Interview with Jeet Thayil: Poetry & Ghosts in Translation

Jeet Thayil is a pretty fascinating guy.

Tall, thin and bald, he looks almost ageless.
He calls poets “horribly twisted beings “ who are in “love with trouble and suffering”.
In an age of selfies, he gives pretty artsy autographs.
When he plays his guitar, you wonder if he really is a writer. But to his credit, he is the author of four poetry collections. Moreover, his debut novel, Narcopolis won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was also shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. As a songwriter and musician, he’s part of the contemporary music project Sriddhar/Thayil.
When he talks over the phone, he’s pretty conversational and comes up with witty insights.

Archita: Born in Kerala, and educated abroad, you’ve visited and stayed at quite a lot of places. How have these places changed you or influenced you, in developing your writer’s voice?
Jeet: Well I would say that it has given me a view of literature as a worldwide community. Growing up elsewhere, growing up in the different cities of the world gave me a sense that all literature essentially belongs to me.
A: You’re described as a poet, novelist, librettist and a musician. How would you describe yourself as?
J: I’m just somebody who works. I just don’t go to the office for my job. It’s a different kind of job.
A: So how would you say your life differs from that of others?
J: I don’t think my life is different from other people. Except that I spend more time alone than most.
A: Though an Indian writer, your writing is primarily in English. Do you intend on writing in other languages?
J: Definitely not. There’s only one language I can read and write in and that’s English.

A: As a writer, a former drug addict, a musician and a traveller, you kind of remind me of the Beat Generation. Do you have any comments on that?
J: Absolutely not. For someone who lives in Delhi in 2014, the Beats are as far removed as the Symbolists in the 19th century.
A: But then again, people often compare your writing to that of William S. Boroughs?
J: Yeah, but he was an exception to the Beat Generation
A: So if you had the chance to be born in a particular era, which era would you choose and why?
J: 50 years into the future. Because I’d like to see if the various predictions one makes about the world…if they came true or not.

A: Wordsworth called poetry the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. How spontaneous is your poetry? Is a good poem written at one go, or does it need to go through many revisions and drafts?
J: When Wordsworth said that, I don’t think he meant automatic writing. He meant the moment when the thought or the impulse to write a poem occurs. That is the spontaneous overflow of emotion. But the actual process of getting it down on the page accurately-that is not spontaneous. It requires lot of work, and it requires many drafts to make it seem effortless and flowing.
A: If you could choose only one person whose work had a lasting impression on you, whom would you choose and why?
J: God, because his works are everywhere
A: Why did you write Narcopolis? To pay homage to the city of Bombay or to record your own experiences?
J: As a memorial to people I Iove who died
A: How do you view your own work as?Something perfect, complete or something that still needs to be worked on?
J: Something imperfect and abandoned.

A: Why did you turn to write poetry? Was it a childhood hobby or a conscious decision? Was there any incident that fostered the habit?
J: It was not a hobby, it was not a decision. It was inevitable.
A: What are your earliest memories of writing?
J: I started to write poems and songs at the same age. I was about thirteen. I never made a decision, I never decided to do it, it was just a part of my life and I think that’s true with many people. When you’re young, your art, your expression is a part of your life but as you grow older and you go to school and you socialize, you start doing other things that will get you money and further you in the world
J: But I guess I never learnt how to do those things that would get me further in the world. I just continue to do those things that get me backwards into the world.

A: What sort of legacy would you like to leave behind?
J: Legacy? I think you should ask me that question after I’m dead.
A: I won’t be able to ask you then..
J: …Which may not be too far away
A: You shouldn’t say like that!
J: Like, after my death, you could send that question out to the skies..
A: Then I’ll have to do a planchette or something..
J: Yes, exactly.Or via a medium, and I’ll try to reply as accurately as possible.
A: Incidentally, do you believe in ghosts?
J: Yes
A: Why?
J: Because, I know for a fact that they exist.
A: Could you elaborate on that?
J: No

A: What is your advice to budding writers and poets?
J: To budding writers, keep at it. To poets, please stop.
A: That is really depressing
J: Yeah, because it’s a really had life and a very hard road to choose. You’re just inviting difficulty, suffering and chaos into your life.
A: But then, if you really love writing poetry, you can’t stop that..
J: I know. That’s why saying something like that will make no difference.
A: What is your opinion of translated works?
J: Well, you know some of the greatest poetry in the world, I’ve only read in translation. Including Baudelaire, Dante and Lorca. So I don’t think poetry is lost in translation. I think that’s one thing that survives in translation.
A: And why do you say that?
J: Because poetry is un-killable. You can’t stop it, you can’t destroy it, no matter what it always comes through.

(This was my first ever interview, peeps!)
Please let me know your thoughts!
Image source

(Previously published in Voices,The Statesman)


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