‘Describe a writing that is part water, part milk, part rain. Biswamit Dwibedy’s Ancient Guest is a wet home for this description.’ That’s how Bhanu Kapil introduces HarperCollins India’s latest anthology of poems.
Ancient Guest is a collection which marks a new direction in contemporary Indian English poetry. Comprising four sections, each one as explosive and evocative as the other, and not to mention experimental, Biswamit Dwibedy creates a fictional-autobiography in verse traversing from the historical and the mythological, the spiritual and the sexual. Here’s Sohini Basak in conversation with the poet:
SB: A group of scholars from Norway and Germany recently worked on how reading poetry affects the brain and published their findings in a neurological journal. A journalist, while writing about the study, evoked Vladimir Nabokov who wrote that one should read not with their heart or brain but with their body, awaiting ‘the tell-tale tingle between the shoulder blades’. How do you write and read poetry? What does reading poetry do for/to you?
BD: What a great question to start with! I like the idea of writing with your body, as Nabokov suggests. I often catch myself writing not when I am at my desk, but while walking, or standing up. Many of the poems in this book happened when I was working at a restaurant in US, and I’d make notes of conversations my customers had on a ticket-pad—what we used to write the receipt for the diners. I still have them somewhere, these small, green, ruled tickets with my indecipherable handwriting.
Reading is a different thing. I come to reading poetry as a solace, after the world has exhausted me. At the end of the day, after teaching and writing, after many emails and numerous phone calls. Or I get there first thing in the morning, if I need a good start to what I know will be a rough day. I either read entire books (slim volumes, of course) in one sitting or just a few poems. There are poets like Cole Swensen, whose work I return to almost on a daily basis, so I can look at the world anew—her writing shows the implicit beauty out there. I have also noticed how the voice of a poet I read and love lingers in my head, long after I’ve finished reading. My thoughts become an echo of their voices, and I like that. Each good poem is a glass of wine, really.
SB: I second that! Ancient Guest is a rich and experimental book of poems, it’s intertextual, and the language will surprise the reader in delightful ways. The book refers to the teachings of Ram Krishna Paramhansa as well as absorbs modern narratives of technology, film and so on… What triggered you to write the book?
BD: It is still difficult to think of myself as having ‘written the book’. Like the great philosopher Edmund Jabes says, we are always writing that one/same book (I paraphrase). A part of the poems started in the US, while working at a restaurant. Others started while I was exploring the history of America, the myth of its ‘discovery’. This was ten years ago. Then I moved back to India, and came across the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna—and their connection to science. I was fascinated by what I found out, and I wanted to use some of that language. The book developed over many years, as we were getting more and more digitized. Facebook and Instagram came to being. Also, the way technology negates distance, keeps me in touch with loved ones abroad, and yet isolates and distances us from others. All these things seeped into my work.
And did it come all at once? The book is divided into four sections. So, what was the process like? Did you stitch the poems together later, or did you always have the large frame in mind?
Yes, the book is four sections, but they aren’t necessarily separate. There is a lot of crossover. Poems are dispersed across. The sections indicate stages of the narrative, I guess. It is actually four different series of poems that are woven together, braided. And I am not entirely done (ref: Jabes). To me poetry is sculpture too, the shaping of words and putting them together; the shape of the poem and how we slowly carve out the unnecessary. The book as it is now is precisely that—the shape of the poems, their coming together, as it is today. They might grow offshoots, that turn into other books or series of poems not completely unrelated to these poems. The book is this coming together of four different lives, like friends converge over a table for some wine and conversations. And the four series do speak to one another, I believe, as friends do.
SB: That’s lovely: poems as friends; friends as poems…
I always find that geography shapes our language and the way we articulate in ways both surreptitious and profound. You have lived in various places, and your book Ancient Guest is about both journey and homecoming. You write: ‘The landscape will tell you what to do.’ Tell us more about the relationship between the places that you occupy and how they perhaps occupy your writing…
BD: That’s an interesting question and it reminds me of what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze says—’becoming is geographical’. In my poems I find the glaciers of Greenland, the snow of Iowa, the mountains of the Hudson Valley, the heat and greenery of India, the rock-cut caves of Odisha. As in my mind, these landscapes all exist at once—simultaneously. I love looking at trees; the green heals the eyes. I also love the sparkle on undisturbed snow—and I often was the first one to walk on a field of shimmering white, on my way to work at the restaurant early in the morning. Other than Bangalore, I’ve always lived in small cities, and I like the intimacy that goes along with it. Now I live in a village, not too far from Bangalore, and it gives me this idyllic atmosphere with lots of green around, and lots of trails to walk… I don’t think that’s very common these days and I consider myself lucky. I look forward to seeing how this peaceful landscape will affect my work.
SB: Finally, this is going to be difficult, if you had to choose one poem that you had to read every day—after all, poetry is all about re-reading, which one would it be?
BD: This is difficult! Like I said, I do go back to the amazing Cole Swensen’s writing, almost every day, but I switch between books. Each poem could determine how the day will go! There’s another poem called ‘Parachutes My Love Can Carry You Higher’, by Barbara Guest, which is about as perfect as a poem gets. But I am also in love with Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poems. Long, delicious lines that never cease to show you new meanings, new connections. I particularly love a poem titled ‘The New Boys’, published in The Brooklyn Rail, and from her book, Hello, the Roses. You can read it here. I love the way it ends: “Why can’t I do this in my heels?”
About the author: Biswamit Dwibedy is the author of Ozalid and Eirik’s Ocean. He has an MFA from Bard College, New York. He is a co-editor for the journal 1913 and the founder of Anew Print, an independent press devoted to translations from India. He teaches at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design, and Technology and splits his time between Odisha and Bangalore.
Here’s Biswamit reading from Ancient Guest: