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

By and | 1 May 2021

SR: Fairly most Indian-English poets have engaged in translation, or at least other texts, in some way that I feel fed into their own poetic practice, as much as that practice has influenced their translations. Would you say the same is true for you?

MR: For sure my poetic practice has influenced my translations. But the end result is not just my voice. Each of my translations of the different works of Kalidasa are different from each other, as they respond to the original, I am not just recasting them in my voice.

The practice of translating has made my own poems more coherent – I’m not sure if this is a gain.

SR: A question about the earlier collections from your 20s: Wingspan (1987) and Catapult Season (1993). These long sequences are daring for anyone, but especially so if you’re in your 20s.

MR: What long sequences are you referring to?

SR: The first two collections are sequences, right? There are no separate titles and they read like one long poem. Each of the first two collections are one long poem.

MR: Sequences? Didn’t quite plan it like that. The poems were actually discrete. Unless one thinks of them as sequences or sections from my life and mind at the time. Perhaps there’s a thematic or stylistic unity. The poems don’t have titles because I didn’t write the poems to any particular ‘topic’ and once a poem was finished, it did not occur to me that I had to title it. The writing was visceral, and a stretch of writing usually had a rhythm, and the poem fell together from that, and sometimes re-worked a lot and eventually finished.

When I wrote the poems in Wingspan, I was not within the framework or pressures of publishing norms. Even when I wrote Catapult Season, I didn’t really have a keen awareness about journals and submission to journals. (I did have some poems out in the college annual magazine and then in a couple of general magazines, but they were just titled ‘untitled’).

It wouldn’t have made sense to patch titles on to the poems. Like paintings – when they have a title – one looks at the painting, then the title, and then the painting … wondering how to fit the two together? If I recall, there is only one poem in Catapult Season with a title (‘Sheltering Sky’) and that was just my paean to the film, for I wrote that poem after I saw the film, I felt so much.

SR: But the books have titles?

MR: Believe it or not, I even considered calling the manuscripts/books: Mani 1, Mani 2 … Eventually, I picked titles for the manuscripts because I had to.

The title Wingspan was an in-joke (between me and myself, I guess – I had joined an airline as an in-flight crew in 1986 – never flew, did not even complete the training).

The title Catapult Season was from one of the poems in that book which I was fond of, with impressions from the Indian countryside: ‘mangoes are growing in seremony, it’s catapult season.’ After reading that poem, my friend Sagar – who would read all my writing in those days – sent me a photograph of a tree in Chennai that looked like a catapult, scribbling those two words behind the print. After that, the manuscript/book could have no other title.

SR: You are obsessed with death, eroticism, the macabre.

MR: Desire and death – the basics. If death looms all over my writing, I am also talking back to it. The constant conversation is also a pushing back at the idea. I did/do write of the palpable and bodily, at the level of the sensory. There’s nothing to deny or censor in this very real and daily experience. Sometimes this is erotic even when there is no sexuality in the reference.

Looking back, I’d say, feeling is the first technology I put into writing, rather than thinking.

Over the years, those concerns or impulses have matured. The idea of death is a decoy for the mind, attention is soon redirected to cosmic reality (call it the divine).

What do you mean, macabre? Any specific examples?

SR: Macabre – say poem no. 30 in Catapult Season:

I bend over the sink and breathe in deep. A sharp, clear smell enters me. The stale and the rot of the pipes. What saliva or spit or blood still sticks unctuously to the iron walls like wriggling struggling worms, not letting go, like waving weeds in water. I open a weight of water onto the drainhole. The water is gobbled up in a violent glugging rhythm. I breathed out after that and quickly inhaled my breath. Was it foul? The gums—brandish them in the steely mirror. There was the red lining again. Bleeding gums are more mind cutting than a bleeding vagina. It feels as if the whole reservoir of blood is right next to the surface of quiet matter. Even if you only tap gums with a toothprick the tank bursts a leak. Blood springs out into the open, happily, taking the curves of the gums and expanding to settle on teethbone. Unknowing tongue, of course, comes upon this blood in the dark and disturbed, leaps like a tail trod on.

I’m talking to someone and suddenly, creeping deviously between my flashing teeth, crimson blood shows its face. I see the expression on the opposite face—confused by this unexpected nudity. Have they stepped mistakenly into my bathroom as I bend over the basin, bloody.

MR: Do you think ‘macabre’ is how you perceive it? Because for me it was reality. I was just reporting. As for that particular example, my gums bled so I wrote about it. The image is also in other poems. Here’s a poem from Catapult Season with a bloody bite:

Do you give yourself the vanity of depression too?
The master said, oh go
tend your flesh.
The guava refused me when I bit it,
spurted blood on my winter lips.

Well, some of what I write can be called macabre. But more often, there’s the comic side to that also.

SR: In these poems, it’s as if your unconscious is speaking directly to the reader.

MR: Like dream state. Maybe it’s because there’s no topic or theme I’m attempting to write to. Sometimes lines would just come, when I was doing something completely unrelated to writing (Like the line ‘snakes don’t bleed when they molt’ was when I first had sex). I guess all sorts of connections occur in the subconscious and they just pop out, like flotsam and jetsam out of a marsh.

This entry was posted in INTERVIEWS and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.