I’ve Written In Some Form All My Life: Poet Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal
“I feel like I have finally come home . . .”
When, as an eight-year-old she watched dwarf-clowns performing at the circus, she burst out crying. Years later, at an unearthly hour, something surfaced persistently, goading her to write about those who carried outward deformities with aplomb and those who were twisted inside. The result of the compulsive writing is ‘Circus Folk & Village Freaks’, 18 twisted tales told in verse. Here, Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal tells Archana Pai Kulkarni what led her to write these nuanced, subversive and sensual stories, and how writing them liberated her.
When did you start writing and what do you think attracted you to poetry?
I’ve written in some form all my life. Whether it was scripts for a pre-school show (now available on Amazon Prime), book reviews for college newsletters, or even just nonsense rhyme for family occasions, I’ve always been a writer. However, two and a half years ago, coming out of a particularly nasty depressive episode (I have Major Recurrent Depressive Disorder) that left me totally wrung out, the words started to come to me in a downpour. Every night I would lie awake, despite the heavy hypnotic tranquilisers in my system, fairly buzzing with the words in my head. I could get no rest until I wrote them down. I wrote a LOT of poetry then—most of it drenched in self-pity and angst. Then, when I got better, I looked at the poetry and realised it was pure drivel. I also realised that I knew very little about contemporary poetry, so I started following and reading some amazing international literary journals. As I read, my appetite for poetry grew and grew until I was pretty much inhaling it! I think I was attracted to the incredible reading experience that poetry presents to the reader: it’s never a linear experience for me, never one I can take for granted. I love that poetry is not ‘an easy read’, and makes me work to open its layers. I love how a poem can be ‘toothsome’ despite having an almost monastic sparseness at first read—the lushness coming through gradually and over many readings. I love how good poets can sledgehammer you with their intent, but with such elegance and brevity.
How has living in different places (London, Mumbai, Pune) affected your writing? Do different spaces inspire a different way of thinking?
Oh absolutely! Different spaces inspire me in different ways. However, it’s not the physical beauty of the places per se, but the emotions and memories they evoke in me, that work like a colour palette for my writing. For example, I remember being in the mountains last year and feeling totally uninspired despite the gorgeous setting, until, walking down a crowded road, I encountered an old woman bent at the waist, trying to navigate the hilly terrain with the aid of a street dog. That moment—the smell of it, the rich, nubby grain of it, is embedded in my head still. Soon after, I wrote ‘No Name Cafe’, one of my favourite poems to date. London evokes many raw memories: the feeling of half-light on a face as cold toes try to find warmth on a creaking radiator, the loneliness of a cavernous library just before it closes, the twinkling lights of an airplane taking off in the distance, perhaps for home? Before Pune, I lived in Mumbai for over a decade. That time is a frantic, buzzing hive in my head. And now of course, I have my beloved Pune and it has become my safe place. It is home, a place that is whatever I need it to be; on some days buzzing with frenetic energy, on others a soothing mecca for my tired mind.
I was attracted to the incredible reading experience that poetry presents to the reader: it’s never a linear experience for me, never one I can take for granted. I love that poetry is not ‘an easy read’, and makes me work to open its layers.
What made you think of circus folk and village freaks to explore themes like caste hierarchies, mental illness, lust, repressed sexuality and so on?
To be honest, I really did not set out thinking of the stories in the book as forming an overarching social narrative or being set in a particular place. I scribed the stories as they came to me, urgently and in rhyme. It seemed wholly natural to place the stories geographically in rural India and in the circus, because that is what the characters demanded. They, the circus folk, who carried outward deformities with aplomb, were a perfect foil to the village folk who were as twisted, if not more, but on the inside.
How long back was it that you watched a circus? Did something remain with you that surfaced persistently enough for you to write about it?
I’ve never forgotten my last visit to the circus! I was around eight years old and went with my family. The minute the dwarf-clowns came out to perform, swatting each other with cricket bats, I burst out crying and wouldn’t stop. I subsided a bit when the acrobats came on, but then came the animals and I was inconsolable. My parents rushed me out of there and as we walked past the squalid cages and tents that the circus folk called ‘home’, I cried even more. I wasn’t even old enough to realise why I was crying. But I will never forget the stench of need, fear and hopelessness that permeated that atmosphere, nor the looks in the clowns’ eyes as they went through their routines. How can anyone so sad inside go through the motions of laughter and happiness? And how wretched was I, to sit and watch the misery of another as entertainment? These are the questions that come into my mind every time I flash back to that evening. I think I cannot look beyond the underlying pathos of the circus to see it as just a place meant for light-hearted entertainment.
