Interview: Medha Singh

Medha Singh is a young poet, living in the vibrant capital of the Indian subcontinent. She jokes about how her books are available in every other Indian city, except her own. In the last two years she has carved out a name for herself, following the launch of her book Ecdysis (Poetrywala/Poetry Primero) in 2017. That same year she served as Editor-At-Large for one of the largest literary magazines in India, Coldnoon. She’s traveled all over the country with her poems, to various literary festivals, giving talks at universities, organizing poetry readings and moderating discussions in independent literary hubs. She currently serves as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also a member of the Editorial Board at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin, a unique publishing effort led, run, managed and created by Hannes Schumacher. In an attempt to revolutionise publishing and bring philosophy and art to interact in the public space, Freigeist Verlag runs an operation in Berlin, where they hold various discussions, art exhibitions, and readings.

Medha Singh’s poems are very urban, yet revolve around the simplest of places, like an old restaurant in “On Eating Alone”, and often the most private ones, like a lover’s bedroom in “A Quiet Home”, told about in the city of Delhi. There is a quiet fleeting of love, loss, longing and solitude that floats around in the book, amid the beauty and concomitant crudeness of life – filling oneself and emptying at the same time – like that in “Erasure.” This book speaks of unsaid things, the felt and forgotten, in “Soiree,” for example, things are observed through several lenses, of memories, dreams, time and silence. Most of these poems either leave one with goosebumps, as in the eeriness of “Freeing the Coil,” or make one laugh out loud. Some fill one with nostalgia for childhood, and the simple things we often take for granted. An innocent confession of a true heart, in “Between Worlds.” which is dedicated to her late father, to whom the book also is, it brought me to tears – such truth told in an uncomplicated way, yet with such compound, and varied meaning. A silent kind of beauty holds the reader, like that of “Sketches.” The last section of poems, a beautiful world of syncretic images are created in words and, and often ironically. I gasp at the last part of the vignettes in “Sketches,” “how to disappear”, mouth wide open – these words, these memories, the raw beauty of emotions that I felt disappearing slowly into themselves, and became as ready to read all over again.

Who were your biggest poetic influences in Ecdysis

I might have said this before somewhere, but it’s imperative that the telos is to resist influence. It’s one thing to enjoy reading poetry, be ushered into its world through the experience of reading, to follow the impulse to write down ideas, tinker with an image as though one was a painter, immerse oneself in another’s music, after witnessing / reading something enormous. However, one has to resolutely be their own artist. I’m sure many would not agree, though it’s fairly easy for young poets – like myself – to unconsciously sound like the poets they read. It takes time to wash that film of influence off. I’m conscious of it. At the same time, I know the wind that blows through my poems originally belongs to Marina Tsvetaeva, I can’t fight that.

Why “Ecdysis”? Does it hold personal meaning?

In the moment this book came out, I was immediately over it. I didn’t want to be known for it, and the title had come to me when I had asked myself, ‘what’s the opposite of a cliche that enumerates a cliche’? Coming of age, shedding old skin, moving on et cetera. I was sure, though, that this is supposed to be a book of magic, so the original title Grimoire stayed on the pages for some time. However, it was terrible. It was too self important. Thus, I named it after the exercise for finding a title, felt the meta-ness would do just fine. In hindsight, perhaps I’d subconsciously foreseen that I’d get over it very fast.

Have you included any of your earliest work? Which ones?

All poems in this book should be seen as ‘early’. The only new poems in this text were “Between Worlds,” “Freeing the Coil,” “Fire in Calais,” “An Answer.” They were written between 2015 and 2016, during my stay in Paris, right up till my father’s death. The others came before that. The book, in fact, opens with Strangers. It was the first poem I’d ever published. I was 17 at the time. It had appeared in Nether, Mumbai. Issue #3.

Where do your main themes come from in Ecdysis? And why?

That’s hard to say. It’s never up to the writer, I think. The same way you don’t choose who you fall in love with. In retrospect, poets usually arrange the poems when recurring themes emerge into the light on their own, though I doubt it’s ever really a choice at the point of creation. One makes aesthetic choices, certainly. Though poets who fashion and contrive poems, aren’t poets to me. They’re clockmakers. The poem has to come to you as an unannounced guest. It’s not up to you. You’re always taking messages that come from elsewhere, and often, from what Yves Ouallet has called ‘a poetic body’, one that thrives after poets die. You inherit something from these poetic bodies, as a reader and lover of poetry. That’s the only way it’s ever really been done. All other kinds of poems die with their makers, to my view. To answer your question, the main themes, as you call them, come from elsewhere. Whatever the place is between the shadow world and the whiteness of things.

