The author of A Freshman&’s Welcome and the bestselling trilogy, My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree and Healing Waters Floating Lamps, Kiriti Sengupta recently saw the release of his The Earthen Flute, a bestselling collection in America on Indian literature. He works in Kolkata, a dentist by profession, and likes to nurture friendships with younger writers. Caught in a moment of contemplation after his latest book hit the shelves, here are excerpts of what he had to say:
What inspires you most to continue writing?
My studies, observations and living! If you want me to elaborate on them, it will take pages but I would like to state that I study to observe, and I observe to reflect on my studies. I am no way close to what you call “ideal living” and I truly look out for holistic living measures. You know, we often talk about “evidence-based dentistry” and my life essentially complies with living evidences. Honestly, it is the deviation from the set rules that keeps me going.
Do you set aside a time for writing? Is there a moment in your daily activities when you feel most inspired?
Nothing like that. My friends consider me a happy-go-lucky kind of a guy! People often say, “You don’t look like a writer, let alone a poet.” I appreciate their views, and unless I feel like pouring out my words, I don’t write even an update on Facebook. I don’t enjoy a set time that I can devote to my writing. I am a practicing dental surgeon and manage a small press as well. I meet authors and poets on and off. And, yes, I don’t socialise as is expected from a family person. I don’t write on a daily basis, but my mind quickly registers the observations, which let me thrive on them.
What is your daily life like? Does it get entwined with your poetry?
I have a day job… As I said before, I practice as a dental surgeon and there are but a few occasions when poetry occurs. Do you remember the poem Envy in my latest collection, The Earthen Flute? It has humour and also bears sarcasm. Above all, Envy could be treated as psychosomatic poetry, but readers might consider it weird. Listen to these lines, and I hope you won’t mind:
A dentist can say if you are one
Your teeth deviate from
The occlusal table
And, thus, lips suffer from bites.
Is there a place for poetry and literature in India&’s popular imagination? It seems Americans find it dull and tedious.
Poetry is popular only among poets, worldwide! One who appreciates poetry writes poetry. He/she may not be a published poet, but then you need not write a poem on a paper, or on your cellphone to establish your claim of being a poet. What name would you like to offer to someone who continues to write poetry in his/her mind? There are numerous such people, and they hardly wish to be marked as poets. I’ll love to call them “non-practicing poets”. And poetry essentially thrives on both the practicing and non-practicing group of poets.
India is considered the spiritual capital of the world. We have innumerable sages and monks who had made verses popular in our land. And then we had Tagore, who made global readers serious about Bengali poetry. Poetry is an extremely important ingredient of Indian culture and philosophy. Corporate India may not be interested in literature or poetry, but they don’t govern our heritage in any capacity.
In America, we host “slams” — poetry competitions based on performance. This seems to be the most popular outlet for poetry&’s expression. Does India have a specific outlet that poetry finds itself in?
Honestly, I am not aware of poetry competitions in India. We have a few important literary festivals that happen annually, but I don’t think they dedicate even half of their tenure to poetry. Probably in all major cities we have groups of poets, but then I wonder if they are, in any way, instrumental in bringing out quality poetry.
Tell me about your upcoming collection. Is there a message you wish to convey? Who are you addressing your words to?
My newest book of poems is titled The Earthen Flute. Kolkata-based Hawakaal Publisher published and launched it formally on 21 February (2016) in Kolkata. My poetry essentially bears messages that I wish to convey to my readers. But I am not the right person to state those messages, for poetry is reader-specific. There are 21 poems in this book; short, long and prose-poems. A few of them have appeared in literary journals and blogs. I have added fresh poems as well. There are illustrations that add to the appeal. All in all, The Earthen Flute, I’m pretty sure, is going to be a collector&’s edition. Truth-seekers and poetry lovers around the world may find my work worthy! You will be glad to know that my book has been reviewed on The Lake magazine (United Kingdom) even before its release. You may read the complete preview on this link: http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/reviews/february16/
Do you feel your poetry is more personal or transcendent? If personal, how does the average reader relate? If transcendent, how do you reach that state?
Whether my poetry is personal or transcendent is something critics can answer best. I don’t write poetry to make it personal, or the other way round. I try to convey messages. Some call them “wisdom messages,” others may term my poetry surrealistic! I’m not bothered, you see. I remain conscious when I compose a poem, but poetry essentially arrives without notice. Let me quote a few lines from a critique:
If Sengupta were to follow TS Eliot&’s dictum that true art should be impersonal, what would that lead to? The clash of opinions still persists — that between the romantic school and the modernist school… Sengupta adheres to the romantic school of thought. It&’s the creator&’s choice and I guess it&’s right for him because if he were to turn impersonal, that would take away the essence of his signature poems, the unique subjective and personal elements. (Page 33, Ketaki Datta and Tania Chakravertty/Rhapsodies and Musings/ Hawakaal Publishers/July 2015.)
I can remember a commentary on my trilogy: Worldly observations become the occasion for explorations of meanings; of the self and its status within the world and within consciousness, and of life&’s journey from birth to death… While Sengupta&’s poems touch the spirit, and often deal with spiritual matters, they are uniformly grounded in the world around us. (Casey Dorman/The Statesman/31 January 2016.)
What characterises a good poet from a bad one? Are there objective criteria? Can habit make a person a poet? What distinguishes a poet from one who writes poetry?
These are difficult to answer! You have added so many brief questions together. Who is a poet, if I may ask. One may be a famous poet, a popular poet, an esteemed poet, an unknown poet, a non-practicing poet, but they all are poets in the first place. They are neither good, nor are they bad. You love a poet, but then do you love all his/her poems? I mean, all poems that he/she writes? You read a not-so-good poem, written by your beloved poet; how would you rate/grade the poet now? When can a writer claim him/herself a poet? I never claim myself as a poet. I write poetry, and if I can be named a “poet” is to be ascertained by my readers and reviewers. Don’t go by the dictionary and name a writer “poet” if he/she writes poetry.
How do you find the time to write? How do you manage time to eat? Aren’t you too occupied to manage even a nap?
You need to eat and sleep and write, and I am no exception. Hey, did I answer your question?
Do you think the “Muse” is a real being? What purpose does she serve? Who is she? Why does she latch on to certain people?
Do you think the “Muse” is a female being? Why do you think so? The “Muse” is only you, if you understand my point. Let me quote a few lines from The Earthen Flute.
I’m not a pervert, take a note!
I’m a woman as long as I’m dynamic
I’m a woman unless I’m stilled
Do you think of a woman&’s voyage to heaven? (Seventh Heaven).
The “Muse” is only your kinetic mind. Your soul keeps wandering to understand the reason(s) of being restless over the years. And it is the “Muse” that allows one to pen down the thoughts of restlessness. You cannot appreciate quietude by keeping mum. You would not be able to celebrate silence if you remain soundless. You have to cultivate the skill of becoming still. Tranquility has its charm when enjoyed in noise. A poet is the blessed soul who struggles for silence and peace, and thus guiding society in a subtle way towards a harmonious cohabitation with the “Muse”
Do you read a lot? Does reading factor into your writing? What role does reading play for a writer and how much do you read on an average?
I’m an average reader. Thanks to my lazy eyes that have made me one such. Long poems tire me, extremely long essays exhaust my brain to no end, and fat novels are too repulsive to sit on my desk. Reading influences the psyche and thus your writing shows the signs of your reading habit. They say it is important to learn, and even more important to unlearn things.
Do you ever face adversity for being a writer? Are you humiliated or have you been unfairly criticised?
I have my share of negative reviews of my work, but then who I am to justify! I have never paid my reviewers, neither did I influence them in any way. Why don’t you tell the world about how I managed the notes of appreciation (blurbs) from a few American poets in relation with The Earthen Flute? I was fairly surprised when both Jonathan Moody and Lorna Dee Cervantes wrote on my work, entirely based on the merit or quality of the manuscript.
I was bullied in school at times for being bookish and was considered a teacher&’s pet, and sometimes teachers themselves thought I was weird. I never fit in to the in-crowd. Years ago, I had a neighbour who believed people who read were ugly and stupid. He insisted that on his trips to the library he saw only old people or ugly women. It was extremely insulting, but I practiced my usual “Christian forbearance” and was kind until he was evicted from the apartment complex for assaulting me (after a long series of mishaps, the manager was tired of him as well). I think with a head of tough wisdom (not the earthly kind, but philosophical, like Ecclesiastes) you are bound to writhe some days. I haven’t had harsh critiques from publishers or reviewers, and most other poets have a favourable attitude toward my writing. This has been a life-long pursuit for me, beginning when I wrote a short story called The Little Red Wagon, written from a child&’s imagination. The story was about a young man who loses a wheel off his wagon, and searches for it all day, only to find it at the day&’s end where he least expects it. I developed a strong sense of the calling at a young age, taking advice from my grandmother on both reading habits and approaches to writing.
In your opinion, what is the greatest thing to be proud of as a poet?
Honestly, I have no idea. You know, I once asked Bibhas Roy Chowdhury why a poet felt insulted when he/she was referred to as a writer. He told me, “The word poet is the highest adjective available to a writer.”
What other writers you admire? Who is currently on your “to read” list?
I have a long list that starts with Tagore and ends with you, Dustin. I would prefer not to take their names, for they are admired on the basis of their poetry. I’m now reading two books: When God Is A Traveller by Arundhathi Subramaniam, and The Daunting Ephemeral.
Does writing serve a purpose for non-writers? Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said the secret to his success was writing every day. How do you think writing can help those who aren’t writers?
Ask a psychotherapist and you will understand how writing helps an individual in his/her day-to-day life. Writing helps in more than one way to combat stress, depression and mental blockage. I must tell you, I used to write uncountable love-letters to my girl-friend who is now my wife.
What is literacy like in India? What type of literature does the average Indian read?
India is no exception, we love to value fiction stories more than any other genre of literature.
Finally, is there still a sense of the sacred in India where much of the sacred was born?
India is a holy land; the land of spirituality. Even now we have a handful of realised souls, and I am proud to have been associated with a few of those masters.
the interviewer is editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum, USA