AN INTERVIEW WITH POET-PROFESSOR R.K. SINGH
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By Professor R.B. Singh
(The interview was taken on 05 September 2012 at the residence of Professor R.K.Singh in Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad)
RBS: Sir, you are a leading English poet today having published a number of volumes of poetry. Please tell me, what was your first poem and when you wrote it?
RKS: It’s so kind of you to have thought about me and talk to me about my poetry. I feel obliged to you.
I have been writing in English since my undergraduate days. If I correctly recall, the first poem in English was composed in 1967 and it appeared in the Deutsche Welle Club radio magazine in February 1968. I was 17 years old then. I would like to quote it for record:
Like a butterfly
From this flower to that
From this garden to that
In the dawn
Catches its golden delighted feather
Without carrying off the pleasant weather
It’s internal fire in a moment
And creeps away
Having the marks of its shades.
As far collections, My Silence is the first volume. It was published in 1985 by late Krishna Srinivas’s Poets Press India, Madras. Till now 14 collections have appeared. I should, however, mention three, The River Returns (2006), Sexless Solitude and Other Poems (2009), and Sense and Silence: Collected Poems (2010), that drew international attention. My newest collection, Selected and NewPoems Tanka and Haiku appeared a few months ago.
RBS: But, weren’t you writing in Hindi also?
RKS: Yes, I remember having written my first poem in Hindi at the age of about 12, in June 1962. The poem appeared in a Hindi daily AJ of Varanasi, where I was born in December 1950, brought up and educated. My interest in literary activities and enthusiasm never waned since then.
RBS: Could I get a copy of the poem?
RKS: I’m afraid it’s lost now. I had it I a file till about the end of 1990s. But now the file is missing. I can’t locate it. In fact, the file contained ‘cuttings’ of many of my poems, journalistic writing, and even a few short stories….
RBS: Could you tell me more about your writing in Hindi?
RKS: From my High School days onwards, I dabbled in several poems and published in newspapers – dailies and weeklies—and magazines in Hindi. I remember some of these appeared in Sanmarg, Gandiva, Samachar Times, Yugpath, Friends Eorld, Rawanti, Jyotishmati, Tarun Vishwas, etc under the pen-name ‘Tahira’. The missing file I mentioned contained over 150 journalistic articles besides eight to ten stories published upto 1971-72.
But, as I realized that my articles in Hindi dailies and weeklies were more read and popular that the poems, from 1968-69 I started writing in English, too, and produced a large number of third-rate verses. Possibly, for this reason, a couple of my teachers in BHU, where I was a student of M.A. from 1970 to 1972, dissuaded me from writing verses in English. But I persisted in my efforts according to my own evolving sensibility. In retrospect, I am happy what I could not do in Hindi (which indeed is now very advanced and comparable with literature in any country) I have been successful in doing in Hindi.
RBS: That’s quite interesting. You are essentially a bilingual poet.
RKS: In a way, yes. But I have not been regularly writing in Hindi, even as 2 or 3 poems in a year or two may naturally happen in Hindi. If you like, I may share my last poem composed in Hindi on 22 March 2011: सिलवटें /वैसी ही जैसे /महीनो़ं पहले .
RBS: Sir, This leads me to another basic question: what inspires you to write poetry? Do you feel differently from others?
RKS: I don’t know. One may be inspired by anything. Literally, any thing, any body, any event, any person. Sometimes, even while reading a book : you start reading and you feel that you can write something, and then you start writing. Or simply, you feel like writing, and write! The source of creative inspiration has always been mysterious. I have composed poems while walking, eating, taking bath, defecating, or even interacting with people. You may also say, my personal experiences with people in waking life, my dreamt dreams, seeing good paintings, and reading good writing have been inspiring my creativity, though some part is also played by the completely demotivating environment of camps life in Dhanbad.
As for the second part of your question, I think one can’t be effective as a poet unless one is different from others. I would not have survived as a poet if I had not been feeling differently from others. I suspect I suffer with my sensitive and generous nature and have been aware of my vulnerability too. Sometimes I also feel that I have been trying to discover and celebrate who we really are vis-à-vis the chaos of life, or burst of adrenaline and confused thinking that results from it? Or perhaps, I ask questions and seek answers from within, and remain true to my self.
RBS: Do you have any target audience?
RKS: Yes, whatever I write, I write to communicate with the educated, English-knowing audience at home and abroad. Using the internet, and particularly my blogs, I seek to reach out to a larger audience.
RBS: What is the concept of sex in your poetry? Are you obsessed with sex?
RKS: I am not obsessed with sex but it interests me most. Sex is a very vital presence in our life; it is a major constituent of our body and mind. We can’t deny it. When God created us as male and female, he created sex and wanted us to live in harmony. God didn’t deny coitus. We are flesh in sensuality and there is divinity in it. The fleshly unity is the reality, the passage to experience divinity, and its expression means to glorify Him in body. Biblically, the taste of the forbidden fruit in Eden is the awareness of physical attraction in man and woman just as the Tree of Knowledge is actually the knowledge of sex and love. Therefore, I consider sex as a positive presence in my poetry.
It is largely your insight into how you respond to it or how delightful to the senses or challenging to the mind you find it, or how you want to interpret my creative perception of meaning in the world. I touch many themes, individual passion, historic-mythical awareness, human relationship, social consciousness, and become my own veil and revelation.
In the subjective process of creation, it is normal for a poet to create out of himself: I am no exception. If whatever outside I see excites the inner vision, if I feel sex as truth and render the experience with beauty and power, then it is my poetic success.
In fact my social vision intersects the private and sexual. There is some sense in sexpression, in love of the self through exploration of the body, or naked physicality, leading to love of the divine, or man and woman as one.
As I said elsewhere, sex is a metaphor: the encounter of man and woman, man and man, woman and woman to express relationships, concerns, roles, to react against false ethical and cultural values, against stereotypes and prejudices, against hypocrisy. It is through the inner mindscape, the subjective experiences, the hidden sexual facts that one explores the profound truths. As a poet, if I use human passion, including the sexual, I try to transmute and transmit memories of experience, possibly more with a sense of irony than erotic sexuality.
So, in my concept of sex, the human body is a picture of the human soul, celebrated to understand the self and the world. If I seems to glorify nudity or use sex imagery, I do so to explore the consciousness, the inner landscape, lost in the muddle of external chaos.
RBS: Sir, aren’t you endorsing ‘sex to superconsciousness’?
RKS: No. I am not endorsing use of sex/sexuality as a means to attain to superconsciousness. I am rather saying that the readers, with a taste for imagery, symbolism, irony, and awareness of the present need to appreciate variation on sexuality in poetry since the 1960s-- nakedness, nudity, sensuality, obsession, imagined or real pleasure, woman’s body as the form, object and route to inner reality to mitigate spiritual dissatisfaction. It is ultimately positive as it helps to relate our existence to poetry’s existence as art, something that elevates as also protects us from violence without.
RBS: How do you regard women? Are they the ‘better half’?
RKS: Equal to men, or, naturally more endowed than men. As our ancient literatures, the Vedas and the Upanishads would vouchsafe, sex is the source of happiness in equality, in oneness of man and woman, in love. Then, you know there is the concept of ardhareeshwar also.
RBS: Matthew Arnold said: Poetry can replace religion. Does your poetry claim to teach religion?
RKS: I don’t trust the institution of religion in the conventional sense, nor do I write poetry to preach religion. To me, values like hope, faith and love are the better substitute. In my poetry I am non-religious and non-moral. I stand for compassion and direct perception rather than religion.
RBS: What are the influences on your poetry? How does your family background contribute to your line of thinking?
RKS: I come from a humble family. My grandfather was a freedom fighter. My father is a self-made man with very liberal and progressive outlook. I have been brought up to think independently and take responsibility for all my action. The family has no prejudices of caste, creed, community, colour, relgion, region, or even nationality. So I grew up to be my own self in my own way. This has persisted throughout and has distinct influence on my poetry too.
As for the literary influences, I must acknowledge the impact of my American poet-professor friend, late Lyle Glazier, whom I met in 1971-72 as a student and with whom I stayed in touch for about 25 years till his death. He was my best poet-critic friend. In fact I learnt from him how to edit a poem. He helped me edit My Silence (1985). Reading his poetry, I discovered my own poetic sensibilsity.
Then, the Psalms of the Bible has been another influence.
As I have been mostly reading new, less known/unknown poets from India and abroad, I can’t mention any names from the canon. Researchers will have to explore and find out similarities and differences.
RBS: You have been published copiously abroad. Are you satisfied with the recognition you have received?
RKS: If I am considered an Indian English poet, it is important to have recognition in India which gives me my identity and existence. However, it’s always gratifying to appear in a foreign magazine.
RBS: How do Haiku and Tanka interest you? How do they appeal to the general reader?
RKS: I have been practicing these difficult Japanese forms for over 25 years. Initially, I used these as stanzas of my regular poems, but it took me about 15 years to understand the essential spirit of haiku and tanka as independent poems.
Since most of my regular poems are brief, personal and lyrical, the haiku and taka forms happened naturally and I had good success with these in almost all the leading journals abroad. I think now I have absorbed their spirit.
RBS: It is felt that you have departed from the standard syllabic form of haiku. Why so?
RKS: Initially, I followed the standard 5-7-5 lines of haiku and 5-7-5-7-7 lines of tanka, but over the years I could use 3-5-3, 4-6-4 and free-form haiku if these instantly happened following the experience (or perception) of a moment. Many poets writing haiku in English are now using free form to remain true to the haiku spirit or haiku moment.
RBS: Have your works been translated into other languages? How is the response outside India?
RKS: It is encouraging to find some readers of my poetry abroad. My haiku collection Peddling Dream (in the trilogy Pacem in Terris) appeared in English and Italian in 2003. Sexless Solitude and Other Poems (2009) was translated into Greek and appeared on lulu.com (January 16, 2010). Bunches of my poems have been translated into Chinese, Albanian, Japanese, French, Spanish, Romanian, Serbian, Croatian, Slovene, Bulgarian, German, Portuguese, Esperanto, Hindi, Punjabi, Kannada, Tamil, Bangla, and other languages. From time to time I google and find it out. So, the response kto my poetry has not been bad.
RBS: How do you account for the absence of punctuation marks in your poetry?
RKS: It helps me achieve a sort of ‘ambiguity’ in a poem and continuity from one poem to another. It also gives a sort of freedom to readers to choose their own pause(s) and recreate their meanings differently. I think it also provides a different style to my poems, like enjambment -- the running on of the thought from one line , couplet, or stanza to the next without a syntactical break.
RBS: You are not in the habit of giving titles to your poems, but in your recent collection you have given titles. Why so?
RKS: It is simply for the convenience of identifying a poem in a volume of selected poems. I still believe that titles tell too much, and in the new collection, no title is integral to the design of the poem. In my volume of Collected Poems , there are no titles.
RBS: How do you perceive the future of Indian English poetry?
RKS: It is promising. There are several new voices that have emerged on the scene since 2000 and I am confident some of them will survive as major poets.
Yet, the academia and media need to turn to poets on the periphery, read them and encourage research on their works, instead of repeating the few names only and endangering the survival of the very genre of Indian English Poetry.
RBS: One last question, Sir. Do you read your critics? How does unpleasant criticism affect you?
RKS: I read every comment on my poems that comes to my notice. Unless the comment is mischievous, motivated or deliberately written to degrade or defame me (or any other fellow poet I know), I do not react. It is important for me that they stopped by my poems (in print or electronic media) and shared their views. I feel obliged to readers who offer even unpleasant comments.
RBS: Thanks for sparing some time to me for an enlightening conversation.
RKS: I too am honoured to have a long talk with you about my poetry and myself…. All the best
R K Singh