“The Crooked Timber of Humanity”

Aurora Nowak interviews
Urvashi Bahuguna


Poetry coeditor Aurora Nowak interviews poet Urvashi Bahuguna about her literary influences, her writing practices, her career as a journalist, her new book of essays about mental illness, and more… 
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Our poetry coeditor, Aurora Nowak, recently had this exchange with Urvashi Bahuguna, featured poet for Issue #37. Here’s what she had to say about the power of familial love, the mystery of the cosmos, and writing about mental illness. 


At least two of your poems (“The Years Come A-Tumbling” and “Spare Me This Love Tonight”) center around love. Is this one of your favorite topics? What are other subjects that draw your creative attention?

Familial love is one of the themes I come back to again and again—endlessly compelling to me in the push-and-pull it represents. I recoil from it only to keel over in gratitude a moment later. I’m able to harness a degree of honesty about familial love that I can’t yet with romantic or platonic love—it is the love that sits at the centre of who I am, of how I approach the world.

What draws me in is the familiar. I am deeply interested in writing about what I know well, pushing past layers of my understanding and empathy in the process. I find that a dissatisfaction often arises when I sit down to write what I’m certain of, and I have to find a different angle, a new way of seeing what I believe I know. Writing about the familiar is where I discovered a deep-rooted but at the time unacknowledged love for the place I grew up—a state on the Western coast of India with a monsoon that lasts months. It is also where I create my peace with people, relationships, my own failures, and so on.


“The Years Come A-Tumbling” uses striking images and metaphor in the ring and silver wings (and the process of making these wings.) What inspired the relationship between these images?

 I must have been five or six when my school asked us to prepare for a “fancy dress” day. We were asked to make our own costumes, which of course meant that our parents had to manufacture them. It was 1997, and no one in that school was rich enough or spendthrift enough to have bought these, so they were made out of supplies lying around at home. My mother used cardboard to cut out wings and covered them in silver foil. I wore a white dress, and voila—I was a fairy. It was a simple memory from simpler times. It was proof of love, which I think is partly why my mother was upset when I lost one of the wings. The ring I gave a former partner had the same effect on me—I was heartbroken that he had been careless with a gift that came from a foolish, but sincere place. The silver wings came back to me when I sat down to write about the ring—a memory I’d long forgotten.


“The Future In Outer Space” paints a sea of color. The vivid language allows the reader to feel like they are in the planetarium with the speaker. Where did this wonderland come from?

 This poem came out of my first ever visit to a planetarium. I’ve never responded to a museum the way I did to the photographs and videos at the planetarium of the Northern Lights, of the visuals on the dome that showed the stars, constellations, and planetary bodies that could be seen in the sky that night. I hadn’t been prepared for the way it affected me, brought on a calm and a sense of wonder. I was completely in awe of the beauty, abundance, and bounty of the universe. It was such a visual treat. It reminded me in many ways of the way that love opens up experience and allows me to feel a whole other spectrum of emotion. And I wanted to celebrate that with this poem.


In “Spare Me This Love Tonight,” you mention “afterZeina Hashem Beck.”  What poem or piece of work by Beck is this piece in response to?  

 I wrote this poem in response to Zeina’s poem, Fi Yom Wi Leila which can be read here. “Spare me this love for…” is a refrain repeated twice in her poem. The lines played in my mind and on my tongue like a piece of music, and one day after a dreadful fight with people I loved, her line “Spare me this Arab love for conspiracy tonight,” turned seamlessly into, “Spare me this love for family tonight. This thigh slicked-birthing, this remembering what they once looked like tonight.” It’s different from the rest of my work, more musical, more in-step with how I feel, how my thoughts sound when I read Zeina’s poem. It’s one of my favourite works to re-visit because in it I am able to re-visit a favourite poet as well.


You are a journalist as well as a poet.  Your portfolio includes interviews with poets, authors, and artists; displays personal essays on various global issues, poetry reviews, and more. Out of all of these, is there a piece of writing that stands out for you, or perhaps marked a breakthrough in your writing? And what is your favorite piece of writing?

 There are a few that stand out—an interview with the Tamil poet, Kutti Revathi, whose father taught her poems and bought her story books behind her mother’s back because he remembered his own childhood where he was forced to work as a labourer instead of going to school, an interview with Akhil Katyalwhere he raises important questions about the Indian writer’s obligation to not turn their back on the humanitarian crisis in Kashmir, a personal essayon mental illness and family in India. These three stand out for me because they represent realities in my world, realities that are insufficiently reflected in the media and in the public imagination.

An essay that has been on my mind, and is probably my favourite one I have read this year, is DhruboJyoti’s “Caste Broke Our Hearts And Love Cannot Put Them Back Together.”


What would you say are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?  What challenges you the most in writing? What helps you create your best work?  Do you have a routine that helps you stick to writing?

 I read every day—without that routine, I wouldn’t write. On my bedside table is a tall stack of books I haven’t read—there’s ten at any given point of time. When I’m stuck in my writing or simply can’t seem to start any new piece, I put aside the act of writing and simply continue to read and eventually some line, some image will prompt me to make a note in my book, and some time later, one of those notes becomes a poem or an essay that I see through to completion.

The poems I can’t complete sometimes frustrate me to the point where I can’t work on anything else. I open the document on my computer over and over again, wondering what shift of word or syntax, what toppling of structure will allow the poem to become what I had hoped. There are hundreds of poems I haven’t completed. Sometimes, the thought of the time I have sunk into these failed experiments is enough to make me reconsider whether I am any good at all at writing. But I have learned in the process of writing my first book that I don’t want to be held hostage to my writing or to the idea that its execution is the only thing that gives my life daily meaning.

One of my weaknesses, apparent to me at least, is that I circle the same subjects. I remember Kelli Russell Agodon quoting John Berryman on Twitter saying, “You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.” I sometimes wonder if this is partly true of me, and I try to watch for it.

I think a strength I particularly cherish is that I edit continuously. If I am confronted with a piece of feedback that tightens my writing (remove beloved poems from a manuscript because they’re not right for it, take out an image it took me weeks to craft), I am happy to kill my darlings. I am open to the idea that even after a book comes out, someone may point out places where it could be sharper, and if I find it compelling, I would want to take that change on board.


MSR grew out of a workshop. What is your favorite workshop experience? Have you had a negative workshop experience?  

 When I was nineteen, I interviewed a poet called Aditi Rao and learned she was about to start a weekly writing workshop in her living room in New Delhi. It changed my relationship with writing. Every Sunday afternoon, for months, I wrote in her home with a few others in a large, comfortable room full of furniture, carpets, books, tea, and cake. We read Akhmatova’s myth poems, Jack Gilbert’s Michiko poems, Czesław Miłosz. Writing in her home established for me something I hadn’t realised held true for me: I thrive in homes rather than classrooms, in community rather in isolation, in supportive environs rather than competitive ones. The smell of milky coffee and brownies still brings back memories of those afternoons where I first learned how important it is to have a community of writers in the place one lives. I haven’t had negative workshop experiences, but I have attended some that haven’t been right for me because the reading material didn’t include women or writers of colour at all.


Your website mentions you will be one of ten Indian and Pakistani artists involved in creating collaborative art for The Pind Collective. Can you share some concepts in progress?

 Some time ago, a woman was brutally murdered a few miles from where I grew up in Goa. I was beside myself for weeks, filled with an anger and a grief that wouldn’t subside. Violence against women, against minors, against marginalised communities is part of the narrative we consume, part of the continuum we endure. I started to double-bolt all the doors, I was irrationally afraid to sleep when I visited Goa.

The woman had had a fondness for jasmine. When a cousin gifted me (by coincidence) a jasmine-scented candle, I began to write the poem that would eventually become part of The Pind Collective project. This season’s theme is resistance, and the poem is called “Savage”. It can be read here. I wanted to keep some part of her, of her love for jasmine alive. I wanted to chronicle the ways in which violence is deeply entwined with privilege, to create in a very small way an act of resistance. The first phase was writing or creating or drawing our own work in response to resistance. Soon we will start work on the second phase where we pair up with an artist from the other country to collaborate on art around the same theme.


You’re currently working on a book of essays about mental illness. Can you tell us a little more about it?

 The working title of the collection comes from a quote by Kant that goes, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” When I first fell ill, the illness was mysterious to me. I had no name for it, no memory of seeing it in another person. I spent five years stumbling around, trying to understand the depression, the anxiety, the sub-set of obsessive-compulsive disorders I have. The essays aren’t about extraordinary events—they’re about the ways in which the every day and the illness intersect. I’ve written about the relationships that failed because of it, the ones that endured, a difficult equation with my medicines, the experiences of addiction and mental illness in my immediate circles that have come to light since I fell ill, and the on-going, chronic nature of mental illness.


By Urvashi Bahuguna

Urvashi Bahuguna’s debut poetry collection, Mudscope, was selected for the 2017 Emerging Poet’s Prize by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and will be published late 2018 by The Great Indian Poetry Collective. Her work has been recognized by a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship, a Sangam House fellowship, an Eclectica Spotlight Author Prize, a TOTO Award for Creative Writing, and a Wingword Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Orion, SOFTBLOW, The Nervous Breakdown, Eclectica Magazine, The Fourth River, Barely South Review, Kitaab, Jaggery, The Four Quarters Magazine and elsewhere. Her writing has been anthologised in Aquanauts (Sidekick Books, 2017), A Map Called Home (Kitaab,  2018) and Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi, 2018).