One of my favourite poets, Robert Frost says, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” Reading Sudeep Sen through his interviews, the truth of these lines stands illustrated. The book, Sudeep Sen: Selected Interviews & Conversations, is a compendium of inspiring accounts of how poetry constitutes the soul-connect for this writer but also extends outwards to understand the place of the poetic arts in the literary world. The introduction by Sudeep Sen beginning with the line, “I did not choose poetry, poetry chose me” captures a trajectory of circumstances where he devoted himself to the craft of writing and also found himself at the centre of pivotal shifts in the emergence of Indian poetry in English.
The book under review is the first of three volumes about Sudeep Sen, this one focussing on interviews spread over 30 years of his literary career. Volume 2 will include ‘critical essays and reviews’ on his work over the same period; and Volume 3 for Sen’s own ‘non-fiction critical and creative essays’. Volume 1 is divided into two broad sections: ‘Selected Long Interviews’ and ‘Selected Short Interviews & Conversations.’ The subjects covered range widely and pertinently from personal observations to a strong advocacy for poetry in public forums. According to Sen, the history and achievement of Indian poetry in English is older and deeper than that of Indian English fiction but the poetic tradition is recognised too little. Albeit, this is one poet’s view and Sudeep never claims otherwise, but such a book opens up the wonderful possibility that other major writers and critics will express their opinion on prioritising poetry.
Of the 25 interviews, the most comprehensive ones are by Ziaul Karim from Bangladesh, Akshaya Kumar from India, Doina Ioanid from Europe, and the most piquant by Catherine Woodward, a frequent contributor to the American Poetry Review. From philosophical questions to queries on specific lines, the scope is wide and Sudeep’s thoughtful and intelligent answers are a pleasure to read. Best known for his stunning images, his prolific range and his technical brilliance, the interviewers demand frank answers and Sudeep never hesitates.
One recurrent question is about ‘home’ and ‘rootedness’ when a writer is constantly changing location, and Sen explains his cosmopolitan upbringing in a Delhi-based Bengali speaking family, an English education and Hindi as the language of friendships. A parallel home in London and the frequent residencies in many parts of the world build up the transnational quality further. The outcome is uttered in these evocative lines:
‘I / am going home once again from another / home, escaping the weave of reality into another one / one that gently reminds and stalls / to confirm: my body is the step-son of my soul’ (from Flying Home in Fractals).
However, the Indian ethos seems to remain at the core of Sen’s poetic sensibilities which is best illustrated by his immersion in dance, music, art and mythology. One of my favourite poems is Bharatanatyam Dancer, inspired by Leela Samson, where he invents a rhyme-scheme (abacca) that replicates the (ta dhin ta thaye thaye ta) step-patterns of the dancer. The poem is laid out visually as though on a stage. The “sacred darkness” and the “radiance of quiet femininity” offer a timeless union in classical literature — and Sen turns to this again and again, whether in the Prayer Flag sequence set in Ladakh, or in the Blue Nude poems inspired by Henri Matisse. As a poet with allied interests in film making, photography, design and documentation — Sen has a rich repertoire to draw upon, and the same page can contain aspects from science, the myth of Radha-Krishna, as well as masters of European art.
As with other writers, Sudeep Sen too is asked about the creative process — is it inspiration or hard work? It comes as no surprise that disciplined hours matter most, but here’s the secret, “Being a writer is like being a strange kind of beast…” — one that records “fragments, overheard figments, voices or images”. Did a creative writing course in the USA help with the sorting of material and the moulding of language, another interviewer wants to know, and the answer is honest — it helps to master prosody and to read reams of international contemporary poetry by way of “education”.
In a sense, Sudeep Sen both encourages and cautions practitioners of poetry. In his mission to foreground quality work from India, Sen has published two path-breaking anthologies, The HarperCollins Book of English Poems [by Indians], and the recently published Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi). Add to that Sen’s own translations of poetry, Aria, which won the prestigious AK Ramanujan Translation Award, and we have an impressive corpus for a systematic understanding of the history of the genre.
Altogether an aesthete par excellence, Sudeep Sen lives and breathes poetry one may say. “Poetry is music, poetry is gold” says Sudeep in an interview with Agnes Lam, and quotes his own lines about “poetry’s pleasures and epiphanies”. This book of interviews marvellously covers his theories and practice, memories and challenges, innovations and experiments. Using a title from one of Sen’s books, we see here the fascinating “fractals” from a poet’s journey and his deep critical engagement with it. Sudeep Sen: Selected Interviews & Conversations is an impressive and important book for anyone who follows Indian and world literature seriously.
Malashri Lal, academic and writer, is a member of the English Advisory Board of the Sahitya Akademi.