that I took seriously, develop a hobby of collecting rejections.
What is the significance of the title Shelling Peanuts and Stringing Words? Does this connect to an overarching theme of your collection?
Thank you for asking this question. The title does have a significance but let me tell you that it was definitely not the first choice. For many years I always thought my first poetry collection would be called, Just by the way. But that was not to be. As starters, Shelling Peanuts is the first poem in the book and it fitted well into the need for a title that was going to be difficult to ignore when heard or seen. The warps and wefts of the poems across the 8 sections of the book are like peanuts – conversation starters, easily relatable to a global audience, layers of human connections, plain enough that they are just there. Shelling and eating peanuts is ultimately a very basic but a satisfying, an almost addictive food act. I thought that all of these associations made Shelling Peanuts and Stringing Words an ideal title for the book. Literally speaking, the poem, Shelling Peanuts references a family gathering around the fire place, shelling peanuts and stringing words. This book was written for my dad and he has a special love for peanuts, in particular peanuts in shells!
In your poem “RAPE”, you write “to be your excruciating self / and never a / cookie cutter version / to cater to perspectives / that pretend / to prevent pain.” Have you struggled with identity in this sense?
Have we not all struggled with identity in some shape manner and form during the course of our lives? Is the self-identity war ever won and done?
There is no question that I have walked the fine line of questions about identity in many ways – Who am I? is a question I ask all day every day and the answer is never consistently the same. Not sure it should come back same as then I would not find my poems, would I? A management professional, corporate slave or a free-spirited poet? A teacher or a manager? A mother or a daughter? A daughter or a daughter in law? A wife or a lover? An Indian or American or global resident?
It is in the astonishment of identity that we find our poems – at least I do.
What role does that struggle play in your writing? Do you think it is a difficult task to be oneself in this day and age? Why did you choose this acronym for the poem?
Poetry is not really distant unlike what many think; it is actually very present – I always attempt to bridge that gap between the genesis of the poem, myself, the poem and ultimately the reader. RAPE is that kind of a poem. This poem was born of an anger, fear, insecurity after an infamous gang rape incident in India that everyone who is paying attention to the global arena is aware of. That was followed by a disturbing crescendo in the US and then all the noise with the me-too movement.
With that as the backdrop, RAPE specifically was something (along with many others in the Section Pedagogy of Permissions) I wrote during the phase and as my teenage daughter was getting ready to embark on a life of her own as a young woman, leaving home and going to college.
What duty do today’s feminists have? In what ways do you believe feminism is achieving its aims? Do you see a different struggle today than during the initial phases of feminism?
I know there is an entire debate about feminism vs womanism vs humanism – and I will stay away from venturing into that because it really does not matter to me personally. It is semantics, what matters is that we change the experience and help own what we can to enable the change. So, to your question –
There was a feminist wave in the 60s and 70s and then we have had a feminist rush in the recent past driven by some of the external factors but also due to the emergence of some great voices across the globe and being heard, listened and replayed through social media. I often reflect if due to the technology bias of consumable poetry, there is a missing presence of incoming and outgoing connection of poetry with women who are on the outskirts of this social media consumer group. Just like the global workforce dynamic needs to adapt to cater to 6 generations, the voice of feminist poetry must remember to meet the female voice across these 6 generations. Now add to that layers of how color, race, land, gender, economics as pivoted over the years. I will put it this way – While the role description of a feminist poet has not really changed, and will not change the success measures have evolved considerably and as poets we will need to continue to check and adjust these measures if we want to ensure the collective feminist voice remains upstream in the social sequence and not an afterthought.
My personal favorite poem of yours is “Nocturnal Flame.” Can you discuss what the essence of the poem expresses?
Oh, I am glad you like it. It was one of those that came to me – a view of the moon from my window on a full moon night as it shone bright behind the branches of the trees in my backyard. It suddenly came in the clear and I was able to take a picture of it. I wrote the poem that night, in a lover’s voice. You can call it a romantic ekphrastic written in response to nature’s most beautiful form of art – the moon across the night sky teasing the poet with it’s changing pallor and moving gaze.
How does religion factor into your work? Do you see Sikhism factoring into your poetry?
Two statements followed by how Sikhism plays into my life and therefore my poetry.
- I am not religious.
- Sikhism is embedded within me as my inherent self.
It is a part of my lexicon and makes me who I am across all my identities. Now that you ask the question, I think it manifests into my poetry in two ways. One, the Sikh prayers and hymns that I have grown up organically imbibing as read or recited by my grandparents and parents. It is important to understand that the Guru Granth Saheb, which is the holy scripture of the Sikhs is really a compilation of approx. 4000 hymns that are both exhilarating and uplifting. Second, I have had an ever-present influence of Sikh values – speaking for the truth, a keen awareness of the larger order, and work as worship. So, Sikhism does factor in organically into my writing in terms of the inherent traditions of both oral and written forms of poetry, poetry as a source of healing and the philosophical attributes of being a Sikh.
