THE WRITING LIFE ... Usha AKELLA
POETRY FOR THE SOUL
USHA AKELLA talks to G.S.P. RAO about poetry and what it means to her
USHA AKELLA, a multifaceted creative person, lived in various American cities before her husband’s work as a senior IT official brought them back to Hyderabad for a stint. In Greenburgh, a New York suburb, she launched Poetry Caravan to popularise poetry among disadvantaged folks through free poetry readings and writing workshops, which earned her recognition and awards.
She considers Hyderabad as her hometown as this is where she grew up as a child and young woman. Her in-laws and parents still live here—the primary reason for returning to give her child valuable years with her grandparents. Her elegant apartment in Jubilee Hills is still getting the final touches; furniture still needs to fall in place; several paintings—some, her own—lie on the floor awaiting their final place on the wall. I reach her apartment after taking directions a few times to find her busy in discussion with workers and staff. In this busy milieu, we settle down for a conversation. The talk meanders from her experiences in the U.S. and India to her poetry and teaching; to what moves and angers her. She talks intensely and with conviction, amidst diversions from workers.
You have been participating in international poetry festivals. How are they different from writers’ meets in India, content-wise and organisation-wise?
I am afraid my experience of Indian festivals and meetings has been minimal as I’ve been away for the last 14 years. So I am not in a position to comment. I’ve attended a couple, no more, and it seems to me that the meets here tend to be more formal and academic in design, with the customary speeches, presentation of papers and eulogies. We could do better with organisation overall, and focus on poetry and not the poets. However, the blessing through it all is the poets you get to meet and the poetry you get to savour.
You interact with poets and writers from several nations at these international festivals. How does this influence your ideas on poetry and your work?
Poets work with language primarily as you know, and I am constantly thrilled and inspired how poets process experience completely differently depending on their cultural, geographic, linguistic and social background. I was gifted with a CD of the work of contemporary Japanese masters, by Shuntaro Tanikawa, who is considered to be Japan’s Robert Frost. I was taken by the musing aloud quality of the poetry as if the poet speaks to herself primarily, as if the poetry is a discourse with the self, and the audience is incidental. When I read Nikola Madzirov’s poetry from Macedonia, he alludes to absences through what is present. Austrian poet Helwig Brunner is reconciling opposites. Reading different works opens up the mind to newer possibilities of language and how language can harness subtle realities the poet is always trying to grasp. When I was at the Slovenian festival recently I became aware of how newer technologies were influencing creativity. The Medana festival offered a platform for new forms of linguistic creativity—a contest of SMS poetry of no more than 150 characters.
Is poetry and its influence on people and society perceived the same everywhere? If there are differences, what are these and how do you react to them?
I am going to turn that question on its head a bit and say I think poets perceive themselves the same everywhere—alienated, disregarded, mocked, prophets shunned in their land—all the usual complaints. Also heroic when they make it! Does poetry influence society? Does it stop wars? History seems to reply in the negative. But do the arts and poetry have a rightful place in the scheme of things? Yes! And can they affect individuals one on one? Yes! If I had cared too much about what society thought about poets, I probably would have been a doctor or a software engineer!
How has poetry influenced your life? What would life be without poetry for you?
Life without poetry would be a corpse. And poetry without life would be disembodied. You’re asking me what it would be like to be here without breathing.
What have been the themes of your poetry? What moves you the most?
Themes have ranged from feminism to Sufism. I don’t care too much for these labels. At most they point to a direction, and nothing is exclusive to each other. I see poetry as a reflection of the centring self, and the centring self is going to cartwheel around a lot before it reaches this imagined utopic state. I try to remain sincere to the call from within and write about whatever moves me for the moment.
Overall, I’d say there is an Advaitic enquiry of self-search—a quest poetry—a response from within and out. I think poetry is a direct reflection of a consciousness trying to understand itself. Recently, when I read at Madras University, I was introduced as a poet who couldn’t be pegged down into any bracket. I took that as a compliment. I want my breathing space. And I don’t worry too much about apparent contradictions in my phases of work because we are contradictory entities. The mind is anchored on tensions.
