Interview: Arun Sagar

Arun Sagar is a poet from New Delhi, India. One can best describe his writing as inward, deeply reflective and aesthetically vibrant. His first collection of poems, Anamnesia, was published in 2013, by prestigious Indian poetry publisher, Poetrywala in Mumbai. A remarkably strong debut, Anamnesia deals with themes of dislocation, absence and forgetting within the bounds of an evaporating, or rather changing self. To Sagar, these two are not mutually exclusive, but converge and separate at various points. Memory and nostalgia are not limbs of the same creature, but entirely different modes of writing altogether for him. Sagar’s poetic self, is a self that goes on slimming, in order to move through the newer categories it finds itself in, in an alien territory. Sagar spent the large part of his twenties in Rouen, France studying law.

As an Indian man, wherever that takes an artist and their sense of identity, translates itself with aplomb, and well, important and careful detail. Much of the work, including the poems The Blue Towel and Naming reflect a deep sensitivity, and highly intelligent level of observation and description. A wondrous portrait of a quiet youth in love, this is a book one comes back to time and again.

His poems have previously appeared in 14 by 14, Free Verse, Frostwriting, Hand Luggage Only (Open Poetry, 2007), Kavya Bharati, nthposition, Pratilipi, Press 1, Prick of the Spindle, Referential Magazine, Soundzine, The Argotist Online, The Journal, The Charles River Journal, Coldnoon, The Bombay Literary Magazine and The Literateur.

Arun Sagar speaks to me in this interview about his first book Anamnesia (Poetrywala, 2013) and his forthcoming book, A Long Walk in Sunlight (Copper Coin Press, date TBA). He is currently teaching at Jindal Global University, Sonepat.

Tell me about the title Anamnesia.

It refers to a little-known disorder characterised by an excess of memory. A disease of not forgetting.

Anamnesia is a stunning first work, to my view. It owes itself to the sensibility: a certain kind of American minimalism, deployed to demarcate the dimensions of love; about your life in France during your twenties, as an Indian man. You’re caught between these three categories, it seems. Do you think an Indian publisher was the best choice? Would you consider reprinting it elsewhere?

Thank you. I don’t think I can comment on ‘sensibility’, but it’s true that as an Indian writing in English and living in a small town in France, I wasn’t sure where to look for an audience. In the end an Indian publisher was the natural choice for the book; if I had been living in another English-speaking country I might have looked there instead. Since I ended up coming back to India it was certainly the best choice in hindsight. I don’t think I would have connected as easily with the Indian poetry ‘scene’ if the book had been published elsewhere. Would it have reached you, for instance, if it was published by a small American publisher? I’m not sure. However, I don’t want to overanalyse this; I don’t think it makes that much difference in the long run. And finally, yes, of course I would be thrilled if it were republished elsewhere!

Most first books go unappreciated in the country, would you agree? What do you think is the problem here? Would you say it’s a lack of editorship, or reviewers simply don’t bother?

Is it just in this country? My guess is that there are dozens of first books of poetry published in every country that go unappreciated. Indeed, second and third and fourth books aren’t appreciated enough either. But yes, the relative lack of quality criticism for English-language poetry is certainly a problem in India. I suspect there are all kinds of socio-cultural and historical reasons for it; I wouldn’t dare attempt an explanation. Again, the problem is not limited to first books. There just isn’t a culture of serious reviewing. A serious review is detailed, reflective, passionate, and it should go without saying that the reviewer is steeped in poetry; mere dabbling is not enough. Casual, newspaper-style reviews are meaningless. In fact, I think those who write short and superficial reviews are doing a great disservice to the literary culture. It’s sad that we see so many ‘mini-reviews’, especially when they’re written by poets themselves. It would be fine if we had in-depth reviews as well, but we don’t. Poets are always complaining about the lack of an audience, but the number of books sold doesn’t matter as much as how well they’re read.

Do you think one can write good poetry without being a good editor? What is a good editor? I’d say it’s not enough to have a poet’s impulse, but also a poet’s sense of control, as Marilyn Monroe once put it. What do you think? You edited TFQM for a bit, what was it like editing others’ poems? How is it different from looking at your own?

I don’t think you can write good poetry without being a good editor in the sense that writing a poem necessarily involves editing. It’s almost a tautology. Isn’t one editing in the very act of writing? And now that you mention it, no, I don’t think editing someone else’s poems is very different from looking at one’s own. You have to enter the world of the poem, listen to its music from within. But we can’t put two and two together here. There may well be very good poets who cannot apply their internal editor to someone else’s poems.

