Writing Matters: In Conversation with Vinita Agarwal
By Nalini Priyadarshini
Vinita Agarwal is an award winning poet and translator. She has authored number of books — Words Not Spoken, The Longest Pleasure, The Silk Of Hunger and Two Full Moons,
Recipient of the Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for Literary Excellence, USA, 2015, the second prize at the TallGrass Writers Guild Award, Chicago in 2017, two consecutive prizes in the Hongkong Proverse Poetry Prize for 2017 and 2018, and joint winner of the Tagore literary prize for 2018, her poems have appeared in Asiancha, The Fox Chase Review, Pea River Journal, Open Road Review, Stockholm Literary Review, Poetry Pacific, Mithila Review, The Bombay Review, Mascara Literary Review, The Blue Fifth Review and other journals.
She was on the panel of judges for the Asian Cha contest in 2015 and for RLFPA Awards (International category) 2016. She has conducted workshops in colleges and institutes of Mumbai.
She has read at Kala Ghoda, SAARC, 100 thousand poets for change, Lucknow Literature Festival, U.S. Consulate, Hyderabad and Mumbai, Max Mueller Bhavan Mumbai, Delhi Poetree, Pentasi India Cappuccino and Women Empowerment Readings. She was featured live in the global transatlantic poetry broadcast. She is on the Advisory Board Of The Tagore Literary Prize
Nalini: Your poetry is personal, intense, out there on the pages to shout out loud what is not supposed to be spoken, to change the way people perceive women and the narrative around them. That’s what I feel when I read your works. I’m not sure if you agree with my assessment, but, it might still be true if we talk about poems like Where I come From, Bespoken, Woman, Park Street Rape Victim in your latest book Two Full Moons. So, here’s the question: Why do you write poetry? What is your goal?
Vinita: I write poetry to vent the thoughts simmering inside me. For me, poetry is the best medium to put across sentiments and emotions. Through poems we build something new on the ground — something that will shine like a sliver of truth when darkness descends and envelops us.
Nalini: When is a poem done?
Vinita: When I can read it without a pause and when I do not need to tweak it or edit it.
Nalini: At some point, we all end up writing poems about writing poetry. You have a couple in your book. Why do you think it becomes pertinent for a poet to write such poems and what purpose do they serve?
Vinita: Writing poems about poetry provides a perspective to this very fine art. The art is validated in the poet’s own words. I too have written a few poems about poetry and tried to express the utter necessity of reading and writing poetry. I wish poetry would resonate with more and more people.
Nalini: Your poetry encompasses a wide range of themes as apparent from your latest book and deals with topics as diverse as family, existence, mental health and spirituality. Plath said, “Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it and the imagination to improvise.” What is your opinion?
Vinita: I agree with her entirely… I feel that even a passport photograph might be worth writing a poem about if one could make the poem interesting and innovative enough. I guess when we write, we dredge out new thoughts on old emotions. The skill lies in doing it innovatively and differently. Poetry is perhaps old wine in a new bottle every time it is written.
Nalini: Some of your poems come with a tinge of nostalgia such as– My Father made me a Balance, Buttons, Visiting Dust — while some of your poems advocate breaking down old order. What can you tell us about this tension between belonging and charting new paths?
Vinita: Belonging is a terribly taxing emotion. We belong to memories, to a certain span of time and to certain people in a way that cannot be erased. But life is dynamic; change, the only constant. Therefore one gets nostalgic about belonging – while belonging stays, everything else moves on. In my case, when both my parents passed away, they defined an immortal vacuum that I feel in every breath. I tend to write about them over and over again.
Nalini: Do you recall a moment in your upbringing or childhood that, when you revisit, seems to presage for you a life in poetry and writing?
Vinita: Yes I think I do. Actually, the precursor to my writing was reading. I was always with a book. I felt that I belonged to the world of words. Wanting to write became an extension of reading. My mother used to say that I wrote my first poem at the age of five. I wrote in school and college and began to write professionally later.
Nalini: You are a prolific poet, freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction and a researcher. Tell us how you manage it all and what are you working on these days?
Vinita: I don’t keep as busy as you make it sound! However, yes, I am always researching about something or the other. Being an independent researcher means the work is slow, but it’s also very satisfying. As far as non-fiction is concerned I like to write about culture and spirituality. I hope to write something on the Buddha. Poetry is always a constant friend and companion.
Nalini: We live in age of Twitter and Instagram. There is a deluge of poets writing micro poems and riding on instant fame. It might seem that poetry has become more popular in recent years but is it really so? What do you think of instant/micro/4 line poetry written around popular notions?
Vinita: It’s not the brevity of those poems that concerns me, it’s the mediocrity and apparent lack of thought behind the lines that convinces me that Instagram poetry cannot take the place of — for lack of a better word — ‘real’ poetry. I like to think that Instagram and Twitter are little slants and tangents that poetry has taken before it renews itself again.
Nalini: Many believe that 2018 gave impetus to feminism in India with #Metoo movement while others consider it a passing fad or instrument of personal vendetta. What is your take?
Vinita: The #Metoo movement was a serious attempt towards women’s solidarity and freedom of expression. Finally women could speak up about their exploitation and abuse. It was really important. However, Germaine Greer, the iconic feminist said in a recent interview that each of the #Metoo cases would fail in court – every single one of them – because our legal systems are just not in place. We need to make systemic changes in order to deliver justice to women who have suffered. We need something more than #MeToo to bring an effective change in society. It’s sad that there were a few isolated cases where the movement was weaponised, where women falsely accused individuals just to suit their agenda.
Nalini: Any words for aspiring poets?
Vinita: Keep reading. Keep writing.
Nalini Priyadarshni has been writing, especially poetry, for almost a decade and has been published worldwide in literary magazines and journals. Her recent publications include Better Than Starbucks, Different Truths, Duane’s Poe Tree, The Ugly Writers, Counter Currents and more. Her eclectic tastes are reflected in her poems, which have been widely anthologized and collected in Doppleganger in My House and Lines Across Oceans, which she co-authored with the late D. Russel Micnhimer. Nominated for The Best of the Net 2017, she moonlights as a high school teacher and is a mother of two teenagers.