The freaks in the village could well be the circus folk, with their depravities, and vice versa. Living cheek by jowl, their thoroughfare was unrestricted and their fates intertwined. You seem to have had great fun by placing them in proximity. What was the idea behind it?
I needed the characters from both places to be placed cheek by jowl, to show the inherent similarities between them and to show their essential interchangeability. After all, if you take away the glitter of the circus exterior, aren’t we all the same inside: flawed freaks who are trying to find our own nirvanas in this lifetime?
Your poems inspect the bizarre, and what is often insensitively perceived as aberrant and odd, as also the symbiotic relationship between human beings and animals. What made you think of exposing the freakish and unpredictable nature, the devious traits of both human beings and animals?
I’m inherently uncomfortable speaking about human, or even animal characteristics as being ‘aberrant’. I believe that we all have complex, unpredictable ids that we just learn to control and harness. The characters in this book however, embrace their most basic natures and this often leads to tragic consequences. What makes me ‘me’ is not that I do not have the bizarre or aberrant within me, but that my life experiences have been privileged, and have not led me down darker paths. Most of the people (or even animals) in the book do not have the choices that a ‘normal’ person has and are cast as ‘freaks’ as a result.
Who are some of your biggest influences in poetry? What are the poems that have moved you, you have loved? Whose work would you recommend with regard to contemporary poetry?
Oh goodness! Too many for my crumbling memory to recall fully. I love Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, Ogden Nash, T. S. Eliot, Nissim Ezekiel and Jeet Thayil, to name a few. In the younger lot of contemporary poets, I absolutely love the work of Ilya Kaminsky, Ada Limon, Kaveh Akbar, Jericho Brown, Ocean Vyuong, among others. There are some fantastic Indian voices that need to be heard much more, like Bharath Divakar, Daniel Sukumar and Abhijit Khandar who all write gut-punching, visceral poetry. I also follow poetry journals like Sixth Finch, Foundry, Black Warrior Review, et al. These have some fantastic pieces by lesser known poets. I’ve been told that my writing is ‘R. K. Narayan meets Vikram Seth with a twist’ by certain reviewers. This makes me insanely happy, but petrified at the comparison. Vikram Seth is an absolute MASTER of metre and I can never hope to get close. R. K. Narayan is my absolute favourite author, whose tales I grew up reading and re-reading constantly. He is an institution. I guess my adoration of his work shows in my writing, maybe even my choice of character names?
After all, if you take away the glitter of the circus exterior, aren’t we all the same inside: flawed freaks who are trying to find our own nirvanas in this lifetime?
In terms of favourite poems, again, there are too many to recollect. One piece that I adore for its sheer ‘atmosphere’ is ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe. Mona Zote’s ‘Anti-love Poem’ and Tishani Doshi’s ‘Monsoon Poem’ are favourites among many, many others.
Was writing the narrative in rhyming couplets a conscious choice or did the narrative just flow in that form? Do you believe that this form makes poetry more accessible? If so, does it not dilute your craft?
It flowed in rhyme! And on the contrary, instead of diluting my craft, it made my craft stronger. To put the rhyme first into structured couplets and then into some semblance of metre was the most rigorous intellectual exercise I have ever undertaken (including my post graduate thesis!), and it took over six months and eight edits. Each line in the book was parsed, each syllable metred many times until at the end of editing it felt like rhyme came easier to me than normal speech. And going back to free verse meant very deliberately re-forming my thought processes after all those months.
Yes, the rhyming couplets and simple linearity of the narrative do make the poetry much more ‘accessible’ but that isn’t a bad thing, is it? These are primarily stories, and the medium chosen to tell these stories is rhyme. I’ve tried to be faithful to the rules of metre and prosody as best I can, but I am hardly an expert. Here is the real doozy, though: The book is ‘short stories told in rhyme’ so it comes under the category of ‘poetry’. As a result, the common reader tends to shy away from it, thinking that it is poetry, therefore it will be abstruse. So even though it is ‘easily accessible poetry’, it is ‘less accessible fiction’. Ironic, huh?
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader? Who is your target reader for ‘Circus Folk & Village Freaks’?
Anyone with the emotional maturity to enjoy a nuanced, subversive and sensual read!
Did you set out to narrate twisted tales or did the idea to add a twist to every tale occur as you wrote? What do you seek to convey through these tales?
