"A Storm in the Body: An Interview with Tishani Doshi"

November 19, 2018

 

Photo by Jonathan Self

 

Poet, novelist, and dancer Tishani Doshi was born in Madras, India, to Welsh and Gujarati parents. She is the author of six books of poetry and fiction, and has been honored with an Eric Gregory Award and an All-India Poetry Prize. Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods was published by HarperCollins in South Asia, Bloodaxe Books, Ltd. in the United Kingdom, and Copper Canyon Press in the United States. Doshi lives with her husband and dogs on a beach in Tamil Nadu, India.       

 

 

Considering Motherhood While Falling Off a Ladder in Rome

 

 

In the Via della Scala in Rome,

in one of those apartments

tourists dream of owning,

I walked down a ladder

in my underwear,

with a bottle in one hand

and an apple in the other.

And when I fell,

it was with turbulence,

with knowledge,

that every rib of shame

would smash against the floor,

that ambivalence was primeval.

 

Later, when we walked

across the Tiber to bring

your son home from school,

we paused to watch birds

in the sky—starlings

in the thousands.

And I could not explain

that it was the beating

of their wings,

the murmurations,

that were a kind of drowning.

That I too would chew

at the bark

of life, if it would

bequeath me fire.

 

It was November,

the season of death,

and the river moved darkly

between her banks,

the birds flew from sycamore

to sycamore like tapestry,

flood. And every epiphany

that has since arrived

has yielded only in breath,

tempestuous, forbidden breath.   

 

 

 

"Considering Motherhood While Falling Off a Ladder in Rome" is from Doshi's third collection of poems, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, published in HarperCollins India (Sept. 2017), Bloodaxe Books Ltd., UK (Jan. 2018), and Copper Canyon Press, USA (Oct. 2018).

 

Your voice brings an awareness to the body that is sensual as well as political. In Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, how do you see your individual transmuting what surrounds you politically?

 

Much of my experience of body has come through seventeen years of being a dancer. The powers. The limitations. If you lay over that the prism of being a woman in India, living in these dichotomous times, where we have never had such freedom as we do (some of us), against the staggering violence done to us (India ranks as the most dangerous country in the world for women according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey), then it becomes impossible not to transmute. You begin with yourself. Then you turn outwards. When it comes to the body I’m always alternating between wonderment and fear, and I think one of the things I’ve tried to do in my poems is to gather strength in the bodies of others, which is why—river of girls, girls coming out of the woods, women gathered in bath houses, all the unsmiling portraits of women in museum galleries….. There is strength in the collective. Striking out solo is possible, and necessary, but it’s a dangerous task. And I suppose living with this danger, with pluck and joy, is what I’m trying to negotiate in all my work.

 

 

My pleasure of reading you was enhanced because of the formal freedom that you allow your poems to progress and move. You often create scenarios, concrete and tangible, before veering away into the strange and unknown. The use of language through these quick transitions is unexpected and playful, but also violent and destabilizing. You’re not only ushering into someplace new but also, it seems to me, are guided by a deep necessity to dislodge the meaning of the word, reconfigure the order of the world.

 

Thank you! I often begin with concrete images, which act as triggers or starting points for poems, and what happens then is that through the writing of the poem there’s a leaping away—and this is the mysterious, wonderful thing about poetry. It has this surreal trampoline effect, and is able to generate wild movement with minimal efforts to wrists and knees. Language is the vehicle that drives the poem forward, but there is also mood, and altering of mood. I want the reader to begin with one feeling and end with something completely different.

 

 

Your voice often soars and becomes so truthful that the fine seams between the disparate become luminous and visible. I am thinking of these beautiful lines from “Disco Biscuits”:

                                    The church at the corner folding in on itself,

a vagrant fiddling with the pleats of his loincloth. Even

the lampposts are desperate to tuck in their ungainly feet.

The city and her persiflage. The acres of burning sand.

Listen now, as the wind caterwauls like a deranged megaphone.

 

Many poets today, myself included, suffer an invisibility complex. Not enough people read poetry, buy books of poetry, boo hoo etc. But the question of visibility and invisibility is really key to poetry. Across cultures, poets have traditionally been the seekers, the seers, the diviners—seeing things other people couldn’t. Making visible the invisible. In Sanskrit, the word for poet is kavi, which comes from the root ku—to cry out. It’s interesting to think of these two things together—seeing and crying out. Poets have fallen somewhat in world rankings since them days but I still think the impulses remain. Truth enters this equation, too. And although I don’t think of any of these things while actually writing a poem, I suppose it forms a kind of bedrock.

 

 

You are a poet but you are also a novelist. How is the resort to the elemental different when you’re doing it as a poet than when you’re doing it as a novelist? What implications do you think the resort to the elemental has for one’s desire, as a poet and as a novelist, to write originally in the modern world? 