As for writing about Sikhism, I have written two or three poems about the Sikh Guru’s and prayers but find myself hesitant – I do not think I can do justice. At least not yet.
How does your broader worldview inform your poetic sensibilities? Does poetry resolve certain tensions for you? As a process of self-discovery, what has poetry taught you?
My worldview completely and absolutely informs everything I write. I would like to believe that everything I say through my poems transcends boundaries because I am nothing if not a fusion of sensibilities and geographies. The stories, language and words I bring into my poems from my India is inherent to my poetic refrain. Combine that with a relentless broadening of my geographies and you now have poems that are sometimes coherent and often incoherent as they continually focus and refocus towards a center of gravity. I cannot ignore my skin color, my accent nor my Indian descent but I think of all of these as enablers to my poetic output. The other thing that I have been reflecting on is that because I started from a place where chaos is normal, where prayer is ingested, where food is a ritual, I bring to my writing table a larger canvas and a broader range of perspectives. Whether that is an advantage or a burden depends on the day and the topic at hand but it is a fact that differentiates me.
How does crafting a new poem make you feel? What is your process in editing and revising?
I let a poem happen most times, but am more deliberate about the editing and revision process. As for the actual process of writing, I adopted the discipline of writing every day around six years ago and have been fortunate to have maintained it. Remember, I am a management professional by the day – and intuitively tend to develop a system. The system for my writing is a combination of making notes through out my daily rituals and work day as ideas, words, moments pop that could be poems. I then organize them and classify them into themes and save them away as a tool kit to use if and when needed. It is when the night falls that the poetry happy hour begins – I mean it in a literal way. It is the happiest hour of my day – Mostly the output is trash, sometimes it is vulnerable, rarely it is inspired. But that hour is the most blessed hour of my day. Sustaining a regular writing practice alongside the relentlessness of daily existence has been my biggest challenge and has also offered me the strongest anchoring.
Reading poems out loud brings the words to life for me and gives me a lot of joy. I try to do this as often as I can by recording myself or participating in readings.
Outside of poetry, are there other writers who inspire you to think deeper? Who are they and does their wisdom find their way into your poems?
Many Many Many – All and everyone. I am not a reader snob. I am a sponge for reading other writers – of course the classics always stand by. I am going take the liberty to give you these are a few of my favorite writers list, those that I keep turning to for help, inspiration and wisdom –
- Khalil Gibran for painting with every syllable
- Toni Morrison for her passion for stories and people
- David Wallace for his stories about being a human being today
- Aravind Adiga and his White Tiger
- Yanagihara’s Little Life
- All of Haruki Murakami for how simply he probes a complex question
- David Whyte’s Consolation for teaching the language again
- Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and all Indian and Pakistani writers, for whatever they say about the struggle for independence, and its festering wounds. Shauna Singh Baldwin, for her choice of creating from those wounds.
- Meena Alexander and Anita Desai for opening the door to duality, conflicted identity and feminine solitude
- Tiffany Pham for her grit as a Mogul and owning the day!
- Nissim Ezekiel for synthesizing sights and sounds so beautifully
- Mary Oliver for her attention to things around her – Wild Geese
- Joy Harjo for her ability to turn the personal into a universal prayer – Perhaps the World Ends Here
- Naomi Shihab Nye for writing about attributes that define a global citizen – Kindness
- Anne Sexton for the ability to be badass – Menstruation at Forty
- Bernadette Mayer for her cheek in jowl style – Chocolate Poetry Sonnet
- John Ashberry for stumping us with his open endedness – Poem of Unrest
- Ocean Voung for his absolute genius, he has my heart – everything!
- Tracy K Smith for The Slowdown podcast and for unsettling – The Body’s Question
- Layli Long Soldier for allowing a poem to take as much time it needs – Dilate
- Ada Limon for her celebration of imperfections – We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual
- Kaveh Akbar for being a survivor – Gloves
- Natalie Diaz for the precision and courage in her writing – No More Cake Here
- Arundhati Subramaniam for the way she traverses boundaries – All her work
- Sumana Roy for teaching to pause – Trees, snails and watching the sunset
We live in deeply troubling and strange times. What role does the writer play in notating the global crises? How do you see yourself coping with the stress?
We do. But these troubling times are also the times that offer us hope, reflection and human will. Think of the story of the 90-year-old woman who refused a ventilator in a hospital because she had already lived a beautiful life and asked for the nursing staff to provide that ventilator to a younger patient instead. She passed, in peace and beauty. What a poem her life is, isn’t it Dustin?
I will quote Meena Alexander from one of her interviews here – “In a time of violence, the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist.”
Finally, do you have any words for the future poets who will look back to our world and its difficulties? What advice can you offer them?
Pause. Assess. Act – There is a poem in daily existence, it is waiting to be written.
Let us end on a lighter note and I will share what my children hear from me all the time. Quoting from Salman Rushdie’s East, West – “Trust my grey hairs.” Muhammad Ali urged her. “My advice is well tempered by experience. You will certainly find it good.”