Vinita Agarwal – Interview

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What if poetry fails to connect with readers?—asks Vinita Agarwal in an interesting conversation on her works and different perspectives, with Poornima Laxmeshwar.

Poornima Laxmeshwar: When I read your poem “Gift,” it reads like describing the absence of someone’s departure and that the only way out was to put it across in a poem. The line ‘Scarred, like the face of pain’ especially makes this assumption concrete. Can you tell us what made you write this piece? You won the Second prize for Tall Grass Writers Guild poems on the Moon for it.

Vinita Agarwal: You’re right, “Gift” is a poem of loss. I wrote it when my father passed away. His passing left me bereft and my overstretched imagination regarded the moon as a loving parting gift. When we lose someone who is precious to us we clutch at impossible things for comfort. The poem tries to depict that. And then it rounds up on how every aspect of the moon fits in with the emotions experienced during grieving.

Poornima: Do you think it is important for poets to submit their works to journals and competitions? Do you consciously keep a track of such events and send your work or you chance upon them and submit your poems?

Vinita: It is evolutionary to send out one’s work to journals and competitions. There are two aspects to this – firstly, your work is assessed by capable and experienced editors. If your work is accepted, there’s every reason to feel delighted. And if it’s rejected then it’s an opportunity to re examine your work and try to improve it.

Secondly, submitting one’s work to journals and competitions puts it out in the open in the best possible way. After all, poetry is meant to be read and absorbed, not closeted. Poetry that doesn’t connect with readers globally falls short of its value. I speak generally of course. There are poets who prefer to remain anonymous. They never air their work. That’s a different community altogether. Personally, I believe in being read as widely as possible for it is then that our personal experiences acquire a universal relevance.

Poornima: Could you specifically tell us about the poem “Home is Elsewhere?” Do you find it any easier to craft prose poems?

Vinita: “Home Is Elsewhere” is specifically dedicated to the tragic events that occurred in Syria in 2017. Although I only saw the footage on television and in print, it disturbed me deeply. In mid 2017, Proverse poetry competition Hongkong sent out a call for poems on refugees. I couldn’t help but connect the dots between refugees and the displaced Syrians. As far as crafting that particular poem is concerned, it just took its own shape. I imagined every step that the fleeing Syrians took as a staccato action of escape. So the poem has short sentences portraying a series of imagery.

Crafting poems happens on its own for me. I don’t preconceive the form before getting down to writing it. Incidentally, the poem won the third prize.

Poornima: We are particularly keen on knowing about the Tagore Prize. Tell us about your association with it and also about your award for the profound review you wrote for JM’s book.

Vinita: The Tagore prize happened quite out of the blue! It’s a newly instated prize and I was short listed for it in its debut year i.e. 2018. The shortlist was quite daunting actually! At the top of the list was our Sufi saint poet, Kabir, and it was he who was awarded the grand prize posthumously. Because of that everyone on the shortlist was declared winner. That’s how the award came my way too amidst a host of other marvelous writers. And who minds losing to Kabir?

The Tagore prize committee has also instated a book review prize of $100 every month. I had submitted my book review of Jayanta Mahapatra’s latest book, Hesitant Light, to them and received the award this month. It’s great that now book reviews too will be duly recognized and encouraged. I’d like to sincerely thank The Tagore Prize committee for their wonderful ideas to promote and sustain literature in India.

Poornima: You also have judged poetry events in the past. What are the nuances that you look in a poem to strike you? How has your experience been as a judge?

Vinita: I love the process of judging poetry contests because it gives me an opportunity to read myriad poems from a spectrum of poets from across the world. A couple of years ago I’d co judged the AsianCha contest along with its editor  Tammy Ho Lai Ming. Tammy is a wonderful editor and our decisions were in sync, we both agreed on the same poems   as winning poems.

In 2016 Raedleaf Foundation invited me to judge its yearly contest. That too was a deeply absorbing experience and the quality of work that I read was splendid! Post that I judged the Sakhi Prize on feminist poetry along with my two co editors. That too was an enriching experience and struck a chord with male and female poets alike, all over the world. The thing I look for when evaluating a poem is how well it connects with the reader, how honestly it has been penned and how it moves you. A truly memorable poem is one that makes you forget the world for the one or two

minutes that you spend reading it. A good poem allows you to embrace it. Craft and content acquire a seamless flow when such poems are written.

Poornima: Given this opportunity I want to bring the poem that was published in Mascara. The poem was plainly stunning, from title to the entire poem.

That greeting for strangers…
We’ve shared too many moons on the palettes of our nights

When we meet
Leave the race behind. Face me

Become scent
Stretch my lungs

Become jaggery
Color my tongue

When we meet
Come undone like a knot in the wind

Me the shuddering threads
You the hunger for silk

Your poems are not only simple in terms of language but are very deep in terms of thoughts. To contrast this is the other poem:

I come from a geography
where girls embroider silence,
unfurl quilts of wordlessness,
vast, like star studded desert skies.
Their quietude as deep as the space
where tears are born
high as the walls that keeps history in
subtle like the rivers that roamed these plains once.
Gurgling, buoyant ghaghra-clad girls
now untraceable, lost forever.
That’s where I come from.

