Monday, November 14, 2011

Gopi K Kottoor: The Poetry of Emotion, Colour and Passion

Gopi K Kottoor: The Poetry of Emotion, Colour and Passion
Literary Interview by Capt. Dr. Arvind Nawale

“I feel that the process of poetry is like blood running in the body. The blood does its function.  Poetry, for which you are ordained, is doing its job all the while for you whether you are aware of it or not. I let it.  The poetry runs within, taking resources from all around and stirs it with emotions of all kinds. The poet is only the outlet, the medium. When the trigger comes, poetry bleeds.” -Gopi K Kottoor

*The Present interview is published in my book Global Responses to Literature in English, ISBN 978-81-7273-652-1, AuthorsPress, New Delhi
Gopikrishnan Kottoor is a major contemporary voice, and  foremost  among Indian poets  presently writing  in  English . He is an award-winning poet, with the highest number of prizes and short lists featured in the All India Poetry Competitions of The Poetry Society (India)- British Council . His prizes include, The Special All India Poetry Prize-97, The Second All India Poetry Prize (General Category-97) both in the same year, and Commendation prizes (95,98). His poems have appeared in Orbis (UK), Ariel (University of Calgary), Toronto Review (Canada), Nth Position Online (UK), Arabesques (Africa), Plaza (Japan), The Illustrated Weekly Of India, Chandrabhaga, Indian Literature, Kavya Bharati, Lipi, Opinion, Kavi (India), and  various.  Anthologies in which his poetry has  appeared include  The Golden Jubilee Anthology of Post-Independence Poetry In English (National Book Trust, India), The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry In English (UK), Verse, Seattle (USA), Special Issue on Contemporary Indian Poetry in English, Give The Sea, Change, Fulcrum (USA) and various. Kottoor was visiting poet, Augsburg University, Germany, and India Guest at the University of Vienna (Austria), in 2004. His book Father, Wake Us In Passing, appeared in German as a Laufschrift Edition in 2004. He attended the MFA poetry program of the Texas State University,San Marcos, USA in 2000.  Poetry from his book ‘A Buchenwald Diary’ was listed as a prayer  in the book ‘Through Another Lens, Liquori Books, USA 2011. His Oeuvre includes novels, plays, children’s stories, literary reviews, lyrics for music, and transcreations. His latest collection of poems ‘ Victoria Terminus” appeared in 2011. Kottoor has published 9 books of poetry, 3 novels (the third in press),  2 plays, 2 transcreations , 1 childrens’ book, and edited, ‘ A New Book of Indian Poems In English’. He is the founder editor of  the poetry quarterly ‘ Poetry Chain’. His new book ‘Vrindavan, The Coloured Yolk  of Love’ will appear in 2012. Film scripts, short stories, a play, novels, a collection of juvenilia, and a new poetry collection are on the anvil. He regularly reviews poetry for The Hindu, Literary Supplement.

AMN: Good morning, Mr. Kottoor. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Do tell me something about yourself and how you came to be a poet, novelist and playwright.

GKK:  I was born in Trivandrum, in beautiful Kerala, which I guess has something mysteriously stinging my soul and connects me to poetry. The beauty of its inscapes and lake scapes, the lilies of the rivers and the fragrance of its greenery have something to do as well. In fact, in the first part of my recently published novel, Presumed Guilty, there is a lot of me, shaping into a poet. The lonely childhood, the meeting point with nature, grappling the texture and finesse of female flesh and beauty, is all me, shaping into a poet. The character was the medium.  Good you ask this question, and good I can open up this way.
I have been a poet, primarily, and a misfit perhaps, as all poets are, and sure, must be. This world is not a poet’s world! Keats was my great early influence, with his life, love for wine and desire for hemlock, his loves, his poetry, self-spite, and letters. When I caught TB at around 23 at Keats’s age, I didn’t quite think much about it because Keats was still strong on me. I felt that a true poet had to catch it anyway and secretly felt proud. Luckily there was a cure.  For long years I have remained a poet, a poet mostly and primarily, and have lived my life that way, with other influences as Allen Ginsberg both in my poetry and in  my life.
            I had my  first published my first poem in Youth Times (Bennett & Coleman), when 17. It was a love poem for a girl in school and went.,.. ‘ I remember you with the towery inflorescence of the mango flowers, and the caterpillar fruit of the mulberry’. Both the mango flowers and caterpillar fruit were of my home garden. It was Shiv.K. Kumar who first published me both in Youth Times and The Illustrated Weekly of India.  Thereafter Kamala Das used to give me centre page spreads often filling it with me in Youth Times. Those events helped me climb up. Gauri Deshpande published me in Opinion. Anees Jung introduced me in Quest.  The lives of poets that influenced me made me write my plays, ‘The Mask of Death’ on the dying days of Keats in Rome, and ‘Fire in The Soul’ on the life of the Nationalist poet Bharati. It is closeness to nature, and the haunt of childhood recreating the freshness of reminiscence that is involved in my first novel ‘A Bridge Over Karma’.  Presently I work in a senior capacity with The Reserve Bank of India, Mumbai.

 AMN: When did you first start writing, what made you feel the need to express yourself in this way?

GKK : As I said, I was around 16, when it happened. I remember a time I gazed in awe at the kitchen boy next door who read out to me his poems beneath the champak in blossom by my home, that he hid away from his house lady who used to burn them. Poor boy. I haven’t heard of him after. I used to marvel how poetry used to be written, while studying in school. Then, before I knew it, and bull dozed into calf love by a girl to whom I haven’t ever spoken to, I started writing poems about her beauty. Then slowly, and painfully the themes changed. My father, who saw my scribbles, was elated, that his son was showing signs of becoming a poet, and waxed eloquent about me to his friends. It was he who salvaged all the early brittle stuff and printed them into my first book ‘Piccolo’ which meant, an Italian flute. The name was chosen by him after consulting the dictionary. I became what I am in poetry because of him. This I have acknowledged in     ‘Father, Wake Us in Passing’, which they say is a poem that’ll see me through, and I believe so too. It is a book that has brought forth tears all over the world wherever I read it.

AMN: I am reminded G.B.Shaw’s play Candida and concept of calf-love in it. But that’s a different case. Okay, Please tell me how did you "discover" poetry? At what age did the light bulb come on for you, and what poem/poet flipped the switch?

GKK: I have answered this already. From the time I started writing at about 16+ poetry became my passion. I would do nothing but write poetry, sleep poetry, dream poetry.  I filled notebook after notebook and wrote at least ten or fifteen poems daily. I have still preserved most of the notebooks. I still go back to them at times, and will go to them again after 60 when I retire. I find they can still lend me inspiration. After I started reading poetry, and it was poetry, poetry, poetry. I read every poet I came across, I read them deep. I waded through the various techniques the poets used to bring home the truths of their poems. Poets as Dylan Thomas, R S Thomas, Norman McCaig, Walt Whitman, Wordsworth, John Donne, (I like him really) Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, W B Yeats, Robert Frost, mesmerized me. I hugged modern American Poetry entirely. I think I must have read at least a thousand poets. It includes Lorca, Yevtushenko, the Haiku masters (Basho), Mandelstam, Neruda, Heine, Vasko Popa, Sappho, Vidyapati etc. In India, I was bowled over by the love poetry of Pritish Nandy, and used to initially imitate his prose poems, but soon gave it up.   Of my first published poem, I have already made mention. Two poets who had a say in shaping my poetic career were, Shri T K Doraiswamy (Nakulan), the avant garde Tamil writer, and  Dr. Ayyappa Paniker, my English professor.

AMN: A few days back, I read your Victoria Terminus. A few months back, I have published one paper on it in my one of anthologies. The structure you’ve attained is mesmerizing. Each poem stands on its own; united as a collection; your pieces form powerfully personal coming-of-age story with a strong narrative bend. Did you write chronologically, or did you put together the poems after they were finished?

GKK: They were put together and are selections from nearly all my nine books of poetry.

AMN: Can you describe your poetry writing process?

