With the year’s first literature soiree, the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival taking place, I caught up with poet Sudeep Sen who was in the city to attend the 2018 edition.
Sen is widely recognised as a major new generation voice in world literature and one of the finest English-language poets on the international literary scene, fascinated not just by language but also its possibilities. He received a Pleiades Honour (at the Struga Poetry Festival, Macedonia) for having made “a significant contribution to contemporary world poetry”.
Sen’s prize-winning books include Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Distracted Geographies, Rain, Aria (A K Ramanujan Translation Award), Ladakh, The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), Fractals: New & Selected Poems, Translations 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions), and EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House). Blue Nude: Anthropocene, Ekphrasis, New Poems (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) is forthcoming.
His poetry and prose, translated into 25 languages, have featured in major international anthologies; and his words have appeared in magazines, newspapers and also been broadcast on television across India and the UK. Sen’s newer work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta), Language for a New Century (Norton), Leela (Collins), Indian Love Poems (Knopf/Random House/Everyman), Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe), and Initiate: Oxford New Writing (Blackwell). He has two published books of photography, Prayer Flag and Postcards from Bangladesh.
He is the editorial director of Aark Arts and the editor of Atlas. On a cold Kolkata evening we got talking about his latest book EroText, its origins and trajectories. Excerpts:
Q. I begin with the obvious. Why is EroText a book of fiction?
Milan Kundera writes, “A novel is a meditation on existence … The form is unlimited freedom.” Kundera’s “unlimited freedom”; my own remoulding of the ekphrastic technique; Rodin’s passionate dictum where “the artist must be ready to be consumed by the fire of his own creation” form the essential keystone for the soul and syntactical structure of the experimental fiction in Erotext. So, unsurprisingly, I use a highly wrought stylised mode of micro-fiction that overlaps with aspects of prose-poetry, and poetry that overlaps with aspects of fiction.
In Erotext, I have also experimented with language like one would in the rendition of a classical Indian raga, where the same piece of song or text can be variously sung or interpreted by different practitioners, albeit in a highly controlled and dexterous manner. So an old poem may have been revived or reincarnated as a prose text to convey a different angle of the same story, a happenstance, or another hidden moment in time.
Changing the form without altering the textual content at all can be very rewarding, albeit risky at the same time. But then, what is cutting-edge avant-garde writing, if there is no risk-taking! What is the point if one is not willing to bend and push the conventional boundaries of genre to come up with an alternate score or a variation, much like the formal play in classical music and jazz improvisations.
EroText is an avant-garde experimental book. It attempts to redefine or extend the standard genre-classifications of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I can tell you, from what I can see from the early market and critical response, that as a book of micro-fiction it is generating interest from an entirely different set of readers who see themselves as consumers of general, commercial and literary fiction, and not perhaps of poetry. So that is a very healthy and positive sign.
Q. The book prizes the infinitude of the finite in some fascinating sections. Tell us about the “Disease” or “BodyText” section of the book.
The “Disease” or “BodyText” section of the book contends with private and uncomfortable areas of pain, illness and disease — an example of how a prolonged anaesthetic medical experience can give rise to lyrical writing, inspired by and despite its sterile surroundings.
Q. While excavating a set of images from physics, chemistry and biology, you do an extraordinary job of imbricating the corporeal with the natural elements and processes in a brilliant formalising of these themes. And I found the images startlingly fresh and extremely evocative. However, “Downpour” or “Rain” section has been called a “word-perfect” collection by writer Amit Chaudhuri. Tell us about that section of the book.
“Downpour” celebrates and reflects on rain as experienced in the Indian subcontinent — its passion and politics, its beauty and fury, and its ability to douse and arouse. It explores the various moods that water and fluids inherently unravel.
Q. I was at the launch of your book Fractals at the Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata and I recollect Chaudhuri remarking that your prose poems or micro-fiction are an important contribution that have added a new idiom to the history of English-language writing in India, one that has pushed its creative boundaries wider and higher. The eponymous section, “EroText” is wrapped in grace and delicacy. What is your view on erotic writing?
The philosophical, physical, textural and tonal aspects of desire have fascinated me for years. I find it truly baffling that in modern-day India, a country where the Kama Sutra was written and the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, Konark and others were celebrated once, the practice of erotic literature is largely kept under wraps.
Admittedly, it is a difficult space to write in, a thin area where one figuratively skates on a razor’s edge. If one pushes it too much, then one could enter the pornographic space; and if one undercooks it, it could turn out as callow love poetry as it so often does by amateur writers.
So I took it upon myself as a challenge to write within this sub-genre. As a result, many pieces in the sections — “Woman”, “Lines of Desire” and “Gaayika’r Chithi: Notes from a Singer’s Scoresheet” — obliquely take on the provocation to create contemporary literary erotica with grace and lyricism.
Q. What are your final words on this book?
For me, Erotext is a considered meditation of the often publicly unexplored aspects and subtle grey areas of “desire, disease delusion, dream and downpour”. I desire for my readers to peruse and rejoice; be moved, scarred and jolted; to feel, lust, and celebrate the finely calibrated text that is unrestrained and uncontained, devoid of boundaries, fully free in a map-less organic terrain.
Debasish Lahiri is an internationally acclaimed poet and writer of non-fiction. He is the Founder President of Inspirare-India and teaches English literature at a college near Kolkata.