In the heat of a language laboratory: Active Bangalore featuring poet Arundhathi Subramanium

Arundhathi Subramanium, award-winning poet and writer on spirituality and culture speaks on poetry, her teachers and gurus and her journey as a seeker.

Listen to the complete audio interview here:


Here is the transcribed (slightly edited) interview:

LK: Earlier in the session you mentioned that you were very withdrawn as a child. Did poetry start as a way of self expression ?

AS: The excitement about poetry started when I was about three or four. Just listening to bits of nursery rhymes, and bits of doggerels and nonsense verse in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and English, all the languages around me, never quite knowing where one language ended and where another began. But I remember that sense of (long pause) really being spell bound at the fact that language behaved so differently in poetry.

Flashes of meaning were all that I got out of it. In fact, I remind myself of it today. When we are often encouraged to believe that a poem is essentially about meaning, I remind myself about what actually drew me to poetry. And I need to remind myself periodically today because one can get jaded being around poems. When I need a pallet cleanser, I remind myself of the time when I was three and four, didn’t understand very much of what was going on, but knew that language behaved differently in poetry. It was a place where language could leap from one place to the other without joining the dots; language could soar and swoop, and it didn’t have to obey the same laws of gravity. So it felt, and even a shy kid like me could understand that, that poetry wasn’t just a place where you expressed yourself. I think the need to see poetry as a medium of self expression happened to me much later in my adolescence. As a child, it was just a place where language could be unpredictable. It was unmoored, and undomesticated. So that’s what drew me to it.

And much later the idea of self expression, and there the fact that one was somewhat a shy person, which I continue to be, and the fact that it just became a place where one could talk about what was going on here (points to her heart). It was a way of bridging the gap between who I think I am and who I am, at least at this moment. If I didn’t see poetry as that, I wouldn’t have kept at it.  It was an excitement about sound, texture and flavour. It was the oral resources of language, it was also, later, about the need to transcribe all the many hidden tribal idioms of myself on the page.  It was to see where that could lead. Because I always found that I would sit down to write this simmering rage poem but by the end of it the poem would have led me to a place that was somewhat different from where I’d originally envisaged it heading. That became an element of discovery about poetry where it was not just about expressing myself but it was about discovering myself. It was about finding myself chemically altered in some way at the end of the process. That magic for me happens largely through word and silence.  That is basically why I am in poetry; the fact that it is a verbal medium that embraces silences like no other. There is a magic about it, and at the same time, and the heady business of being around words, and being in the heat of a language laboratory, that’s the excitement as well. It’s both.

LK: But is a very solitary profession? Isn’t it?

AS: Yes.

LK: Does that get to you?

AS: Sometimes. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else because the rewards are very subtle, but very unique. I wouldn’t find this anywhere else. I do some prose which is also solitary, except it is more accessible. Right now we are at a poetry festival, where my books of prose will sell more than my books of poetry.  The only bestseller that I have ever written is a book of prose though I see myself fundamentally as a poet. So yes, it’s terribly lonely. But I would not see myself doing anything else because it has taken me a lifetime to figure out as much as I have today about poems and it is going to take me a lot more time to figure out this business of poetry because it’s a challenging and crazy form. And I’d like that engagement to deepen; I’d like to see where it goes. It’s still exciting. But it IS lonely. You are absolutely right.


Arundhathi Subramanium at the Bangalore Poetry Festival

LK: Tell me something about some of your early teachers and mentors. Who were the ones who patted your back and encouraged you to write?

AS: My parents just for giving me a home that was spilling books. Just to have a home full of books without anyone telling me ‘sit down and read this’. For providing that kind of context. That helped. I look back today and this is something that I haven’t been grateful enough for before. I have spent a lot of my life gnashing my teeth about school and I have written several nasty poems about school but I look back at three teachers who made all the difference. There was Elizabeth Alexander, when I was in my third standard, there was Urmila Banerjee when I was in the fifth and subsequently there was Anahita De Vitre. I mention them because they were teachers who seemed to realize something that was absolutely fundamental to  anyone who loves poetry: you just don’t encourage a person to write, you also just allow enough space for a person to dream and you encourage them to believe that not all of that needs to translate into activity. You don’t have to be in ‘doing’ mode all the time. I say this because I see lots of young people today around me sort of endlessly going to class after class, hugely gifted children ‘doing’ all the time. It makes me wonder how much time is spent day dreaming or looking vacantly at nothing at all. Everything seems to be about what is the take away. I think particularly for something that is as profoundly non-utilitarian as poetry, so completely purposeless on one level, you need to have teachers who need to understand that the only thing that you need to do is to hang around poems. During a library period, my teacher Anahita De Vitre would just say, ‘You know, I happened to read this book. Do you want to check it out?’ She would hand something over to me. In this very subtle, almost out of the corner of the eye kind of way, to educate someone – I think that is the kind of education that I understand. For me a mentor is someone who allows me to hang around, to marinate. I pick up best, I learn best when I am relaxed and when I am hanging around, being around something, being around poems, being around certain kind of people as well, who don’t necessarily look at the universe only in terms of its utilitarian value. I am grateful to these teachers for that – not for telling me, not for prescribing what I should read, not for necessarily patting me on my back because I wrote well, but for something much deeper than that, which is that they didn’t make me feel that I had to be driven in order to be a relevant human being.