Your poems are not only simple in terms of language but are very deep in terms of thoughts. To contrast this is the other poem:

I come from a geography
where girls embroider silence,
unfurl quilts of wordlessness,
vast, like star studded desert skies.
Their quietude as deep as the space
where tears are born
high as the walls that keeps history in
subtle like the rivers that roamed these plains once.
Gurgling, buoyant ghaghra-clad girls
now untraceable, lost forever.
That’s where I come from.

Do you make a conscious choice and pick the theme?

Vinita: Well, thank you! As for making a conscious choice, not really. I write about what is on my mind. My poems reflect the mood I am in. Occasionally when I respond to a prompt then yes I do write on a given theme. Writing poetry gives me an opportunity to say things that I’d like to say. There’s so much going on inside of us that we end up writing about a plethora of issues give it take a few.

That said, I also enjoy writing prompt based poetry. Earlier I felt that it was akin to ‘manufacturing’ a poem but gradually I’ve realized that if you respond to a prompt with all your being and make the poem completely your own, then the verse can bring great satisfaction.

Poornima: Do you intend to write prose? If yes, why and if no, why?

Vinita: Poetry is my first love. That’s for sure. But in the future I’d like to write fiction too. Perhaps even some nonfiction. I have a body of essays on culture and spirituality which have been published in a few places. Buddhism as a subject intrigues me greatly and I’ve been fortunate to do research on women and Buddhism and present papers in the same at sakyadhita conferences. However I’ve written very little fiction so far. I do intend to change that though. Hopefully, soon.

Poornima: What does feminism mean to you and what do you think is the responsibility of a poet to uphold the rights of equality? You are also the Editor of the webzine, The WomanInc. What kind of work do you choose for your website and what is the message that you want to highlight with it.

Vinita: Feminism to me is really simple – it simply means treating men and women as equals. Women don’t want extra rights and privileges. They just want equal opportunities. Most importantly they want self respect, dignity and freedom to lead their own lives. What could possibly be wrong with that? Is it too much to ask for? My gender based journal, The Womaninc, seeks to uphold these values. It publishes work that puts women in the limelight.

I wouldn’t use the word ‘responsibility’ in the context of a poet upholding rights of equality. I’d rather use awareness instead. Awareness goes beyond professions—as human beings who live in a society, we should be aware of injustices of all kinds that plague our lives. One of those injustices pertains to women: women are subjugated economically and often denied the right to education. This needs to change. We need to treat women with respect. We need to respect her choices. As poets, we are certainly not obliged to write on feminist issues…but if we do, it heals the scars of those who have suffered to some extent. Besides, women certainly can’t stay away from the topic!

Poornima: Talk a little about your books and the journey as a poet. What is that one reason that makes you stick to poetry as a genre?

Vinita: My first book, Words Not Spoken, was a culmination of long years of writing poetry. The poems a reflected a transparent thread that connected me to my experiences. They represented my perceptions of life. That said, they also traced experiences of loss and grief, pride and joy, betrayal and pain, living and dying from a universal perspective.

My second book, The Longest Pleasure, veered towards a state of stillness. Pain has a penumbra of numbness attached to it and it is towards this numbness that we oscillate to sooner or later. Endurance has been and always be at the core of my writing always.

My third book, The Silk Of Hunger, engaged with the spirituality lying dormant within us, relying on vivid imagery and gentle language to essay a point of view – a view that is positive, hopeful, believing and healing. The poems attempted to probe the delicate balance between the surface of worldly exactitude and the depth of semantic humaneness

My forthcoming book, Two Full Moons, is a book of self-exploration and self-discovery. It seeks to address questions of existential angst by finding the universal in the personal. The poems probe into how distinctive individual experiences become essentially ubiquitous in the cosmic frame of things. How, when the canvas expands, uniqueness dissolves and gives way to a fluidity of undergoing for everyone who lives and endures.

Poornima: As a matter of intrigue, who are the poets you swear by?

Vinita: Pablo Neruda, Jayanta Mahapatra and Agha Shahid Ali.

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About Vinita Agarwal: Vinita is an award-winning author of three books of poetry. She is also Editor of The Womaninc, an online journal addressing women’s issues. She is the Recipient of the Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for Literary Excellence, USA, 2015, the second prize at the TallGrass Writers Guild Award, Chicago in 2017, the third prize in the Hongkong Proverse Poetry Prize 2017 and co-judged the AsianCha contest in 2015. Her work has been widely published and anthologized.

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is a published poet, currently awaiting her second collection that will be out this year. She works as a content writer for a living.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A very interesting dialogue; engaging and enlightening. Nice to know a bit more about you, Vinita, through your own words. May you go far in realising your dreams and aspirations as you connect internationally with your readers.

  2. Enriching and insightful. Thank you Poornima and Ethos Literary Journal for giving us more of Vinita as a poet, an aesthete and an art enthusiast.

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