At the risk of sounding pompous, the characters came to me fully formed and would not leave until I scribed their tales. That’s how it felt then, and how it feels now. One morning, I woke up at a godforsaken hour (it must’ve been 5 AM), tapped my sleeping husband on the shoulder and mumbled ‘Subramaniam’. That canny mortal immediately responded with ‘No baby, its Abhijit’, rolled over and went back to sleep. But Subramaniam, the Crocodile Man was there to stay. He stayed with me through the million chores that make up a young mother’s day and after putting my son to sleep, I finally sat back and listened to him. I wrote his story and the next morning Vishu arrived, followed quickly by the twins, and so on. It went on like this for about three weeks until I had the 18 stories written in very rough rhyme. Editing after that was what took time, application and effort. And not to forget, a rigorous course in metre. Now, two years after Subramaniam first appeared at my bedside, I browse through the book and am amazed (and slightly horrified) that I brought forth these stories and their often terrifying twists.
After reading the book, close family members and friends tell me that the book is clearly autobiographical, and perhaps it is. I have long struggled with feeling like a ‘freak’, and outsider with body image and mental health issues. I am a child of mixed marriage, and have grown up seeing polar opposites in my own extended family: some are patriarchal and casteist in the extreme, while others are progressive and emancipated. I do think that a lot of the social issues we face today would be solved if our sexualities were not treated like land-mines around which we have to tip toe. Resultantly, the stories in the book are unabashedly sensual, sexual, violent, witty, divergent and often subversive, and I guess they are my liberation.
Yes, the rhyming couplets and simple linearity of the narrative do make the poetry much more ‘accessible’ but that isn’t a bad thing, is it? These are primarily stories, and the medium chosen to tell these stories is rhyme.
How difficult was it to get a book of poems published, especially considering that most publishers have shut their doors on the genre? Tell us more about this journey.
Poetry is like the unwanted ‘Avon Lady’ of the literary world, who rings your doorbell during a Sunday afternoon siesta, to be gruffly and summarily dismissed. Most publishers pooh- pooh the idea of poetry as being accessible, saleable or even likeable, and to an extent they are right. The figures of poetry book sales do show the lack thereof quite clearly. I am very lucky and grateful to have found one of the few Literary Agents in the country who works with poets—Suhail Mathur of The Book Bakers Literary Agency. I stumbled across Suhail while browsing through the Hachette website that said very clearly not to come calling unless I was ‘properly agented’. My undying gratitude to them for providing their list of preferred agents, right on top of which was Suhail’s name. One phone call, two nail-biting weeks during which he read my manuscript, and poof! Suhail appeared as my genie who did the heavy lifting, placing the book with Vishwakarma Publications within months. It helped that I didn’t hold out for a ‘bigger’ publishing house, but decided to invest all my effort into making the book worthy of any bookshelf across the world. I was so lucky to find stellar editing help, first from my good friend Shantanu Anand of Airplane Poetry Movement and then from an editor in the UK who agreed to take on rhyming couplets. My gratitude to the publishers: they were so patient with my bull headedness about the first print being hardcover, and for putting up with my many text and image iterations. Of course, over the course of months, I harassed both Rachna Ravi and Ruchi Bakshi Sharma continuously until the art in the book felt exactly just so. My friends (especially Sachin Kamani, who opened impossible doors), and well-wishers in the theatre community came together to make the launch event at G5A an incredible experience. G5A and PEN India were very supportive partners.
Let me not sugar coat it: publishing and then marketing a book of poetry is not easy. It takes a daily commitment to your product and an inherent self-belief that I often lack. It is an exercise in selling and in extroversion, one that I am just learning to enjoy. At the same time, the act of writing itself can make one intensely inwardly turned and even self-centred. My family has been very patient— they still take the brunt of my moodiness when I’m writing and try as best they can to meet my need for approbation and free beta-readers.
Help and counsel have always come, very often unbidden, from so many quarters, that I would be a ginormous heel to say that the journey so far has been anything but exciting, liberating and utterly right. There has been such synchronicity—I feel like I have finally come home and I am so grateful.
It is a general belief that there are almost no readers for poetry. Knowing this, how do you plan to reach out to readers?
I’m very accessible on social media, especially to book bloggers and reviewers. I partner in and initiate multiple book giveaways and solicit certain reviewers myself. I also have a fantastic manager who is very pro-active. He schedules many performance events across the country at which I perform certain pieces from the book, either individually or with a group of spoken word poets. We always sell books at those events. I think the ‘word of mouth’ about the book has been quite strongly positive and that has helped maintain the sales momentum. I wish the book were available more widely in bookstores, but as of now, Amazon sales are strong, and I’m grateful for that. I do believe the book has surpassed the sales of most traditional poetry books published in India, months ago (she said quite immodestly), but I think there is so much more I can do. I’m constantly planning and thinking, ‘what next?’.
Can you work anywhere or do you need a certain quiet space to write? Do you note ideas and then string them together? How much of rewriting do you do? Do you write every day?