                           Arundhathi Subramanium (R) speaking at the Bangalore Poetry Festival

LK: Arundhathi, you have been writing for several decades now. How has the process of writing changed over the years? How does it look today?

AS: When I look back on my first book, I suddenly realise that it’s a reminder of where I started. How those early poems were and how different it is today, even the process of writing. For one, I see that the poems themselves are different now. Not in terms of their content. Eventually you write about love and life and death and quest and journeys. We are all pretty much saying the same thing in some way or the other. But the priority in my earlier poems were on self expression which is the need to, as I said, transcribe myself on the page with all my emotional ambivalence and complexity. Put all that on the page. There was also a need to make a few points – to make a point to myself as well; to make a dent. I have a poem about my cat where I look at her with great envy because she doesn’t want to make a dent on anything except the pillow. Whereas I wanted to make a dent. I think that’s much less now an issue. I mean I feel much less obliged to do that. I feel the poems themselves are different in that they are more open to surprise, more open to bewilderment, a little less anxious about being understood, a little more porous, they breath differently, there are more blank spaces on the page and that’s primarily because I was tripped up by one of those blank spaces in my life and I discovered that all those blank spaces on a page of poetry mean. They may not mean something, but they mean. They are, in fact, as I often say, the source of a poem’s octane. The poem is drawing fuel from there. But it is easy to overlook that and to see one self as a conductor of some linguistic experiment in a laboratory except that when you are dealing with language under the conditions of great heat and pressure its almost naive to believe that language will not explode on your face one day. It did. You cannot come out of the poetic laboratory un-singed. So the singeing in my case, I think, helped me to look at pauses with great respect. To look at silences with great respect. To not see myself necessarily as the manipulator of word and pause but actually see myself as someone who follows the lead pauses give me and words give me. See myself trusting that process a lot more than simply enacting it and seeing myself as the virtuoso. I see myself much as less now.

LK: Earlier in your session you spoke about your how you worked towards finding your voice. But I believe that, once a poet finds her voice, she explores it, understands its texture, its form more intimately, and somewhere along, this understanding starts working on her. Tell us if that’s true, and how did this play out for you?

AS: (Pause) This is a very good question. I feel that…I am trying to find a way to answer it. You know there are different words that are important in different times in one’s life. At one point the word ‘image’ was very important for me because image or metaphor was the key for me when I started out. I began to realise that an image could lead me to places within myself that I had never imagined. The image was always wiser than I was. More intelligent than I was because it was able to unlock things that I didn’t know. I just had to follow it and it would show me something. Increasingly for me, image is still wonderful and the magic of it is quite matchless, but ‘timbre’ is a very important word for me. Timber is important because it becomes my reason for being in a poem. Otherwise it would be a heap of reasonably decorated images. Whereas tone gives you your emotional access, your reason for entering this heap of images. And I think that has become far more important. Tone-rather than talking about poetry as music, which it is, as rhythm which it is, as metaphor which it is. Tone, which is the ability to drop your voice keeping the faith that you will still be heard. Tone, which is the ability to value the intimacy of the poetic utterance. Tone, which is about murmuring because poetry is the art of a murmured voice. All of these things are now perhaps more precious to me than they ever were. We live in times when it is so easy to believe that the only thing that really counts is the ability to belt out something. To exercise the other choice, which is in fact to drop your voice has been a difficult choice. It has been an important personal choice. Not to follow something because those are the dictates of a cultural climate but to follow something because it is truer to your own temperament and to keep the faith that there will be a listener for that.

