The following is an interview by Thomas Hesketh, Poetry Editor of Forum, with Athena Kashyap.
What’s it like to be named after a goddess?
Well, the thing is it’s not just any goddess, it’s a Greek goddess. A lot of Indians have the names of goddesses. Growing up in India with the name of a Greek goddess is kind of unique, but I think that my mother liked the name and she also liked to do things that stood out. I have a whole essay devoted to what it was like growing up with a Western goddess’s name.
Can you bring us up to date as to what your present situation is?
I grew up in India and I moved to the U.S. when I was 18 to study. I lived here for twenty years. My husband and I then relocated back to Bangalore. We’d never lived there as adults. We were there for seven years. We thought it was going to be just a year or two, but it ended up to be seven years. Then we came back two years ago and have been here ever since. We moved back into the same house we lived in before. So, it’s all back to square one.
Do you consider yourself bicultural?
Oh, absolutely! I was in India until I was eighteen. I turned eighteen, and a day or two later I left to continue my education here, and I’ve been in the U.S. most of the time since.
How do you begin your poems?
You know, with poetry, I actually work on a computer, but my advice to young poets would be to just find a poet they really like, and study them, and maybe try and write a couple of poems in their style. That would teach you far more than any other thing, to really get inside the head of one poet. They say that really good poets find one poet that they can learn from, and then are able to do their own thing, to have their own voice. So I think finding that one person is a key point and then learning the craft well enough so that you develop your own voice outside of that.
Do you write for a particular audience?
I would like to that I say that I write for a general audience, but I find that when I went back to review my choice of titles, and what I put underneath those titles, and then definitely in my recent book itself, Sita’s Choice, I had to keep in mind that the audience does not have any background in Indian culture. While writing the poems I didn’t do that, so then I had to add in relevant background information.
The Glossary at the end of Sita’s Choice was very helpful when I was reading the poems. As the title suggests, it is evident the collection revolves around Sita, the Indian goddess, and her story. Is this a prominent theme in your writing in general or just true in this collection?
That’s true just in this new collection. My earlier collection, Crossing Black Water, was about borders, and all kinds of borders, actual physical geographical borders, borders of mountains, rivers, political boundaries, such as Pakistan versus India, and also psychological borders between life and death. So, in both these books, I took on a big idea as a theme and linked poems, which is why each of them has taken me so long to complete.
I notice you used the term “linked poems” in both your last response and in your Introduction to Sita’s Choice. Did you decide on a theme for the book and then write the poems or did you write a collection of poems, and then cull those poems to include ones that matched a theme?
That’s a really good question. I think with Crossing Black Water I had a number of poems already and I saw an underlying theme, and that’s when I pushed that situation a little bit more to complete a book. With Sita’s Choice, I had a couple of poems about women. I had about three of four that I had pulled out from my first book before it was published, because I had this idea I would write a separate book about women. The second book took me a little longer. I’m not sure I would do that again, because these books take so long, because you cannot manufacture poem about something on demand. Some are a little more manufactured or constructed that I would ordinarily have liked!
How do you practice your craft as a poet, and what themes interest you?
Well, for me it’s the idea, I get an idea about something, like in my first book, Crossing Dark Waters, I have this poem about the new wilderness, and this is a poem about how we lost the wild. I always write a lot about nature, but we’ve lost the wild in us. There’s no wilderness anymore; the only wilderness there is, is in our minds. Books have taken the place of woods and trees. I’ve had this notion for a long time, and I didn’t take notes on it. I didn’t take anything. I just had it, you know, permeating in my mind, and then finally one day I wrote it. That’s after I had been thinking about it so much. I think that some of my good poems, without question, some of my better ones have been a result of that process.
Another example is that I have a poem about my father’s death when I was nine years old, but that poem came after so many years of letting the emotions sit, and then I wrote it in one sitting. Some of my better poems happen after an idea or emotion has percolated for a while. I find since I just started writing again, my poems are very different than before, and I’m very excited about them because I’m working more with tone. I feel a lot of my older poems are very serious poems and are not very playful. Now, I’m working more with tone and play, but also issues such as, what does it mean to be an ex-pat in India, and then, vice versa, a Westerner really into yoga. These cultural juxtapositions are really interesting to me now, and I feel that I can really play with them.
To the extent that your poems speak broadly about women’s rights and the women’s situation in India, are your observations meant to be limited to India or do they extend worldwide to the status of women?
I’ve taken the example of India, but I think all women can relate to the feeling, maybe the burden, of taking care of the house and children just on her own. Certain gender roles, and violence against women, are universal, which I tackle, and I also think the village-city dynamic that happens, that is very pervasive in India. You can look at it in a universal light. Farms have been becoming non-existent for a while now in the U.S. I think they have been dying out at the rate of several hundred every day since the fifties. They are still a part of life in India, but they are on the verge of contracting. So, I would like to think that my poems are universal to the condition of women.
Who do you claim as an influence in your poetry, starting you to write?
While when growing up, we went to English inspired schools, British inspired schools, so we had a very heavy Shakespeare curriculum, and a lot of the old classics. I particularly liked Shakespeare’s beat, the iambic pentameter. When I first started writing, I would have that beat in my head, and I really liked the poetry we were reading. When studying in the U.S., I liked Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I liked a number of the American poets as well, such as Sylvia Plath, but now my interests are turning to Indian writers who also write in English, and I’ve found that I’m particularly drawn to the ones who are most solidly bilingual. I’m looking to them more for inspiration.
I really like Arun Kolatkar who spoke only Murathi until he was about 15 or 16 years old, and then picked up English on his own. That’s what I mean when I say bilingual. They have a very Indian kind of world view because they’ve spoken their regional language, and then they’ve embraced English.
Your themes have some political connotations to them, don’t they?
Well, it’s political in the sense that everything has become political when it relates to myth and religion and in India. Myth is still religion, so people had fought and killed over Ram’s birthplace, Ram from the Ramayana. They have been trying to prove that his birthplace is actually Ayodha under a Muslim mosque. It has created a lot of unrest and murders.
The poems that I’ve read in Sita’s Choice include settings that are both rural and urban, and women in both contexts.
My Leela poems. She comes from the village and moves to the city. I was looking at the Leela poems and Leela as a modern day Sita because she has connections with the land and I was thinking that about that connection.
I’m entranced by the adoption of the goddess Sita as a pivotal point or point of departure for your poems and I’m interested in whether you wrote poems about life and about women and then adopted Sita as a common unifier or whether it was the reverse?
I had some ideas and Sita seemed to fit into them. I do feel that the idea of going back to the land, which Sita represents, is a universal kind of movement happening right now. We’ve gotten so distant from the land and our food production. I think this idea in the Bay Area is very big, right now, the whole movement of going back to the land, and even in the Obama White House, everybody having a back garden. Consciousness of getting back to the land and being close to the source of our food, was an idea already here, and Sita happened to be this wonderful person in mythology who pulled it together. She was born of the earth. Her mother is Mother Earth, and she goes back to the land. I kind of saw that as a great rallying cry for not only women, but for people, the human race, to go back more to the land as opposed to getting further and further away, the way we eat being distant from the actual way food is produced, so I’ve always been interested in food and how it is produced. I think that some of those ideas were percolating. When I teach a class here at CCSF, in one of my classes here I focus on food, so I always have that at the back of my mind. Sita has brought it together.
In Sita’s Choice, you’ve divided the collection into several different groupings: “Sita’s Septet,” then there’s “Body,” “Seed,” and “Soil.” I think you’ve just spoken to that, but did you write the poems thinking of those topics, or did that arrangement occur to you after you had reviewed the poems that you had written?
