Professor R. K. Singh interviewed by Patricia Prime
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Ram Krishna Singh was born in 1950 in Varanasi, India. He is a university professor, Indian English poet, critic and reviewer. He received an M.A. (English Lit., Banares Hindu University, 1972) and PhD. (English, Kashi Vidapith, 1981). Dr. Singh has been on the faculty of the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, since 1976 and teaching English language skills to students of earth and mineral sciences. He is married to Durga Singh and has two children, Vikram and Winny. Professor Singh has published more than 130 research articles, 140 book reviews, and 26 books, including ten collections of poems. His major collections have been well received and include: My Silence and Other Selected Poems: 1974-1994 (1996), Above the Earth’s Green (1997), Every Drop Stone Pebble (1999, jointly with Catherine Mair and Patricia Prime), Cover to Cover (2002, jointly with U. S. Bahri) and Pacem in Terris (2003, jointly with Myriam Pierri and Giovanni Campisi). His poems have also appeared in over 125 anthologies and 170 journals and e-zines.
Below is an example of R. K. Singh’s poetry for readers who may not be familiar with his work. It is taken from Above the Earth’s Green (1997):
there is a bay in
each of us depression mounts
to cause hurricane
crumbling caged life and
its traps submerged in rising
water and wind wipes
pressure in silence
unweave years of network
roots of upturned faces
PP: When did you first start writing?
RKS: I think it just happened when I was hardly 12 and wrote my first poem in Hindi: it appeared in the children’s magazine section of the daily Aj (Varanasi). I dabbled in several poems and succeeded in publishing them in Hindi newspapers and magazines. I also published over 150 journalistic articles besides around ten short stories in Hindi up to 1971-72. As I became aware that my articles were more popular than the poems, from 1968-69, I started writing in English as well, and produced a large number of third-rate verses.
As the influence of the Romantic, Victorian and Modern poets waned, the phase of “preparation” completed with my attempt at writing my “diary” in verse from October 1972 to December 1973. There was a lot to feel and say after leaving the monotonous life at Varanasi, and going to Pulgaon (to teach) and returning again and visiting several places (in search of a job), going to Lucknow (to work in the Gazetteers Dept.), New Delhi (as a journalist trainee), and finally to Bhutan (as lecturer) where from March 1974 to November 1975, I composed almost a poem a day. It’s a different matter, in retrospect, that very few of the poems could be published.
PP: Which Indian poets/writers have most influenced your work?
RKS: I don’t know. I doubt I have read many established poets with a view to emulating them. I give credit to none for influencing my work, but I did enjoy the work of Sri Aurobindo, Rabindranath Tagore, A. K. Coomarswamy, S. Radhakrishnan, Jawaharlal Nehru, M. K. Gandhi, Nirad C. Chaudhury, Nissam Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Shiv K. Kumar, Krishna Srinivas, Khushwant Singh, Amrita Pritam, et al.
PP: Which European poets/writers do you most admire?
RKS: Frankly speaking, after becoming a teacher I couldn’t get much free time to read writers outside my limited academic and professional concerns. But till my early twenties, I could read with great interest Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Ibsen, Chekhov, Gorky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Mayakovski, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivan Illich, Herbert Marcuse, Satre, Herbert Read, Baudelaire, Mallarme, Kenneth Clark, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Camus, Fritjof Capra, Somerset Maugham, Pablo Neruda, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Northrop Frye, Murray Krieger, and my American poet friend, Lyle Glazier. There are others too, but I can’t readily recall their names.
PP: In what way did the move into another language and culture influence your writing?
RKS: Human nature is the same everywhere, so it hardly affects me when I move from my Indian culture into the English speaking culture and verbally share what is our common experiences, feelings, attitudes, fears, expectations etc. I seek to express something universal just as when I write in English. I think in English, remaining my own true self. As I said elsewhere I am my own veil and revelation and as long as my poems read well, it’s o.k.
PP: Has bilingualism influenced the way in which you write?
RKS: I have not written in Hindi in the last three decades. Writing in English poses no problem: it comes to me naturally, easily, and conveniently. But, if at times, there is any unconscious influence, well, it should be more enriching than negative. For a writer bilingualism/multilingualism is a strength.
PP: How does that kind of compromised relationship with language relate to your connection with two cultures, as an individual, and as a writer?
RKS: There is no “compromised relationship” as such. I have been writing in English by choice. But, don’t you think the geographical spread of English both as an international and international language has strengthened global integration? The acculturation, the international functional range, and the diverse forms of literary creativity the English language accommodates today is unprecedented. I am happy as a poet to be contributing towards it. There is no cultural conflict or tension in my use of English. Let me also remind you what George Steiner said about 25 years ago: “To know another language well, to penetrate the reflexes of awareness and judgement in its idioms, to experience in personal immediacy the transparencies or opaqueness which link or divide it from one’s native speech – to do these things is, quite literally, to harvest a second self. It is to open a second window on the landscape of being.”
PP: As an individual, do you see a kind of gap opening up between your native culture and language and the adopted one of English?
RKS: As I indicated, since the English language as a medium has been an integral part of my environment, it doesn’t interfere with the native culture as such. Whatever is culturally relevant in the local situation happens in the local/native medium, without any problem, even if one used English most of the time, including at home. In fact, English has already been well acculturated in the native environment and if one sees any gap, it is merely political. However, as an individual poet, I may not be accessible to the audience not knowing English.
PP: Would you describe yourself principally as an academic writer, a reviewer, a poet, or critic – or perhaps all of the above?
