Interview: Sivakami Velliangiri

Sivakami Velliangiri has been writing for years. Her poems are rich and very Indian with lot of regional references. I think young poets, especially Indians, should read this collection. There’s a lot to learn from this.

When did you begin writing poetry seriously (For publication)?                     

Until 1980 I published in literary journals. They were print journals – a whole list of them. Writer read 10 poems and included me among the Women Poets writing then in his History of Indian Writing in English (1980 Edition).

My first poem was published in Youth Times (1977)- ‘When You and I Marry’. After that it was a successions of poems which got published in Youth Times. All of them were hand written. Only the editors kept changing. Ezekiel, Parthasarathy, Kamala Das, Pritish Nandy… Youth Times paid Rs.25/- for a poem.

At about this time my poem ‘Creation’ won the first prize among 11 colleges in the Kerala University. Nakulan (T.K.Doraiswamy) liked my poem (last line- Last of all, I will make God out of bull shit) so much that he smuggled it out of the campus to give me additional marks. I also got the first prize for a surprise contest, call it creative writing but only second for the short story.

I must also mention the ‘bouquet’ I presented to the wife, about the Rajan case—a bomb of a poem (less than six lines) rolled up between roses and orchids—‘Do it Yourself’, (on how to make a corpse) about police torture.

This is your first collection of poems. Though you have published a chapbook before. How does it feel to publish a collection finally after writing poetry for many years?

I published my Online Chapbook on an impulse. Just collected 20 poems and sent them to Lily Literary Review. I was quite startled when I received an acceptance. It agitated me. It was poet who pacified me saying, ‘Don’t worry. In future there will only be online poetry.’

When my publisher at Poetrywala, Hemant Divate, accepted my full-length manuscript, I felt relieved. He was the first publisher I had approached. All my friends expected a book of poems from me.

When I saw my book I delighted in how Shloka’s design highlighted the cover. So sleek and well brought out. Even the quality of the paper was to my taste. I asked for the blurbs and it came without much ado; in so short a time. There was an intervention by the muses themselves.

Everything wonderful like the universe.

How did you decide the order of poems in the book based on ‘time’?

The book opens with a flashback poem, ‘Visiting’. The poems that come immediately are placed in that locality. A poem about Madras opens up events that happened there. I had around 140 out of which I retained only 49. The narrator is a young girl and the poems progress with her growing up, reaching adolescence. It starts with Pondicherry, Madras, Pondicherry, and then goes on to Trivandrum, though I have not mentioned the place, except the ‘reclining Lord Padmanabha, in the heart of the city.’

The poem, ‘How We Measured Time’ talks about connecting to the moon cycle. Even Shloka’s cover which she designed especially for my manuscript seems to picture time. One can see the spiral, non -linear maze and a couple of moons there, and a smaller one.

There is a dominating theme of nostalgia/retrospection… Was it deliberately for this book or does this theme generally run through your poems.

The nostalgia poems belong to the book, or rather the book happened because of the nostalgia. My poems are mostly ‘anecdotal.’ I write journal entries only when I travel. Now that you mention retrospection, yes I keep mulling over what I write. It has taken me so many years to say, ‘now this is it.’

‘Coming of age in 1967’ is one of my favourite poems from the collection. Can you tell us more about the ‘sixteen day’ ceremony?

At the outset let me confess-sixteen days is a ‘poetic exaggeration.’ At the most it is eleven, nine, seven, five, and in today’s fast world, three. Earlier child marriage was prevalent—so this ceremony was to announce to the world that here was a girl ready for marriage.

The child would be in shock and emotionally imbalanced with some physical discomfort. So to make her generally happy relatives from both sides visit and give her healthy food, a nutritious diet of millets, lentils and sprouted grains; urad dal and jaggery is given to strengthen the bones and raw egg to make the uterus firm.

The presents are to cheer her up, for there is no play. It is generally a resting period for women.  She is made to sit on a mat woven with green coconut leaves. A hut is built. Neem leaves and the leaves of Poonga trees are stuck into the hut; Neem acts as a disinfectant and Poonga leaves give cool air inducing good sleep in this small space.

The girl has a natural glow on her face at this time, just like in pregnancy. So the elders of the house dress her up like our heroes and heroines, mythical, historical and fictional. Some rituals are done every day, and a lot more on the final day. This is to ward off the evil eye. Pre- dawn following last day this hut of green coconut leaves is burnt well before sunrise probably for hygienic measures-to prevent birds taking twigs to build their nest—that is what I think.

In your poem ‘The Great Solar Eclipse’, your narrator talks about the solar eclipse that occurred in 1955. 