Well, I had number of pregnancy poems and then poems about little children, and one thing Sita is really revered for is her being this amazing mother. A lot of Indian Hindu women really look up to her for being an amazing mother, so I had these children poems, a Seed poem, and then I had poems that were more cultural. Actually, the Theyyams poem was a major part of the Soil section; because it is coming back to tradition, part of Soil means coming back to tradition, some aspect of it. And, then I had Body, like the physical manifestation of sexual harassment. It has to do with the physical differences of body and gender. So, I had these, but coming back to your question of whether what preceded what, I think I had the poems and then I tried to write one poem that spelled it out. It was Body, Seed, and Soil. Might have been too deliberate!
You have graced us with allowing us to publish “Theyyams” and you have said that you had intended to include it in Sita’s Choice and you did not. Is there a particular reason for that?
Well with “Theyyams,” I had labored on it, done a lot of work on it, and I was going to have it with my Soil section in Sita’s Choice because it’s coming back to the land, but it’s a very interesting poem in other ways because you have male actors dressing as females and seen as female goddesses. They’re very empowering female goddesses, so much so that, you know, everybody bows down to these goddesses, and like Markkam, who I write about, she was subject to total sexual harassment. In the myth she was accused falsely of adultery, just like with Sita, and then they murdered her, but she came back as a goddess, so I thought these were wonderful poems that would kind of highlight the themes in Sita’s Choice, but I felt the book was just getting very unwieldy. It’s got a number of poems, of pages already, and I didn’t want “Theyyams” to become too lost in it. If I had to do it again, I would have included it, because, as I said, I had put a lot of work into it.
Is there any practice you would advise students to avoid?
Yes, I would tell them not to write when they are not inspired. I’ve written many a bad poem when I’m not inspired (Laughs).
What are your sources of inspiration outside of poetry?
I love history. I was a history major. I read a lot in terms of magazines, now. I always enjoy reading literature, fiction, so I read a lot. I find I actually start writing more poetry when I just do more general writing. So, I think writing begets writing.
What would you recommend to community college students studying if they had an interest becoming a writer in general, perhaps with an emphasis in poetry?
When I think for a poet, a general round education is a really good one, because poetry deals a lot with ideas, and I think having a background in history, taking a number of courses across disciplines, and then also reading the newspaper, getting up to date with current events, and generally broadening the mind. All of this helps in becoming a poet. Reading about science, anything that matters in our world today.
Poets were the original philosophers. Poets deal with really tough questions, with life and death, with science and matter, so depending on what area you focus on, you can get really deep in that. You can take a lot of sociology and anthropology classes to talk about the culture, the clash of culture, but a poem can do that just as effectively.
How do approach organizing your poems for a small collection?
I would suggest there are two ways of doing it. One is to do it in a highly regulated, organized way, the way I organized Sita’s Choice, with Body, Seed, and Soil. It was very systematic. The other way is completely arbitrary; you simply toss up the poems and let the randomness speak for itself.
I’ve organized thematically. I’ve also used what I would consider the stronger poems initially, followed by the . . . you can look at it as a musical score. You want to entice people, initially with some stronger notes, and then you can vary it; you can sometimes ask yourself am I getting too heavy, so then I would intersperse it with lighter poems.
What draws you to the prose poem?
I just find more intense writing that is not really in a more common poetic form, because it’s not condensed enough, but it’s a little more intense than I find myself writing within my prose writing. So I would consider that in a prose poem every line is weighted, and so it is not condensed enough to be a poem. I think a poem is reductionist, in a way. When that doesn’t happen, but the writing is distilled more intensely than regular prose, that’s what falls into a prose poem.
When you edit and revise your poems, do you work with a group of people that you trust?
I have a poetry group that helps. My husband was a big support because he has a really good knowledge of mythology, so he was able to provide some missing information that I needed. My poetry group has been helpful as a first response and it’s helped me a lot to have someone respond to my work, to see how what’s working and what’s not.
Athena Kashyap is the author of Crossing Black Waters (SFA Press, 2012) and Sita’s Choice (SFA Press, 2019), both collections of linked poems exploring borders and women’s issues in India respectively. She was born in India, but currently makes her home in San Francisco, where she teaches English at City College of San Francisco.