Sarita Jenamani is an Austria based poet of Indian origin, a literary translator, anthologist, editor of a bilingual magazine for migrant literature – Words & Worlds – a human rights activist, a feminist and general secretary of PEN International’s Austrian chapter. She has so far been published in three collections of poetry. English is the chief medium of her creative process. The other two languages she writes in are; Odia, her mother tongue and German. She uses these languages for the translation projects that she undertakes from time to time. Jenamani has translated Rose Ausländer, a leading Austrian poet, and an anthology of contemporary Austrian Poetry from German into Hindi and Odia respectively. She has received many literary fellowships in Germany and in Austria including those of the prestigious organizations of ‘Heinrich Böll Foundation’ and ‘Künstlerdorf Schöppingen’.
In a Literary Conversation with Sarita Jenamani
Sagar Kumar Sharma (S K S): What is poetry to you?
Sarita Jenamani (S J): To answer your question let me present one of my own poems:
A poem is not
a luminous firework
It is a lonely shooting star
from the forehead
of the firmament
S K S: You are a very celebrated poet. You are a member of the leading platforms of creative writing across the globe. How would you critic your own writings?
S J: Well I always yearn for improvement, development. I believe in constant change at the same time keeping my signature intact. Without pursuing for change your writing become stale and stagnant. I wish I could be more versatile, more profound a poet.
S K S: Tell our readers about your poetic process. Also, would you like to share some stories behind the making of your favourite poems written by yourself?
S J: I do not have my favourite poem as such. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I do not adopt a particular method for writing. I still work with pen and paper and not with computer. I usually write down an unexpected yet powerful word, an idea, or a line, regardless of their form and language. Afterwards, I work on them as a sculptor does. Sometimes, the poem dictates itself to me, but on another occasion, it refuses to be written until I make some essential changes. I am critical about my work and I try to master the technique. Mozart once said: “The music is not in the notes but in the silence between.” Similarly, a poem is not what is written about but the traces hidden behind the words. Poetry is editing and re-editing of your thoughts and your language till they get distilled into a kind of purified echo of being.
S K S: What according to you are the social responsibilities of writers? Do you think these are being fulfilled?
SJ: Like any other human being that shares the earth with others, writers have the social responsibility; perhaps more than others. They are men and women of words and words still have a power over the masses. The responsibility of writers in a world that suffers from the rise of right wing populism and nationalism is more than anyone else. Through their writings they could protest against such viewpoints and mindset that works against the cardinal values of humanity and civil society. I believe a socially irresponsible artistic endeavor and brave the negative, anti human currents otherwise he or she might deem a contributor to the exploitive, oppressive, and abusive activities which characterize society as imperfect.
SKS: T S Eliot said, ‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’ What is your objective correlative? What is your story in verse?
SJ: All my joys, sufferings, passions and memories that significantly leave deep impact on me, turn into ash, sink into my being and again rise like a phoenix in the lines. This provides me the pleasure of seeking an enigmatic truth in some ancient temple. Such a feeling compels me to write poetry. Poetry for me is an act of introspection, self-realization and a sanctuary.
Let me answer this question with Nasadiya Sukta, the hymn of creation from Rigveda.
ko a̱ddhā ve̍ da̱ ka i̱ha pra vo̍ ca̱tkuta̱ āajā̍ tā̱ kuta̍ i̱yaṁ visṛ̍ṣṭiḥ |
a̱rvāgde̱vā a̱sya vi̱sarja̍ ne̱nāthā̱ ko ve̍ da̱ yata̍ āaba̱bhūva̍ ||6 ||
But, after all, who knows, and who can say, whence it all came, and how creation happened? the gods themselves are later than creation, so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
In my case, most of the time, it manifests spontaneously and many a time it keeps on creating constant ripples deep down in my being till my conscious understands it and interprets this multidimensional energy into a readable piece of literature that we may call a poem.