Is there any particular poet’s work you feel everyone deserves to read? Why?

Yes. If you’re asking for poets that I think deserve more visibility than they have at present, I’d say Arun Sagar’s book Anamnesia (Poetrywala, Mumbai, 2013) is a monumental text. I’d also like to think of this French-Egyptian poet Edmond Jabes, he’s not very well known, but he ought to be. Among the better known poets, Yannis Ritsos’ work is remarkable, I’ve been reading the bilingual edition of Jane Hirshfield’s Viens, Voleur (Phloeme editions, 2018). It’s quite astounding in Delia Morris and Genevieve Liautard’s translations. As of now, I’ve recently encountered new poets, Yves Ouallet, and Lara Dopff, operating out of Le Havre. I’m swimming in their delicate poems.

What do you prefer writing on the most? Does a pen and notebook still beat our new digital tools?  What do you like?

Look, any act of creation is a physical act. A painter paints with their hands, music ought to first be played and learnt on an instrument before it enters software. It’s a physical need – the knowledge of the form you intend to master has to be internalized. There is a material component to it. Things that seem visceral, like an aging pain, like an undercurrent of inner happiness, these too are felt physically, it’s a body experience, and they ought to be expressed so. I recall writing down lines by Seamus Heaney, John Keats, Rimbaud, when I was younger, just to look to the shape of their poetic worlds. To get a sense of what they saw on the page and felt content and truant looking at. It’s important to have a pen in hand. I even use my grandmother’s typewriter for work, sometimes. Your inner wellspring of being, the basis of your spirit can’t fully be realized if you spend your whole time finding ways to put poems on the page quicker. For example, you can’t make mistakes on a typewriter, because you’ll have to white them out by hand. Each line break, each space, each enjambment, requires you to move your hands around and go clonk, cluck, clank on the keys.

Do you have any particular rituals or routines before composing a poem?

Yes. Often, I read before I want to put down a poem that’s been simmering for a while (and I let it). I shut out people who don’t add value to my poetic/intellectual life routinely. Other than that, kill social media accounts temporarily, drink water, and shut the door. Drop the ruse. We convince ourselves that we are a certain type of person. It’s important to sit in a room and forget her. You don’t have to go on being who you once were, even if you were that person a minute ago. When she disappears, the poem comes forth.

What works of poetry are you most inspired by?

The world around is more inspiring, than specific books. I read them because I like to. So, Denise Levertov, Louise Gluck, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, James Merrill, Alejandro Jodorowsky, but I read more philosophy than poetry these days. Nietzsche (I’m always reading him), Phaedo, Spinoza, Heraclitus, Walter Benjamin. One needs reliable instruction for life, before poetry can be written. I’ve just started looking at Schelling.

Do you like any specific styles of poetry over others? Which ones?

Honestly, big fan of the Romantic odes. I also liked what James Merrill did to the Haibun. Though no, not really. I don’t particularly care. Rhyming free verse is usually good enough. As an editor, you can’t have rigid preferences, even if you might enjoy the odd sonnet, there is far too much being done with language in this time that we are alive to favour an acrostic over a haiga, a diamante over a sestina. It’s just self-limiting.

Have you soared with poetry through difficult times? Is it a form of healing and stating your truth?

Look, I mean, sure it has its uses, and its capacity to ameliorate your inner life has always only grown through time, though you’ll have to talk to the mental health &healing/art therapy types to get a real answer. I don’t even think such a thing as healing even exists. We only cope with the traumas we come to own, and our illusions about their effect on our lives become subtler. Poetry has been another limb in my life, it doesn’t matter what I’ve been going through. I’d like to see people keep it in their world through boring and mundane hours. Through loneliness, solitude, in good company, in bad. The thing about these new age art and healing programs, is that they seem to give you permission to pick any medium, any at all, and run with it. As poetry often is seen as something you don’t need to cultivate a skill for, such as music and painting (Instagram poetry for example, is self help stuff, not poetry), it’s been corrupted the most, and usually what emerges from these things is subpar. Catharsis can be found in many ways. It doesn’t have to be like this. It’s a serious form, highly technical, and requires a fair amount of reading before that world is unlocked. At the risk of being offensive, I’d just say this isn’t for you if you are going about it in a utilitarian way.

