- K. Srivastava with his three books of poetry: Ineluctable Stillness (2005), An Armless Hand Writes (2008 & second reprint 2012) and Shadows of the Real (2012) has come to establish himself as a well-recognized poet at a global level. Antara Deo Sen’s edited magazine- The Little Magazine describes Srivastava’s poems as ‘well-aroused, tormenting,’ while Patrick J. Sammut, another literary critic writes of Srivastava’s poetry, ‘At times, his poetry takes the form of a thousand-year-old tale which may have its origin before the creation of mankind, shedding light on utter folly of ultimate unrealities of human existence.’ His books represent richness of ideas and language. His poems cannot be rushed through but once understood these move eternally. In January 2017, he achieved yet another milestone when his book Shadows of the Real as translated into Russian by well-known Russian poet and essayist Adolf P Shvedchikov was published and released by Russian Cultural Center India. The same month, thirty-five of his poems from three poetry collections as translated into Hindi by Professor Nar Deo Sharma and Jaswinder Singh were published by Vani Prakashan under the title Andhere Se Nikli Kavitatayen, New Delhi. Agron Shele, poet and writer from Belgium conducted an email interview with K.K.Srivastava for Brazilian literary magazine SIBILA–
AS-As an interviewer, I ought to be very candid in my questions. There are things in your collections that irk, one does not feel comfortable with the idea of poetry.
KKS- Can you explain it? Please give at least one of the what you call ‘things’
AS- It seems your books indicate your infection with murkier, unseen side of ……..? Now let me stop. I am not able to fill the gap. What? Please say something on it.
KKS—Let me explain to you my understanding of your observation. It is an observation. For me craving for ways to start is not very important. Things keep happening to me every moment, every second. And out of so many occurrences, a few put me on hold. I feel trammeled. There is a feeling that the way is certain but what I will come across on the way is not certain. This is my greatest dilemma; you walk on an unwalked road with symbols, metaphors and musings. Reality suffers some sort of surrealism. The choices and allurements life offers become in the hands of surreal world means to enhance agony and alienation. Backwater of memories is what one is left with. Outer and inner world are immutable and inseparable and the gulf that exists between these two hands over to me material for my writings.
I fill the gap: life runs on parallel themes-it is not one-way affair-unreal is as much a part of it as real-shadows give you darkness but signal presence of light. Writing is as much about conscious, alive facets as it is about unconscious, unalive facets.
AS- Borges was forthcoming in his admissions. Poets and philosophers that are no more give ideas to those writing now.
KKS- How many plain writers like Borges are there. Those who claim originality are puny-headed, self-obsessed writers. Originality comes from infinity. This is what Borges harped on. I have no idea as to where infinity rests. But I have one example I will like to put forward. Please look at this example; I have cited it many times. In Bertrand Russel’s autobiography, I find a letter where Russel is thanking Laski for the photograph he sent to Russel, ’Many thanks for the photograph. Even if it is bad, it gives a basis to the imagination…’ This is the relationship between a writer’s reading and his writing. This is a precise meaning of ‘influence or influences’. The basis of writing is imagination. Imagination crops up from a writer’s reading. No writer begins with tabula rasa. You cannot be a good writer if you are not a better reader. There are honorable exceptions though.
AS- In the Preface to An Armless Hand Writes, you talk of ‘imageless thoughts’. What are these?
KKS- I am happy you asked me this question. It refreshes my memory. A young girl whom I taught in a Training School that I was heading and who now occupies an important position in Indian Police Service, having read this book, sent me a long mail carrying her comments about various poems in the book but she asked me this question—‘Coming to the preface, two things, at one place you have written about the poets that they have image less thoughts with them. I don’t agree Sir. Without imagination of the thoughts, no one can write. U can write only imagined thoughts…….’ That was a unique experience for me- a question I expected from a seasoned poet but lo and behold it is coming from a girl hardly of twenty-three years of age. So I owed her a response the way I owe one to you now.
A poem is an outcome of a singular or multiple mental processes involving sensations, impulses, emotions, insight, concept formation, cognition and a lot more. Each one of these has its own methodological complexities which clarifies but obscures too. What a poet is in search of is nothing but an image vying for appropriate words, metaphors and symbols. I, as a poet, have to reach out to an idea in terms of images that are clear and distinct. By ‘imageless thoughts’, I imply those images to which a coherent response is not possible. And this is a real hotbed of ‘imageless thoughts’ where a poet has to delve into to snatch away some meaningful associations. So relevant is the example of photograph I have just given.
AS- The influences on you or sources ideas occur to you?
When you leave aside literary influences, you are left with sources only but two go side by side. In retrospect when I look back, I come across two sources ideas accrue to me from: my reading, my perception and observations of things around me-both near and far off ones both in time and space. Yes, there is a third thing too. You have individuals in groups, something of seminal importance, for here it is-some human beings: men and women behaving in most bizarre form by letting out their true being or reversely by hiding it considerably. Artificiality is the sole product of either: the best possible hotbed for a writer. My childhood which carries with it threads that connect me to memories, illusions and a sense of futility whose pervasiveness I feel oftentimes. For me, when I reflect back and it is an intermittent phenomenon, I find my childhood unfolding itself, swimming in a kaleidoscopic lake which receives falling light appearing and disappearing.
