‘Poetry is a balm, a battering ram’ : Srividya Sivakumar

Dr. Srividya Sivakumar is a critically acclaimed poet. Her poems feature in the anthologies Epiphanies and Last Realizations of Love (2019), Best Indian Poetry 2018, and ‘40 under 40’ An Anthology of Post-Globalisation Poetry (2016). Her first collection of verse, The Blue Note, was published in December 2012 by Writers Workshop, Kolkata.

In her twenty-year teaching career, she has taught English in its different forms, from General English and English Literature in undergraduate and post-graduate studies to competitive exams like the IAS and CAT. Online, her work can be found at MuseIndia, Rebellesociety, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Pratilipi, and the Ethos Literary Journal, among others.

In an exclusive interview with Bengaluru Review, Srividya discusses her second book of poems, The Heart is an Attic, published in March 2018, by Hawakal Publishers, Kolkata.

“even the most hard-boiled man
fried in the heat of a no-frills space
filled with memories and promises of babies
who need to be coddled
is scrambled like a well-made breakfast.”
– Eggs

The first poem, Eggs, is a world with glaring parallels. On one hand, there is the process of boiling an egg, and on the other, the mundanity that blends in a conventional marriage. Was the poem born as a response to the suffocation that women feel in our society? Or should I look at it with a different perspective altogether?

The RMU – Reproductive Medicine Unit – of a legendary hospital is the genesis of the poem. No matter what you’ve gone there to do, it’s hard to escape the many charts that take you through the process of bringing a child into the world. So much talk of eggs! And of course you have enough time to think, because, hospitals. It made me feel that eggs, albeit of a different kind, were even more important here than in a kitchen. I upturned the idea of the human egg, though I didn’t feel that so distinctly at that time. The first few lines are what I observed: no frills, no luxuries, just basic amenities. And the men and women were there to do something essential, full of self-importance, at times glowing, sometimes glowering. It’s one of those poems I actually researched to write. I searched for “egg dishes,” online. Quite a few were familiar, quite a few were not. It’s a mischievous poem, I think. Would you agree? 

And you’re right about the quotidian that often shadows our daily life. What can be plainer than boiling an egg, after all? What could be more normal than having a child? And yet, it’s not always possible. But the pressure never ceases. The poem is a reflection of the obsession we have about women just absolutely having to have children. There’s a lot of pressure placed on the couple, because family has to mean a child or children as well. Eggs is a cynical, even if light-hearted, look at that fixation. 

There is a strong essence of the departure of a beloved in your poems Construction, Bystander and Orchestrated. Do you think separation sparks some wonderful poetry or that separation is just another norm to being?

This question reminds me of something a senior poet said in his one short review of my book: “There are too many poems on the ‘other’, the love/ husband / boyfriend who always seems to be leaving.” Ah well. I do hope that my book is more than that! But it’s true that separation often brings out good poetry. Separation doesn’t take away the emotion one feels for another. It just heightens it, making it taut as a string, the thrumming providing a soundtrack to daily existence. ‘The secret tune,’ if you will. Separation could be the norm too, for those many lovers who cannot be together. It’s that idea about how we appreciate something only when it’s gone, or at least, when it’s not with us. This is certainly true of a person. But separation could be of the head and the heart, the absence despite the presence. I speak of that divide. When your head is able to see what your heart is unwilling to. Of a person who removes themselves from the daily life of another – a lover, a spouse, a friend. Bystander is as much about the loss of a friendship as it is about the deterioration of a marriage. 

The Heart is an Attic by Srividya Sivakumar, Hawakal Publishers, 2018

“ ‘Happy Women’s Day,’ he says to her as she cooks his breakfast, packs his lunch, picks up the groceries, cuts the vegetables, does the laundry, folds the clothes, puts them away, helps with homework, helps with medicines, calls the plumber, calls the carpenter, cleans the bathrooms, scrubs the toilet bowls, dusts the house, waters the plants, makes the casserole, bakes the birthday cake, wakes up early, goes to sleep late.”
– Every Day’s a Celebration

A few of your poems, such as Every Day’s a Celebration and Merry Widow, talk of housewives and the conventional expectations built around them. Do these poems come out as a voice capturing the rage?

There’s rage in a lot of poems in the book. In fact, a reader spoke to me about how unapologetically angry I sound. I think I have just done away with the self-censorship that was part of my first book. Merry Widow is a blasphemous poem, I’ve been told. After all, no wife and/or mother wishes ill on her family. So it must be the deal with the devil that did it.

