Kiran Bhat – Interviewed by Paresh Tiwari
While the occasion for this interview is the release of your first poetry book, Speaking in Tongues, I’d like to delay questions about your book, Kiran, and first establish some background for our readers. When and how were you first inspired to write? What forms or genres did your earliest writings adopt?
Thank you for the question. I first came to writing when I was 17. Due to some traumatic experiences in my life (which are very much spoken about in my poem “2007” in the collection), I decided to turn to poetry as a coping mechanism. I felt like I was alone, I had no one to talk to, and I was going through reparative therapy without my consent… so I wrote. And while those writings weren’t anything so great, they were full of enough angst and emotion to cause my peers to want to read what I wrote. Those times got better, but I noticed that writing creatively was something people thought I was good at. I started writing short stories, and then I went to NYU, where people again were noticing my talent. So, a little thought came to my ego. Perhaps this is something I should explore.
Since you mention your poem 2007 here, would you like to share a few lines from the poem?
I suppose I can include a teaser. How about?
the traitor to tradition,
the resister to remorse,
I’m being purposefully oblique. 😉
Speaking in Tongues reads more as an autobiography, a coming out of an individual rather than a poet. Would you expect the reader to read it as such or would you want them to keep the poet and the poetry separate?
I would say that the poems of Speaking in Tongues are as much invention as they are autobiography. Unlike in my fiction, in which I explore cultures and characters which really have nothing to do with me, writing these poems came to me because there were unresolved things in my past that I had to confront. Even my Spanish poems, autobiografía, were born out of a very direct conversation I had with my psychologist. At that time in my life, I was just living in different countries, learning different languages, and trying to perform outside of the national context I was born into. My therapist was very blunt with me; you really need to address the sad experiences of your childhood. And when I was talking to her about what I had experienced she had told me that my early years would make a fascinating autobiography. I didn’t want to write it in prose because it felt too vanilla, and I didn’t want to write it in English first because… it also felt too vanilla. And not only vanilla but confrontational, evocative, and truthful. By choosing to write in another language, and then choosing to use the poem form, I thought my project would have some creative or innovative value that it would not otherwise have if it were more traditionally imagined. It also allowed me to be earnest with myself, while also performing something else.
Who are you speaking to in your poems?
The world, all at once? Whenever I write I tend to imagine myself speaking to a giant metaphysical version of this earth. Each of the billions of humans on this planet is like a little electrical node. And when I am speaking it is like I am connecting one node to another. I am making all the lines connect. I am sparking electricity.
Your poems have this need to be rooted in a specific event, language, time, or place. Do you think it might be because you have found it hard to belong?
Absolutely. Growing up was hard for me. I was very different from the people around me. Of course, this is a mental construct. I am sure I can find or imagine people who were like me in my home state if I were to choose hard enough. But there’s a certain comfort also in not choosing to do that? I felt so alienated growing up, and so it’s beautiful to witness that in my acts of transformation and growth, I have become something much bigger than any one experience.
Your book contains poetry in four different languages. I want you to dwell on the role language plays in your poetry. Do you tackle certain themes and ideas in a particular language? Does it also dictate the emotions and the imagery that eventually ends up on paper?
Of course. I write very differently in each language. Part of that is because I only really know English well. The rest are languages I am experimenting with. But that’s also part of the fun. Some people will look at what I wrote in Chinese and think it’s awkward. I think it’s just a way to express myself. And it’s not really like I wrote fully in Chinese. I tried to the extent I could express emotion, then I wrote a draft in English, then I tried to write again in Mandarin, consulting dictionaries and Google. Then I talked to friends who could correct me. Then I rewrote it. So, me writing in different languages is not me saying I’m a master in any of them. It’s me very openly saying, I don’t know what I’m saying, I don’t know what I’m writing, but I love the freedom of not knowing something. And in writing in between a language, I do and don’t know, I like that I’m expressing something even more alien, in both versions.
In some of your poems, you have referred to yourself in the third person. I found it both jarring and fascinating. Can you expound on this choice of yours?
You are referring to the poetry suite in the collection, Kiran Speaks (客然脑说). When I imagined the first poem of this compilation I was in Tianjin, meandering. My life was full of confusion and family pressures during that time, and a lot of it had seeped into my head. I was imagining my grandmother showing anger at me, exclaiming why I didn’t just live in Georgia and stay with my parents like a good boy ought to. For whatever reason, my answer was coming to her in Chinese, so I decided to stick with it. That became a poem, which inspired me to answer a lot of questions in my head, in this convention.
You say it is jarring, but actually a lot of bhakti writing uses this tradition. Tukaram for example frames a lot of his poems in the third person. I very much wanted to take the back and forth seen in the dialectics of Confucius (in which Confucius and his students argue about various philosophical dilemmas) and merge it with the evocativeness of bhakti. So, these poems are a representation of those two schools of writing, in a contemporary form.
You are also a fiction writer; how do you decide what topics or ideas are better suited for poetry rather than prose?
Interestingly enough I don’t see myself as a poet at all. I very much have the mind of a fiction writer. I see writing projects as beginning, middle, end. I see writing projects as a full narrative in book form rather than their individual parts. If I had to use a metaphor, when a poet sees a bridge, they see all of the shapes of the little logs and how they come together. When I see a bridge, I’m just wondering, where do I want it to go?
