Preeti Vangani grew up in Mumbai and writes poetry and personal essays. Her poems read like a memoir of a swollen heart, unwrapping grief and too many tones of sadness, examining the barcode of sexuality, deep diving into death, womanhood, unremembering, and becoming.
Preeti’s work has been published in BOAAT, Buzzfeed, Gulf Coast, Threepenny Review among other journals. She holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco. She is the winner of the RL Poetry Award 2017.
In an exclusive interview with Bengaluru Review, Preeti discusses her debut collection of poems, Mother Tongue Apologize, published by RLFPA Editions in February 2019.
Your book of poems reads like a memoir. It talks about fragility of family, desolating death, grief, loss, womanhood, too many synonyms of sorrow and sadness, multiple definitions of love and abuse. Did you know the journey of this book or did you arrive here, a poem at a time?
My primary instinct, when I started studying at University of San Francisco in 2016 was to write about my mother’s passing. I had little idea of the final shape it would take then. As I began writing into loss, my professors egged me on to find where and how else I could place the camera to investigate the grief differently. And I realised that it was impossible to separate the questions of grief from those of sexuality from those of daughterhood from those of violence. So I just kept writing, and the themes made themselves visible only much later.
Someone said, “Grief is just love with no place to go.” The poems about your mother intersect between love, grief and mourning. Do you think “death” as an entity changes from place to place? Do you travel with it, is it baggage or luggage, if it is any of these? How do you move with it in your everyday life? Did seeping into poems make it lighter?
That’s a beautiful quote. I think a close one’s death makes you terribly more aware of your own mortality in addition to the wretchedness of not knowing where to put the love you forgot to even acknowledge when they were around. My friend and fellow writer, Miguel Guerrero Becerra also writes about absences and says grief is the kind of tax that you have to pay all your life. So in that sense, I don’t think the ‘baggage’ becomes greater or lesser. However, moving away from my childhood home very tangibly gave me the distance and the space I needed to observe the death. The poems if anything magnify the experience like examining the past under a microscope. Some first drafts felt cathartic. Tucking loss into poems didn’t lighten death. But the feeling of just having written (any essay or poem) briefly takes me closer to light and lightness.
Four poems with the same title, “Visiting Hours” or is it four attempts to the same poem? Is it a reminder to the reader that the hours despite being handful, are still too less when numbered? What was the idea behind the series of “Visiting Hours” poems?
The four Visiting Hours poems to me are sparse images where the speaker pays a visit to (remembers) her parents. Most take place within the hospital – a space which is the ticking bomb for the death, and also the constraint that you can only spend two hours a day visiting the ailing. So I wanted to draw and capture these tight, concise moments. Also, I feel that we remember our childhoods very intensely on some days like suddenly getting the hiccups. So I decided to make them appear at roughly fixed intervals through the book.
No two poems follow the same space on page, in breath or breadth. Can you tell us how your poems take the shape they do? How do they differ so drastically? Do you write your poems keeping in mind that you will be performing them?
It’s easier with the more formal poems – the ghazal is in couplets and the abecedarian follows a line by line structure down the alphabet. With the visual poems I tried to experiment with how best could the shape of an object represent an emotion. For example in the second poem about the girls raped in Badaun, I intended for the bareness of words in the main body of the page to represent a ghost-like absence. I love Erika Meitner’s narrative imagination, how she uses the stanza with longer lines to tell one unit of the story. I was also very inspired by visual poets like Doug Kearney and Giovanni Singleton. As a function of everything I was reading, I let myself go in all directions for this collection. I do speak my poems out loud with each draft, to gives me a sense if the line is working as a unit. Performing comes much later! That’s when I work with breath and pace and pauses.
What is the anatomy of a poem to you? How does it differ from its portrait? How far apart are your first drafts from your final ones?
Very far apart! I am a slow writer and it takes me several drafts to chisel an idea into a poem. The first few drafts of a poem always start out as me articulating the writing prompt over and over. It’s frustrating and also the best part. I get closer and closer to what is the question the poem is really asking and over many iterations arrive at the poem itself.
You wrote this book while you were studying at University of San Francisco. How is writing about themes that hit home, in a foreign land feel like? Does your heart pulsate louder, or does it get easier?
I think the one big thing that changed for me is that I stopped working full time for the period that I was in graduate school at USF. When I was writing in Mumbai, it was more out of impulse and the need to read something new at an open mic after 8 hours of work. I very rarely went back to edit, and had little understanding of craft or tools to work on it.
Being in the Bay Area and immersing myself in the practice of reading and writing every single day brought clarity and helped me channelize the silence I needed to craft the past. So I’d say; not only a changed landscape, but the entire ecosystem of being in the classroom for writing and being accountable for creating every day helped me think deeper. I was also not hot with a bhelpuri of feelings as I am when I live with my family. And that calm was so necessary.
Your poems are vulnerable and utterly honest. And still have a series of alliterations, and metaphors. They weave in and out of punctuations, italics at convenience. Is it your writing practice or your editing process that allows you this structure, how do your poems manage to be both, raw and well crafted?
While writing, I try and stick with the principle of ‘if there’s no surprise for the writer, there is no surprise for the reader’ and that belief has always helped rawness emerge in my work. Once I start feeling a little at peace with the content itself, I turn to lines, line breaks and the space itself – to try and improve the musical and narrative qualities of the poem. I think one of the best advice I have received for editing is to check how best you can make each line in the poem work as hard as a powerful first line.
How do the poems that partake in sexual relations, unfold self-discovery the way they do?
A lot of the discoveries the speaker makes about her own sexuality coincide with the mother’s passing. So I kept bumping into a lot of conflict that emerged from this changed way of looking at one’s body in the landscape of missing the body I had come from. And I started thinking about the female body as it goes through complex spaces such as a co-ed hostel, an office and even the streets. And these poems felt like a rewarding experience in opening tiny windows to think about girlhood.
Despite the book being divided into two parts, the poems are deeply rooted in grief over death of your mother. How did you arrive at the title, “Mother Tongue Apologize?” How have you wanted your readers to perceive it?
While the first section speaks more directly to the mother’s loss, the second opens up questions of how the female body is compromised. The mother’s loss for me is inseparable from the idea of womanhood which includes abuse laid upon the female body as wife, as lover, as daughter. So, I wanted the final title to be a common shared language in which loss, sexuality and violence converse with each other. And Mother Tongue Apologize sounds both like a statement of confession issued to the missing as well as a command that we need to apologise. That really appealed to me.
This interview was conducted by Aekta Khubchandani, who is a writer and poet based out of Mumbai.
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