Zilka Joseph’s religion is to follow the birds

Zilka Joseph’s religion is to follow the birds

When I first met Zilka in New York at Matwaala Literary Festival, I was struck by her poems rooted in the theme of nature juxtaposed with the urban cultural mess we have accepted as a way of life. Having just had my whale poems published as a collection, I could relate to this feeling of acute displacement we have created for us as humans. Zilka takes us there with the seductive nature stirred into a concoction of family relationships to deal us blow in the end with our uncivilised behaviour. Yet, you cannot miss being touched by her constant insistence on the perfection of the prosody and the care one must dispose to the use of language. A teacher in her is always vocal.

Zilka Joseph teaches creative writing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is an editor and manuscript coach. Her chapbooks, Lands I Live In and What Dread, were nominated for a PEN America Beyond Borders and a Pushcart award, respectively. Sharp Blue Search of Flame, her full-length book, was published by Wayne State University Press and was a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book Award.

A little help from the Poet:

"This poem has fragments of conversations with my parents, some facts—such as my dad was a sailor in the merchant marine, hundreds of migratory birds would drop onto the ship to rest on their journey. My mother sailed with him sometimes. After they are gone, I am lost, and I imagine them whispering to me ‘to follow the birds’.

This is one part of a longer poem, but it stands on its own. There is a mystery and a magical quality to it as well, like the one you find in fairy tales. Reality and imagination collapse into one another, much like they do in the mind of a child. I hope the reader will enter this journey and explore the known and the unknown, and make discoveries along the way. The joy of reading any poem is to immerse yourself in the entire experience, using all your senses to connect with the words and images to make your associations, and allowing your imagination to take flight. The more you read and explore poetry, the richer and more multi-layered your experience becomes.”

Q

In your new poetry chapbook, ‘Sparrow and Dust’, just published, looking at birds, you are on a quest: Where is home? What is the fate of wanderers? Have we all been “elsewhere”? Will truths be revealed to us in the end? It looks like Sufism has influenced you. Is your sparrow, a common house bird in India, connecting also to Hindu philosophy in any way?

A

The Conference of the Birds is an allegory. Sufism influenced my book in the overall motif of a journey, impermanence, and the quest for truth, though these are universal concepts in many major cultures/religions. The sparrow is often seen as a common bird connected to a humble (sometimes peasant) life, and a tenacious, brave being.

Similar ideas appear in mythology and folklore, and at the same time, the sparrow is sometimes seen as a harbinger of bad luck or death. I am unaware of any specific Hindu philosophy, but the Epics and Hindu Scriptures contain stories of birds, and deities are associated with certain birds. There is, however, one popular tale I connect to, which is about two birds in a tree. One eats the fruit (material attachment), while the other just watches patiently, symbolizing spiritual contentment. Panchatantra and Jataka Tales (Hindu and Buddhist fables) were some of my favourite books to read as a child. Birds and animals (the natural world, literature, religion, mythology, etc.) were (and are) part of my life and continue to influence my writing.

Q

You say in one of your poems, “I’m for the birds. I’m never alone.” The pandemic’s ravage inflicting loneliness yet has not been quantified. Poet Abhay K., India’s Ambassador to Madagascar, in his recent collection, ‘The Alphabet of Latin America’, imagines city centres (São Paulo) trapped in spiking towers with trees at their feet without birds. Do you think much of human loneliness could have a cure in taking refuge in nature?

A

I’ve studied wildlife ever since I can remember. Birds connect me to my home — India, they are a bridge to and between the many chapters of the lives I’ve lived.

Humans can connect with nature in times of tragedy and suffering. I am all for gardens/growing trees wherever they can be grown. Covid has made a lot of people appreciate and find solace in nature and bird-watching for the first time. Perhaps there is hope? I worry about climate change, the detrimental effects of pollution on our animal kingdom, and that, maybe, no birds or trees will survive. Now, sparrows are becoming an endangered species in cities for several man-made reasons. We take them for granted, especially in India, where they are around us and even inside our houses — making a racket, nesting or looking for crumbs, but urban populations have decreased radically.

On the other hand, I am optimistic as conservationists are working hard to protect these feisty birds. The Indian Ministry for Environment and Forest and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), have launched a project to save house sparrows. If birds/animals disappear, we will indeed be doomed.

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Q

In your longer poem ‘Mama, Who’d Have Thought’ your conversation is a weird smoothie in tone, narrative, beauty, the warmth of old and new, contrasts of then and now, and craziness of nature versus humanity’s political madness. It is a splendid example of your craft where the poet shows how juxtaposed and incongruous a place the world we are living in is. You are introducing your mother who has come from India to America with stories of nature and innocence, but in the last closing stanza, you sharply cut to the ugliness of human behaviours. Everything turns upside with police shootings, etc. Where do you think is harmony in such conflicting sadness that emerges in that poem at the end?

A

Yes, it is a blend of many things, as you have suggested when you call it a “weird smoothie”! I chose the dramatic monologue as a form to tell this story in a more stylised way, to layer past and present, introduce contrasts and imagination, as well as to bring in the spirit of my mother (whom I’m addressing) to the very first home of my own for the very first time.

But reality enters at the end of the poem. The paradise-like world (nest) suddenly becomes fragile, and though there is the shadowy predatory element in the mention of the osprey, it is an intrinsic part of that world.

All immigrants go through the conflicting sadness of leaving loved ones behind, full of guilt and loneliness, face fears of racism, but simultaneously they appreciate the joys of life in their adopted country as they make their contributions. It is a delicate balance, one that is hard to achieve when the world becomes violent and unsafe. In this poem, at least, there can be harmony when the spirit of a loved one visits, and the speaker is momentarily protected from a harsh world. It gives the speaker courage.

Yogesh Patel MBE runs Skylark Publications UK as well as the non-profit Word Masala project to promote South Asian diaspora literature. Also honoured with the Freedom of the City of London, he is a recipient of many awards and has read his work at important venues like the House of Lords and the National Poetry Library. Published in numerous journals and anthologies, and with films and LPs under his belt, he has invented a new poetic form entitled Rapid. By profession, he is a qualified optometrist and an accountant.

In this regular series for ‘iGlobal’, he profiles Global Indian poets from around the world.

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