Our poetry co-editor Erin Post recently had this exchange with Abhay K, our Issue #17 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about the connection between his work as a diplomat and a poet, some of the projects he has worked on in the past, and what he is working on now.
The poems we are featuring in Mud Season Review explore the lives and psyches of important figures—writers and leaders—in Nepal’s history. What drew you to this subject matter?
These poems are part of my poetic sequence on Nepal which I call The Eight-Eyed Lord of Kathmandu. I wanted to create a poetic portrait of Nepal through a series of poems on Nepal’s world heritage sites, festivals, landscapes, important landmarks, places, and historical personalities, as well as its common people. Poems featuring in Mud Season Review are part of my poetic sequence on Nepal.
How many of these “personality” poems have you written, and how much do you research each figure before writing your poem?
I have written a number of “personality” poems, which include poems on Russian writers–Gogol, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Akhmatova; famous nineteenth century Indian poet Ghalib; Mughal prince, poet and translator Dara Shikoh; Nepalese political leader B.P. Koirala; and artist Arniko, among others. I read their works as well as available literature about them before writing the first draft of my poems. For me, facts are not enough to write a poem. I add legends, myths and my own imagination, and hunt for metaphors that could convey the essence of a personality. Here is a short poem on Gogol—
Your long nose
and even longer overcoat
still wander at odd hours
on the Nevsky Prospect
guarded by an army of dead souls
Are you still enamoured
with the heaven
on a marshy land?
Why disguise yourself
as an inspector general,
a police chief
or a lowly clerk?
Don’t you know
the Tsars and communists have left
Some of the figures in this set of poems may not be immediately familiar to Western readers, yet the poems stand on their own as finished pieces (and offer readers the opportunity to learn more!). How do you find the appropriate line between universality and specificity?
Human beings across the planet have the same vices and virtues. I want to explore through my poems the limits of human ambition, our quest for greatness, how perfect a human life can be, including lives of historical figures who are considered Gods now. Universal emerges from the specific. Human suffering is common; so is our quest for happiness.
Could you describe your creative process? How do you approach revising?
My first draft of a poem is made of thoughts, impressions, images that come instantly to me. Afterwards, I pay attention to the form, internal rhythm, images, metaphors, alliteration and other poetic devices when I revise the poem.
Regret, or the life not lived, is a theme throughout the poems we’re featuring. Is this a theme that is at all personal, to you, or one that grew out of your reading?
I have just paid attention to this aspect in my “personality” poems, and I am surprised to find that all these poems have regret, lament, and un-fulfillment running through their veins. It seems like a pattern, which in turn, points to the very nature of human condition. I don´t think this is a theme personal to me. I am an optimist and have a bias towards the brighter side of life. However my observation of the lives of some of the leading icons points towards a much darker reality. Look at how Pushkin, a very talented poet, ended his life in a duel. What would we say about that? Poet Ghalib survived to take down corpses of friends and relatives hanging from trees and lampposts, after the massacre of Delhi in 1857.
You are also a diplomat, having served in the Indian Foreign Service since 2003. How does this aspect of your life inform your poetry and vice versa?
My life as a diplomat does inform my poetry as I get to travel a lot, get to know other cultures, learn new languages and deal with words every day. Over time I have discovered some similarities between the art of poetry and diplomacy. Two of these are brevity and ambiguity in expression (“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”- Emily Dickinson); others include use of imagery and metaphors to make difficult things simple, and sensitivity.
I also found that a number of poet-diplomats managed to excel both as a poet and as a diplomat. We know these Nobel Laureates in Literature–Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, George Seferis, Octavio Paz, Miguel Angel Asturias, Saint-John Perse and Czeslaw Milosz–but what connects them all besides the Nobel Prize, is that they were all poet-diplomats.
You have written the “Earth Anthem” and the “SAARC Anthem”—could you explain what these are, and how they came about?
Earth Anthem came as a response to an image of the Earth taken from the space. The image is known as the Blue Marble. It inspired me to write a poem on our planet in 2008 in St. Petersburg, Russia. When I came to Nepal, this poem was put to music in 2013. So far it has been translated into 26 languages and is sung in many schools across the world. It can be heard here.
I strongly feel that our planet deserves an official anthem. Schools, Colleges, Universities, Sports Teams and several international organizations have their own anthems. It is time we have a common piece of music for our planet, to which each country can put its own lyrics in its own language. I had requested UNESCO to commission a piece of music from the well-known musicians and select the best as the official Earth Anthem; however, it is a work in progress.
I wrote SAARC Anthem during my stay in Nepal to bring together the people of South Asia through a common song. Its lyrics have words and music from all the eight member states of SAARC. It has spurred search for an official anthem for the regional organization South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. It can heard here.
Did you come to poetry early, or later in life? How has your poetry—in subject matter and form—evolved over time?
