Our poetry co-editor Chris LaMay-West recently spoke with Bibhu Padhi, our Issue #9 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about his personal struggles, some of his sources of inspiration, and his thoughts on being an Indian poet writing in English.
Several of these poems involve deeply personal issue of illness and loss. What do you think is the value for yourself of taking this kind of private material and making it public? And for your readers?
There is a history to it. For the past 44 years I have been suffering from migraine and since 1991 I have been suffering from what is called “bipolar disorder”—a painful cycle of hypermanic and depressive states. It is has been a debilitating affair. After periods of depression, I see that there has been a shift in my style and choice of themes. In a way therefore periods of depression have been—in spite of all the pain attached to them—states of hibernation. And, as far as my readers are concerned, I have been very sincere about my mental conditions.
“Another Name” seems to address a longing for an underlying unity and connection in a world of diverse beliefs and cultures. How is this theme important to you? What do you hope readers take away from this poem?
I have always respected the beliefs and practices of all religions. What hurts me is that there have been conflicts in the name of religion. The Palestinian front is an example, terrorism is another. I hope my readers will be influenced by the sadness in another of my poems, “Gaza Strip: The Window,” despite its exterior of hope. I would be happy if my readers carry (however little) the humanism in the poem.
People always ask writers what other writers inspire them. I do want to ask you that! But I’m also curious about whether other art forms inspire your writing as well–music, film, visual arts? And if so, who are some of your inspirations?
Yes, I have been influenced by writers, painters and musicians. The writers who have moved me most are not from English-speaking countries, although I have liked quite a few of them. The writers who have influenced me are mostly from European countries. Their simplicity of language and the depth of their poems are rarely to be seen in English writers (myself including!). I have been influenced by composers like Beethoven, Debussy, Vivaldi, Mozart.
Now that we’ve talked about other genres, what poets or other writers have been important to your development as a writer?
A lot of poets and other writers have significantly contributed to my own development as a writer. Neruda, Quasimodo, Ungaretti, St-John Perse, Lorca, Whitman, William Stafford, Raymond Carver, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and a host of others.
A lot of people may not be aware that there at least as many people writing in English in other places—Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia, etc.—as in what are usually thought of as the Anglophone countries: the UK, USA, Canada. As a writer working in India, and published throughout the English-speaking world, what are your thoughts about the global nature of English-language literature?
English-language literature does not belong to a couple of Anglophone nations. I am proud of being an Indian poet writing in English. Recently I have also started writing in Oriya, my mother tongue. More and more people from non-English-speaking nations have contributed a lot to English literature. In India, we have the examples of Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, A. K. Ramanujan, Arvind Mehrotra and a host of others.
In addition to being a well-published writer yourself, we see that you have done a lot of teaching of writing. Do you have any advice for beginning writers on how to develop their own voice?
They should never write anything that does not “come” to them. They should wait for the poem to arrive, especially the first line. Once you have the first line the poem somehow gets written. Also, they should read a lot of poetry, including those poets they did not like in the past. They should avoid the archaic and the simplistic and too many adjectives. Most importantly, they should choose a senior poet as a mentor.
You’re also a translator. Do you find that the process of translation has anything in common with the process of composing your own original work?
Translation allows a poet-translator a chance to exploit the strengths of two cultures. I have benefited from my translations. There are times when the structure of Oriya language has influenced—mostly without my knowledge—my poems in English, offering my poems a different flavour.
What are you working on now?
My tenth book of poems, Midnight Diary, has just been published. My next book is with my publishers (HarperCollins). It is called Meditations on Being: Upanishadic Poems. Each of these “meditations” is based on a single upanishadic mantra. The Upanishads are some the most ancient Indian scriptures and contain some of the finest philosophical insights into Brahman (the Universonal Being), Atman (the Individual Being), and Maya (the worldly illusion). Strangely enough, all of the Upanishads are anonymous.