RKS: Presently, perhaps, all of the above. But I have always tried to keep the academic writer separate from the creative poet in me, though when I review, or do a critical article, the academic in me is also working.
Yet I must admit I have always tried to maintain a balance between my academic activities that give me my bread and professional status, and poetic creativity
that gives me an identity in Indian English writing but no money. As I hope I will continue to write and practise poetry, I should be principally known as a poet.
PP: What criteria do you think makes a good critic?
RKS: A good critic, besides knowing the subject matter, is also a sensitive reader with broadness of outlook, understanding, tolerance, sensibility, and vision. He/she is free from prejudices and able to empathise, recognise, and respond. He/she is free from rigid literary orthodoxies and capable of negotiating differences and facilitating communication. The critic should help to develop reason, emotions, senses and tastes to a great measure, by re-searching art, re-viewing media and meaning, re-making minds, re-thinking aesthetics and traditions, re-imaging the past, re-interpreting the present. The good critic is essentially creative and contributes to knowledge in a positive, future-looking mode.
PP: What criteria do you think makes a good reviewer?
RKS: Almost the same as what makes a good critic. Empathy, recognition, and responsiveness are the basic traits of a good reviewer, too. The reviewer must have faith in the author and view his/her work in the present. He/she need not be a scholar, but able to communicate the author’s text and context with a view to objective presentation. He/she must be able to negotiate between the author and the reader and provide a reasonable critical space to appraise the former, who may be different from the reader, culturally, socially and politically.
PP: As a writer of various genres, and different cultures, which particular books have influenced you?
RKS: Though the Holy Bible has been most inspiring, I can’t recall what specially I read at different points of time that might have influenced my work. Most of the time I read a book or article or poem, enjoy it, and forget about it, looking for something new or fresh. If it is informative, I may take notes, if it is creatively thrilling, it may incite me into writing a poem. So, if one finds any influence in my work, it should be a collective influence rather than an individual influence. Also, I have no patience for a long work, so I hardly read it, unless academically/professionally necessary. My involvement has been more with poetry, mostly by new/less known people, irrespective of the country or culture of origin.
PP: When did you first become interested in writing haiku and tanka?
RKS: I think my first exposure to haiku was via the haiku/translations by Ezra Pound in one of the books of his collected poems in the late 1970s. I used to see haiku in Poet (Madras) also, but I couldn’t understand it much till about 1981-82 when I started using 5-7-5 stanza structure in my poems. Occasionally I wrote haiku, senryu and tanka from 1983 onwards and published them in various journals in India and abroad, but I developed a serious interest in its art and craft from about the early 1990s and subsequently published some of them in Prophetic Voices, Noreal, Manxa, Azami, Micropress NZ, Micropress Yates, WinterSpin, La Pierna Tierna, Creative Forum, Poet, Poetcrit, Skylark, Sparrow, Paper Wasp, RAW NeRVZ, Mirror, Lilliput Review, Hobo, Forum, Puck and Pluck, Kanora, Moongate, Simply Words, Timber Creek Review Cer*ber*us, etc.
Thanks go to Sid (Mohammed H. Siddiqui of Baltimore, USA), who exposed me to quality haiku writing through his liberal gift of the copies of Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Haiku Headlines, Lynx, American Tanka, Tanka Splendor, Tanka Journal etc., and above all, his own theme-based selections of Seasonal Haiku Greetings (SGL) that he has been mailing to friends all over the world since 1990.
Credit also goes to you, Pat, for helping me understand haiku, senryu and tanka so that we could publish our joint collection Every Stone Drop Pebble (1998).
David McMurray of asahi.com has also helped me to write haiku in 3-5-3 syllables. My latest collection of haiku “Peddling Dreams” in Pacem in Terris (2003) reveals the variety in my three-liners.
Below are two examples of R. K. Singh’s 3-5-3 haiku taken from Pacem in Terris (2003):
sheds its sultry light –
her bare back
at the window hear
PP: How does this short form of Japanese poetry find expression in your work in progress?
RKS: Because I have been mostly writing brief personal lyrics for the last 25 years, and because I love personal poetry, I have found the Japanese verse forms in English suited to my temperament. In fact, in most of my regular poems, the haiku rhythm should be easily discernable. It seems to have been the basic unit of my poetical expression.
PP: What do you think your aim or goal is as a writer?
RKS: To have a sense of relief, or feeling of emancipation to feel lighter when the tension is resolved with the birth of a poem or article. And, if the poem pleases the readers, or the article motivates them I feel blessed. I don’t think I write with any idealistic notion.
But if you are referring to my academic writing, or research or teaching, then, the aim is to demonstrate or achieve a higher level of professionalism.
I am also committed to promote a study of new/less known Indian English authors that have been ignored by the media and academia alike.
PP: What is next on your agenda as a writer?
RKS: To have a collection of my tanka published as early as possible. I would also like to bring out a collection of my regular poems besides a collection of essays on my poetry to help interested scholars probe my creativity in perspective. The manuscript is already lying with a publisher, but let me see when it sees the light of day.
PP: And what more long-term projects or interests do you have?
RKS: To reach out to a larger audience as a poet; to motivate scholars to study new/less known/ neglected Indian English poets and authors; and to promote collaborative literary practices internationally.
PP: What do you think is the status of an interview like this, and its format?
RKS: It’s an exercise in international/cross-cultural mediation, which exposes a relatively less known author to new audiences. It should also help in promoting global understanding and integration.
First published in MOONGATE INTERNATIONAL and INDIAN BOOKS CHRONICLE
R K Singh