Claus Ankersen (b 1967 in Denmark), trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen and USCB, writes poetry, prose, and non-fiction, translates, does literary activism, and work with cross-disciplinary hybrids with the word as a constant element. He is the author of 14 books and works internationally, having performed and worked with his literature in more than twenty countries all over the world Spirituality, language, hermetism and systems-critique are among the areas investigated in Ankersen's literature, and he is often likened to colleagues such as the beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the magician Aleister Crowley. His recent collection of poems, River of Man , is published by Red River. In this exclusive interview with Bengaluru Review, Claus speaks about his latest collection of poems, the assertion of India in his poetry, the importance of nativity for a poet, and of course, Indian traffic.
Bengaluru Review(BR): Your poems are full of people, places, and rich images. How much do you think we carry cities in us even after leaving them?
Claus Ankersen(CA): What we carry with us, basically, is the meeting — between self and world, self and other, self and selves. Sometimes when I return to a city I once met, and my surface consciousness has forgotten its anatomy and landscape, I find that the cells remember. The legs — basically — know where to go, even when the head cannot seem to remember. In addition, I have always had a thing for cities, perhaps because I grew up in the forest far from the city; exploring unknown cities has always given me immense joy. Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of the alien inorganic cityscape with the hunter-gatherer instinct, which makes it so fascinating; cities are benevolent and barbaric.
The advent of the corona pandemic has changed my view on the idea of the city profoundly. Walking the empty streets of Copenhagen was surreal. It made me feel like starring in an absurd third-rate horror movie. It also forced the city to tear of its mask and show us a face we never see before. Moreover, the truth is that cities are very much nothing but elaborate architecture around human holding facilities, designed to distract, entertain, engage, and feed the human consumer-producer elements.
BR: The poem 'Handbook of pain management' is intriguing. Tell us more about it.
CA: ‘Handbook of pain management’ is one of three poems in the collection written with a technique called derivé or drifting. It is a rather simple technique, which I find useful to semantically map a new environment in detail and to qualify its psycho-geography. When you drift, you set an entry point and an exit point, and everything in between — in time-space — becomes important. I have been playing with this poetic filter for some years now since 2012. It is one of the oldest poems in the book and written while walking through a bookstore in Kozhikode, Kerala. It is an amalgam of book titles and impressions forged into the literary contemporary India viewed from that vantage point at the time.
BR: Why India is an important assertion in your poems? Do you think nativity is important for a poet?
CA: India is always on my mind. For me, in many ways, India simply sets the standard, so to speak. My experience with India keeps changing, as it shows me new facets of an ever-evolving prism. Therefore, my experience evolves from one visit to the next, which I have tried to capture in a few poems from this collection. I identify as an Indian, even though I am not, just as I also feel like being Estonian, or Finnish or Uzbek or Irish when I am there.
Whether nativity is important to a poet, I think, is very much a question of to which degree the sense of identity is contested, negated, or challenged. Negative identification or intra-group identification lie very deep in human socialization, and we primarily are what we are not. We are us because we are not them. I think, perhaps, it is time to work on changing this trope and our way of identifying as humans, if we can. Instead, attempt to embrace that we are not either this or that — we are both at the same time. Why can I not be Danish and Indian?
BR: One of the sections in the collection is titled, “Everything is collected in one place.” Is it possible? Don't you think everything is scattered? Whether experiences, memories, or feelings, aren't we everywhere?
CA: Again, I think it is both, collected in one place and scattered all over simultaneously. Like a yoga position, where you hold still, but constantly negotiate balance correcting micro-movements, or the trillions of little other movements that take place inside our body, for us to feel ’nothing’ – stillness. I think this simple state of duality is the esoteric point of view behind so much imagery: Shiva’s and Shakti’s dance, for example. I truly believe in the old hermetic dogma that microcosm and macrocosm mirror each other. What is above is also below. In the same vein, we are both separate, autonomous monads, nodes in a giant network, deeply connected – and prismatic reflections of the same, and at the same time, depending on the position of the viewer, or the view. Spiritual masters and folk wisdom have long known this to be true and a very effective way of experimenting with this is embodied in the proverb and concept of ’putting yourself in another man’s shoes.’
BR: It is tough to pick a favourite but we are stuck with 'Elementary Driving'. Tell us about your experience and what prompted this poem?
CA: Waah! Indian traffic. It is such a great living metaphor of Indian culture. To me, witnessing Indian traffic, and gradually becoming an active part of it, has been very important. In the poem, I tell the story of how my life was saved by the good advice of a benevolent man, who rented me my first two-wheeler in the jungle outside Auroville in Pondicherry many years ago. He told me that everything could come from any direction at any time, and compared it to a video game, except for the fact that I only had one life. I have carried this advice with me.
There is nothing like Indian traffic. It is like a giant river of flesh, metal, and glass, and to swim in this river, you need to keep your third eye open at all times, follow the path of least resistance until you are forced to change your speed and direction at any point of time. It is the most interesting of cacophonies, to hear the honking symphony of Indian traffic. When you understand this, you can slowly begin to swim in the river. It is quite magical.
In 2018, I stayed in Pondicherry for a long time awaiting the publication of my first collection in India (Grab Your Heart and Follow Me, Poetrywala, 2018). I bought a brand new helmet, only to discover that wearing it made it impossible for me to manoeuvre in the traffic simply because I lost my hearing, by not being able to sense and hear properly. I wore the helmet one time and almost crashed my bike. It is funny and scary at the same time because it is true.
This interview was conducted by Poornima Laxmeshwar.
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