 

One word: speed. The relationship to time as a poet and as a novelist is completely different. Not just in how we write time—for novels this is the great issue—but in how we inhabit time. As a poet there’s a lightening quick feeling of being in the world, the responses are immediate, attuned, and while gestation periods may be long, a poem exists in its own time. But to enter a poem as a reader, you cannot be hasty, you must slow down, you must enter poetry time, which is timeless time, which requires recalibration. It is this aspect of poetry that makes its access to the metaphysical that much stronger. Conversely, to write a novel is to enter an underground tunnel for an unspecified amount of time. The novel exists in various time zones, and it’s a challenge to make it a cohesive thing. But strangely, as a reader, you can rush into a novel with all the speed of the world at your back. It is easier to attune to even though a novel is so huge and a poem is so tiny. So to be a poet and novelist is to move between these two worlds, and it’s wonderful except you’re in poem time when you should be in fiction time.

 

 

The body is very much the terrain where most of these poems originate and belong, but the body is also the source of contradictions, and the cause of vulnerability. In the poem, “To My First White Hairs,” I sense the girl who is speaking has an acute sense of vulnerability in a country that is painfully patriarchal. She wants to emulate Indira Gandhi yet her address is directed to a bunch of men. It is ironical but isn’t it also paradoxical? The girl’s need to address a bunch of powerful men.         

 

It is ironical and paradoxical! Welcome to my world! Because patriarchy is such an entrenched system of power, women are constantly working within its framework in order to assert their own power. Of course, they’re also trying to smash it down but life is short and patriarchy has long and sturdy roots. I bring up Indira Gandhi, but we’ve had a long lineage of female politicians in India, all extremely powerful, all called sister, mother, or versions of this—essentially de-sexualized, removing the threat of the erotic. The speaker in the poem longs for this grand dame status, to rise above the thrum. But of course, the difficulty with aging, particularly female aging, is that once it begins, no matter how gracefully you said you’d go into that good night, you immediately start backpedalling. Men get to be desirable and powerful, in fact, the more powerful, the more desirable. For a woman to be worshipped in that almost religious way, desire has to be taken out of the equation. So, the speaker, while she longs to be part of a hallowed gallery of reverential ladies, realizes she isn’t quite ready to give up on the body.

 

 

Reading “Meeting Elizabeth Bishop in Madras” made me wonder whether you really met her in Madras. But I am not going to ask you about that. I’m more interested in knowing about the shadows that hover over you. And the encounters with the shadows—real and imagined, demonic and conciliatory—of other poets (Joseph Brodsky, A.K. Ramanujan) as the opportunities to initiate, create and digress liberally?

 

Literature is a never-ending séance with the dead. With poets, I believe that séance is extra intimate. It’s not just the obsession with mortality, which I think all poets have a healthy interest in, but that the poetry community is not a time-bound fraternity. People love to ask—where were you when the Twin Towers fell, or when Indira Gandhi was killed (replace with JFK/ Benazir Bhutto/ Yitzhak Rabin/any assassinated world leader). But to a poet you can ask: When did Ramanujan enter your life? Who introduced you to Brodsky? What would you and Elizabeth Bishop be jawing about in a dentist’s waiting room? These conversations are alive and open-ended.

 

 

In your book, you inhabit many different regions and countries of the world. But are you emotionally moored to one particular place? Where is home? Where do you see yourself in relation to India where you were born and the United States where you went to school?  

 

Home is where my people and dogs are. My parents. My brother. My sister. My husband. My friends. But it’s also the Bay of Bengal. If there’s a physical anchor, then it’s this ocean that I grew up with. Life giving, raucous, moody, beautiful. As a child growing up in Madras, we lived far from the sea. We’d sometimes go on a Sunday to spend the day at the beach. All my ideas of happiness are tied to those memories. The whole day of dashing in and out of the waves, and afterwards, driving home in the back seat of my parent’s orange Fiat, with sand and salt all over me. Sinking into the most exquisite sleep. For some years now I’ve lived in a house where I can see the sea from every room. Sometimes it breathes so heavily down the garden gate that it terrifies me. There is vulnerability and danger involved in living on the coast. We’ve been hit by a tsunami, cyclone and flood in recent times, and the prognosis for the future of coastlines is grim. I keep thinking where will I go, but for the moment, I’m thankful for the constant horizon. It’s the place I feel closest to myself.

 

 

Towards the end of the book, because you grapple with this question, would you tell us what are the distinguishing qualities of a poet? What is your role in the contemporary world?  

 

I’m not sure I know. I used to think of myself as a kind of poetry evangelist, but really, I’m not. I have no desire to storm into coffee shops and bombard people with my work or stand on street corners shouting it out. I do believe poetry can change your life, but I’ve also been in so many variations of poetry hell that I can understand why so many people have an ‘approach with caution’ attitude towards it. I want to keep making my work and finding my audience, that’s it.

Feroz Rather is a doctoral candidate of Creative Writing at Florida State University. His work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Ploughshares Blog, The Millions, The Rumpus, Caravan, and in Mad Heart, Be Brave: On the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali published by Michigan University Press. His debut novel, The Night of Broken Glass, was published by HarperCollins in South Asia and has been nominated for First Book Award by Tata Literature Live!

 

 

 

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