In order to search fresh meanings out of what seem to be stale, uninspiring, dead and buried, a poet has to wade through stillness of silence and harshness of darkness in perfect juxtaposition with experiences bringing him glee and élan; giving him moments of glory all are there for him to roll about. I remember that lady teacher of the primary school run by local municipality (I was in class III), hailing from poor, downtrodden strata of society, who called me, showing me my answer script and then hugged me telling,’ You write so well; why don’t you speak?’ That for me underlined the importance of written words, the importance of silence. My childhood was a childhood of silence, of darkness but not stillness. When I enter and reenter it after so many years have passed, this very silence helps me pierce through things, persons that make noise, that distract, that disturb. Noise has always attracted me and given me myriad possibilities for contemplation and analysis. Noisy things, noisy people give me ample material for writing. In some pompously cacophonous fellows I see hollowness and shallowness making excellent bed-fellows. People ought to remember writers have eyes that non-writers don’t have.
One of my friends, I am talking of 1984-85, had a very troubled childhood, something to do with his father’s marital status. One evening while walking he asked me to read Sartre. Much later when I read Sartre’s book Words, these words, -‘a few drops of sperms poured out by a dead man,’ I could locate the memory of my conversation with my friend. Sartre was talking in terms of price of a child’s birth. Nothing can explain it better. It is this unknownness, this darkness from which a child emerges that is crucial to me. I believe every child has a darkness inside him; a haunting darkness that he grapples with. throughout. For me this darkness is akin to an incurable migraine; you keep getting the pangs. Darkness and silence are two most potent weapons in the hands of any poet.
I have a great inclination towards serious writers who look at the world pessimistically; for them there is always strife and wretchedness in everything alive or dead and the influences such writers are on me are indisputable. By serious writers I don’t mean those who produce best-sellers annually or once in two to three years as a matter of routine but those who hold themselves back from the cauldron of light, fame, women and wealth. Some of the so-called best sellers of modern times are a scar on literature. Vanity of time takes care of them. I have highest regards for Nirad C Chaudhuri and writers of his ilk. V.S.Naipaul, Samuel Beckett, Salman Rushdie, Borges, Kafka and so on so forth. These writers make literary history and few of them cause history.
AS- What of poets?
KKS- Allen Ginsberg, Eliot, Hindi poet Muktibodh, Jayanta Mahapatra, Ezra Pound and a few more. I learnt the idea of writing long poems from our Hindi poet Muktibodh. I read his poem, Andhere Mein and Brahamraksha more than ten times each and am still dismayed at the connections that come into existence as these two poems emerge further on. Then Eliot teaches a lot when it comes to longish poems. Presently I am reading Louise Gluck’s book–Faithful and Virtuous Night.
AS- I see a whole lot of psychology in your poems. You have spoken of Freud’s ‘schizophrenic verbalism.’ Can psychological material be used in poetry? Will poetry remain poetry if disciplines such as philosophy and psychology come to shape them?
KKS- Yes. The first book that I read of psychology was that of Woodworth & Schlosberg. That beginning has not stopped as yet and as time passes by, my interest in this discipline is enhancing. In Pound, Eliot and Muktibodh, I find unique usage of psychic concepts in poetry. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers is a reflection on psychological realism. Emiley Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, particularly the portrait of Heathcliff continues to bewilder the psychological senses of readers even now, I think there is a need to analyze Salman Rushdie’s novels to establish the psychological make-up of his characters in order to give a new interpretation of occurrences in his books. Freud described Dostoevsky as a great psychiatrist. So you can now convince yourself of the influence this discipline exercises on writers.
It is in the context of serious poetry that Freud talked of ‘schizophrenic verbalism.’ I have used dream content of my own dreams and dreams from Freud’s case studies to frame some poems like An Unfinished Journey and Human Illusions. Dreams provide me an array of associations with real life and unreal life. The use of psychology is vital to fill gaps in such associations. We use inferences to fill gaps. Knowledge of psychology activates my thought processes and hence my verses have their looming presence.
AS- Do you read your poems yourself after much time has passed? Let me put a few lines from your Poem-Riot And The Young Lady—
‘Reddish traces linger on
and that young fragile looking lady,
lost in her remembrance,
like an unnoticeable cog
in the gargantuan past called
and suddenly asks;
‘That’s vile-should we a parent’s faults adore,
And err, because our fathers err’d before?’
You wrote these lines in 2008 and you very appropriately cite Charles Churchill from his poem The Rosciad. When you read such heart touching lines after some years, how do you feel then?