LK:  You say that you were a shy person, I find that hard to believe. Because I see in front of me this very independent, articulate, powerful woman, who is so sure about herself. Many times, you have spoken about two incidents that turned your life around completely; one, a life-threatening accident and another meeting your spiritual teacher, Sadguru. How have these two incidences changed you as a person? And what did it do your writing?

AS: You know what happened, which you call an accident was actually, I am not even sure what to call it, because it was not a physical accident. It happened in 1997 and it was as a near death experience but brought on by nothing that I could see around me. There was no physical or psychological trigger. I wasn’t unwell or sick. It wasn’t an accident. But it happened and it lasted for a length of time. As I started coming out of that experience, which was really like an encounter with death as I saw it, it was an experience that was completely devoid of meaning.

As I started coming out of that I found firstly that words had completely deserted me. So the hubris of being this, you know a person with a certain facility with language, all that was gone. I was foundering, I was terrified. I think the one thing that happened to me when I came out of that was that I realised that there are vast areas in myself that I can never map with language at all. And it brought an urgency, a quest, because I began to realise that the only thing that then made sense was to find some process, some person or some guidance that would help me make sense of this strange experience that had crept up on me. The next seven years were spent in active quest, but it was leading a kind of parallel life in a way. It meant on the one hand I was this reasonably successful writer, curator, journalist, poet, and on the other hand there was this parallel life of  fevered seeking. And then in 2004, I met Sadguru. It was a turning point. It was almost cyclonic, the advent of Sadguru in my life. It was cyclonic, because the closest that I come to that is a poem that I wrote soon after. It is a poem called ‘Confession’ which is in the book that you have (When God is a Traveller) where I say, ‘It was a bit like opening a coffee percolator and finding that your roof has flown off’. You are doing something very humdrum and mundane and you find something almost catastrophic happening. Which is why one of my favourite Bhakti poems is one by Tukaram. It is on the back of the book ‘Eating God’ where he says when your home falls apart that’s when you know God is visiting you. This was a kind of dark period, it was a period of dark elation in a way, where things were falling apart. A kind of architecture that I had created was falling apart. But it felt that all the things that were real about me, were still there. Yet, so much of it that was redundant was just falling apart. Watching it happened in horrified fascination is how I think back on those years.

How did that change who I am? Radically (long pause). Radically.

I can’t even begin to talk about that, I am thinking about the best way to say it. I think let me talk about it in terms of the poetry. I think any spiritual journey is about coming to terms more and more with uncertainty. Isn’t it?

LK: And becoming completely comfortable with the spaces of ambiguity…

AS: Yes and vulnerability. Seeing that and accepting that much more. Not just seeing that here, I think that the biggest problem that I had earlier was that there was certain things that one saw in one little sliver in one’s cerebral cortex, but it hadn’t percolated into one’s little toe and hadn’t percolated into one’s right knee. The wonderful thing about a spiritual process that is yours is the fact that you begin to see there are connections between all these parts of yourself that you had earlier lived fragmented. My roof did fly off. I suddenly found that I couldn’t lead the kind of compartmentalized life that I had led earlier. It wasn’t possible. I had to come out of the closet and accept that I was primarily a seeker who was excited about language, but who knew that language could desert you.

To look at language with much more gratitude when it doesn’t dessert you and to try to make peace with those when it does dessert you, and it will; this I do.

LK:  Since we have invoked the guru, I want you to talk a little bit about your gurus. Many mystic poets have spoken about different levels of Guru – those whom you see, those who you cannot and those who live within you. Tell us about your encounters with these gurus who have come into your life…