 Every Day’s a Celebration came from a conversation I had with a friend about Women’s Day. We all know of spouses who wish on social media but don’t lift a finger to help in the house or outside of it. Honestly, I don’t get the fuss about Women’s Day. It almost feels like making up for the rest of the year, and how women are generally treated. We have no qualms sending sexist jokes and making remarks. But on that day, we want to make a big fuss. Just look at the sheer amount of tasks that constitute “housework”’ It’s staggering. We don’t ask or appreciate. It’s just expected of women to do everything and then some. At the same time, we have massive pay disparity, gender bias, unrealistic expectations – the works. Women live in this dichotomous world, and try to make peace with both, often at the cost of their health and sanity. 

“the devotee is dressed in black like me
perhaps that’s why he turns to take a leisurely look at
us
we walk past but his eyes bore holes that make
our clothes seem to flee”
– Magic Lamp

The poem Magic Lamp – why and when did you write this? Is it related to the political stance of today’s times?

I wrote this poem three years ago. My sister and I passed a “devotee dressed in black” and he openly stared at us, completely unabashed when we met his gaze and talked about how insulting and inappropriate (given their vow of chastity for that duration) his look was. We see devotees with cigarettes, smoking. We once travelled with a group of these devotees in a train. They made our lives so difficult on the overnight journey that we swore off trains for longer trips after that.  Hypocrisy and a complete lack of accountability is the norm for so many of us in the country, not just the “devotees.” Someone else should do our work, clean up after us, etc. The poem is based on that idea. Give it all up to god and you need to do nothing else. How can that even work? It is political, of course – the cleanliness campaign is much-talked about, after all. But it’s not as easy as it looks. Quite the contrary. It seems like everything is difficult – cleaning roads and homes, hearts and minds. But hey, we always have higher powers. Pun intended. 

Heartbreak and heartache have featured in myriad ways throughout the collection. So aptly put in the foreword: “grief bludgeoned” human heart. But I wouldn’t call you a love poet, rather a woman poet who understands the matters of the heart and embraces them openly. Do you agree?

Yes, I do agree. I must say that the foreword is my favourite part of the book! To answer this question, may I please take the liberty to quote Arundhathi Subramaniam, in her email to me? She says:

Thank you for letting me read these poems. I enjoyed them a great deal (the love poems in particular) — and a paragraph that might serve as a blurb is pasted below.

“Srividya Sivakumar’s poems speak of the raw indignity of desire and places of festering desolation ‘where darkness is a breathing person’, even as they explore some of the contradictions of love, including the fierce yearning to be ‘yours. enslaved. urgent. free’. Here is a book that unlocks the uncomfortable rooms of the human heart with vulnerability, courage and wry humour. A fractured house begins to turn whole again in the process, inviting the reader to a deeply human journey of self-reclamation.”

It is always reassuring to read the email. Since I have this endorsement from a poet I am an admirer of, I feel even more confident about being called a “love poet.” But you’re right. Love is not the only thing that I write about. When I was organising the poems that became The Heart is an Attic, I was happy to note that there were other themes running through the book too. But I’ve been told that I am most at home in this world – of love – more than other themes. 

Love isn’t light and warm. We all know this. I am a poet who acknowledges, and perhaps embraces, the darker discomfiting side of emotions. Men and women experience it differently. I am attempting to show my side of it. Is it striking when a woman speaks of love? Especially in frank, erotic terms? Maybe it is. That’s why the love poems get talked about more than the others in the book. In fact, in my first book, The Blue Note, Surya Rao, who was then the Managing Editor of Muse India has said, “In some of the poems she is reminiscent of Kamala Das.” That’s a massive compliment. But to me, I’m doing nothing that has not been done before, and for centuries at that.

Mother Knows Best is powerful and striking. Do you really think that not being a mother is to be cursed? In what context? Can you explain?

Let me start off by saying that no, I don’t think that being a “non-mother,” to quote my poem, is to be cursed. Many women choose to not have children. Some others are unable to. But since we live in the country and in the society that we do, this decision or act has a rippling effect, with repercussions, mostly for the woman. This kind of woman is considered to be cursed. 

The poem is constructed using things I’ve heard people say to me. I figure if you’re okay about saying these personal things without embarrassment, then you should be okay about your words being immortalised in a poem. Anne Lamott says it so beautifully in her wonderful book, Bird by Bird, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I’m taking what was told to me and turning it into poetry. By making those words a part of my poem, I own that narrative. 

Pamuk Plays the Pallanguzhi – tells us the what and the why behind this poem. The title is so unique that it deserves a question.

Thank you. This poem started off as a purely academic exercise. I had to write a poem based on the theme for a conference I was going to.  Classroom is a second poem I wrote on the theme. The task sent me down memory lane: how did I first come to appreciate writing and literature? What was my training ground? The title is a nod to the blending of two (or more) worlds; of being at home in language, in literature. Apart from this, I love alliteration! 

It’s also an acknowledgement of the grief writers in English often get. As though it’s somehow a disservice to the mother tongue, to write in and appreciate some other language. I answer those critics, to some extent, in the poem. Literature is literature, no matter which country, state, or language it originates from. Some strike a profound chord with us, others not so much.  And that’s totally fine. As long as one can read and appreciate, I don’t see the problem here. 

The poem Jisha reflects a burning rage against everything wrong, and then we have Do Fiery Feminists Fall in Love? Everything is about how a woman feels in a certain situation. Does that come to you naturally, or do you specifically want your voice to be that? Do you think after a certain point, it might be limiting your imagination?

I write from a woman’s perspective not because I want my voice to be that, but because it’s what comes naturally to me. Is it limiting my imagination? I haven’t noticed that so far, now that you mention it. This is interesting. It makes me think. Do men write about the world from the woman’s point of view and vice-versa? And does it well? And do we ask this question of a man? If his imagination is limited because he writes from his, a man’s, perspective? 

Coming back to your question, imagine the absolute brazenness of the attack on Jisha. Men walk in to her house, and help themselves to her, as though she were a snack. It makes me so angry. If you notice, the poem has an afterword. When I sent the poem out to a few people, I was advised to tone down the language. It was too strong, I was told. That’s how I wrote that rejoinder. Do Fiery Feminists Fall in Love? was written because I’ve been called that and asked that. People who don’t understand the concept think that feminists are man haters who do not have “softer” feelings. It’s a tongue-in-cheek response, I hope. 

Tell us about the poem Guests. Are the demons the mundane things of life?

Quite the opposite. It’s a poem that deals with depression. That dark demon that often takes up residence in our home, making itself comfortable in our books, the ink with which we write, the watering can, the spatulas and spoons, and our very outlook on life. In fact, it gets so comfortable in our space that we are the ones who end up fighting for an inch. Hmm, maybe in that sense, for many who go through depression, it’s a mundane thing. It doesn’t make it easy; quite the opposite in fact. 

A few years ago, I heard about this powerful book that talks about depression. It’s title? The Noonday Demon. Telling, isn’t it, how so many of us think of it like this. It’s certainly not a welcome guest; it’s one that almost always overstays its welcome. I’ve read that poets, among creative writers, and women poets in particular, are more prone to mental illnesses. It has a term too: the Sylvia Plath effect. I am not saying that this is true of all women poets. I am saying that it’s important to me that I acknowledge its existence, of depression and sorrow. Only then can the healing begin. 

“Because even that may sometimes suffice
To bring relief to a love-drunk heart
That has mastered the art
Of outward indifference and inner war.”
– Vigil

Vigil is a short one, but it is quite stunning, especially the way it ends. Tell us more about it.

Thank you. I often wonder, which is harder to bear? To feel strongly for someone but be unable to express it? Or to be loved and not be told about it? We carry these feelings for people, and we don’t tell them, for many reasons. Maybe it’s a decadent secret that makes us happy. Or we can’t, for whatever reason. People express love, often when it’s too late. But you look at them, and you see impassive faces. They don’t let on, at all. They function, at times amazingly well, and carry all this love, this large love, in their hearts. They have successful careers, seemingly full lives, and smile and enjoy themselves. All the while, what they are feeling is a burden, a beautiful burden that they carry with grace. I admire that. This poem is a salute to them, in the hope that it will give the reader peace, just the ability to handle life with these intense and untold emotions. Poetry is a balm, a battering ram, it is strength and solitude. There I go again with the alliteration!

Srividya Sivakumar and her book, The Heart is an Attic

This interview was conducted by Poornima Laxmeshwar, who resides in the garden city Bengaluru, and works as a content writer for a living.


More interviews on Bengaluru Review:

‘For young readers, some experiences are timeless’ : Andaleeb Wajid

These poems are little bombs that explode at your face’ : Namrata Pathak

‘Thankfully, Bengalis do have a sense of humour’ : Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury


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