As a mum to a very active five-year-old, I take my writing time as and when I can get it. I don’t have the luxury of choosing a favourite corner or finding a ‘mood’ or ‘setting’ in which to write peacefully. Sometimes, I write on my phone notepad with my son scrawled across my lap, singing loudly in my ear. Sometimes, I write while he watches TV as per his allowed quota. Mostly, I try to write when he is at school, and sometimes, rarely, I am sneaky enough to send him to his grandparents’ home for a longish visit so that I can get a big block of unadulterated writing time. My poor husband will be the better person to tell you about how I write down my ideas, since they mostly come to me post 3 AM in the morning when I, and by extension he, are struggling to sleep. Mostly, it is an idea or a sentence snagged in my brain like a bit of gristle between two teeth— it won’t budge until I give it full attention. How many times my husband has turned to me in bed and said, ‘Try to sleep, it’s almost dawn!’, as I furiously type on my phone notepad…
I do think that a lot of the social issues we face today would be solved if our sexualities were not treated like land-mines around which we have to tip toe.
When stories or characters come to me in a torrent, like they did with ‘Circus Folk…’, I am a person possessed. Then I write without a break, barely even remembering to eat (which is a HUGE deal for me!), until the story is purged from my system. Then I step away and do not look at it, sometimes for months. Then, I edit, and edit HARD. I try to be strict with myself and tend to almost fully rewrite a poem or story many times. Until it reaches a particular ‘cooked’ version of itself, post many, many iterations, I am very critical of what I write. It must sing to me before I accept it, and this is something I’ve learnt through trial, error and the true words of many blunt editors.
I try to write with some mindfulness 3-4 times a week—even if it a social media post, it is thought out and worded in advance.
Your poetry is slated to be anthologised alongside the work of renowned poets like Gulzar and Piyush Mishra. Tell us more about it.
My poem titled ‘The Thumri’ won the ‘12 week Poetry Challenge’ held by the ‘On Fire Cultural Movement’ in 2018. It is resultantly included in an international poetry anthology titled ‘Aatish 2’, set to be released soon. This anthology has several reputed names contributing and I’m thrilled to be a small part of the endeavour.
Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a poet?
Not just as a poet, but as the mother of a child living on a planet overburdened by too many people, too many opinions and not enough resources or solutions to go around. Of course, I am very aware that people read my work, and perhaps form opinions based on it, so I know I must tread carefully and with utmost integrity.
Poetry or short stories, what do you enjoy writing more?
They are interchangeable for me.
You have been performing your poetry at various venues. While a poem takes on a fresh life when it’s performed, is there a possibility of it being less read in private? After all, a poem is an intimate act of communication. What is your take on this?
At the risk of annoying a lot of poets I know, I’m going to talk about page versus performance poetry here. Do bear in mind though, that this works only for me, and most poets may vehemently disagree with my standpoint. I have a stable of poems that are for ‘performance’, while my ‘page’ poetry is better enjoyed when read. I tend not to use one in a forum for the other. I will never submit a performance piece to a literary journal for publication, and mostly I will steer away from reading my more abstract, raw pieces on stage. It is simple for me: the stage needs immediacy and connection, the page needs privacy and time. I am in awe of poets who eschew this and are able to perform their most private, most tender pieces on stage, for I shy away from doing that still. Perhaps it’s a generational thing? I struggle to share on an open forum as freely as I would like to, and tend to perform pieces with more ‘drama’ rather than my more intimate ones.
What are you currently working on? Also, what are you reading at present?
A book of short stories. It is ready in first draft and I just started the first edit.
I’m currently reading ‘The Cabin at the End of the World’ by Paul Tremblay. My copy of ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’ by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar arrives tomorrow and I’m very excited. Also, I’m an unapologetic MEGHEAD, which means that I will read any book that has a giant pre-historic shark in it!
What would be your advice to aspiring poets?
I think I still fit into the category of aspiring or newbie poet, so I’m hardly a fount of advice. Be that as it may, I will share what I’ve learnt in the past few years: Don’t expect money. Don’t expect fame. That comes to a chosen few. If that’s why you are writing poetry, then don’t. Write poetry if you have the rigour to read lots of it first. Step away from your poem and breathe without its influence for a while, because it tends to be a consuming haze. Then step back to it and edit, edit, edit. Then edit some more. Only after that, send your poem out into the world. Be bodacious in your writing, enjoy the texture, the weft of your words, but always put the sentiment within those words first. Respect grammar, in whichever language you choose to write. Whether you use your words as catharsis, liberation or simply as an exercise, have fun doing it! Oh, and try not to mix your metaphors.