Writing Matters: In conversation with Jhilmil Breckenridge
By Barnali Ray Shukla
Jhilmil Breckenridge’s new book of poetry, Reclamation Song, was just released in May 2018. Barnali Ray Shukla, filmmaker and writer, lived with the book for a few weeks and several questions emerged. Here are Jhilmil and Barnali in conversation about the book, its themes, and how Jhilmil came to be the confessional poet she is.
Barnali – Breaking away, the bruised love… is that the cynic, the poet, the student, the mystic?
Jhilmil – A long time ago, in Delhi, my yoga teacher, Shivachittam Mani, taught me a concept in meditation – in every breath we die, in every breath we are born again. This tenet has stayed with me through my darkest days, through all the heartbreak, the ups and downs, that if I have my breath, it’s going to be ok. In fact, the name of this collection originally was Just One Breath.
Barnali – Does confessional poetry make you more vulnerable? Would you have it any other way?
Jhilmil – Confessional poetry is definitely not for the faint-hearted or the ones who care about log kya kahenge! I think those of us, who can and do write confessional poetry, have been through a fair amount of pain and have dealt with vulnerability, shame and frankly don’t care about society and her rules any more. In my case, when I started writing, I had no idea that I would bare all, i.e., I had no plan when I started writing that I would write confessional or autobiographical poetry, I truly thought I should aim to write sonnets or something like Wordsworth, etc. (no offence to the Masters!). You ask whether writing it makes you more vulnerable — on the contrary, it makes you more resilient because you can write your pain away and so, writing this style makes you stronger even though you bare all. I would have it no other way. I believe poetry has to come from witnessing, from living, from feeling, and so what else if not confessional poetry?
Barnali – Your influences (apart from what I noticed in the list of acknowledgements).
Jhilmil – I am a late entrant into this space. Although I have been an insatiable reader all my life, I stayed away from poetry. Perhaps it was the boring way we were taught, perhaps it was the learning by rote. So I read genre fiction, non-fiction and literary fiction a lot; some of my favourites are Alan Hollinghurst, Philip Pullman, Franz Kafka and a new favourite, Carmen Maria Machado, her style is so poetic! Three years ago, I was bit by the poetry bug and I have not looked back. In poetry, I am influenced by the work of Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, Faiz, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ellen Bass, and of course Claudia Rankine, Warsan Shire, and Ross Gay. In British poets, which is the community that I am living within, and have been adopted because of the #metoo anthology, which included my poem, “Button”, my absolute favourites are Kim Moore and Carol Ann Duffy.
Barnali – When did the book start taking shape?
Jhilmil – I really did not take my work seriously until my work started getting accepted and one of my earliest poems, “Arranged Marriage, Hyderabad”, which is a part of Reclamation Song, was accepted in a book of the Twenty Best Poets of 2016. Although that book was never published, the fact that my work was starting to receive attention, made me work harder on craft. And poetry is a craft, those writers who say they wrote a poem in 5 minutes and show off about it, really have no idea about poetry. Poetry needs solitude, time, and a LOT of editing. And when my work was shortlisted for a poetry award in India, I decided to take it seriously and put a collection together. That was in late 2016. It was in a very different avatar from its current version.
Barnali – How did the name come by? Apart from the fact that it’s the name of a poem from your collection?
Jhilmil – The name is purely to my editor and publisher’s credit. He suggested it and the name then drove the collection, to be a woman who has been to hell and back and how she reclaims. The previous name, as I have said before, was Just One Breath, and I was of the opinion that it would be a collection which showed how my yoga practice, meditation and witnessing was my salvation. And yes, the poem was already there, “Reclamation Song”, and Dibyajyoti Sarma, my editor, thought we could play with that, and the way the book is divided into three sections – “Overtures”, “Chorus”, “Refrains” – continues to play with the idea of ‘song’.
Barnali – Can we really reclaim?
Jhilmil – Not really. We can’t get time back, wasted years, or anything really. But we can reclaim spirit, happiness, joy, and aren’t those the things that really matter?
Barnali – Death is a very common feature in lot many poems or is imminent. Comment.
Jhilmil – To come back to that yoga quote, in every breath we die… also I find that when we are fearless about death, we can truly live and find joy in the moment. Most people live in fear, oh what will happen when I get old, will I be alone when I die, etc. I know because I used to live like that. I believe when you are able to make peace with the fact that death is just a change from one state to another, and that today could be the last day you are alive, you truly reclaim this life and live every word as if it were your last. And that has been my journey to living in bliss and in constant joy.
Barnali – Childhood seems to be a very important phase in your life, apart from reflections in your poetry, is there any other way you hold onto that ‘child’ ?
Jhilmil – I believe that all artists are children or have to hold onto that ‘child’. Picasso said it best when he said, “every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” To be a poet needs childlike wonder. You need to be captivated with the sunlight glinting on a spider web, to pay close attention to the sound of water on a skylight. Adults somehow, especially in these days of constant connection to smartphones and more, have lost this connection, have to have mindfulness apps to pay attention, etc. For me, it took years and a sustained practice to arrive at this way of living, and I am so grateful to the practices of yoga, meditation and all the time I spent arriving here.
Barnali – Images of your travels are beautiful, and form succinct crystals in your writing. Their cameos are most compelling. Share more, will you?
