The celebrated poet from Orissa on reading, writing and what keeps him going
Q & A | Jayanta Mahapatra
If there is one thing Jayanta Mahapatra gives me, it is hope. Several years ago, as someone who scarcely dared to call herself a poet, I sent a bunch of poems to Chandrabhaga, the journal Mahapatra had edited for many years and recently revived. I was unused both to rejection and acceptance at that time. But I can safely say that the handwritten letter I got from him accepting all my poems was crucial in helping me redefine myself as a poet.
A few weeks ago, when an advance copy of Land, Mahapatra’s 19th collection of poetry in English, arrived in the post, it seemed to be the right time to get him to speak about his work. So I sent him the questions and he replied over seven closely written sheets of paper, in a neat, beautiful hand. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Jayanta Mahapatra. Photo Credit: Sridala Swami
I came to poetry quite late, when I was about 40. Not the proper age to write love poems, is it? Perhaps a stage comes when one has to make choices, and in my case it was the writing of poetry. I had spent all those 40 years doing research in theoretical physics, in photography, and often at doing practically nothing but reading. Reading still brings me a kind of joy. I like to return to those passages that enlighten me. The way language carried the emotion in a good book attracted me, and I kept learning the subtleties of language. I made my choice with poetry then, and poetry stayed with me.
You have lived all your life in Orissa and its presence in your poetry is very strong. Could you talk about place, language and landscape and how these affect your poetry?
Look, it’s difficult to say expressly how place, language and landscape affect my poetry. I have lived here in Cuttack all my life, and this is the land of my ancestors. Isn’t it but natural that these should come into my poems? Can I forget “hunger" when my own grandfather almost died of starvation in the terrible famine that struck Odisha (Orissa) in 1866? Can I forget the starving millions who live in the remote hinterland and subsist on dried mango seeds and tubers they collect from the jungles? It is the place that has shaped me: its traditions, myths, and more importantly, its history. These make the arms of my poetry.
In the late seventies, there was no standard magazine for Indian poetry. It was a disappointing scene. One had to send one’s poems abroad for publication, and that wasn’t easy. It was expensive too. So I thought I’d start this magazine, Chandrabhaga, for both established and new poets. The response was fairly good because we managed to send our issues abroad, to places like Harvard University and other graduate schools. The magazine was also sent as an exchange magazine to the USA. It was indexed in the PMLA and other directories, which brought me a quiet sense of pride.
Much of your work was first published in journals in the US and elsewhere outside India. Did you correspond with poets from other countries? Will these letters be collected and published?
Oh yes, there’s a lot of correspondence lying in old files and cartons. I haven’t been able to do anything about it. I was, for years, preserving these letters from poets and editors until a severe illness almost took my life in 2006. Then I simply left the letters as they were. You could say I abandoned them.... As a matter of fact, I destroyed a number of them after I recovered partly.... I asked myself: Do these letters measure your life in any way? Or are they just like passing faces you see when a train goes past you? I’d say there’s nothing to claim, nothing to own in them. I don’t think of them as a literary record, to be published at some time.
In 2010 you were writing a column in an Oriya journal—your autobiography in serialized form. Has it now been collected and translated?
The serialization of my autobiography in Odia (Oriya) is still going on in Sachitra Vijaya, a literary monthly. Once it is finished it will be taken up for publication. I wanted to do an intimate and raw sort of thing, so I instinctively turned to Odia, not English. As to translating it into English, I have no idea if it’s going to be done.
Which poets do you like to read?
Fiction has been my first love all my life. My school days were spent with H. Rider Haggard, R.M. Ballantyne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. From there, my reading habits broadened and I went into the classics—(Charles) Dickens, (Joseph) Conrad, (Fyodor) Dostoevsky and (Leo) Tolstoy. Today I read (José) Saramago, (J.M.G.) Le Clézio and Javier Marías.
But it was only in the 1970s and 1980s that I turned to contemporary poetry. Even (T.S.) Eliot and (Rabindranath) Tagore were unknown to me at that time. My six months with writers at the International Writing Program in Iowa City, US (1976-77), brought me face to face with their poetry. A sort of unknown world—vast, passionate and experimental—opened out, and I could put my poetry beside theirs.
I began to read (Arthur) Rimbaud and (Charles) Baudelaire in English translation, then (Pablo) Neruda, (Rainer Maria) Rilke, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis, Vicente Aleixandre and (Salvatore) Quasimodo.
So much of the work of poets like Neruda has left me mute. Quasimodo too. And then, there are Sylvia Plath and Carolyn Forché, who have never ceased to move me. If I made a list, I wouldn’t know where to start and where to end. The beauty in these poets lies in the manner in which we comprehend their poetry and the silence in their lines that we must honour.
But in the end, I always find something which moves me in every poet I read, almost every poet.
You have lectured about poetry at the University of Delhi and conducted creative writing workshops in Vadodara. How do you talk about poetry to young people?
I always try to impress upon young poets that I am not the one they should emulate. I don’t belong to the company of the great poets that I could presume to speak about poetry and how to go about writing a poem. My ignorance is there for all to see—in my training as a physicist, and also in the fact that I started writing poetry when I was 40. From my own experiences my poetry came, that’s the truth, and I tell younger people that. Also that a poet is a poet by virtue of what he or she sees or hears, and that itself begins the mystifying process of the poem.
You tell them that writing poetry isn’t an easy thing—a struggle for me, every time I sit down to write—and they understand. They understand that the passion for poetry also needs their flesh and blood, it is more about understanding the world they live in, and understanding their own selves.
What does poetry do in our society today, here in India?
In Odisha, and I suppose elsewhere in India too, lines of old oral poetry keep hitting us, which we murmur involuntarily, lines which do possess a moralising tone. Whether this has any effect on values in our society is irrelevant. We had an Odia poet, Bhima Bhoi, unlettered and rural, whose lines one hums now and then. This helps. It helps people like me. As to whether poetry in general does anything for society, I can’t say. I don’t think it does.
How do you write poetry? What makes you keep writing it?
There is something in me that refuses to die. It’s there, somewhere deep inside me perhaps. And this is poetry.
But my experience has taught me that I love to write poetry because I love life and cherish it. As there are risks in experience, so it is in poetry. And it is because one loves life, one cherishes the poem, its utmost power that sustains us. But again, I wouldn’t know how I write poetry. I never intended to be a poet. One looks at the world and is pained by the despair around and one finds it hard to keep silent about it.