Krishna Udayasankar: I don’t think of myself as either poet or novelist, but simply, a story-teller
Krishna Udayasankar is a graduate of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, and holds a PhD in Strategic Management from the Nanyang Business School, Singapore, where she presently works as a lecturer.
Govinda, Krishna’s bestselling debut novel and the first in the Aryavarta Chronicles series of mytho-historical novels, received critical acclaim. She is also the author of Objects of Affection, a full-length collection of poetry (Math Paper Press, 2013) and is an editor of Body Boundaries: The Etiquette Anthology of Women’s Writing (The Literary Centre, Forthcoming, 2013).
Kitaab presents an interview with this talented novelist and poet on the art of writing fiction and poetry.
You made your debut with a novel last year. What started you writing poetry?
I always wanted to be a poet. But, I was (and still am, in many ways) a really, really bad poet. And so, in order to spare would-be readers, I decided to write prose instead. Of course, the tale gets a little more exciting, because the poem I abandoned for prose was what you see today as my novel series: The Aryavarta Chronicles – At first it was a satirical poem, but when I reached a stage where I needed to explore the larger socio-political macrocosm of the story, I realized I needed a different device.
How do you see yourself primarily? As a poet or as a novelist? Difficult choice to make?
(Laughs). Yes, used to be a difficult choice, but that itself is the answer. Poetry and prose are methods, devices, and each story had a device that does it justice. So now, I don’t think of myself as either poet or novelist, but simply, a story-teller.
How do you decide if a topic will become a prose narrative or a piece of poetry? Does it depend on your mood or the material at hand?
Usually, the story or topic determines the form it ends up taking. It is not unusual for me to begin working on an idea thinking that it will be one and ends up being the other (as in the case of The Aryavarta Chronicles!)
I think it was a mix of hubris and desperation. My first novel had just been released, so I was quite happy in life, but the regret still remained that I was a failed poet. I sat down to think about how it was that I could write two hundred thousand words of prose but fail to turn out a single decent poem. It occurred to me that I needed characters and plot to tell any story worth the mention – most of my initial poetry was just way too self-important to be interesting to anyone, myself included. Objects of Affection is a completely anthropomorphic collection, and my way of learning to take myself out of the story to make it work.
How long did you take to finish this book?
I wrote most of the poems over the course of a few months, and then there was a final spurt of about six or so pieces as we were going through the editing process.
How was the editing experience? Is there any difference between working with a poetry editor vs a prose editor?
Actually, that’s a question for my editors – whether the prose me is easier to work with than the poet me, or vice-versa. Personally, I think I’m lucky to have worked with editors who are passionate about the written word, and excited about the book they are working on – be it Poulomi Chatterjee, my prose editor, or Cyril Wong, my poetry editor. I do think though that the prose edit is a more laborious task, simply in terms of the scope for redundancy of text, and the need to keep the different plot skeins untangled. Poetry editing, like the writing, is more incisive – I’ve had extended email exchanges on the appropriateness of a single word, or line break! In my opinion, editing is a tough art, whether poetry or prose.
Did you get any help or inspiration from your mentor?
Yes, yes, and a big yes. My mentor, Alvin Pang, is responsible equally for the fact that I ended up writing prose first (even though he was supposed to be my poetry mentor), as he is for my eventual return to verse. Particularly with Objects of Affection, he has put in a whole lot of editorial effort and, he has also been a source of motivation and guidance.
The poetry market is supposedly smaller than the prose market. Was it difficult to find a publisher for your poetry book?
I leave the job of finding publishers to my wonderful agent and friend, Jayapriya Vasudevan of Jacaranda. As regards the discovery of the super-energetic Kenny Leck, publisher at Math Paper Press, it happened simultaneously through my mentor Alvin, and my agent Jayapriya. Surprisingly, poetry sells better in Singapore than it does in India! We are already looking at a second print run of Objects..!
Now that the book is out, how are the reactions so far?
Errr… By and large people have said nice things. The comment that means the most to me is when people say they find the pieces in the book accessible.
Do you feel reviewing is a neglected area of the writing and publishing ecosystem, especially in Singapore? What can be done to improve the situation?
The literary world is a small place, in Singapore, and I think that always makes it difficult to write genuine reviews, positive or not-so-positive. The number of fora for formal reviews are also limited. Perhaps setting up a process of anonymous review might help, but that will take a trusted intermediary/ editor, who can maintain the integrity and critical feedback intent of the process.