What disturbs and angers you the most in the world we live in today? And in India?
The oppression of women, the debasement of sex, abused children becoming the victims of countless acts of adults’ stupidity, the frightening dominance of the media shaping our aesthetic values. In the west I’d say it’s the extreme body consciousness that is the disease and in India, it’s the corruption, and worse, the acceptance and apathy in response to it. I’ve been fighting pretty much everywhere—hotels, doctors’ offices, movie theatres … it’s a disease gone so deep it’s become part of our national sensibility. And now we’re choosing to ape the MTV culture of the West. There is grotesqueness to India’s populist culture today.
In a world taken over by political and social activists or social activism, has the poet become irrelevant?
On the contrary, the poet has become even more relevant and essential. Poetry in its scope moves inward and outward, often obliterating the boundaries between supposedly divided realms. One recent example is the Poets Against the War movement launched by Sam Hamill in response to the Iraq war. The movement began when Hamill declined an invitation from the White House to attend a poetry symposium. The invitation was extended in the wake of George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Instead, a call for submissions for poems of protest went out. There are poets involved the world over in social activism—Alurista the Chicano poet, The Welfare Poets, Robert Hass and his involvement with water projects and environmental issues … it has almost become a natural obligation today to be a social poet in touch with larger reality.
I find it more and more difficult to divide the two. Socially relevant themes creep into my work now and I welcome the enrichment. Poetry is the language of the soul and the poet is interested in everything because the universe is a reflection finally of the soul. But don’t ask me to define what the soul is. That’s the wordless frontier poetry is attempting to suggest.
Going by your own experience, how would you describe the process of poetry creation? Are you always satisfied by the outcome of your work?
There is a moment of inspiration that charges every poem. Sometimes, it is sparked off by an external event, an image, a line or a phrase. There is an emotional energy in response, almost an organic shift within the mind to the perceived stimulus. It stalks you till you pick up the pen and give it form. I know then that something could happen on the page. I can’t predict how far it will go. That’s known only through the process of writing.
Once you start writing, the impulse carries through organically from within the words you start to create with. You write fragments, sometimes a good poem or sometimes a bad one. Sometimes, the charge isn’t strong enough to carry a poem on its shoulders. So you need to be gracious enough to discard it or you end up with a corpse of a poem instead of something taking flight or at least in movement. The critic comes in through the backdoor next to help me shape the poem, editing when necessary.
I trust my instinct deeply. You might ask what instinct is and I might reply it is knowledge cum experience absorbed till its unconscious or some such thing. The creative instinct seems to have this dual personality—the first impulse and a more conscious application of the craft. Every poem for me is an interplay between the two. This is just an attempt to nail an ineffable thing down and it’s probably half successful.
Can creativity in poetry be taught?
Writing is the act of faith in oneself. My writing workshop intends to develop the poet’s sensibility in the student. I teach students how to keep a journal and become alert to stimuli around them. They learn how to proceed from journal writing to the writing of poems. I teach them to trust themselves, their life experiences and writing voices.
Talent cannot be taught. I believe that what can be taught are methods of awareness of the imagination, self and world around us. Yes, there are a number of things a teacher can do to tap creativity, and if the student is endowed with imagination and talent, she’ll take the bait.
In each session, my students practice free writing, read a wide range of poetry in different styles and voices, learn theory, and participate in lively discussions meant to spark off their imagination. I give them language and creative exercises aimed at unfolding their imagination and increasing their sensitivity to language.
G.S.P. RAO is an Information Technology professional turned writer, to whom writing has provided intellectual and creative fulfilment and a welcome diversion from the rigours of a professional career. He has two literary works to his credit—Meghamitra and Other Poems and The Lock at the Gate, a compilation of short stories. He has written on the life of Krishnadeva Raya, to fill the lacuna of an authentic English biography of the renowned Vijayanagara emperor. Over the years, he has had several articles covering information technology, culture and civic concerns published by The Hindu, The Times of India, Hyderabad and Newstime.
Reproduced from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine