Shobhana Kumar is a celebrated poet from Coimbatore, who has two books of poetry and six works of non-fiction covering industrial and corporate histories published. She works in the spaces of education, communications and social work. She is Associate Editor of Sonic Boom and its imprint, Yavanika Press.
In an exclusive interview with Poornima Laxmeshwar, Bengaluru Review’s Editor, Shobhana discusses her journey with the Japanese haibun, a prosimetric literary form that combines prose and haiku. She also discusses the process behind publishing her recent book of haibun, ‘ A Sky Full of Bucket Lists ’ from Red River.
PL: To begin with, a very elementary question – why haibun?
SK: As a form, haibun has always fascinated me. During the period during which this manuscript was put together, I was part of a deeply meaningful collaborative rengay project with senior haijin, Sonam Chhoki and Geethanjali Rajan. Often, we would write through the week, responding to each other's verses, and haibun was a common favourite amongst us. So, I suppose it was very natural for me to gravitate towards it. As I delved deeper into the form, I learnt about the different elements of Japanese aesthetics and how important they were to my creative expression.
I also found that given the experiences that I was having on a day-to-day basis, the prose in the haibun allowed me to tell stories in ways that I had not explored in free-verse. The haiku /senryu served the immediacy of the moment. Although putting a book together was not on my mind in 2014, it did collect together over a period of time. I also had the opportunity to show some of my work with Angelee Deodhar, one of the most respected and loved haijin. Sadly, she passed on to eternal light before the book took shape, but it was she who suggested I document my experiences in a book.
PL: A lot of poems seem to come from your experience of working for the less privileged in our society. What is that about this experience that invokes poetry?
SK: Yes, indeed. Looking back at this journey, it began as a cathartic exercise to seeing the everyday struggles and trauma that very vulnerable and marginalised sections go through. In the early years, I was beginning to internalise a lot of it, and writing was the only activity that seemed to help me cope. I also found myself increasingly question my own judgements, views, thoughts and in many ways, conditioning. So, writing at that point, became the mirror to which I could ask these questions. Writing has also been the starting point and culmination of action for me—it is a space that declutters the numerous thoughts buzzing in the head. It always has been. And I think that is the way the world makes sense. Words. Work. Words.
PL: I loved the poems that come along with the beginning of each section. The poems open in a sequence that follows throughout the book. Tell me how did this fall into place?
SK: Thank you, Poornima. I am glad they resonated with you. What I attempted to do with the drama scenes, is to segregate the two worlds—the one where regardless of what goes on inside our heads or out in the world, of what happens to us, or to others, life goes on in all its mundaneness. The more I have engaged in social work, the more acutely aware I am of how in many ways, life continues to be a bubble of sorts. It is almost like I live two lives—one that steps out of the house, and the other that is safely ensconced within a safety net.
During the many drafts that I sent over the past year to my publisher Dibyajyoti, he pointed out that the haibun could do well with some realignment of the flow. When I looked at it, I realised that the haibun fell into six different sections as well: under ‘Work’ there were haibun that covered work aspects through different scenarios and people. the opening poem, hopefully, serves to set the stage for what is to follow.
PL: There are a lot of poems about people and thoughts that stem from observing them. How important do you think observation is for a poet?
SK: Again, thank you for that. I think all thought and art stems from observation. It is observation that makes its way into the solitude that accompanies writing. Personally for me, I think embarking on haikai writing is what opened up this entire world of subtlety. It has taught me to look a little deeper into the bonsai in the balcony. It has made me pause to look at the fallen frangipani, the flight of house pigeons. It has shown me how little my knowledge is about the immediate environment. With haikai writing, there is a new sky that opens up every minute, different from the breeze. It has been a profound awakening and I am deeply grateful for that. It has also helped me appreciate the joys of a childhood in the Blue Mountains.
With people, I wouldn’t say I keenly observe passers-by or others, but I suppose there is a part that is constantly jotting down quirks, habits, mannerisms, and the like, and sending them into draft folders in the head, to pop on the page at some point.
PL: Loss and abandonment are so closely felt upon reading these poems. What are your thoughts on this?
SK: Abandonment, loss and longing are tropes I keep coming back to all the time. They are the dominant expressions in my areas of work, but I am also acutely aware that regardless of who or how we are as individuals, these are the dominant fears. Longing, loss, abandonment, pain, death—there are many layers to each of these. And I have been constantly drawn to exploring how they present themselves in different situations, to different people. Like everything else in life, these expressions carry ‘mono no aware’ the ephemera that life itself is; but most often than not, they also determine the choices we make, the lives we live. So the moment when the realisation of their presence surfaces—they become life stories.
PL: You have been published in several magazines and journals. But what does it take to put a book of poems together. Share your experience.
SK: When it is about submitting to a journal, I think I am more prepared for rejection than an acceptance. It is a point in the journey of the writing life, and as with any publishing, there is always this thought if the work was sent out too soon, if it could have been worked better. With a book, there is this vision in mind, there is something that you want it to stand for, a story that must necessarily bring a whole range of work together. So, although the pieces have been collecting for more than 6 years, it is only at a much later date, that the process of being able to see a book emerge, makes sense. It has been 7 years since I have had a book of free-verse out, and yet, at this point, I am not sure if the poems written during this period will become a book at all. With this book of haibun, the idea that it has to be a book in order to tell a story, emerged only mid-way. By this time, there were a sizeable number of haibun that could be woven together. Sharing the work with friends like Shloka Shankar, K. Srilata, Soni Somarajan helped a great deal.
PL: Do you think experimentation is needed in poetry. Why or why not?
SK: It does, and it doesn’t. In ‘A Sky Full of Bucket Lists’, I wanted to see how much I could push the envelope in terms of writing, and still stay true to the experience of what haibun is: the journey. I don’t think I might have ventured into this zone had I not been exposed to interesting experimentation that we have always seen in Sonic Boom journal, that Shloka founded and I am glad to be part of, or in the way that poets like Johannes H. Bjerg have been able to push the form. So, experimentation is necessary, and I think it helps make the form contemporary and relevant. But how well do we do it, is a big question.
PL: You have 6 books of non-fiction. If you have to choose between working on the next book, what will you pick - poetry or non-fiction. Why?
SK: I think writing different genres keeps different grey cells happy for me. With non-fiction, there is a method to the madness, the rigour of research, the deadlines, the significant learnings that come with each, and the opportunity to chronicle local histories that always don’t find place in the main narrative. With free verse, it has been a huge learning experience being part of The Quarantine Train, founded by Arjun Rajendran. So, I would like to invest a lot more energy, time, reading and work to sharpen what I write. As for haibun, I hope that we will find space to resume collaborating again.
I am very drawn to the powers of collaborative writing and hope to do more of that with fellow poets and writers. As we speak, I do have some non-fiction work being written and explored, and I hope I will be able to ride all the buses simultaneously, for a long time to come.
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