Michelle D’Costa – Interviewed by Jagari Mukherjee
- The title of your collection, ‘Gulf’ refers to a literal place–Bahrain–and to a metaphorical construct of separateness. In your opinion, do your poems resolve the conundrum of the narrator’s identity?
The title does reflect a region- the Arabian Gulf, and it invites the reader to get glimpses of the narrator’s experiences. Readers might experience a ‘gulf’ in their own lives, with their partners, with their ambitions, with their religion, with their past and present selves and more. I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘identity’ lately and I think it’s constantly evolving. Ambiguity and anxiety are palpable throughout the poems. They only add to the depth and range of experiences the narrator goes through. I think it is only natural to not be ‘sorted’. It’s okay to belong to many places and not to a single place as well. The more fluid one’s identity the better or you end up in boxes and stereotypes. But yes, a longing to belong also flows through the poems’ veins. It’s the constant push and pull that I wanted readers to experience.
- The gulf between the Self and the Other is bridged (with the help of the English Language) in a poem like ‘My Neighbour’ yet widens in the very next poem, “When They Ask”. Do you think there can practically be a solution to this constant uncertainty and flux?
I think people react to situations differently. People experience culture shock in different ways. You will always have certain expectations of a ‘place’ and of its ‘people’ and you will also wonder how to navigate expectations that others have of you. I find it interesting to explore the self and other’s expectations of themselves and others.
- You come from a non-literature background, as did P.B. Shelley, John Keats, William Carlos Williams and others? Do you believe literature students have it easier in terms of mastering poetic technique and craft than those from a different background?
I used to doubt my abilities as a poet. I would end up being baffled on reading some poems, and I wondered if I would ever write a good poem that would make it to a reputed literary journal. I had made a list of journals I wanted to be published in. I made friends, sought out feedback, read all kinds of poems I came across. I’m grateful to friends and editors of journals for validating my poems.
It is definitely a longer process than a literature student but I’ve heard that some literature students find writing very intimidating because they’ve read and dissected all the greats’ works. You know the anxiety of influence as coined by Harold Bloom. So just knowing all the techniques etc. is not enough to be a writer. I’ve noticed that my lack of training worked in my favour because I’m always eager to learn and improve my writing; I never take it for granted. I’m actually obsessed with writing.
- Your use of imagery in ‘Gulf’ is refreshingly striking. An expression like “Villagers christen them cowards, /wait like crows/ to peck out Dinar signs/during monsoons…” reminded me of the conceits of the Great Metaphysicals. At the same time, your collection is autobiographical–thus, written in the Confessional mode. Which of these two movements/techniques do you find more appealing? Who are some of your favorite Confessional and Metaphysical poets?
Thank you! I’m actually drawn to both. I like metaphysical poetry for the way it stimulates the brain and confessional for the way it stimulates the heart. I love Dickinson’s work. I had attended the ‘Modern & Contemporary American Poetry’ course on Coursera. Al Fireis is a fantastic instructor. Dickinson’s poems were dissected in his sessions. I absolutely loved learning about the hidden meanings within each line of her poem.
I love Sylvia Plath’s poetry for the confessional tone. I read her work in school and then in college as well. I will never forget the line ‘A melon strolling on two tendrils’. I prefer poems that are not too abstract because it can alienate a lot of readers, and I think it’s evident through my poems as well.
- Which contemporary poets and/or movements have had a major influence on your poetry?
I like to read contemporary Indian women poets because it helps me understand how to express myself through poetry, how to play with language, and bring out the best of my multilingualism. I love the curation of The Alipore Post. It has played a big role in shaping my poetic sensibilities.
Michelle D’Costa’s book Gulf is available at https://yavanikapress.wixsite.com/home/catalogue-2021