SKS: ‘Poetry is the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance’, said Matthew Arnold. What is more important to you, content or style?
SJ: Poetry is a much more complex medium of communication than it is perceived.
SKS: What are your poetic resources?
SJ: Good books, availability of library (not necessarily poetry books), keen understanding, deep and fine feelings and a discipline of merciless editing of my own lines and a room of my own. But the most important resource is to understand poetry that speaks the silence and constantly fills the void around you and inside you.
SKS: How does your poetry help you to deal with the dilemma within and without?
SJ: I am afraid it is hard to see one’s being in terms of mere binary oppositions of within and without: we are too multi-layered, too complicated to be taken and grasped in such oversimplified ways. It is an enigma and writing poetry, indeed the very act of expressing, is an effort to unfold this enigma.
SKS: Do you think poetry is a gateway to other creative arts? Of late, poetry is being talked of as a vehicle of social change, what do you think?
SJ: Sometimes people pretend that poetry descends upon poets as divine words, or it is the finest form of literature etc. For me poetry is just like any medium of art. It needs keen understanding; it requires deep and fine feelings, and discipline. Every art form is complementary to each other. Poetry is an intense form of art and it speaks directly to your heart. That said, poetry has long served as a tool for social change; it played, for example, a major role in securing women the right to vote. Suffragette song lyrics, used poetic tactics like catchy rhyme, repetition to get the message stuck in people’s heads. Poetry from Harlem Renaissance is still today beloved. Many works from this period bravely spoke out against the atrocities of racism and inequality; Vande Mataram by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna by Ram Prasad Bismil were instrumental in Indian freedom movement. Poetry’s powerful impact can be seen on Black Lives Matter, reproductive rights, and queer rights. Today’s poets regularly take inspiration from modern headlines—from the #MeToo movement to the domestic violence. But every form of art contributes to social change and it is one of their foremost duties.
SKS: Who are the poets you consider as your poetic inspiration? Please tell the readers about some of your favourite poets. Any particular poem you would like to talk about?
SJ: There are certainly a number of poets whose works fascinate me… such as Oriya poets Madhusudan Rao, Sachi Routray. Similarly, poets from other Indian languages; Ghalib, Kabir, modern Hindi poets Agyeya, Kedarnath Singh. And yes, Rumi, Borges, German poet Paul Celan, Eliot. The list is endless. I would love to mention a poem: “Banaras”, by Kedar Nath Singh, that is one of my favourites as it captures the spirit of India just by describing a city like no other poem. The couplet of Ghalib, “Hazaron khwahishen Aisi” and a poem: “Count the Almonds” by Paul Celan.
SKS: Do you see creative arts as a medium of gender sensitisation?
SJ: Yes, I do. Who can be a catalyst for gender sensitization if not creative art? When French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex: “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman”, she voiced what became central argument of movement of feminism – that gender is social and its meanings are constructed by a dominant male culture. Art is a tool for having gender equality. One can mention many artists and writers who are working tirelessly to sensibilize the society. Art can create awareness, but it should have the support of society and legislation. Still today women remain poorly represented in many decision-making positions. A creative art can become a medium of empowerment when more and more women artists and writers encourage critical thinking as the bedrock for change and gender empowerment through their work.
SKS: Any upcoming poetry collection or novel you would like to tell our readers about?
SJ: If you mean my upcoming book then I would suggest the recently published anthology “Still We Sing” voices of South Asian Women against violence.
SKS: With many talented writers coming up with their remarkable works in recent days, do you think a fresh canonisation of poetry is necessary?
SJ: In my opinion poetry should get the chance of having an organic growth free from canonization or re canonization.
SKS: What is your message to the budding poets?
SJ: Try to find your own voice and your own truth. Be fearless but disciplined, read, read and read. Listen to the melody of life.
SKS: Thank you, ma’am, for sharing your ideas with my readers. It is an honour to have you in the book, Writers Speak.
SJ: Thank you. Wish you all success and good wishes for the project.