KKS- My poems represent some sort of conversation with my solitude, alienation; it is a monologue intensely personal. We are in 21st century hell- this is a perceived truth though there is no dearth of people quarreling with this perception. This fact despite occurrence of some gorgeous dawns, always swallows me up, more collectively than individually. I abhor visiting time and again things I write; such visits frustrate me further. Relationship of a writer with his writings is always a dualistic affair flowing to and fro. Sometimes when I revert back to these, I visualize the pass I have come to- everything so pusillanimous. This becomes major highlight of my memory. With no choices, the need to seek hurried escape route to shun glare knocks at me. Drifting again away into vein of associated thoughts is like you are pushed into hellish company of your thoughts again after you have come out of it.
AS- Allusions constitute a major feature of your poetry. Serious attention of any reader is needed. Why it is so? Simplicity is a virtue in writings also.
KKS- If you read Beckett you will know what impenetrable literature is all about. Please ask this question from the prisoners of San Quentin Penitentiary who found one of Beckett’s play simply so absorbing because they understood the meaning of the dingy thing ‘wait’ and they could look at it with ensuing hope.
Any literature that seems to be vague renders itself to varied interpretations like Rorschach test where a patient looks into inkblot pictures and pours out different observations based on the influences motivating him. I am happy to find that that many of the poems that professional reviewers found difficult and impenetrable have been appreciated by common readers. Serious literature suffers both enigma and stigma. Only in long run validation comes. This very thought propels me. Otherwise how come Russian translation of my third poetry collection came out. Critics are wise people.
AS- How will you view your being? How often do you write?
KKS- Temperamentally, I find myself very remote; away from everything or at least most of the things, far off from physical and psychological existences. In a company, I find myself seized. I loathe bad company and good one I rarely get. That complicates the sense of my remoteness. I find the so-called ‘smart chaps’ of the society awfully cumbersome making society a horrendous place to live in. these chaps are noisy and nosey- what a formidable combination. I like simple life, simple talks, simple people, simple food and simple ways of solving problems.
Coming to your second point, that of writing, I write twice or thrice a fortnight. When the urge comes, it is irresistible and when it does not, it is impossible to write. Writing is like indulgence in sex. In the latter, you need an entity of opposite sex, in the former, you need stimulating thoughts. In the end, the latter gives you kids, the former books. Writing is a lonely business; it jells well with long stretches of turmoiled conversation with myself.
AS- Tell us something of your job and also let us know how you moved into writing?
KKS- I am in Civil Services. Writing has nothing to do with your profession. Best writers don’t necessarily come from academia. In India there are persons from peer services like Indian Administrative Service, Indian Foreign Service, and many other services who have turned out to be internationally well-known writers. Writing is extremely private thing to me; exploration and penetration are possible against a background that knocks at my unconscious when I wallow in myself: my writing is a journey from me to myself and back to me: the process entails explaining away what reside within me, what is difficult to part with-the insides are the most intractable blocks for me and for tackling these blocks, I need solitude and alienation. And all these, I find very natural, smooth and never weird. As I told you earlier, remoteness is my best companion. It does not act against my being in civil service.
AS- What is the future of literature, serious poetry in particular? Do you think poetry can be a medium of social change?
KKS- I think the best reply I can place before you is from a book I read recently. That is Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Last Word. He has an interesting observation to make through one of his protagonists –‘The market has changed; these days there were more writers than readers. Everyone was speaking at once while no one heard as in an asylum. The only books people read were diet books, cookery books or exercise books. People didn’t want to improve the world, they only wanted better bodies.’ This is a lamentation by one of the best thinking minds in the field of modern literature. Serious literature is in serious danger. Creators of such literature languish in long stretches of isolation and mental agony. What sells in the name of ‘best sellers’ can be rewarding for a few financially but serious writers don’t target a readership. And look at the quality of readers. Serious writers target thoughts and ideas. I don’t think I can improve upon what Hanif Kureishi has said about current readership and breed of writers. Writing is a quiet business; no publicity, no propaganda. Best reclusive writers get well-known only on the verge of their death and that too if fortune precedes their death. Unfortunately, publishers are more keen to build body of readers rather than leaving behind a robust form of literary heritage. I am afraid but let me tell you sometimes I get a feeling Carl Jung’s ‘Wotan’, that restless wanderer, has entered literary field too.
AS- Any new project?
KKS- Like one of the convicts of San Quentin Penitentiary, I am waiting. Someday? You know. You are a writer. You know what it means to a writer when asked to talk about his ‘new project. Thanking you for sparing your valuable time
K.K.Srivastava is by profession a Civil Servant who lives in India. He is an acclaimed poet and reviewer. He reviews for newspapers like The Pioneer and The Daily Star and some magazine.
About the Interviewer:
Agron Shele is a poet and critic living in Belgium. A close aide of Ismail Kadare, the Albanian writer who won first Man Booker International Prize in 2005, he is author of many books and a member of numerous literary associations across the globe. He is the organizer of Galaxy Poetry Board ‘ATUNIS’.