In a social media world teeming with every banality that goes for poetry, Prerna Gill’s is a refreshing voice that does not pander to easy rhetoric and comprehension. If good poetry is all about the silences between words, the spaces between the lines, Meanwhile is a collection that lives up to the test. My Kolkata spoke to the poet on her first collection of poems. Edited excerpts from the conversation…
My Kolkata: Your author’s note starts off almost defensive about ‘putting the book out’. It also provides a glimpse of what poetry means to you: ‘…when the guests leave … room is far too still’. Why do you call it narcissistic, and why poetry? … Does it help cope with whatever it is that you seek?
Prerna Gill: Writing is a way through which I examine how I may still be compromised – by fears, by a stillness that some may call the blues, others ennui or even laziness. I think this form of introspection also helps me see how and where I have healed from issues I struggle with, like anxiety. It is therapeutic, almost, and points to how I may show myself grace and where I have some work to do. When poetry does so much for me, it almost feels selfish – as though I put the reader second – which is, of course, not by design. I write what I know, but even this indulgence in examining my own psyche through wordcraft does seem terribly narcissistic, like I can’t stop staring into my own shadow. Not all of my poems are about this, but enough of them to make me a little uncomfortable when I do think about it.
When was it that you first realised the urge to write … and was it poetry or the dark mythology that I know is another passion. Do you remember your first attempt at a poem?
The first poem I wrote was in middle school and was about a bat. Animals are so fascinating, but there was always something about bats. I think they are adorable, really, and in no way deserving of their terrible reputation. As for the darker things that crept in later beginning with gothic novels, I loved the atmosphere, and how it was never too cheerful – this made me comfortable because, at the time I got into it, I was not in the sunniest of places in terms in my own headspace. Even now, when I feel much better and more balanced, it is my favourite genre along with horror and dark fantasy. It is quite an obsession, and has led to a supernatural-themed doll collection and a library of cherished horror computer games. At work, this manifests as a publishing list with many horror novels. I want to publish all the ghost stories and books on dark folklore and myths that I can get away with. It’s going quite well.
Do you read a lot of poetry? Are there any particular favourites who inspire you, or influence your poetry?
I read quite a bit, but probably still not as much as I should. I enjoy Anne Carson’s work, also Ella Frears. Currently I am reading Orexia: Poems by Lisa Russ Spaar. Of the older poets, my favourite is Sylvia Plath for how eloquently she captures small moments of violence. Also her free verse – which I enjoy because, in my opinion, it puts the words first and everything follows – like red chasing the scalpel.
Can you talk about the process – the birth of a poem. And whether you rework/rewrite or come upon the poem in one draft, ready. You can talk about, say, (i) ‘come teatime she will inherit the ice’ (On Not Drowning). How does that line form? Where does it begin, and (ii) ‘we will loosen our consonants’ (No Strings). Where does that line originate, and become a part of the poem?
A poem can begin with a name, a random word or thought. I can dwell on a poem for months and then delete the whole damned thing. Other times, I can return to a piece of verse and tinker it into a new form. The rule I set for myself is to put all my finished poems in one folder and return to them in a different season, a different mood, and see if they still say something – even if it isn’t what I wanted them to. So many are erased, but the ones I like I keep in a new folder, ready to submit wherever I think they may have a chance.
About the line to do with inheriting ice: This is from a ‘Persona’ poem with bits of my own experiences with dissociating in difficult times – something that will eventually be harmful, in that you avoid confronting it. At the same time, the best way to look at something in the dark may be to look beside it – not at it. I am not a psychiatrist, but it is a poem about a coping mechanism, one I was once too familiar with. That said, I wanted to look at the hereditary nature of things like anxiety. I have, in my later teenage years, struggled with moments where I felt I could not move or feel. Like I was numbed by ice. I do not know where that came from, but the persona from the poem does know. Her mother and sister are mentioned at the end of the poem, pulling her out of the underwater world she creates as she drowns. Or rather, doesn’t. The choice of ‘teatime’ was to anchor this moment to a very domestic space with a certain pressure to be social and civil – a difficult moment in which to find yourself frozen in a way handed down by those sipping at their cups around you. I could only imagine what that is like and then it became this poem.
The second line you mention is from a poem that goes in the opposite direction, exploring a moment of fleeting intimacy. It is a line where caution slackens, and where sewing and strings and threads form a lot of the imagery … this lets language come into the picture of a quick moment. We have more consonants than vowels. They form so much of what we say, a lot of which may be sharper and faster moving, not rounded gently by ‘an’ like the apple it may precede. They are brisque, taut strings played more often. To me, they represent the more common things we discuss. Small talk. When looking into this moment in the poem, a one-night stand, the loosening is framed as a deliberate act to serve a purpose. It is affection implemented with steely resolve.
You have six poems on colours – and the author’s note also says ‘there's no looking past the greys…’ What is it about colour that it plays through your poems?
The grey in the introduction was mostly to highlight the everyday moments compared to the more dramatic milestones. With the poems, I get to explore colour in a slightly different way.
Red: ‘and plain on every face … some of us are grey by twenty-five years’. Red is the first colour to fade from view under water, and that struck me as quite poetic all by itself. The deeper some of us get in our lives, in terms of time and age, or the deeper we sink into our troubles, I find we are at a greater risk of losing what red comes to mean. In terms of my own mental health, I saw red as the opposite end of a spectrum from the odd forms of silence that I would be overcome by: a silence of regular, reasonable thought that would normally counter exaggerated fears. There were also silences of action and movement with a very strange inability to will myself to get up from wherever I had perched at times during the difficult phases. In those times, I would think of red having gone from me. Once I got better, I could put those images into words.
