In this new series for ‘iGlobal’, UK-based writer and poet Yogesh Patel will hand-pick some poets of pride from across the Global Indian diaspora to showcase their works and poetic journey.
He kicks off the series with US-based Pramila Venkateswaran, who was honoured as poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island (2013-15). She is also a co-director of Matwaala: South Asian Diaspora Poetry Festival (US). Among her body of work includes, ‘Thirtha’ (Yuganta Press, 2002), ‘Behind Dark Waters’ (Plain View Press, 2008), ‘Draw Me Inmost’ (Stockport Flats, 2009), ‘Trace’ (Finishing Line Press, 2011), ‘Thirteen Days to Let Go’ (Aldrich Press, 2015), ‘Slow Ripening’ (Local Gems, 2016), and ‘The Singer of Alleppey’ (Shanti Arts, 2018).
Venkateswaran, who grew up in Mumbai, has performed her poetry internationally, including at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and the Festival Internacional De Poesia De Granada. An award-winning poet, she teaches English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College, New York.
Besides, she is also an author of numerous essays on poetics as well as creative non-fiction and is the 2011 Walt Whitman Birthplace Association Long Island Poet of the Year. She is also a judge for the Word Masala Foundation and won the Word Masala Award presented in the House of Lords by Lord Bhikhu Parekh in 2016.
Q: How will you summarise your body of work, their themes and approach?
A: I began writing seriously in 1990. As a young mother and as a new faculty member in an all-white college, I was confronted with many experiences simultaneously. I was learning to balance motherhood and work, as well as figuring out how to deal with the racism I encountered at my place of work.
Those were the years filled with much negotiations and angst. Poetry was the one place that provided me with a reprieve. I wrote a lot about my babies, my journey as a woman, my spiritual knowledge and despair. As my daughters grew up, my themes mainly revolved around women and girls’ experiences growing up in Indian households and in white-dominated environments.
As I was getting deeper into feminist literature and began teaching women’s studies, my readings influenced my poetry. I was also reading plenty of quintessential American poets, both white and black – Sylvia Plath, May Swenson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, Billy Collins, Marvin Bell, and others. I made time every week to write and send out my poems to journals.
My persistence paid off. By 2002, when my first book, ‘Thirtha’, came out, I had a substantial number of poems in this book that were published in mid-tier journals. I kept at the writing and publishing, and over the years, I had a raft of books, each published by a different publisher. In addition, I began giving many readings as part of organisations such as the Performance Poets Association on Long Island. I was also attending many poetry workshops offered by recognised American poets.
I was surprised when my name was chosen for poet laureate for Suffolk, Long Island. This was an appointment by the County Legislature. When I accepted it, I read a poem to the gathering of legislators who probably never had a poet in their government rooms!
Q: What barriers did you face in being accepted in the world of English literature?
We all know that the barriers to publishing poetry are especially steep for women of colour. There was a time when I was feeling depressed about ever being able to write poems that would be appreciated. I took a workshop with poet Sharon Olds. This was a game-changer. She advised me to believe in my poems and keep at them.
I asked her with despair in my voice, “Do my poems have any layers?” She countered: “Why do you think they don’t have any layers?” I said, “Well, I don’t want my readers to read my poem once and say it was simple and had just one idea.”
Sharon pulled out my poem from a sheaf of the class’ poems and began pulling out layer after layer. She showed me things in the poem I had not even realised were there. This was a lesson by a compassionate poet who wanted her students to be prolific. From that day, rejections did not discourage me. While the rejections piled up in a box, I just kept writing and sending out my poems.
Q: How would you encourage the business community to engage with poetry; how should the uninitiated in poetry approach poems to enjoy this art form?
A: Business and commerce are about relating to people. Business does not happen in a vacuum. People doing sports business may enjoy poems about sports. We have so many poets who are doctors; the medical community would benefit from reading these poems and even sharing them with their patients. For almost every business, we can find poems that deal with those experiences.
Even those who have not encountered poetry, if they hear a poem, they would be moved. We all have emotions and we all have a language to articulate those emotions. Therefore, if a person hears Wendell Berry’s poem ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ about how nature can assuage grief, I bet he or she will feel a sense of peace.
If a young woman hears ‘Phenomenal Woman’, she would feel uplifted. If the most uninitiated hear Langston Hughes’ ‘I, Too’, they will get a vision of how white people’s history is deeply tied to black people’s history.
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 be profiling Global Indian poets from around the world.