In this series for ‘iGlobal’, UK-based writer and poet Yogesh Patel talks to some extraordinary poets of Indian heritage who write in English. They are often the winners of some major international awards and are critically acclaimed globally.
“The best poetry is difficult and not tantalisingly popular, but once you grasp it, the rewards are great. In this series, you will find the best there is in diaspora poetry,” notes Patel.
“Nisha Ramayya is a ‘true’ poet who has tried hard to remain out of sight! Yet, critically acclaimed, she has become one of the most important hidden prides of our diaspora. I believe strongly that this young poet will win many prizes in future and bring much prestige to our diaspora we deserve,” he says.
Currently, Nisha is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Queen Mary University of London. Her poetry collection ‘States of the Body Produced by Love’ (2019) is published by Ignota Books. Her articles ‘Curve, Warp, Corpse: D. S. Marriott, E. A. Markham, John La Rose, Maud Sulter, and Bhanu Kapil’ (2020) and ‘Secreting Blackness in the Poetry of D. S. Marriott’ (2018) are published in the ‘Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry’. Recent poems and essays can be found in ‘Frieze’, ‘Poetry Review’, and ‘Wasafiri’.
A little help from the Poet:
“This is a poem written at the start of lockdown. It’s about the conflicting urge and struggle to communicate, and that feeling of the carefully held boundary between the inside and outside (of body/mind/soul) collapsing, as you start to over identify with and melt into your ‘four walls’ during lockdown (is that just me?!)
“Also, my dad is interested in medical technologies that assist meditation, and he showed me a tool that supposedly monitors chakras!!”
Q: You have incorporated Sanskrit in your poems – tell us more about it? Sujata Bhatt is the only major poet who has played with a Gujarati script in poems; and Daljit Nagra, who has bagged almost all major poetry awards in England, has created the Punglish lexicon. How does your interlacing differ from them?
A: Thank you for placing me alongside these fabulous poets! Daljit Nagra was the first and foremost ‘British Indian’ poet I encountered when he spoke at an event at Royal Holloway where I was studying, and I was taken with his evasive lyric and irony so thick one can’t always identify the object of critique.
I appreciate his work with historical source texts and references too; eg the racist advertising used to sell Pears soap — Pears was the soap of choice at my grandmother’s house in Hyderabad, and Nagra’s poem makes me think of the many ways in which ‘we’ reproduce certain harms.
My book started in the contradictory site between shame and love: my deep love for my family, the myths and rituals we grew up with, the study of Sanskrit and Hindu Tantra; my growing awareness of caste, the ubiquity of sexual violence in goddess worshipping cultures, the tensions between India as a former colony and current imperial power.
My book, ‘States of the Body Produced by Love’, contains poems, essays, and images that blend emotional, speculative, and spiritual journeys with research and critical analysis; saying all of that, it begins and ends with love!
Q: For the popularity, poets often fall in a trap of not being ambitious about the prosody, poetics and language, and opt for the social media ‘likes’. You have worked with great poets and critics, Sandeep Parmar and Bhanu Kapil, and yet remained out of sight as a poet whose work is of an uncompromising quality even ‘Granta’ will publish. What is your secret?
A: Wow, this is an excessively kind question and difficult to answer!! Partly, I wish to remain out of sight, unable to pin down or capture in poetry, refusing the politics of visibility and representation in favour of opacity and the performance of identity (that critiques such reductions).
Partly I only write to speak to others, to reach out to readers, to participate in conversation and community (the supposedly small community of poetry lovers is gargantuan and heterogeneous!).
I took a BA module on postmodern American poetry, art, and theory, which taught me a great deal about the politics of language, how much it matters to think consciously and carefully about form, and the possibilities for multiple intersecting subjectivities in poetic speech. There are personal and historical reasons for not feeling like the free verse is for me, for finding that the anecdotal/moralising lyric poem doesn’t enable thought, feeling, and relation.
Sandeep and Bhanu are great guides in articulating this complex and making ways out. Writers like Harryette Mullen, Fred Moten, Vahni Capildeo, Don Mee Choi, Isabel Waidner, Holly Pester demonstrate that you never need to compromise artistically, intellectually, politically; keep working to find your community and trust in its multifarious needs and appetites!
Q: Apart from being a heavyweight poet, who is Nisha Ramayya? What brings Nisha out on the streets with placards?
A: Ha, see above!! I was born in Aberdeen and grew up in Glasgow; despite my already soft accent melting away after years spent in London, that Scottish sense of self is crucial, and I regularly need to go back up – not just to see my parents and friends – but to breathe.
My partner is Irish, and we joke about growing up in cultures highly critical of England then settling in London, but I really did learn lots about intersections between nationality, class, post-colonialism, marginality, and the significance of cultural traditions and dark humour through that Scottish/Indian immigrant upbringing.
Hmmm, I have little to say about the streets this year, as I’ve mostly been scuttling to the supermarket and back. But I am currently working on a collaboration with Nat Raha, also second-generation Indian and a blisteringly powerful poet of protest and revolutionary politics (often situated on the streets – against austerity, against borders and detention centres, against transphobia and transmisogyny). We’re writing each other letters and thinking about the lockdown and mutual aid together, in this lovely intimate and dawdling way, and it’s reassuring that it’s possible to grow close through distance, on remote sofas in Leith and Forest Hill!
Yogesh Patel MBE 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. By profession, he is a qualified optometrist and an accountant.
In this regular series for ‘iGlobal’, he will profile Global Indian poets from around the world.