Jhilmil – Travelling heals. I think travelling sets you free; at least, it did for me. I am not talking of travelling with itineraries and to five star resorts. The kind of travelling you see in my work are the travels with no plans, with no fixed return date, and sometimes I am a traveller in my own city. It is all part of the childlike wonder I describe earlier. If visiting a small village in Ahmednagar, near Pune, you are captivated by the steam above the dhaba-wallah’s chai stall, if visiting Kolkata, you stare at the litter on the streets, thinking how everything is organic — flowers, kulhads and more, if visiting Greece, you are struck by the moon over the Aegean Sea, and if in Delhi, you are completely in awe of a small niche in the wall of a mosque in your own neighbourhood, you will be in a position never to be bored, and never to want for anything.
Barnali – Talking about identity as you travel resonates with the world today. Your thoughts on the same or a drift on that note. And where do you see this heading? And what can we, as poets, do about that?
Jhilmil – Identity, race, privilege, class — these define us, not to mention in India, another one — caste. The politics of writing forces us to examine these and then see how we may be complicit with oppression and be aware and perhaps push back. As poets, we can definitely inspire and inform and create change. In ancient times, poems were often a call to arms, sometimes insidious ways of building revolt and rebellion. I believe this to be true, more so in the dark times that seem to surround India and the world at the moment.
Barnali – The passion in details of the quotidian life. Amazing. Is this lens of your gaze, your brokenness or of the life-lover ?
Jhilmil – I think it is really all of these. In addition, if you are to be a poet, this close attention is really a valuable skill, this witnessing, this is what can give you the details contemporary English poetry demands. Not to say that there is no value in the way Urdu poetry uses sarcasm or the view of a melancholy lover, who has lost all, and there must be many other ways of writing, but since I write predominantly in English, this skill helps me a lot.
Barnali – The sensual overtures home a melancholic voice. Tell me I am not wrong… and why?
Jhilmil – Melancholia and pain are demanding and excellent teachers for poets and artists. I believe it is a form of being honed or perhaps walk through fire to let the precious metals (your soul?) shine. For certain, I have lived a difficult life. How many people do you know whose children have been kidnapped, who has faced the possibility of being locked up in a mental institution forever? I agree, everyone’s lives have sorrows and hardships, but some do seem more extreme. And perhaps some wounds never heal, the scar tissue always a little itchy, the loss of a limb always felt. I think that is what you can sense behind my sensual words.
Barnali – The imagery at places is stronger than your photography, since when did this come by and how has it grown over the years?
Jhilmil – think this may be an innate gift or a talent I have not used before I started writing poetry. Even though I went into my first poetry class, in 2015, reluctantly, or rather dragging my feet, because I was sure I’d hate it, even the first poem I wrote drove this comment from the teacher, R. A. Villaneuva. He said, your words are like a painting, like you keep putting the strokes on while telling the story. I was amused because no one had ever told me that. And once I realised that this was a desirable trait in the crafting of poetry, I continued to really hone it, describe more details, the scents, the tastes. I do enjoy this when I am reading other people’s work and when they are able to show me a view through their words, it delights me.
Barnali – The confluence of mental health grid with the brokenness of poems, what prevails?
Jhilmil – I hope that what prevails is the wholeness of the spirit. It was important for me to tell this story, and for sure, it is an important part of the politics of my activism and my work; I head an Indian mental health charity, Bhor Foundation. What I want to show is this way of being and healing, different shades of being, and questioning the whole recovery paradigm. I also keep wondering why there is an emphasis and public adulation for ‘achievements’; why not the same celebration of the pursuit of joy and happiness??
Barnali – The genesis of “100 Tastes of Me”.
Jhilmil – The idea really is about humanity, how we are all the same, totally dispensable, and perhaps also how the world looks away as people suffer, this sense of its not my problem, etc. Why else would a so called modern world allow current problems like hunger, the refugee crisis, homelessness, rape and more?
Barnali – What are the other alternate realities that you gravitate towards?
Jhilmil – My alternate realities are always the pursuit of joy. And just this morning, my aunt called from India, telling me how well I seem to be doing — of course she was meaning the academic and professional achievements, perhaps this book. But I interrupted her and said, Dolly Masi, don’t you remember, even in my days of homelessness — because she was one of the few people who saw me through those days — I was happy and was able to find joy in the little things, and isn’t that what is more important? She had to agree!
Barnali – More on “Freedom that attracts blood”.
Jhilmil – In an India that is baying for blood, a right-wing India, an India where the privileged want even more privileges, this line has never been more true. We have to fight for everything and pain does not seem to be optional. And of course, as a poet, writing on manjha, the especially toughened glass used for flying kites in India, the taste of the salty blood came back tinged with the current state of Indian affairs, the lynching, the killings, the violence against women, never far from my consciousness, and it all came together as Manjha.
Barnali Ray Shukla is a writer and filmmaker. Apart from story and script writing, she writes fiction and poetry. Her writing has featured in literary journals and anthologies. Her first book of poetry, Apostrophe, was published in December 2017. Her debut feature-film as a writer-director, Kucch Luv Jaisaa, was released in May 2011. Her documentary, Liquid Borders, was invited to film-festivals across North America and Europe and across India. She is currently working on her second book and editing her second documentary film.