At TFQM we tried to be as gentle in suggesting edits as we could, and the author would always have the last word. But this is because a poem that needed very heavy editing would probably have been rejected outright. It’s a bit easier to be objective when it’s someone else’s poem; with your own work the objectivity comes eventually but it may take a day or two, or a year or two.

Your long poems are your best ones, in my view. Anamnesia in particular has echoes of many voices I’ve read before (I won’t say who). Having said that, I’d like you ask you who you were reading at the time and up till the point the book neared completion.

I was reading many, many things! It’s been nearly a decade since those poems were written, so it’s not easy to answer. However, it’s easy for me to identify the major influences: James Schuyler was a very profound, very powerful one, in several different respects. Ashbery was also always present, though it would be presumptuous to claim him as an ‘influence’. I think several of the short poems were written ‘in the key of’ particular poets whom I wouldn’t otherwise cite as influences, such as Heaney or Rilke. Even a single poem by someone else may provide a poetic gesture that appears at some point in your own work, a ‘micro-influence’ if you will; there are probably many of these. I’ve certainly appropriated lines from all over the place! And finally – I don’t know if this will make sense to anybody but myself – a lot of the book is channelling the rhythms of some 1960s avant-garde jazz, especially middle- to late-period Coltrane. I was trying to write that music.

I’m really looking forward to your forthcoming book A Long Walk in Sunlight (Copper Coin Press, Delhi). What do you think has changed? Why is this book different?

Well, as you know, I’m a bit reluctant to indulge in this kind of analysis; it’s for the reader to do, not the author. Plus, the book isn’t even out yet, so this becomes a purely private conversation. But I’d say everything has changed; the music has changed entirely, and the book is coloured by a different kind of loss: that of a place, of a certain life. There is also a much more minimalist aesthetic for much of the book; in the first book I was trying to say things, whereas here I think I was trying to not say them. However, there’s a very long poem at the end where this does not apply: there I say everything.

A question on the long poem: someone once said to me, that it’s rude to write long poems like Pound’s Cantos. I felt somehow that those poems can only be long and never complete no matter how long. You write poems like Bright July Road, and A Sense of Leaving. Poems like Liege and Giverny, and then there is Normandy Rain. It’s a different intellectual muscle one needs to write long poems, than those that are short. What do you have to say about that? Which poems would you say one must read to their full extent?

If a poem is worth reading at all, it should be read to the end! But I don’t think we can compare epics or long sequences to long exploratory lyrics. I’ve mentioned Ashbery and Schuyler: they are masters of this latter type. Several poems come to mind immediately: ‘Hymn to Life’, ‘The Morning of the Poem’, ‘Clepsydra’, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, ‘A Wave’.

I suppose one could say that writing a long poem involves a different kind of muscle. It’s like running long distances: you find your rhythm, your breathing, and then you can keep going. In fact, some of ‘Anamnesia’ was composed while running. But there’s only so far one can take the metaphor: when you run, you decide distance beforehand and you stop whenever you want. Whereas I have never set out to write a long poem and I don’t feel I have control over length; one has to listen to what the poem wants to be. While writing a poem I get a sinking feeling when I realise it wants to be a long one. With very few exceptions, writing them is painful: it’s like tending to a wound that just won’t heal. Each night I try to end the poem but wake up to find it bleeding.

Quote a passage that comes to mind. Thanks for talking to me.

That’s an intimidating prompt. What kind of passage? From where? Nothing and everything comes to mind. I’ve decided to take the opportunity to smuggle an entire poem into an interview; this is one from Anamnesia. Thanks for inviting me!


Four hinges, two panes,
three violins and a

rear-view mirror. It is true
that the words are the things

the words say the things are.

Medha Singh is music editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse, and a researcher for The Raza Foundation. She functions as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also part of the editorial collective at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin. Her first book of poems, Ecdysis was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2017. She took her M.A. in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and studied at SciencesPo, Paris through an exchange program, as part of her interdisciplinary master’s degree. She has written variously on poetry, feminism and rock music. Her poems and interviews have appeared widely, in national and international journals. Her second book is forthcoming. She tweets at @medhawrites from within the eternal eye of the New Delhi summer.
Photograph of Arun Sagar by Philip Nikolayev.

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