GKK: It is difficult, but I’ll try. There is no single way that I adopt. At times, I find that I write after reading a book of poems that has moved me. It stirs the process in me and sets it in motion. I write and most often rewrite. Sometimes I rewrite so often that I lose my original poem. At times I am inspired to write down a complete poem. I feel that the most successful poems are the ones that have a lot of craft and mind going into the poem’s nuances. At times, a reading of my old notebooks helps to begin a poem afresh. Sometimes, it is a single line, with lines contemplated and following after, or else it is the whole poem. It has also happened that the germ of some poem lying unattended within for years suddenly becomes a strong urge within you to deliver it. One passion may trigger another. Well, it is all about  alpha waves, and there is no single way. To think of it, even a poetry competition can trigger an impulse to write. It happened to me. I turned a four line poem, called ‘The Coffin Maker’ in one of my note books into a prize winning entry at the All India Poetry Competitions.

AMN: What’s your editing process like? Do you craft one poem until it’s done, or do you have several works-in-progress in various stages of development?

GKK: As I said before, every time I edit a poem, I see a new dimension, a different world. The poem becomes a crystal globe for gazing into a future poem that holds the ideal, perfect poem. Many sacrifices may have to be made. Nowadays I work on my poems directly on the computer and save every draft in series. It helps. I can always go back to my originals, and look up the version I think I must see again.  It is common for me to have more than twenty to thirty versions of the same poem. I cannot be happy with the first version, unless of course I am certain, but that is really rare. Yes, it has happened often that after I think I have finished a poem, I still end up making more versions of it. Meanwhile I might have written other unrelated poems as well.

AMN: When do you write? Are you always composing in your head, or do you set aside certain chunks of time to work?

GKK I am basically an owl. I live by night. But these days I retire early. But nothing like night to me for all kinds of creation. No, I am not always consciously composing in my head.  I do not set aside time that way. I feel that the process of poetry is like blood running in the body. The blood does its function.  Poetry, for which you are ordained, is doing its job all the while for you whether you are aware of it or not. I let it.  The poetry runs within, taking resources from all around and stirs it with emotions of all kinds. The poet is only the outlet, the medium. When the trigger comes, poetry bleeds. Sometimes the poet in his frenzy at wanting to write his poem looks for it as for a drug, to help him return to himself. It thus works without and within. Essentially, when both without and within merge is born the consciousness of the poem.

AMN: You won the Philip McCormick scholarship of the Texas State University, Southwest Texas, USA and you were Poet-in-Residence in the University of Augsburg, Germany, on a sponsorship by the Indian Council Of Cultural Relations,(ICCR) in association with Tagore Centre, Berlin, Germany. You were also invited to read your transcreation of Puntanam at the University of Vienna, Austria. Did these experiences leave you with something that’s been especially useful in your other writing?

GKK: Yes, most parts of Father, Wake Us In Passing, were written and shaped in a Macintosh computer in the school lab in Texas, and in the plane shutting between America and India, and behind father’s prescription sheets while he lay in a coma in the hospital. ‘ A Buchenwald Diary’ grew from my visit to the Weimar concentration camps in East Germany. A poem from the book, ‘ Bread’  as I said  is  recited as a prayer by  Sister Benjamin Franklin, of the Adorers of The Blood of Christ , and published in her book  which includes poetry by  Internationally  eminent poets as well. So these experiences have been my priceless treasure in shaping and crystallizing my poetry to a great extent.

AMN: Do you have a specific writing style?

GKK: The synthesis of emotion, visual imagery, and colour, is important to me. As  I  have said in one of my recent review articles, I like to remember what Prof  P. Lal wrote to me to whom I had sent my MSS ‘ Milestones To The Sun’ when 24. He said  ‘Your poetry is exceptional. Indeed it is. Lyrical, evocative, memorable, suggestive, and poignant’. I guess this is what every true poet must aspire to be if he wants to write lasting poetry. Poetry, if it touches the heart, will live.  It can touch with emotion, colour, suggestion, and evocation. Best, to try and have poetry that is an infusion of them all.

