Between Krishna and the Kitchen
A conversation with Mrigaa Sethi
Singapore, 26 June 2016
I was born in New Delhi in 1984, and I lived there until 1993 when my parents moved to Thailand. They were around the age I am now when we moved. We moved to Bangkok, where I grew up. At the age of 18, I moved to Boston to go to undergrad school. I went back to New York for my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) at New York University. I had some visa problems so I couldn’t stay in the United States. I moved back to Thailand and relocated to Singapore when I was 29 to be managing editor at SG Magazine. When I was still in university and grad school, long-haul flights gave me a lot of time alone to think and write. I was also quite lonely in the US; both unhappily and happily alone.
How much of these diverse cultures have you taken into your writing?
I think my imagination has become more and more brittle as I get older, so it’s useful to hold onto myth and stories that used to resonate with me as a child.
Possibly as a function of my work, which is an organised, timeline-driven kind of work, it’s hard to hold to a nimble, associative imagination. It’s strange to me how little of Bangkok is in my writing, because it’s the place I’ve lived longer than anywhere else. But the places that have impacted me the most are India and the United States. The India that I carry with me is an India of the mind. It’s an imagination-based place for me because I spent so little physical time there.
The US is where I received my poetic training, so I read a lot of American poetry, and spent time with American poets. It was the first time I was really alone with my mind.
Thai culture hasn’t impacted me in a literary sense, simply because I haven’t read a lot of Thai literature. I’m not fluent in speaking Thai, although I am quite good. But I don’t read in Thai.
Do you repress the poet in you while you’re at work?
In some ways, I think my day job couldn’t require more different things of me than my life as a poet. It might seem creative, but it’s really very outcome-based. And when your mind wants to go into poetry land, it can feel quite oppressive. It’s not an environment that can absorb dreamy impulses or thoughts. People at work probably think its eccentric, sweet or funny, depending on how positively they're feeling about me in general, that I’m doing a reading after work, or that I’m writing poetry.
MY FATHER’S BODY
Hanuman shrinks his body to the size
of a tiny creature, moving adorably
under closed doors to explore the city
of the enemy. A few episodes later,
he will tear open his chest, the flesh
parting neatly like curtains, and behind
we will see an image of the family,
the ardor represented by flames.
A year into sobriety, my father is taking
a weekend nap. An innocence has returned
to his body. His paunch is pressed against
his shirt. The dark hairs that peep out
from his collar are blameless.
His breath parts his lips with the soft
sputtering sound of a baby. Switching
channels beside him, I imagine I am
his father. Or a little girl home alone
with a furry creature. I could kiss
every hair on his head. I could crush him.
He feels small enough to hold in my palm.
A sweet, devoted monkey-god who
makes himself bigger than a mountain,
to fly you home on his back, or who
with a burning tail, sets a city on fire.
How do you keep poetry alive in your life?
It’s hard. I definitely write less after my MFA. One reason is the tyranny of having a day job and a smartphone. The whole time I was in the MFA, before the advent of the smartphone, I would just sit on buses and stare out the window or read a book. The smartphone has really changed what you do with your brain. Uber as well. It’s really not conducive to poetry. It’s too quick.
Does poetry belong to an older age? A quieter, more reflective time?
The act of reading and writing appears more absurd more than ever, but it’s probably more revolutionary now than it’s ever been. If your function as a subject of capitalism is to work twelve-hour days, play on your phone then take an Uber to a whisky-tasting, if you’re comfortably middle-class, then stopping all of that for a minute to read a poem is a small revolution.
What is the prime mover in your poems?
I’m very pre-occupied with family stories. At Pooja Nansi’s recent performance of You Are Here, she said that in the absence of actual real roots, what you have are shimmering memories. And I think that’s very true, it’s a universal experience of people who no longer live where they are born, who have experienced some kind of disruption. And my life has had two major splinters, from India to Thailand, and from Thailand to the US.
I also think a lot about Hindu myths and scriptures, especially since the Ramayana is really an expatriate narrative, where you leave your home and you return changed. Although when he comes back, everyone is really pleased to see him, and not much time is spent on thinking whether he will be able to adapt or does he just pick up where he left off, which obviously can’t happen.
How does silence translate into your poetry?
I used to write a lot of poems that were either about Hindu gods or set in the kitchen. Krishna or kitchen, it could go both ways. A lot of my poems are about silence or sitting in silence.
If I have no wheels, I am no chariot.
If I have no chariot, I am no Kshatriya, no defender of poets and sages, no benevolent committer of acts.
If I am alone in my kitchen on a winter morning, the rattling bones are mine, the humming chest and aching nipples are mine, the cold spoons are mine.
If Krishna is in my kitchen on a winter morning, the kitchen is our chariot. The three—kitchen, Krishna and I— make a fixed thing.
If the kitchen is our chariot, the city is a field where I must act.
If I leave the kitchen, the chariot does not follow beneath my feet.
Our chariot has a roof and walls, no windows and no wheels.
If Krishna is not here—he is often not here—his side is empty, not for me to plant my other foot.
If a woman loves me in my kitchen, it is when Krishna is not here. She stands where Krishna stood.
Krishna says, “If I am here and you are here, our chariot—without horse or wheel—is already on the field.”
If our chariot has no wheels or horses, what kind of chariot is it?
If the chariot does not move across the day, I dismount it to find my way through the field, but don’t.
