Of the Bengali Air and English Ink: A Conversation with Kiriti Sengupta

by Jhilam Chattaraj and Kiriti Sengupta

Jhilam Chattaraj: Congratulations on winning the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2018, for Healing Waters and Floating Lamps! The collection has been included in the uniquely structured poetic trilogy, Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral (2017). How did you decide on the format?

Kiriti Sengupta: Thank you very much, Jhilam. I had no clue of the award. It felt nice to be honoured. You will be happy to know—half of the prize money went to publishing books by other poets, and the rest went to my family. In a time when securing a decent royalty payment seems impossible from selling poetry books, a monetary reward renders a well-deserved boost to authors.

Honestly, I had no plan to bring out the three books together in a single volume. Nor did I write them following a certain order to publish a trilogy later. My reviewers, especially Casey Dorman and Dustin Pickering, have been instrumental in exploring the possibilities of publication, and it was much later when Hawakal, my publisher, approached me for releasing the poetic trilogy, under the title Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral.

JC: In the trilogy, Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral, you describe yourself as, a “Bengali English author.” How do you perceive the relationship between ethnicity and poetry?

KS: I remember, back in 2015, I had interviewed Bibhas Roy Chowdhury, a distinguished Bengali poet who told me, “Poetry not only belongs to the poet who has authored it; poetry also belongs to the language it is written in.” I was born and I’ve been raised in Kolkata amid Bengali people, their language and culture. I can’t deny, under any circumstances, the Bengali air that has nurtured my growth, both as a human and writer. So, when I wrote “The Pilgrimage” for Solitary Stillness, my latest book of poems, I consciously chose to reflect on ChandimangalKavya, which is considered the most significant genre of medieval Bengali literature. It is entirely a personal choice that I write in the English language, but this does not negate my Bengali soul and the essence of the culture I inherited from my forefathers. Ethnicities help in the expansion of one’s understanding and take on poetry.

JC: Beautifully summed up! And this brings me to another interesting and academically debated idea that you have touched upon; the idea of the “popular” and “literary.”

KS: I think they refer to the sub-genres of writing. They both are creative in nature; however, when I say “popular” writing, I primarily relate them with works of fiction. It is not that poetry has no popularity quotient, but to what extent can poetry be popular? That said, I admit Rupi Kaur has been extremely popular as a poet, worldwide. Can her popularity be attributed only to her poems? There are several other factors that influence the acceptance and global dissemination of work, and I can tell you only a handful of poets and nonfiction writers have made it to the households of the common people. “Literary” writing is predominantly for initiated readers. Do you think I am a popular writer? I believe I’m not, and had I been one, you could see a queue of people, ranging from corporate publishing brands to media, in front of my house.

JC: Fingers crossed! Maybe one day …  I have discovered a tenacious sincerity of intent in your work and that makes me wonder about your poetic process. Could you elaborate?

KS: I’ve no pre-fixed schedule. It’s not that I write on a daily basis. I need initiators: it can be an incident that readily strikes my mind, it can be a speech, a conversation with friends, and it can also be the bristles of the toothbrush I use. I can’t say what and how something will take me to poetry. I am essentially an impulsive writer.

JC: An impulsion that you have patiently turned into a craft by chiselling away the redundant bits and recalling the echo of many writers. Could you walk us through the genealogy of your writing?

KS: There are many: the masters like Tagore, William Blake, Keats and Wordsworth; several contemporary Bengali and American poets: Ranadeb Dasgupta, Bibhas Roy Chowdhury, Sanjeev Sethi, Dustin Pickering, Scott Thomas Outlar, among others. I’m sure I’ve missed out on a few names I admire, so let me add Arundhati Subramaniam and K. Satchidanandan to the list.

JC: An eclectic and contemporary list! How did you evolve your own style?

KS: A poet learns language, diction, style, etc. with time. It is a continuous journey towards realising the demands of the language one writes in—yes, it is primarily the language that aids in the making of the poet. You can read other poets, several books of poetry; however, you have to grasp the nuances of the language to grow up as a wordsmith. And to understand the nuances better you have to sleep with what you study. How I have evolved from my one book to another, in terms of style, contents, etc., is a subject to be explored by critics, and I have been blessed with such discourses by many scholars over the last few years. But to answer your question, I primarily aim to create “jerks” in my poetry; my intention, sans the opinion of the reader, is to jolt, him or her, out of stasis and wake up to maybe a line, a word or a sense that is completely new.

JC: Unlike many contemporary writers, you avoid writing about nature or romantic love. I have observed that religion, or say spirituality, plays an important role in your book. Could you elaborate?

