An intimate author interview with prolific poet Sanjeev Sethi regarding his latest collection ‘This Summer and That Summer’.
“Shells of silence underneath my skin
Burst in a rash of run-ons.
Clear as mud, carp the critics.
But I soldier on like an infantryman
Bulwarking his nation’s border…”
When one reads lines like this in a poem titled ‘Soul Scan’, the crisp, yet hard-hitting projection of the inner core of a true-blue poet strikes a sensitive reader. The recently released ‘This Summer and That Summer’, published by Bloomsbury, is Sanjeev Sethi’s third book of poems, and with the highly nuanced poems of the collection, he takes the reader along with him to many such soul-searching, metaphorical revelations. In them, we see a poet dissecting the emotional strains of everyday living and bringing out the fine grains out of it, seeped in melancholy, nostalgia and a sense of profound introspection. The title, ‘This Summer and That Summer’, for that matter (which also happens to be the name of one of the significant poems in the collection), is reflective and carries with it the soulful charm of memories and the human stimuli to them as he juxtaposes two worlds he lives in, the outer, cacophonous world in flux and the delicate inner world that responds to the flux in alliterative resonances.
As a poet so well-nurtured in his oeuvre, his previous poetry publications include well-received volumes, ‘Nine Summers Later’ and ‘Suddenly For Someone’. Apart from writing poetry, he has, at various phases of his career, written for newspapers, magazines, and journals, and also produced radio and television programs. His poems have found a home in The London Magazine, The Fortnightly Review, Allegro Poetry Magazine, Solstice Literary Magazine, Off the Coast Literary Journal, Oddball Magazine, Hamilton Stone Review, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, The Peregrine Muse, Otoliths, Kitaab, Café Dissensus Everyday, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Muse India, and elsewhere. His poems are also forthcoming in Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Ink Sweat & Tears, First Literary Review-East, Meniscus, Futures Trading and The Jawline Review. He lives in Mumbai, the bustling metropolis in India, which often becomes the muse of his poems.
In an intimate interview, the poet unravels his foray into the world of poetry and how he has sustained his poetic journey. He also speaks about the urban imagery that defines his poems in ‘This Summer and That Summer’ and shares some details about his poetic vision and sensibilities which makes him a unique, refined voice among contemporary poets in Indian English literature.
Lopa Banerjee: Sanjeev jee, it is such a privilege to introduce to our readers a prolific and prodigious poet like you and your poems, which I must say, are products of acute, sublime sensibilities. Robert Frost had once famously quoted: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a love-sickness.” While reading many of your poems, this sense of love-sickness and despair struck me. Would you say pain is the backbone of your poetic self?
Sanjeev Sethi: Thank you Lopa. The backbone is my engagement with existence. Pain is integral to it. It is one of the resources I draw upon.
LB: In a recent interview published in Daily O, you have expressed your belief that all poetic works originating in our contemporary times are the “creations of fortuitous circumstance.” How much of this would you say, is true for the poems in your latest collection This Summer and That Summer?
Sanjeev Sethi: That was mentioned in the context of publishing a book, not the creative process. Now that you say it, even for writing poetry one needs ‘fortuitous circumstance’.
LB: Also, I learnt there has been a good 18-year gap between the publication of your last books, Nine Summers Later and Suddenly For Someone. Would you explain this long hiatus as a prolonged period of creative incubation, and have the emotional deposits accumulated over these years helped you to produce your third book more poignantly?
Sanjeev Sethi: Nine Summer Later was published in 1997. At that point in time I had spent about 15 years as a media professional and was a published poet. Dom Moraes had written the Introduction, Nissim Ezekiel’s comment was on the flap. My poems and articles were all over the place. I was the film critic of The Daily but I wasn’t enjoying my journalistic writing. Meter was and is my marijuana. Sadly poetry makes no money. Around the same time circumstances conspired in such a manner that they allowed me the space to create. Strangely, when this happened my need to publish subsided. I was happy to read, write and pursue the prosodic route. I did this quietly for 15 years, writing but not publishing.
Suddenly in the summer of 2013 there was again an itch to publish. I emailed four poems to The London Magazine. Two days later Steven O’ Brien, the editor asked for ‘some more poems’. Half an hour later I had an acceptance. This goaded me to send poems to another journal. At last count it is around sixty acceptances the world over. Somewhere along the line Bloomsbury happened. This Summer and That Summer was born in October 2015.