“Circle/Hypnosis” reads as various events put together. Is it so? Which event is your most memorable?

They aren’t events, per se. Experience synthesizes into ideas. Sagas become vignettes. That’s how it is. Stories are lying about everywhere.

There’s some inventive vocabulary you use in your poems, like “mainfuckingstream”, “hea/rt” etc. Do you think this makes the poems more expressive or provocative?

No. You just have to be flippant sometimes. It’s to balance a perennial intensity. Enjambment is an opportunity in the poem. You do what you like with it. Break the monotony, create comic relief and so on.

How do you take formal decisions in your poems? For example “excerpt: she thinks to herself” and “Between Worlds” are completely different. How important is form in a poem? Or more so, how does it help state a message through its structure?

You mean one is a conventionally free verse poem and the other a pose poem (also a kind of free verse)? Don’t know really. It depends on the narrative, if there is one. You’ll see more of it in the next book.

You have several ways of making poems relatable, and they vary in the ways they relate to each other. While some are seriously sensitive, others make you laugh out loud. Which one is your favourite ‘funny poem’ in Ecdysis?  

I’m glad you think that of it. Humor is important, it really is. I don’t quite know what you mean by favourite. As I said earlier, I’m over it. I want it to disappear. “Art World” ought to cut it, though, if I had to really think about it.

What is the purpose of the spacing in “Art World”? And while we’re on that topic, I notice your poems hold a certain muse in so many of them, including this one. May I ask about the ‘Lady’ from this poem?

The Lady in the poem is a reprehensible, bourgeois, opportunistic sort who’ll bring out her best middle class smile for the next big gig. A reprobate, really. The whole point is that her true self is so completely disempowered that she’s alone in her sorrow. She’s irredeemably caught up the tourniquet, the glam, the narrow world of keeping up appearances in order to survive a place she obviously does not feel she belongs in (and does not know where else she does). You can’t have sympathy for such a character, if you know them on the surface, and often the trope is that of a critic, curator, connoisseur, blogger and so on. They hold a disproportionate amount of power over the artists’s life. Too much privilege and no inner authenticity. Anything other than the artist, is what she is. This is not to say that I hold any personal contempt for anyone in particular. It’s just a stereotype I’ve played with. Often writers are wonderful critics, often painters write beautiful philosophical pieces on art, and poetry. Frequently, philosophers are wonderful musicians. Though there is always the odd philistine who doesn’t know sht about sht and would give an arm and a leg to be the muse of some artist they like because everyone else seems to. Just someone with no inner resource, you know?

Yes, the spacing is very… how do I say? Punk. The whole book is an attempt at punk and psychedelia. It’s shaky, stops at all the wrong places, breaks the sacrosanct idea of what is considered pristine in poetry. It has sought to create disruptions where something else is expected (from a literature student who could have known better). That’s why it was met with condescension, and some derision too, I suppose. Especially by older men.  I’m just glad it wasn’t ignored as a first book often is in India, which is often the case with new poets, and truly, I expected it to be. The other thing is, I don’t know how many people care about punk poetry in India (if they do at all). They’re not a part of the English canon, no one even hears about them. That’s a risk I took, and knew what I was doing when I did. The response was as I expected, and I’m grateful for it.

What do you think should hold more emphasis in a poem between the beginning and the end? Why?

The beginning. So many times, it’s the spark that creates the structure, and by the time the poem is done, it’s a vestigial organ. Almost always thrown away, or edited most, if it manages to stay.

Are the sections of Ecdysis put together purposely? Do they tell us a sequential story?

Yes, in terms of mood. And no.

How much does rhyming matter in poetry? You think sometimes when taken critically, it ruins the beauty of a poem? How much do you care about it?

Rhyme matters less than meter. It’s just maquillage, you know. It’s cosmetic. The essence of the poem can’t be disturbed unless it is weak by itself to begin with. Usually, form can salvage a bad poem, and make it average, though that’s just not what the aspiration is. Poems have to mean something, regardless of what vessel they sit inside.

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