KS: You are right. Spirituality indeed has an important role in my writing, in both prose and poetry. And this repels young readers as well. When you say “spiritual,” people love to associate it with the gods and goddesses. People consider spirituality as one’s belief in god in a positive way. Honestly, it has nothing to do with the deities, but it involves one’s “self.” I’m not talking about self-realisation; it’s a big term to deal with. I’d rather say it’s about self-consciousness or self-awareness. Let me put it this way: if you are conscious of your “self,” you are but a spiritual person. Spirituality is akin to the human rights we discuss in seminars and conferences; you have to fight for it. Here religion, be it Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, etc. has no role to play.

JC: What an astute way to put it! I still hang on to my previous question and refer to the poem “Stay Away,” which begins with a justification that men are no robots. I am curious to know about your notion of romantic love?

KS: Sadly, my idea of romantic love hasn’t changed much over the years. Romance is always a heart-to-heart connection between two individuals. Romance, a noun, has elements of mystery in its core, and I love that veil. More lucent the veil, more its value. Every relationship comes for a price, and romance is no exception. It’s not about the gender, every individual expresses love in his/her way. It can be similar but not ditto.

JC: It is generally agreed upon that men and women love differently. Would you say that both genders write differently, too?

KS: Primarily, I’m a writer. I’m not a qualified critic to answer this question. Of late, I’ve read a few contemporary women poets both in India and the United States: they have their styles of expressing thoughts, they are vibrant, elaborate, vocal about feminism, among other attributes. I can’t say if these make them different from their male counterparts.

JC: Your opinion is very different from many poets I have spoken to, you see each writer blossoming alone in their own way and that brings me to the idea of loneliness which you often refer to in your book.

KS: Solitude helps me write poetry. Quietude has a charm that influences my writing. It helps me contemplate on issues I intend to write about. Critics talk about “spirituality,” and “aphorism” in my work: let me tell you they come from aloneness. To know more on how loneliness has influenced my poetry, one should read my latest book, Solitary Stillness (2017).

JC: I think I, now, understand the space from which your collection Healing Waters Floating Lamps (HWFL) has emerged: a work with an earthy and experimental style. It soothed me with its dewy brightness when I was ill and utterly alone. Could you comment a bit on the collection?

KS: Thank you so much. I’m sure you have noticed that a few of the poems in Healing Waters Floating Lamps (HWFL) come from the previous two sections of the trilogy. But they appear in new avatars in HWFL. I wanted to tell readers that editing poetry could add to the brevity, flow and overall aesthetics of the craft, and thereby influencing the impact. I can remember Dr. Amit Shankar Saha wrote about my endeavour in The Statesman: “A few of the poems in the first two books are repeated in the third, but they take different forms from their earlier avatars. It is as if the poet himself has discovered a nuance that had remained hidden in an interstice earlier.”

JC: There are several crevices of perceptions in your books. My Glass of Wine ponders on the relation between the self and the world, The Reverse Tree looks out at the world from a window and Healing Waters Floating Lamps marks a transition. Did you, as a poet, at a personal level experience any altercation, while writing these works?

KS: These three books led me to The Earthen Flute (2016). The collection has a stronger dose of “spirituality,” and I won’t advise a reader to buy the book if he or she lacks self-confidence. I believe that poetry is essentially for initiated readers.

JC: Well, that was a pretty strong suggestion, and it brings me to my last question. You have been published and reviewed widely, could you comment on the present poetry scene in English in India in terms of its production and consumption?

KS: Across the world, poetry is now being consumed by general buyers of literature. Thanks to Rupi Kaur and other poets and Instagram and Facebook that have made poetry popular among the public. Yes, I’ve my share of critical acclaim that came from knowledgeable scholars and critics, and that I’m considered a widely reviewed poet is a blessing indeed.

October 2018

Educator, poet, author, Jhilam Chattaraj loves to communicate with the world in novel and creative ways. She is an Assistant Professor at R.B.V.R.R Women’s College, Department of English, Hyderabad. She is the author of Corporate Fiction: Popular Culture and the New Writers (Prestige Books International, 2018) and the poetry collection When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays (Authorspress, 2018). She divides her time between teaching, conducting workshops, academic research and creative writing. 

Kiriti Sengupta has recently been awarded the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize (2018) for his contribution to literature. He is a poet, editor, translator, publisher, and festival planner from Calcutta, India. He has published nine books of poetry and prose, including Solitary Stillness, Reflections on Salvation, The Earthen Flute, A Freshman’s Welcome, Healing Waters Floating Lamps, The Reverse Tree, My Dazzling Bards, My Glass of Wine, The Reciting Pens, and The Unheard I; two books of translation, Desirous Water by Sumita Nandy, Poem Continuous—Reincarnated Expressions by Bibhas Roy Chowdhury; and he is the co-editor of five anthologies, Scaling Heights, Jora Sanko–The Joined Bridge, Epitaphs, Sankarak, and Selfhood. Visit his website for more information.

Scroll Up