If a woman loves me in the field, without chariot or Krishna, how can her eyes perceive me?
How can she follow me back to the standing kitchen?
What about the settings of your poems?
My poems are universally located but set in domestic spaces. The kitchen comes up a lot. My writing doesn’t really have place names. The markers tend to be interior. Domestic spaces, for me, are the only constant when countries change. The feeling of being alone and quiet in my kitchen has been a constant throughout my life.
Does Singapore inspire you?
Post-MFA has been a drifting away from the state of mind conducive to poetry. But I’ve come to the end of that trajectory, and now I’m feeling deeply limited by my adult life, and feel like I need to explore different ways to nourish myself. So I feel incredibly lucky to be in Singapore; it’s a combination of the people I’ve met here, a lot of whom are poets and have been incredibly generous, inviting me into their sphere whether it is to read, or to their houses for parties. I know that there’s a lot that can be said about the state of poetry or free speech in Singapore, but for me, I feel incredibly lucky. And I never thought I’ll be the kind of person to say ‘I feel incredibly lucky,’ in an interview, but I do.
Tell me about poets who have influenced you.
I love individual poems more than collections. From a general reader’s perspective, I think the individual poem is possibly more important than the collection. So I think about poems that mean a lot of me on a personal level, and I keep coming back to them, because they slay you and they stay with you.
There’s a poem by May Swenson called Question and the first stanza goes,
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
and it goes on with a really percussive rhythm. And it’s never left me, because of its percussive single syllables and the innocence of the question that runs through it.
I also like poems that propose an absurd premise like it’s the most normal thing in the world. For example, this poem by American poet Phillis Levin, called A Needle In The Sky:
There is a needle in the sky
Being threaded now, but the thread is blue:
That is why you cannot see it
Threading its way.
And there’s a poem by Brenda Shaughnessy that goes:
I have a time machine
But unfortunately it can only travel into the future
at a rate of one second per second.
How do you read a poem?
I don’t read it like a writer. I get very impatient with poems that don’t speak to me directly. I understand that poems you don’t like personally are useful to you as a writer and you may refer to them when you’re trying to figure something out. For example, C.A. Conrad was just in Singapore and I can’t say, without listening to him in person, that I would follow each of his books. I might enjoy a poem here or there. But I am working on a series of poems now where I think reading his work will be really useful.
I like what’s left unsaid in a poem. I like craft that can be easily seen. That’s why I think contemporary American poetry appeals to me a lot, because its in this post-formal phase, making a return to formal poetry without using received forms that much. Or maybe it’s a deep anxiety, maybe American lyric poets are uncomfortable with how their navel-gazing work seems absurd in a time where more and more horrible things are happening, and maybe form is a way to reconcile or undergird something that might feel frivolous otherwise.
On another note, what I do like about stage poetry is that its much more comfortable in abstractions. So it doesn’t feel abashed about dealing directly with injustice or taking a personal role in victimisation. And as I get older, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with lyric poetry about personal experience that does not touch on larger problems in the world, but at the same time, I ask myself, am I going to keep writing about my kitchen for the next thirty years?
Any poetry recommendations?
1. Olio by Tyehimba Jess
A voice-driven collection where he takes on the lives of African-Americans through history.
2. Look by Solmaz Sharif (upcoming July 2016)
A look at the Department of Defense’s glossary of terms they have been using through the various wars.
3. Driving Without A License by Janine Joseph
It’s about being an undocumented poet (illegal immigrant) in the United States.
4. Kith by Divya Victor (late 2016)
A collection of poems about women, South Indian women and the Indian diaspora.
DEER IN SHIRAZ
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.
—Jack Gilbert, “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”
Who has seen the deer in Shiraz?
It entered easy and unnoticed
like a breath, a speck through the arches,
impossible to see against sandy ruins,
unreported in the newspapers.
It drinks from garden pools and makes no ripple.
It circles the tombs of poets, who do not stir.
It vanishes behind grapevines, behind carpets draped on looms.
The sleepless say they have seen it from windows
walking through the neighborhood, its tiny body
glowing under street lamps. They say it walks into
traffic and stares down headlights. The deer in Shiraz
is a myth people think of waiting for the bus, leaving
parties, regarding their faces in the morning
mirror. The deer in Shiraz is the word for a feeling.
The deer in Shiraz is the refrain for a ghazal
forgotten by Hafez—a deer is not, after all, a gazelle.
The deer in Shiraz is a story you cannot tell all at once.
Months go by since anyone has seen the deer in Shiraz.
Then you are walking home under the moon when
it turns the corner and looks you in the eye.
But who would you tell? The deer in Shiraz
will be gone before you have a chance to speak.
The deer in Shiraz is a promise never made.
The deer in Shiraz is a trojan without a door through
which to empty what’s inside and annihilate the city.
It doesn’t know why it’s there. It doesn’t wonder.
You could live a lifetime and never see it again,
missing it by a moment, stopped for a second
every day for thousands of days, until you are old.
I have seen the deer in Shiraz. I have spoken to it,
said everything. It blinked with heavy lids for long
minutes, then walked past, grazing my knuckles.
The deer in Shiraz is a breath encircled by my body
but not touched, my body encircled by the room
but not touched. The fan lifting the hairs on my arm.
Deer in Shiraz, come out. It’s time to go,
easy and unnoticed like a breath.
Come out, come out, wherever you are.