AS: Many years ago I wrote a book on the Buddha. I did that in 2003. I was daunted when Penguin first asked me to do it. But I loved the process of doing it because it was a chance to spend time around a lot of Buddhist literature which is something which I was in any case I was very fascinated by. It was a chance to reflect deeply on many things that were anyway turning into growing preoccupations in my life. When I look at that book and I look at the Biography of Sadguru which I wrote in 2010, which was about seven years between the two, it sort of makes me chuckle because on the one hand there is a certain kind of book that you can write about a dead guru and a certain kind of book (laughs) you wouldn’t dare to write with a live Guru. Thankfully one of things that I must say about Sadguru is that he didn’t breathe down my neck at all about the process. I was given great freedom over the writing of that Biography or I wouldn’t have been able to do it. What I did discover, and what I had no clue about, let me say at the time that I was doing the Buddha book, is just how disruptive, just how destabilizing, and yet profoundly anchoring, the presence of a live guru is in your life. Being around a live guru and I suspect this is what the Buddha would have been in his time, you know, all the people I was invoking in the book Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, they would have known this, the people who stood around the Buddha at that time, they would have known this experience of feeling like you are in a furnace, skins being flayed off in a way. It compels you to be intensely alert about what is going on because your sense of self preservation kicks in. Being around the Guru is not a comfortable business. Yet, the sense of tremendous anchorage that it gives you is also something that cannot quite be explained. I think that’s the kind of volcanic presence that the Buddha would have been in his time and so many other Gurus would have been when they were alive. I am grateful to have had the taste of the live one, and multiple non-live ones. The one way you know that you have met your Guru is the fact that this is a person who is far more committed to your freedom than you are yourself. There is really no physical live guru who can be considered a true Guru if he or she doesn’t invoke in some way, within you, your inner guru.  It’s just that the inner guru has been so submerged, beneath so much self deception. I used to invoke that Zen image, which is that lovely irreverent Zen line that we all love to quote in our adolescence, I used to quote it late into my life – If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. I used to think, ‘Oh that’s about my inner guru and I don’t need the external one’. Later I realized how desperately I need the external one, because there is so much self deception on this path. So many ways in which one can believe one has sorted things out for oneself. To have that constantly being shattered and at the same time feeling anchored, that paradox, I don’t think I would have known if it hadn’t been for the presence of a live Guru.


LK: Arundhathi, we are living in very challenging times. We see that many of our symbols and images, that have been a part of our cultures for centuries, whether they are spiritual or religious, are being high jacked for personal and political gains. As a poet who makes meaning out of these images, and as a seeker who reflects on life, how do you work on making sense of all this, for yourself?

AS: The first thing is that there is a difference between a seeker and a believer. A believer is someone who has embraced a whole doctrine, a faith, a system that tells you, ‘This exists. Believe it’. A seeker is someone who doesn’t know if it exists or not. The great similarity between the poet and the seeker to my mind is that both have to be deeply mistrustful of ready-made language of any kind. Any kind. When I say that I mean ready-made language that might come from the scriptures, or ready-made language that might come from the propaganda to which you feel you owe your allegiances. Both. There are seductions on both sides; the seduction of commercial propaganda, the seductions of political propaganda or religious propaganda. I feel that we live in a world that increasingly offers us just two options that seems to be on the one hand the language of this terminal earnestness which I feel comes a great deal from the social sciences but also from other places. Even in faith we find that a great deal in the religious sphere, great earnestness. Then there is this language that is terminally trivial – the sound bite of televisions. Between the sound bite and the verdict, the poet is looking for an alternative language. Now if it means that you are looking for an alternative language it means you have to resist ready-made language of all kind. I don’t see the two in fact as separate. I see them as very integrally linked. Being a seeker means you are looking. It doesn’t mean that you have found. It means you are searching. The quality of that quest for me has changed tremendously since I found a spiritual path of my own, with a guide. It doesn’t mean that I have arrived in anyway. Whether it is in terms of one’s understanding of gender or understanding of faith, or religious, in all these spheres.

You know when you are asked questions like what it is like to be an Indian poet or a woman poet, I don’t have any problems with these questions, as long as it is understood that I am still figuring out what it is to be a woman and I am still figuring out what it is to be Indian, and I am still figuring out what it is to have this ambivalent cultural inheritance that we call Hindu. I am not unhappy with it at all. I am very grateful for many aspects of it. But I also retain my rights to question it. To me it’s something that I value hugely, because I have always grown up with it as a lower case identity. Not a capital letter identity. That is the aspect of it that I would like to celebrate. I think we also have to find ways of reclaiming our right to celebrate. At the same time if you truly embrace all the higgledy-piggledy emotions that make up who you are and the contrary ideas or hunches or unformed notions that make up who you are, you will arrive at a complex utterance.

In a way that is all you are trying to do with the lyric poem. You are not trying to arrive at a gospel truth. You leave that to the gospel writers. What you are trying to do is to distill the truths of this moment. I said this yesterday as well, that the logic of the lyric poem appeals to me tremendously, because it’s a logic that tells you if you inhabit the particular deeply it will lead you to the timeless. It will lead you to the universal. You don’t have to try to be anything that you are not. You don’t try to be universal. If you are deeply subjective, you will be led to the inter subjective. I think this is also the insight that comes to us from our spiritual tradition. I think it’s a wonderful insight to be beneficiaries of.

Interview and article by Lakshmi Karunakaran


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