‘Red loses the deeper it goes
And here the kelp and pale coral
Green (Was struck by the contrast … mother’s rage, green, closing day green): ‘The colour of a closing day …The colour of one mother’s rage’. I do see the connection it has with nature. I also see how nature and a certain vicious protectiveness, especially that which is expressed in a paranoid postpartum state, are inseparable. Motherhood is natural, it is dangerous. The image of the snake on her nest and the way ‘her heart spreads its hood’ comes from a very personal encounter with that sort of anger – which one can do nothing about because it is locked and loaded in case of danger to one’s child. It is a primordial thing. I was very prepared for postpartum depression, so a state of constant, protective anger took me by surprise. It never fully slithered away though. Or rather, it hasn’t yet.
Blue: ‘seas no longer churning wine-dark … Spring draped flat over March … above all memory of the womb’. For ‘Blue’ I could not look past its role in culture, specifically gender. Also, how its symbolism has changed. Some cultures may never have categorised it as a colour and that is so fascinating as an example of how words have such power even over what we see so much of. When Homer described the sea as ‘wine dark’ it was understood to mean blue. It did confuse people for quite some time, that description. This is one of the theories, of course, but it stayed with me: that blue became part of certain languages much later. The poem then explores the link between blue and boyhood. Once, pink was a masculine colour. I suppose people saw that rosy shade as too visceral for young boys then, perhaps too close to the violence that comes just before the guests flood in to coo at a newborn. When you think of the sky and the open ocean it may be easier to forget the nature of birth and blood. Such a stark contrast to life and life-giving. To womanhood.
Yellow: ‘we live between forests … cage small birds in our mouths…’ The poem ‘Yellow’ started out with a different placeholder name: Canary. That’s why the mention of the bird for safety as we go digging deep into the rock for what our predecessors set in stone. The past comes with dangerous problems just waiting to be inherited. The image of having canaries in our mouths was to lay emphasis on how our words, our voices may be all that we have to signal danger when we find ourselves so deep in problems created by evils of the past.
Black: ‘…to a world so tepid green, the fireflies sail white … nothing is as still as you…’ The poem ‘Black’ on the other hand has more to do with very current problems, such as psychological ones, but also others – I wanted that part open to interpretation. What is does specify though is struggle. The way one might gather blood of skin of an assailant one struggles against is reflected in the opening line: ‘You, with nights under your fingernails.’ The rest of the poem moves from a shower stall, where the person, ‘you’, is drained far beneath what they know, to a place that is alien and unfamiliar. Haunting with a strange light, and places you beneath everything you know and remember: like a mute spectator. Unable to move. It ends back in the shower where:
‘In fogged-mirror silence
Is as still as you’
Here is that stillness, that silence. This poem lets me confront it, like a pair of gloves keeping me safe as I study something I know to be tricky. Sometimes frightening.
White: ‘mogra … fragrant in their grief, we wear white in yearning … and like this we are sky’. With ‘White’ on the other hand the meaning is rather clear. We do wear white for mourning. Or ‘yearning’ as I see it. There is a softness I wanted to keep, given the subject here – death. I am an atheist, but I do believe in a peace that nothingness can bring. This is why I never write about spirituality – I would not know what to say. The beauty to me lies in the difference between nothingness and emptiness. In death you perceive the world in a way that is no different from how the mogra does. Or the smoke. Or the air.
Do you follow the contemporary poetry scene in India? How tough was it to publish a volume? Did it help being a part of a publishing house? Do you think that there is a lot of puerile wordsmithery that gets passed off as poetry on social media and self-publishing platforms … or do you see that as a boon?
I enjoy most contemporary poetry published in India. So many poems by Indian poets in India read like magic. I will say that social media poetry, though, is not for me. But it is working for many. Most of us don’t really have time to sit and chat about how we feel these days, and on social media all you get is quick and easy content to consume. I can see how the poems on certain platforms help people slow down as they scroll. I cannot say what is and isn’t art, but I know these works, often presented in a way that is easy to read and understand, are serving people. They would not be so popular otherwise. That said, I am still waiting for other forms of poetry to appear on mainstream accounts.
About publishing the book: I had a huge advantage. As a writer and editor, I need to show all my work that I intend to publish, to my publisher. I am extremely fortunate that Udayan Mitra liked the poems. I wouldn’t want to publish anywhere else in India because I know that we at HarperCollins India put authors first. Why go anywhere else?
Not many people know of your connection to Dharmendraji. Since many of us are aware of his skills as a poet in Urdu, have you read his work, and more importantly what does he think of your poetry? Can we hope for the grandfather's poetry translated by the granddaughter?
I think my Instagram account has made the connection clear to anyone who might look for me on the Internet. He was also kind enough to endorse the book and support it on social media and for that I am so grateful. I do not have any of his talent, but I am confident that I will always have his blessings. The same is true about my uncles. Many of their admirers and followers bought books, or at least wrote to say they would – that is one of the best ways of supporting poetry, which is always hard to sell. As for my grandfather’s poetry – with great sadness I must admit I know very little Urdu. I cannot read the script at all. If I could, I would love to translate his work, because I know he puts so much of his heart into every verse, just like he puts his soul into every character he plays on screen. I do want to publish his poetry – if only he would let me!