Except for my early years when I was learning my craft, I don’t think I have used the poem form much. The sadly selfish but true reason as to why I chose poetry in this particular case is because I wanted to use writing as a means to improve my skills in foreign languages. Of course, I also like the distance a foreign language provides – you are trying to express something rather than get lost in your self-expression, and in some cases, you just get struck by divine luck and entire phrases come to you in another tongue. But fundamentally I wanted to improve my Spanish and Mandarin and Turkish (just as I like to do with my Portuguese and Kannada), and so I was writing in these languages just to learn how to improve my sense of expression in foreign tongues.
This is not to lambast the form, by the way. I love reading and criticising poetry, but my fundamental interests are in fiction.
Your poetry puts the self at the centre of the experience, as the sole subject. Do you think you have also managed to capture the universality of experience?
Thank you for that thought, Paresh. I would absolutely hope that I have created an anthology of poetry that is relatable and palpable for a wide range of human beings. While I’m very overt with the things in my life which have occurred, and while I know that the way I experienced them is very particular, I would say that a lot of the expectations I have been thrust onto are very normal for South Asian origin people. I wrote a lot of these poems hoping to give hope to people who are struggling to make sense of themselves in a society which shames individuality and expression. I would like them to learn that there is a way to be yourself. I hope that anyone who is lost or ridden with self-hatred can read these poems and find a path back towards self-comfort.
Where do you think your poetry will be taking you next?
So, as I said before, I’m not really a poet. I do dabble in Kannada language poetry now and then when I have the time. I’m just too occupied with another project I am doing right now called Girar. It’s a literary serialisation I publish on a webpage. Basically, I am telling a story which involves an archetypal Mother and Father and Son learning to accept each other despite their differences in mentality and imagining each instalment of the story in a different part of the world. There are 365 different instalments. Each one is like a short story of life in a particular part of the world, be it rural Fiji, Buenos Aires, Konkans residing in Southern Maharashtra. The stories are sent to paid subscribers (it costs 100 INR a month or 700 INR a year approximately to subscribe to Girar) via email on the time and date they are published. So, each story is like a time-stamped real-time reaction to an actual thing happening in the world on that very day. I release about 2-3 of them a month, and plan to publish all of them up until the end of 2029.
So that’s not much about poetry, but it is what I’m doing, and I do think it’s a project – poetry or not – that will beckon the interest of any globally concerned reader.
Girar does sound interesting, topical and something that’ll survive for a long time. All hallmarks of literary work that matters. I wish you the very best for this and anything else you may take up.
For readers curious about Kiran Bhat’s poetry, I am sharing some poems soon to be published in Speaking in Tongues… one sample from each of the three suites of the collection, in Spanish, Mandarin and Turkish respectively.
if you can’t see with your eyes for a moment
try to see with your ears
and if you hear the darkness
you will find wisdom in between the sounds
hunger is an odd thing
it’s like nails scratching themselves
the skin salivating
it’s a strange mix of obsession and gratification
I feel mad mad mad many moments after I first feel it
the remnants of ire are like another chapter of thought
it makes me want to do damage to others
I don’t understand why
once I find myself,
I’ll let you know
once I understand myself,
I’ll show it to you
if you take the time to listen to me,
I will feel better
if I take the time to listen to you
you will take the time to love me more.
Si negaras tus ojos por una estancia, tendrás que ver por tus orejas, y en cuanto escuches a la oscuridad, te enteras del sabio entre los sonidos.
El hambre es una cosa tan extraña. Tiene la sensibilidad de una mano arrasando, las uñas salivando. Es una mezcla entre la obsesión y la gratificación, gratuita, compulsiva, a la misma vez.
Me siento enojado muchos momentos después del instante cuando me lo sentí. Los remanentes de la ira son los difuntos de otra etapa, vagabundos que se amenazan. Quiero hacer a otros daño y no sé por qué.
En cuanto me encuentra, te digo. En cuanto te entienda, te muestro. En cuanto me escuchas, me amas. Pero en cuanto te escucho, me vas a amar.
A reporter asked: Aren’t you worried about the times we live in?
Kiran responds: Of course, I worry!
We are losing so many cultures, so much land
Day by day it’s getting hotter
Peninsulas are becoming islands.
And the news isn’t giving us information
It’s suffocating us.
But I am also excited about our future.
We have reached a point where Chinese people care what happens in Kenya
But there are now Chinese people caring about what happens in Kenya.
That fact itself is encouraging.
We are truly beginning to care about each other
And this is part of the way.
Take a break
spend some time with yourself
learn to love others
is what we know we must do.
But the world is so big
and the world is so scary
and we want the entire world for ourselves
for whatever reason,
despite knowing it doesn’t belong to us, as well.
So, we try,
we try so hard,
we wrong so hard,
we fail so hard,
because we want to be seen.
Sometimes softer words are easier to be heard.
Biraz dinlenmek istiyorum.
Kendim için biraz zaman istiyorum.
Başkalarını sevmeyi öğrenmek istiyorum.
Yapmamız gerekenşeyler bunun gibi,
ama dünya çok büyük,
ve dünyaçok korkutucu,
sebep ne olursa olsun,
tüm dünyayı kendimiz için istiyoruz,
ama dünya bizim için değil.
Belki daha yumuşak kelimelerin duyulması daha kolaydır.