K Srilata on why we need poetry

Srilata’s upcoming collection is a testament to why poems are a good antidote to the present times

In her upcoming anthology of poems, The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans, K Srilata intersperses incredibly personal narratives about childhood and family with incisive political verse. I Bury Them Under the Witnessing Yellow of the Chinar, for instance, is a powerful ode to Atta Mohammed, the Kashmiri gravedigger. Other poems carry references to communal riots, forced disappearances and police raids. In the melding of the personal and the political, then, the poet and Professor of English at IIT Madras shows how we all need a bit of poetry in our lives to make sense of our world today.

An ‘admixture of anxiety and joy’ is how she describes the process of putting together the collection. Joy over how “it became suddenly apparent that the poems were pieces of a puzzle”; anxiety in deciding what to leave in and what to throw out. The poems themselves were collected over four-to-five years, shares Srilata during a leisurely conversation over mango lassi. Since her previous anthology, Bookmarking the Oasis (2015), her projects have included a collaborative venture, All the Worlds Between, with Irish poet Fiona Bolger, before returning to the dangerous pleasures of going solo. “A solo project is all yours. You are stranded on an island, all alone, and have to figure a way back,” she shares.

Reclaiming absence

As the anthology’s title signals, “absences, and how they are so present in our lives”, is the thread on which most of the works are strung. However, the leitmotif struck her only at the very end, when the poems were printed out and laid out on her office floor. “What was a constant presence in our lives was the absence of people,” recalls Srilata of her own childhood in the 1970s, growing up as the daughter of a single mother. It was more than the absent father: “We were oddities in a world where families also meant uncles and aunts, grand uncles and grand aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers — on both sides, maternal and paternal”.

The autobiographical has always been part of Srilata’s writing as “the little hill on which I stand and look at the world. I have never wanted to run away from the self”. Poems such as Not in The Picture, We Should Go out on a Date Soon, and It is 1966 touch sensitively yet unflinchingly upon subjects such as parenting, adoption, illness and abandonment. “I suppose it is on-going catharsis in a way,” she agrees, “though the writing of those poems was more than just ‘coming to terms with’. It is a way of seeing things that happened to you.”

Balancing act

Srilata started writing young, graduating from limericks to more complicated poems, to a PhD in Literature. Then came the delight of returning to poetry. Today, she balances her writing with a day job as an academic (attentive reader, do check out her poem Teaching Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to a Class of Eighteen-Year-Olds). The juggling act drives her crazy sometimes, even as she adds, “I do like having something as concrete as teaching to do during the day.” Sometimes, it also produces poetry! Father, a poem in the present anthology that was inspired by American poet Karin Gottshall’s More Lies, grew out of a writing exercise that she had set her class.

Some of the poems in the collection have already been widely shared online and even been translated into other Indian languages. “I was so glad I was able to put them out into the world because it was not just me who felt that way, but hundreds of thousands of others — I just happened to find the words at the time,” she says.

And so it is that I don’t need to ask why Srilata feels poetry is relevant in today’s world. Her poems themselves answer the question.

The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans will be published by Poetrywala on June 16, and priced at ₹300.

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