Pregnant women stayed in dark rooms,
not exposing even their little toe,
so why would mother have to gaze at a sun devoid of fire
a cataract clouding the eyes of her unborn child?  

When did you write this poem- the experience of being in the womb?

That is what grandmothers and great aunts are for–to tell stories to children. This is not my experience of being in the womb, per se, but what was narrated to me. In the villages, even today, pregnant women are protected. It is all to do with science versus local beliefs.

There are poems about houses, people, childhood games, destinations visited… I’m curious to know how you recorded events in your life. Did you keep a journal etc.? Or did you pen down poems from memories?

As I mentioned before, I write journal entries only when I travel.

My book memorializes, with a measure of fiction, a poet’s personal journey with her troubled mother. And how those events and memories shaped her life. If we had early enough diagnosed my mother as schizophrenic, would the young person in me have been different?

Would we have lived more like other mothers and daughters rather than like a grown-up friend who often lisped and skipped with me everywhere?  As I look back now I remember what a riot of a time, we had.

The many houses we lived in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the journeys made, the people who enter and leave; everything seen from a child’s point of view is how from a collection of 150 poems this manuscript was culled to the present 49.

I love how the book ends. The poem implodes and makes the reader conscious that time can’t be controlled. And yet that’s what you’ve tried to do with your collection. Poetry is a way to capture memories and time we would have lost otherwise. Can you tell us more about this poem? 

If you mean the Epilogue, yes it is a bit too harsh. I needed something to soften the end. That is how and why I wrote ‘After Life.’ Can’t even call it a poem. And prior to that the poem, ‘How We Measured Time.’ We (the narrator and her family) kept count of the lunar calendar, whereas people generally are aware of the Solar calendar. I suppose the book achieves what it set out to do.

Poetry books that changed the way you saw poetry. Any recommendations? 

Nakulan introduced me to Kolatkar’s Jejuri. A year and a half prior to that I discovered Three Crown Books, which were  available only in Bombay in second hand book shops.(for Rs.10)

I read Ramanujan, Parthasarathy and Daruwala —these poems were different from the poems in our curriculum. I had the opportunity to interview R. Parthasarathy for All India Radio . So talking to him gave me a lot of insight about the English language and how he spoke about, ‘my tongue in English chains.’ It also made me think a lot about language.

Recommendations? There is a whole list of poets out there. Shriram Sivaramakrishnan is always sending me some new poet he has chanced upon. In this context I must mention Soulflash. Soulflash was started in 1998 as a closed Yahoo Group. We posted drafts there. But after Facebook became popular we moved on to Facebook. Watch out for poets with links on this group. The list is too many to mention here.

Any advice to young poets?

Read a variety of poems every day—Indian, regional, continental, contemporary, classical, of the diaspora also, in-print and online; even if it is on Facebook—those are freshly conceived poems and have the value of being in the ‘now’.

Not only poetry, but prose about poetry, reviews, interviews, online journals, blogs, newspapers and even any waste paper lying around. Some word might catch your eye.

You must have a penchant for words. Poetry is all about brevity, and as the number of words you use is very little, it is essential that you hold on to the right word.

Treat the newspaper as your Bible.

Visit old bookshops, browse around, The New Yorker, some science magazines (Kottoor used to get all his images from science mags at the public library;) knowledge of math also is handy-anything.

Even conversations heard in public places.

Don’t hesitate to buy poetry books. Save up money and make it a habit to support poetry. Only when you own a book you will feel like revisiting it.

Share a poem when you get-together with friends or relatives Be on the watch out. Everything is grist in the mill of poetry. We did not have opportunities to study poetry professionally.

Now I go to the young poets who are writing amazingly about unimaginable topics. Look into the poetry markets, both Indian and international. But remember mainly, poetry comes with some understanding of life.

One cannot write poetry just sitting in an AC room. You have got to live your life.

Sivakami Velliangiri’s first poems were published in Youth Times in 1977 and ’78. She has been invited to read at ‘The Semester-At-Sea from Pittsburgh,’ and Muse India’s ‘Hyderabad Literary Festival.’ Her poems have been featured in four Anthologies. Her electronic Chapbook In My Midriff, was published by The Lily Review. How We Measured Time is her first book of poems.
Michelle D'costa is a Mangalorean from Bahrain. She has poetry and prose published in various journals like Eclectica, Queen Mob's Teahouse, Coldnoon, The Sunflower Collective, Guftugu, Vayavya, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Visual Verse and more. She loves to interview writers and runs the ezine Kaani.  She also talks about books on her YouTube channel.

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