I came to poetry early in life. I remember my primary school teacher who was a poet himself reciting his poems to me when we walked back home from the school. I also had access to poetry books at my home as a child. I enjoyed reading poems throughout my school and college days. However, I started writing poetry only at the age of 23 after becoming a diplomat.
My early poems were mainly about love and relationships, but also nature. These were very personal poems. Some of my early poems are deeply philosophical and address questions such as immortality, eternity, and time. Over time, I feel, my poems have started expressing the voice of voiceless people, monuments and places. My first collection of poems was titled – Enigmatic Love, the second collection was Fallen Leaves of Autumn, the third was Candling The Light, fourth was Remains, fifth was The Seduction of Delhi and the sixth and forthcoming collection is titled The Eight-Eyed Lord of Kathmandu. These titles themselves tell something about the way my poetry has evolved.
Why is poetry important? What advice would you give to a young poet just starting out?
Poetry is language without frills; it only contains the essential. It is pithy. Poetry plays a vital role in the evolution of any language as it infuses new images and associations through metaphors and other figures of speech. As a form it also lends itself to being memorized, and that’s the reason all the early literary texts were in verse form. Poetry heals. Merely writing poetry has therapeutic value. We need poetry to express our intense emotions, whether be it a prayer, a chant, a song, a rap or a lament. Poetry exists in many disguised forms; it exists in jingles for product advertisements, it exists in news headlines, and it is present in electoral campaign speeches. In brief, poetry is as important as salt and sugar in our everyday life.
I would like to give the following advice to a young poet:
A. Write a poem without any inhibitions or fear of being judged, but revise it many times before publishing it anywhere, even on social media.
B. Read a lot of poetry written by well-known as well as contemporary poets, as the culture of reading and admiring poetry is as important as writing poetry.
C. Publish your poems in reputable literary journals first. Afterwards, when you have a number of such published poems, collect them and get them published as a book.
What poets have been important to your development as a writer?
Works of Indian poets Kalidas, Kabir, Rahim, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, and Rabindranath Tagore have had great impact on me in my formative school days. In college and university days, works of William Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman influenced me. After entering the world of diplomacy I started reading poems by a large number of poets from across the world, and the works of Pushkin, Cavafy, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, T.S. Eliot, Wislawa Szymborska, and Seamus Heaney have had impact on my development as a poet. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea inspired me to write my first book, which was a memoir.
You grew up and went to university in India, but have gone on to study language and literature in Russia, Nepal, and the U.S., and you are currently a diplomat in Brazil. How many languages do you know, how many do you write poetry in, and how have these experiences enriched your poetry?
I speak Hindi, English, Russian and Nepali; however, I write poetry only in English. I have translated works of some poets writing in other languages into English and Hindi. I am learning Portuguese and Spanish and hope will start speaking these two languages soon.
Knowing English has been a boon, as I can read works of all major poets and writers in English and get to know the global literary culture. Learning Russian helped me to see the beauty of works by Gogol, Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova and a number of Russian short story writers. Knowingly or unknowingly Russian language, thought and philosophy have had an impact on my poetry. Learning and speaking Nepali has been a wonderful experience. I could not have written the poems on Nepalese personalities being featured here without knowing Nepali and understanding Nepalese culture and psyche.
You attended the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. What was that like? What was your experience of workshops?
I attended the International Writing Program at University of Iowa´s seven week online course “How Writers Write Poetry,” as I did not have time to take leave for a few months from work. The course presented talks on the craft of poetry (including the notebooking, the line, form, the turn, the lyric and persona) by two dozen well known poets including former US poet laureate Robert Hass. Each week I had to attend a video class (containing talks by three poets on average) and answer a set of questions after watching the video. I also had to complete weekly writing assignments (one for the beginners and another for the advanced writers), post them in an online discussion forum and submit critical feedback on the poems of the fellow writers. In addition, each week a master class was held in which the craft topic (such as form or line) was explored in depth. The course helped me pay more attention to the craft of poetry.
You are also an artist—what do you feel you can accomplish in the visual medium that you can’t in words? Do you have work online that we could link to?
The visual medium is the art of balancing colours and light and shadows to express oneself. A painting is visual poetry. I think, poetry and painting work at different levels of cognition and with potentially different audiences. Even an illiterate person who cannot read or write poetry can appreciate a painting. Also painting is a better medium to express more complex and abstract emotions.
Some of my paintings can be viewed here.
A video clip containing my art works can be viewed here.
What are you working on now?
I have just completed editing CAPITALS, an anthology of poems on the over 165 national capitals of the world. The contributing poets to this anthology include Derek Walcott, Mark Strand, George Szirtes, Vijay Seshadri, Ruth Padel, and Pascale Petit, among others. It will be published this year.
My new project is to write a poetic sequence on Brazil and Latin America. I have been working on a poem for some time that I call “Prufrock in Rio,” inspired by T.S. Eliot’s famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I am also working on a poem titled “Brasilia,” inspired by an eponymous essay by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector.