Bone Tongue was published by Thought Catalog Books in 2015 and her full length poetry book Father, Husband was recently released by Salopress UK. She can be found squeeing about militant bunnies and clinical psychology at www.viperslang.tumblr.com or @zaharaesque on twitter.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
In a way it feels more like my life changed first and the book was an outcome of that flux; something that a river deposits on its banks after a heavy monsoon. I wrote Bone Tongue for therapy with self through an intense and often debilitating period of MDD. In that sense, any writing I attempt is merely an extension of my compulsive diarying. My second book Father, Husband was actually a longer and more complex narrative because I was addressing multiple difficult subjects in it which I have usually chosen to be incredibly private about for most of my life. These books were like dizygotic twins - they shared a certain similarity of appearance without being the same, a common pool of genetic content but eventually each grew into its own individual behaviours, responses, narratives and personas.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My grandfather had an envious library and I remember reading Eliot - “Do I dare disturb the universe?” I may not his writing as much today but at that point, it was such a critical shift in my ability to perceive my own reality as a young, introverted child on the threshold of complex psychological anomalies. I was stunned by the idea that you could indeed eat a peach AND disturb a universe in the same line. My grandfather also had a comprehensive collection of Tagore, Ghalib & Urdu poetry which he interpreted for us. Their melodic softness was a sharp contrast to my immediate world which was riddled with violence of childhood abuse. Through my grandparents I discovered Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Mahmoud Darwish, Shair Ludhianvi, Arun Kolatkar. It felt like those traveling carnivals that have a tent full of weird mirrors where every mirror showed you something new about yourself that was previously unexplored. Poetry, as opposed to fiction, told me that I could dream as wildly and as softly as I wanted to. Fiction expressed things. Poetry altered them.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I have never fully kept tabs on time mostly because I am always trying to steal snippets from frantic hours stuffed between traffic jams and client sessions. These tight, sardine can spaces are those in which I fit my writing. I think Ruth Stone had mentioned something about a poem coming to her with its tail first and then her chasing it there on. I sometimes experience the same thing. I distill from experience, cull from imagination. Lot of list making precedes my writing. In that sense I keep repeating to myself and my world - I am a diarist, first and always. Sometimes first drafts languish for months because I can't bear to look at them, let alone rework or edit. Note-taking is an occupational hazard since I am a clinical psychologist and it does percolate my overall cognition. On some days, the more agitated my mind is, the more intensely I enter the poem (sounds lacanian!). It is an act of chasing lightning. It is also the act of growing roses. A certain inevitable patience manifests itself and continues to straighten my spine on days I feel inexplicably weak.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Most poems begin as lists on google keep. This is another of my grandfather's legacy. He was an amateur entomologist and as a little girl I was fascinated by this ability to record the beauty of minutiae. I have notebooks filled with what I can lingual sigils. Verbs, adjectives, nouns snuggle with each other to define my day to day existence so I can return to the good parts on bad days. I don't write full sentences to begin with and this is simply coz when I started working on my own depression, I realised that as a habitual completionist the act of documenting my depression helped me but I often neglected it on account of not being able to write complete statements when I was clinically depressed. Twitter arrived in my field of vision exactly at this point and the staccato and minimalism of that medium was useful in setting up routines for me. This is something I personally find very satisfying because my depressive states are so compounded and extensive, I often feel I can't see beyond them or that there are no breaks in between. Writing helps me create silos out of this seemingly pervasive darkness - shines some light, cracks open some windows. Keeping this in mind, no I don't intentionally set out to write a book per se. It is usually an editor or a publisher who realises this while reading my body of work and makes me aware of it.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I did a lot of locally organized spoken word performances when I was a teenager. I was terribly shy as a child and being on a stage really helped me get more comfortable with my own voice. I have read at a variety of local and global venues and each experience is highly individualistic. As a student of psychology, I like observing how a poem is intercepted by a group of people, how it either challenges or acquiesces to their assumptions about poetry. As a community fest, a group of expat students from Russia came and held my hand after I read a poem called “Suvival Kit” which details my struggle with suicide attempts. They were 19-23 and each had the same thing to say – Thank you. I chronicle my own battles with mental health quite frequently in my poems and when I read it for other people, catharsis becomes a community. I come from Indian and Roma lineage and most of our ancestral storytelling happened in the tradition of oral poetry so I very strongly believe in the restorative powers of performance poetry.
Whether it arranges itself as a seance or an exorcism.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Initially I wanted to abstain from recondite proselytizing in poetry. It struck me as jejune and narcissistic. I love what Sina Queyras once wrote – “I don’t want a theory; I want the poem inside me. I want the poem to unfurl like a thousand monks chanting inside me. I want the poem to skewer me, to catapult me into the clouds.” In a way, as you get older you strive for a balance that may not entirely be achievable but nevertheless helps you ache and aim for something more infinite expanding within you. I do realise now that much of my love/hate relationship with psychoanalysis does inch its way into my own writing. I can't abstain from academia because I am constantly engaging with it. Even my occasional disdain for it has to be delved into. I am writing as a woman of colour and I am writing about agencies of psychological and material exiles. In the world I inhabit, a woman may achieve significant physical freedom but there remain vast bastions of her mind that are colonized by way of media, morality, body politics and a horde of other constructs. I recently started writing about PTSD and childhood abuse where a lot of my what I was processing was happening in the company of books and texts by Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine & Judith Lewis Herman as much as it was happening with my internalizing the work of Dawn Lundy Martin and Anna Kamienska. I can continue to answer this forever but in summary, poetry is the theory of everything. A poet is the serf of time - Canetti, I think.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
In the cultures I emerged from, a writer is always perceived to have the opposite of a dissociative personality wherein instead of one self fracturing into many, many independent selves combine into one while retaining their respective autonomy. In that sense we were raised with the idea of writing as an act of revolution - whether personal or universal was a think for the afterward. In most cases, a really good writer might bring about both. As half Roma Spanish, I look at the significance of Lorca or Generación del 98 or as half Indian, the significance of Ishmat & Manto in countering gender and sexual morality in pre/post-independence India even at the risk of imprisonment, those are foundational aspect so my self-building. In India Dalit poets eschewed conventional, “highbrow” languages to form their own slang and circle of acceptance. There is a singular measure for how well a democracy is functioning: How frequently is it willing to discuss & listen to the voices its bureaucratic & policing machinery are not entirely comfortable with. Whose voices are these? Where are they coming from? Us, of course! From DADA to Oulipo to alt lit, everything is an act of reaching out, turning things upside down, small or big subversions. A lot of times I hear criticism about how my generation often writes bland, flat-line poems about cats and I urge those people to inspect deeply as to what the conditions surrounding this generation are. When you are thrown into global wars you resent and oppose but have no say in stopping, when you are buried in debt, have to lead lives of hyperactivity you can neither avoid nor fully digest then maybe writing about a cat is the most amazing act of revolt, of flipping the bird at the collective poobahs of literary canons and saying - I am reclaiming my ordinary. I am not breaking at the jaws of your expectations.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
In my experience, it has been quite non-intrusive and dependable at the same time. I don't know if this will continue as I collaborate with newer and bigger publishing spaces but I do hope it stays the same!
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My mother after reading something I wrote at 18 - It is good but why don't you let Borges be Borges and you try to write like yourself? It will take a lot of time to figure out who “yourself” is but try it anyway. I would love to see that.
(She is a Skinnerian behaviourist. That should explain a lot.)
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
A typical day begins with patients (clients)! (I record things into my phone through the day, I scribble notes next to clinical profiles. I tweet a lot of things circling my head through the day.)
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I am good at compartmentalizing things. This is not always a healthy habit but can be honed to help you organize how you write. When anything gets stalled (and you know this fairly well just in terms of how much time it has taken me to complete this interview!), I usually go 180 degrees from its origin. I will travel or watch movies or cook waiting for the proverbial tail of the lightning to swish my nose again!
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Roses, darjeeling tea & shami kebabs.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music, extensively. My day job involves listening to people but outside of it, I am always found with a pair of headphones enthroned on my nest of hair. Cooking or culinary arts is a new found area of interest which feeds (ugh, pun!) the writing a lot these days. Martial arts, astronomy, steganography, cartomancy, calligraphy - there is a whole group of activities that involve me and keep me nourished.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So many! I write poems because Mina Loy once wrote poems. She is the first word in my vocabulary. Her work along with that of Djuna Barnes' stretched the boundaries of my imagination and I am thankful for that.
Currently, Dawn Lundy Martin's poems are incredibly potent and necessary for me. It's marvelous combination of defiance and empathy is nearly prophetic. I am thankful for every woman of colour who writes and occupies that space without apologizing for it or herself. Bhanu Kapil is another writer whose existence has changed the course of how I think about identity, language and the bridge between identity and language. Jennifer Moxley is my spiritmother even if she doesn't know it! Will Alexander’s collections comforted me into believing that you didn’t need to simplify your language in order to pander to a common greed for porridge poetry. Cathy Park Hong, Sandra Cisneros, Naomi Shihab Nye, Suheir Hammad, Helen Oyeyemi, Safia Elhillo, Kaveh Akbar, Kazim Ali, W.S. Di Piero, Aimé Césaire, Mike Young and my partner Greg Bem.
Historically, Alejandra Pizarnik, Paul Celan, Rene Char & Anna Kamienska were some of the writers who made it ok for me to write beyond categorization or expectations because they chose to be non-linear and made meandering acceptable as well as introspective.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I already do it – Shrinkology. I always wanted to study the human mind & now I do!
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It was the other way around; everything else I did always led me to writing.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
A manual for cleaning women (Lucia Berlin)
19 - What are you currently working on?
A red velvet cheesecake.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;