‘Poetry is not difficult but safe poetry is boring’

Poet, journalist and feminist, Anindita Sengupta has multiple sides to her personality. Her poetry has appeared in several journals like Eclectica, Nth Position, Pratilipi and many anthologies. She is also founder-editor of Ultra Violet, a site for contemporary feminism in India. Winner of the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing in 2008, she recently released her first full-length collection of poems City of Water, published by Sahitya Akademi.

“I’ve been writing all my life, in some form or the other,” says Sengupta. “There were some laughable and embarrassing attempts at a detective story when I was 10, and some terribly earnest poetry in my teens.”

Sengupta finds it hard to pin down when exactly a poem arrives. “It’s whimsical and distressing and maddening. There are poems that arrive fully formed in my head. Others languish as a line or an image for years before I can develop them,” she says.

The title of her collection, City of Water, comes from a poem in the book, a sestina about people who live in an imaginary land of constant rain — it is a place of ennui, but also of endurance, according to Sengupta. “The poems in the book are divided into six sections — thirst, a sense of rain, flash flood, drown, still water and swim. The collection is about water as life and water as death and water as everything in between,” she says.

For Sengupta, bits of news, gossip, film, art, photographs, landscape, different varieties of pain, animals, and a vast number of books may go into a single poem. “I like JM Coetzee, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison, Anne Carson, Ramanujan, Eliot, Rilke, Plath, and so many others,” she says. “Influences are always osmotic, largely unconscious, a ferment of thoughts, feelings, patterns and sensory experiences.”

True, the reading public seems to turn towards novels rather than books of poetry, but Sengupta feels bookstores have had a large role to play in encouraging this trend. “In the popular imagination, fiction definitely holds a higher place and I’m including bookshops when I say this. The poetry sections in most are pathetic. One doesn’t have access to what is published abroad, even to many books published here. It’s incredibly frustrating,” she says. “I think it’s important to mainstream poetry as a form of literature. Why is a book of poems less important or interesting than the latest chick flick or a cookbook? It’s not. But by relegating it to the back shelves, bookshops give the message that it is.”

Sengupta believes a love of poetry must be cultivated from an early age. If poetry is unpopular with younger readers today, she feels the fault may lie primarily in how poetry is taught in schools.

“School children are generally not encouraged to talk about risky things. Poetry is often about such things. It’s hard to combine the teaching of literature with the teaching of moral science. Safe poems tend to be boring,” she says. “Given these limitations, I suppose the best that can be done is to choose wisely and get students to appreciate the sonic aspects.”

Although a lot of people resist poetry under the impression it is “difficult”, Sengupta asserts it is better not to entirely counter this view. “I’m not sure something should be done to peddle poetry as ‘easy’. Not all poetry is ‘difficult’ but it frequently requires certain willingness on the part of the reader to enter and experience complex thought or emotion,” she says.

Published in DNA, July 26th 2010