LB: In a poem, ‘Metropolis’ (This Summer and That Summer), the opening lines are terse, crisp and piercing. “In my world/There is no valley,/No rivulet nearby./Mind is the landscape.” In another poem in the collection, ‘Garrison Report’, you begin with: “In the calmness of cantonments living/quarters sprawled like the thighs/of a diva on a double spread.” In both these poems, and in some others, we see you reflecting on the bare, stripped off urban landscape, bringing a sense of emotional urgency and pathos to them in spite of the apparent eroticism. How would you explain the emotions behind these poems?
Sanjeev Sethi: Culled and crafted from my memory bank. Anyone living in a throbbing metropolis like Mumbai will agree, mind is the landscape, the only landscape. The erotic is a part of one’s natural anthem. Sometimes it peeps into a poem.
LB: Also, in some other poems, for example, in ‘Pigeons’ and in ‘Nocturnal Activity’, the bird and insect world figure as metaphors to comment on both the urban landscape and the human mind navigating their strange, irresistible trajectories. How did these images shape up in your mind and what do they mean to you in your everyday life?
Sanjeev Sethi: Lopa, there is no imagination at play here. Pigeons is true to life. It replicates my reality of living in a suburban flat. Cockroaches are an intrinsic part of Indian households. Until I discovered Pest Control they were all over the place (laughs). They entered my poem effortlessly.
LB: The title poem, ‘This Summer and That Summer” too, evokes the images and the spirit of urban nothingness, where the inner world and the outer worlds collide and bring out a refined, yet controlled sense of romanticism. Would you say your other poems in the collection, like ‘Sunny Chacha’, ‘Soul Scan’ and also ‘Confessions’, defined by a sense of nostalgia and pathos, also originate from this same sense of romanticism?
Sanjeev Sethi: This has to do with the kind of person one is and the memories one mines. The filter with which one deciphers the past depends on one’s mood and the need of a poem. Some experiences chase a poem, others have to be cajoled…lured with lines that do them justice.
LB: It has been said in the blurb of the book that the poems are cynical, yet poised in their expressions. As per my reading, the best examples are the poems where you reveal the pained splotches of your inner self, yet remain mellowed while depicting a desolate wasteland. Take for example: ‘In The Plaza of Prejudice’, ‘The Marketplace’, or ‘Apophasis. What are your own thoughts about them?
Sanjeev Sethi: These poems encapsulate my life, of course with poetic liberties. I have inhaled each experience. The grammar of a poem requires control. That is the external part. The crux is me. In a distilled form there is so much of the poet, yet there is a distance.
LB: How do you define romanticism and emotional expressions in respect to the body of your poetic work? Does contemporary poetry, according to you, have romantic sensibilities?
Sanjeev Sethi: Some of it. Emotions play an important part in my processes as with most people expressing themselves poetically. I have to edit in the fear of over doing it. Sometimes I fail. The aim is to achieve stasis.
LB: Your poem ‘Conduction’, addressed to poetry itself, uses poetry as a sensuous metaphor. Take for example the lines: “When you undress a poem with dignity,/delicately like a lover, it will disrobe you of excess, accessing your inner feelings.” Also, your poems ‘After Reading A Young Poet’ and ‘Longing’, which are addressed to contemporary young poets/writers, unravel the act of writing as a close human companion. Your thoughts on them, if you please?
Sanjeev Sethi: These are me. I have tried to wrap myself in words. The first one stresses, if you give yourself to a poem the end result will bear dividends. It equates the poetic experience to love making, not sexual exigencies. The second poem takes its cue from Buddhism: Tathata, absoluteness of Sunya (emptiness). Longing deals with urban loneliness, how one experiences oneness without having met the person.
LB: What is the message that the poems of ‘This Summer and That Summer’ cumulatively convey to the readers? Can you share with us how the critical reception of the book has been so far?
Sanjeev Sethi: I am aware poetry is not going to make me a millionaire. One aspires for success d’estime. In its unhurried way, This Summer and That Summer has received favorable reviews the world over. There is no big theme here. Beauty is in the little things, in nuance. I only hope more people get to read it.
LB: Finally, what do you think of the contemporary English poetry written by Indian poets? Whom do you resonate with the most, among them, and how? Also, do you have any message for the upcoming generation of poets in terms of the craft of writing poetry?
Sanjeev Sethi: There is a lot of good work there. Internet has opened the options. I’m no-one to advise, just urge my young friends to read. This is the mantra. Everything else will follow.
More to read in Poems by Sanjeev Sethi
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