‘To the edges of language’: Souradeep Roy in Conversation with Mani Rao

By and | 1 May 2021

SR: You make portmanteau words in Meghadutam such as ‘cool-nectar moonbeams,’ (stanza 93, p. 36), ‘vine-arms,’ (stanza 100, p. 38), or use neologisms such as ‘sexhaution’ (‘eases the sexhaustion of women,’ stanzas 32 and 73, p. 29) and they all from in a sentence. These, I feel, make the sentence shorter and help with the overall flow. How would you explain the relationship between the English language and Sanskrit?

MR: Translating Sanskrit into English usually results in more words. Where we have prepositions in English – Sanskrit packs them into the noun in a kind of post-position. So, by Souradeep, from-Australia, of Cordite translates to: Souradeepena, Australiāt, Corditasya. Additionally, in Sanskrit, if you unpack all the compounds and spell out all the relationships within the compounds and between the clauses – this is called making a ‘prose order’ – the line tends to expand.

When I translate, I am looking to create some resonances of the Sanskrit condensed compounds. Sometimes it’s a tight metaphor (arms are the vines, not just like vines), sometimes a connotation cannot be conveyed with a regular word.

By relationship, do you mean something else? I took it to mean what happens when you translate from one to the other. In terms of content, of course, they are far from each other in both time and space.

SR: How would you describe your relationship with these older poets, especially when you’re translating them?

MR: You’re asking about my affinities, surely.

There’s more to our lives than our social, physical, emotional, intellectual selves. This ‘more’ is my expanding area of experience. I welcome it and am eager to know more.

There are numerous writers who write about social problems, power politics, relationships, justice and rage, and so on. I have not developed these kinds of themes in my writing voice, and it seems as if my reading and writing self is less and less attracted to these. What most interests me now is the existence of the transcendent, what is it, and how is it to be experienced?

I have engaged with some early sources, but I am no expert on ‘older poets.’

Sanskrit is a language that I was exposed to at school, and so it was easier for me to go there. If I was raised/schooled in another location or culture, it would surely have been Hebrew, Aramaic or whatever is the bridge. And I am not against recent knowledge! In fact, my book Living Mantra (2018) is all about ongoing revelations – this book is the outcome of years of research and fieldwork.

As for all those poems that I have which respond to Greek mythology, it comes from reading Homer and Ovid (in translations) – I love reading them for the worlds they speak of. There’s not really any adulation going on in Ovid, and if anything, Ovid is critical of the ways of the gods. Greek gods are a species who have relationships with humans.

In my chapbook Sing to Me, Greek myths reflect human problems. Like the poem ‘My Daughter Philomela’, for instance, or the poem ‘Jove’s Collar’:

Jove’s Collar

How nice to have a wife 
Who’s also sister
You fornicate in the street 
Then go home to eat1

I love the sense of reality in Dante and in Blake. Perhaps the idea of the possibility of other worlds triggers my imagination.

SR: You are, without a doubt, one of the most innovative and interesting practitioners of the line break, both in translations and in your own poems. Could you please tell us about the purpose you think, the line break, and the overall way by which you place the words on the page (not just in flush left lines), serves? What relationship does the page have with the word?

MR: The anxiety we face when crafting a poem is often from the pressure to decide on the right line break. A line is not a sentence, but if you do not have a metrical undergirding, how to determine the extent of the line?

I think I only became defter with line breaks in the last decade or so. Now I feel surer. Now it’s more like ‘play’ – play with the poem and play with the reader. Lines are units of sound and meaning that the poet chooses to release to the reader, step by step. Our head and eyes jump from one line to the next, like trapeze, and one line can catch the other.

Breathing is also a guide, or a framework. Sometimes a long outbreath can build excitement – it’s of course the high we get from deprivation of oxygen to the brain. If you do that, just keep running the line and let it turn when the margin forces, then line breaks are irrelevant.

echolocation, for instance, has poems with long lines. When you see it, you may think it prose, but when you actually read the lines, you get the rhythm and the voice and know that it is a poem. Here’s one:

The sky is fitted linen, stretched over sealine without a crease, pegged to the spikes and jags of mountains,
      kingsize, navy, preparing to be sunshot. Sooner than lovers can hide, no sooner than the taste of stars
      striking your lips, one by one stunned and falling to light.
It’s all been said and yet, need, blowing between our lips, streams inside a tree. We flowed out of time and
      back so soon eating eggs our own. Through each other we pass like water. 
At the sun to see how it never changes, at the moon to see how it does, algae slipping beneath our feet,
      roots travelling and dewdrops dying in visible speed. There is no such thing as a circular river.
Unlike bread, the body becomes softer with age. We tag our children with our names, store the plaits of
      our daughters. Stash berries under rocks and look for them later. 
Held in the fangs of a wristwatch, a well-worn path of a nail in our veins, heart-hammered time trail. 
No matter who two are kissing, eternity arrives, jelly bean eyes black crystal balls. The longer we look,
      the more we recognize and anything we could say is too obvious. The songs we like are the songs we
      know, and every song on the radio is about us.

These lines can turn wherever the page margin ends, i.e., with a hanging indent. And perhaps many of these commas were not necessary as the lines are best read in a single breath. In my next book, Ghostmasters, I got rid of much of the punctuation and used line breaks better, I think. I used a single letter space sometimes instead of a comma, for example:


Mused at your breasts
Two at a time
Creator harvester of histories
Destroyer resident ghoul

You turn on the suck and flow but how
do you keep them away from the new one the rubbery
amniotic and chewy umbel as they loudly
gnaw and chatter how

the infant heart must be stocked with fresh f & b
and the gut
washed in milk

I don’t think we have fully realised the potential of the page. Sure, we work with sound, but if we are sure about the sound, we can be relaxed in space. Most readers do not live with, and in, language (the way writers do). So, they tend to be less able to absorb language that uses space more flexibly. I have met many people who struggle with how to read my Gita translation – they are used to reading left-aligned stanzas in English translations. It’s only when they hear me read it, that they figure out how it can be read.

  1. Those who like to bring up Europa, Io, Semele, Ganymede, Callisto and Leto are just jealous. Jove, smart enough to marry sister Juno, and smart enough to be chief of gods.
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