AMN: What has sustained your relationship with poetry over the years?

GKK: Any form of sustenance is possible only with love and passion. So it is with poetry.

AMN: I read your short poem ‘Roses in Vrindavan’… ‘When roses fade/ Krishna/ again and again/ you come to my mind/ and make them bloom’. The poem appears to me a spontaneous and wonderful composition! How did you come across such a fascinating ideas? Where did the seed come from and how did you develop it?

GKK: It was a poem that began as a simple love poem. ‘Krishna’ was a later addition and incorporation into the Vrindavan sequence. The poem was a normal love poem to begin with.  But perhaps I was already Radha, though the Vrindavan concept had not yet materialized yet. But I now feel that without my conscious knowledge I was stepping in that direction- to write the Radha Krishna poems. The poem truly was my ‘first’ Radha Krishna poem, though I remained unaware. Thereafter out of a spontaneous feeling, I typed in   two or three poems into facebook in similar vein. By that time Vrindavan  had also waded in.  Then a few friends on facebook like Priti Aisola, Tikulli Tiku, Manu Dash,  and Prof  Subbarayudu became my  gopis, sort of, praising the poems. And the dam broke.

AMN: While you were writing, did you ever feel as if you were one of the characters? For example in ‘Roses in Vrindavan’, is Krishna projection of you?

GKK: Yes, I was Radha, most often, and occasionally, Radha turned to Krishna, because essentially Radha-Krishna is one, and without Radha, there is no Krishna. I guess, one essentially has to be Radha first as Krishna himself cannot otherwise be. She is the spring of the poetry of love that Krishna turns out to be.

AMN: You write poetry, fiction and drama. How do you handle these genres at a same time?  There’s often a talk about how the study of poetry can have a positive impact on the novelist and essayist. Could you share your thoughts regarding this? Also, what hurdles might a poet face when making the transition from poetry to essays and novel-length projects or dramas?

GKK: As I said, I do not compartmentalize.  My novels, my drama, they are all nurtured in poetry. Between Poetry and drama, there can be no separation. From poetry to novel and drama is no hurdle but a flow. The poet is essentially a dramatist; he lets emotions take on characterization. So Hamlet is a poet, so is Macbeth and Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s hands. Shakespeare, master poet, is naturally the king of drama. Every great novelist began as a poet sometime or the other. Well, poets when they write novels, write poetic novels.  The way I write my novels has been interpreted primarily as poetic. Sitakant Mahapatra says so in his introduction to ‘ A Bridge over Karma’ that it is a poet’s novel.  So did Jayanta  Mahapatra eulogize the novel, in one of his letters to me, after he had read the first few chapters  that I had sent to him. Of ‘Presumed Guilty’ my second novel, the poetical narrations have won special acclaim and mention in the reviews. Is not  Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man And The Sea’ great poetry?

AMN: How did you turn towards writing a novel?  Tell us briefly about your ‘ A Bridge over Karma’.

GKK: ‘A Bridge Over Karma’ was written over a period of around four years. That time, I was not tuned in to the PC yet, and so wrote down the entire novel by hand and revised it over and over again.  The basic inspiration was  our  partially    ruined ancestral  ‘Tharavad’  house near the  Pallana riverfront in Alleppey, Kerala,  with its teak broken wood stairs, leading up to an attic filled with sand and  with bats flying in through the dimly lit stained glass windows . The germ was the haunting effect of the house all  through my childhood days. We used to get there by steamboat and paddle canoes during vacations.  There were coconut trees all around as far as the eyes could see; and lagoons all around where lilies in their myriad hues grew and among which the delicious thighed frogs hid; the pink mukkutti and thetti flowers grew upon their banks. The house had snakes in the cupboards  that left eggs broken and skins shed among the books such as ‘ The Book of Knowledge ‘ in about ten volumes, which great grandfather had  brought from England; Upon the cracks on the  damp floors, termite mounds grew to around three to four feet. The people who lived in it were my ancestors who practiced untouchability to core detail. The novel presents a time when untouchable women were not allowed to cover their breasts, but would come to thresh the overflowing grain of the high castes. The house, along with a painting of my great great grandfather, who was known as the Tambran, or The Feudal Overlord inspired the book. Not only ghosts, but even houses inspire novels!  In many ways the house has also fostered my poetry. One of my recent poems ‘The Attic of the Gods’ draws inspiration from the bat infested attic of the house. Memories that haunt you never quite leave.  I have also posted the copy of the oil painting of great great grandfather who inspired ‘ A bridge over Karma’  on facebook.  

AMN:  How you turned toward drama. Tell briefly about your The Mask of Death and Fire in the Soul.

GKK: ‘The Mask of Death’ was born out of my unending passion for Keats. As I said, I caught TB around his age, but fortunately, cure was around. It was while attending the Civil services interview and medical examination that the Koch’s Lung diagnosis was confirmed. Keats haunted me. I learned about poetry’s need to be crafted and made perfect from Keats. One reason to write the book was to try and enter the poet with my imagination. I wrote the book with the help of his letters to Fanny Brawne, and by imagining how his home near the Spagna would be like. It was a challenge. The book grew on its own, I wrote it as a spontaneous flow completing the book in two weeks. Frankly, years later on a visit to the bedroom in Rome in the house where Keats died his agonizing death, I was fascinated, how close my imagination had taken me to his bedroom and its ceiling where the painted  yellow flowers were  ‘I feel the yellow flowers  already all over me’.  I wished to paint the ecstasy of his love, and the helplessness, and the agony of Keats’s dying. There are readers who think it is a masterpiece. Well, let it be.
‘Fire InThe Soul’  grew out of a reading of the life of Subramania Bharati. It is interesting that you raised the question of the author entering the character. It actually happened to me in the case of  ‘Fire In The Soul’.  I not only entered the character. I lived Bharati. All through the period I was mesmerized into believing that I was indeed Bharati in my previous birth. Bharati was not just imagination, He was turning real, I was soon turning into him. Now I am freed of him. I think you enter your characters, they turn real and possess you.  No wonder I felt that I could even have been Krishna in a previous birth. Sounds like sacrilege. Even to me. I think in a way all this is what Keats termed as  ‘ Negative Capability’.

AMN: You also wrote Wander from the Great Wide Wander Galaxy. What got you hooked on children’s writing?

GKK: Wander grew out of my stay in Navi Mumbai hills, in Belapur. There is a hill near the residence where I stayed which stirred my fantasy. The Vashi creek over which I used to commute daily gave me the idea of the celestial child falling into the   backwaters, and being rescued by the children.

AMN: There is  to your credit  the  translation/transcreation of  books like-Poonthanam's Jnanappana (Fountain of God), Kukoka's Rati Rahasya as (Love's Ecstasies). What makes a successful translation in your opinion?

GKK: A successful translation must attempt to close in on the original, without losing the boundaries of its spirit. A transcreation attempts that. I do not think that it is possible to do a cent percent transfer job from one language to another.  But some specialists do a really good job.

AMN:  Which is your masterpiece?

GKK: I think it is better to ask what it is that I like to be remembered by. Victoria Terminus is  a collection that contains poems I wish to preserve. It contains Father, Wake Us in Passing, Mother Sonata, and individual poems that have received good ratings.  ‘A Buchenwald Diary’ is a personal favourite. It has also won rave reviews like ‘Father, and Mother Sonata’.
It has been said that  suffering and pain  is too much in my poetry The criticism I feel, is farfetched. It is suffering that moves the world. The greatest paintings such as ‘Guernica’ by Picasso and ‘The Crucifixion’ by Dali have all been about suffering.  If suffering and pain moves you in poetry or any work of art, it turns the personal to the universal and abides. To my critics, I suggest  that they also read ‘Vrindavan- The Coloured Yolk of love’ which is soon forthcoming as a book with 214 poems on the theme of Radha Krishna, which is  filled with colour, sensuousness, beauty and the ecstasy of love. Readers across the world have already rated it high. There are over a 2000  hits in less than six months for its online version. The readership simply seems to go on and on. It makes me feel happy. 

AMN: How do you like to be seen by your readers? As an English poet? Dramatist? Novelist? Or Children’s writer? Why?

GKK: I am known as a poet. In everything that I write my readers see poetry. Without poetry, perhaps I am nothing. It is not just written poetry. Poetry is like blood, like breath.   I guess, poetry begins and ends it all. I think it is my blessing and luck to be known and remembered the way I am.

AMN:  What kind of creative patterns, routines or rituals do you have?

GKK: No patterns, routines, or rituals.  I like to sleep a lot. I do not like to exercise. I like to read poetry all the time, and to listen to good music in whatever form. I would like to direct a film, if possible based on my forthcoming novel ‘Hill House’, partly again based on a true story, that draws on the life and murders of Bela Kiss.

AMN: Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?

GKK: Yes. So many.  They are not really influences, they are milestones to me. Keats, Ivor Gurney, Carol Ann Duffy, Sharon Olds, Heine, Edward Thomas,  John Donne,  Ernest Downson, Vidyapati, Sappho, Lorca, Swinburne, Neruda, Owen, Yeats, Larkin, Norman  McCaig, Douglas Dunn, Dylan Thomas, and many more have been milestones to me at some point or the other. I have learnt from them all, and still continue to learn.

AMN: Do you see writing as a career?

GKK: As I said, to me writing that has engaged me has been primarily poetry. It is to me a part of my life, like blood, like the beating heart.

AMN: What advice would you give to someone out there with a dream to write a book, but unsure whether to do it or not.

GKK:Go, sit where you think your alpha waves will rise and write it down.

AMN: What poetry books are next to your bedside table?  Why do you appreciate them?

GKK: Modern American, British and European Poetry. They fascinate and inspire me.

AMN: What are you reading right now?
GKK: These days my poetry reading is mainly online. I read the award winning pieces and enjoy them.

AMN: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
GKK: My new book, a crime-cum-romance fiction, Hill House will soon appear. A political satire, Empoeror Banana and The Sovereign Banana Republic will also be out. I am working on my new book of poems which will follow ‘ Vrindavan’- The Coloured Yolk of love’.  Other books include a play ‘ A Woman In Flames’ based on a true event of the 90’s in Mumbai involving a famous performing artiste.  I review poetry these days regularly for The Hindu Literary Supplement. I also want to put poetry chain back on wheels.
AMN: Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring poets and writers of India?
GKK: Yes. I would strongly advise them to be passionately involved with their work- and to fear not to delete and start all over again. I would want freshers to read more and more poetry if they want to be poets, and not be satisfied to write dishonest poetry just to see their name in print. To remain cloistered, to publish in trash magazines and to pretend to yourself and to others that you are a recognized poet is easy.  But ask yourself if you are doing the right thing.  To be a poet is to have a lifelong commitment with words. It is hard work . You’ll know when you hit upon your own voice. Until then, keep writing. Don’t be in haste to publish trash in the name of poetry in red light magazines and to join gray groups that will ultimately get you nowhere. It is best to be honest, have patience, and suffer and write. And most of all read and enjoy poetry, classic and modern. It sure helps in moulding the poet in you and giving you direction... 

AMN: Who are your favourite Indian English poets?
GKK: I like the honesty, nuances, craft, and attention to detail of A K Ramanujan, Dom Moraes, and Arun Kolatkar. Some of the other seniors appear to often get lost in the maze of their narrative poetry and end up repetitive.  Among the younger ones, I haven’t seen any that have brought out a bright substantial corpus or, even a handful that remains in the memory after they are read,   though there might be individual poems by them.  This is a personal observation.  The young however seem focused on a lot of self -pushing these days, when they should be focusing their energies more on their poetry.  Who remembers a Bridges, Watkins, or Barker who were tall in their time, or reads them these days? Time has its own way with poets, and poets like Hopkins and Dickinson get ahead and stay. 

AMN: Thanks.. All the best for your future literary ventures.
GKK: Thank you, Mr. Nawale. It has been an interesting session with you
 - Capt. Dr. Arvind Nawale