The year 2019, New York, NYU: ‘Gentleman’ Ralph got up to read his bombshell poem quietly! We were captivated by the title ‘Simply Call’ that had nothing simple about it in provoking our dismay!
All you need do is simply call 818 ENG-LISH
all you need have is 49 dollars and 95 cents
We accept Visa and Diners, M/C and Carte Blanche
All you need do is simply call, all you need have is
Yes, all you need have is a pidgin of shame
Our powerful tools can wipe out your accent
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There! Is there only one entity of American English? Likewise, is there just a singular manifestation of English? At the heart of it, there is a message of alienation and protectionism of something inherently muddled. Ralph Nazareth is a socially and politically ‘engaged’ poet, but without–to use the North American lingo-a loudhailer. We discuss this in our interview here.
Born and raised in Mangalore, Ralph Nazareth is an Indian poet, who left for the US at 23 to do his doctorate in English, and has been published, heard, and read in many parts of the world. He has taught for four decades in universities and maximum-security prisons in the US. The Managing Editor of Yuganta Press, he currently also heads GraceWorks Inc. – a non-profit based in Stamford, CT.
He says: “Although I’ve been here for 53 years, India still sticks to me like the ever-delicious smell of curry. The US is a wife that has aged with me while the India of my youth still retains the freshness of love, still on the edge of consummation! Where there are dreams, there are also nightmares. No choices, but to sleep with eyes open!”
A little help from the Poet:
I was moved by the diversity of people in line for bagels on a Sunday morning in Stamford. Whitman’s words “… I contain multitudes,” echoed within me. As I entered the store, the warm aroma of the place quickened my senses, and before I knew it, the poem was cooking. The bagels in their palpable multiplicity invaded my poem and when it was finished, I instinctively understood Roque Dalton’s assertion that “poetry, like bread, / is for everyone.”
The poem is transparent in its call to community. I hope you share this feeling with me as well as relish, as I do, the deliciously witty transformation of Whitman’s famous “atoms” to my homely bagels as you sink your teeth into the poem.
“b OM b”
How do we put together Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atom bomb, and OM, the origin of us all? How do we hold creation and destruction together? Is it possible for a poem to grasp an opposition which, even as it forms the substance of the poem, dismantles it? This is the crux. Does the Gita have an answer? Or will we perpetually teeter on the edge of the Unanswerable.
When I first met you at New York University, you read a startling poem entitled ‘Simply Call’. It was about an advertisement proclaiming ‘You can erase your foreign accent’, a course shockingly racist. In our last segment, we featured Ravi Shankar, who has suffered at the heavy hands of the authority: the past in your poem and the current in Ravi’s poem remain seamless. Does the theme in question still engage you as an Indian poet abroad? Or with the hopelessness, have you moved on to other premises? Take us through the narrative here.
When I saw that ad in the early 70s, which offered to erase my “foreign accent” for just $49.99, I was outraged. It was at once offensive and preposterous, replete with colonial, imperial, and racist implications.
I married into the American culture and discovered that my sweet Mangalorean accent opened doors, thanks to the prevailing trend toward cultural diversity. I soon realised that “accent” was not merely a matter of the lilt of one’s speech but the very tilt of one’s position in society, nation, world, and the universe.
As a privileged Indian intellectual, I could embrace my particularity. This realisation became the very source of what fuelled my creative mission—to expose and oppose the scandalous disparities and blind spots in a majority white nation. This Indian poet was willing to embrace an alien culture, which is what I’ve done for the last fifty-three years, but only by asserting my freedom to change it.
My “difference” has now become my “identity.” I feel there is nothing beyond my scope as a poet. Love and rage, breakdown and beauty go way beyond issues of “accent,” (although I’m pleased to note that my accent refuses to be erased!)
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In one of your poems, ‘Victor Jara’s Hands’, you are exploring typical political stampede using Pinochet, but instead of destroying a poem with political undertones about his hand broken by his captors, you are exploring human aspects through his wife’s… Please explain to readers and poets tricks to avoid the enticing trap of direct narration to discover a better poem.
The epigraph to ‘Victor Jara’s Hands’ provided all the political context I needed. I could now embark on giving voice to grief and loss without directly referring to the violence that caused them. The horror of Jara’s experience continues to haunt readers. It should. But not at the cost of overwhelming them to the point of numbness.
This poem is a doleful celebration of hands. Of simple acts, of the things of the world. It must bring home the feeling of how precious life is, how poignant, how precarious. And, if it succeeds, the specific political context will be left behind and, paradoxically, also be heightened. No matter how brutal the narrative genesis of the poem, the poet must strive to convert it into irresistible music.
The temptation of engaged poets is to use political themes as a prod to wake people up, to raise consciousness. I too succumb to it often. There’s room for it, of course. The feeling of desperation is not something we should systematically curb. Yet, there may be much to gain by letting our urgencies bleed or seep into our lines as traces, undercurrents that move us in ways that are deep and surprisingly transformative.
Tell us about the current projects you are working on and what new output we should expect from Ralph Nazareth.
Armed robbers, murderers and rapists! I spent time with them for fifteen years as a teacher in maximum-security prisons in New York state. I urged them to write their hearts out. They did: about humiliation, fear, hate, mercy, and forgiveness. Above all, about love. Among them, I met a few mahatmas. I learned from them, while something I said may have rubbed off on them. There’s a story here. I need to bring it to light!
After over five decades in this country, India still rattles in my cage when it doesn’t move in my gut and soul. My principal narrator, a fast-talking, all-knowing woman, judgmental as hell, whose life had barely begun when India became independent, is waiting in the wings to be let loose. I need to write my novel before she announces a hartal and goes cold on me!
Ten years ago, I started a non-profit intending to provide financial resources to selfless and courageous field workers in India dedicated to bringing hope to those in dire need. www.graceworksforall.org. We’ve supported a range of projects in Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Karnataka in India, in Voi, Kenya, and Ikungi, Tanzania. I intend to step up my efforts to extend our outreach.
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Yogesh Patel runs Skylark Publications UK as well as the non-profit Word Masala project to promote South Asian diaspora literature. He is the recipient of many awards, including as Poet of Honour at New York University in April 2019. In this regular series for ‘iGlobal’, he profiles Global Indian poets from around the world.