Benjamin Karam in conversation with poet Jayshree Misra Tripathi
Benjamin Karam: As a poet and writer who has moved among different cultures for more than three decades do you feel that your poems are a response to that cultural interaction or do you feel that your poems stem from a very personal space?
Jayshree Misra Tripathi: As an adult, I lived in eight countries over thirty-odd years. As a child, I grew up in London and studied for 5 years at primary school. I won my first prize for story-telling at the age of 7 and this pleases me the most till today!
I do believe my verse stems from a very ‘personal space’, as you describe it, that is definitely delineated by experience, at various ages, with nuances coloured by cultural interaction. There are a number of allusions of our various postings in Iter Pergit…The Journey Continues and in Trips and Trials (2018).
My passion for Literature evolved at Delhi University, where I read for my BA (Hons) and MA in English. However, I do confess it was not my first choice! I could not apply for Economics, as St. Joseph’s Convent, Bhubaneswar, did not offer Additional Mathematics for the Senior Cambridge. They also did not permit ‘Science’ students to study Literature, as Domestic Science was compulsory for ALL students!
I was accepted at Miranda House, Lady Shri Ram and Indraprastha College for Women. The beautiful campus, wide-open spaces, the quaint building and flowers made IP College my choice for University. Here over the years, I began to compose, review, rewrite.
However, circumstances were difficult at a certain period of my life and my Muse remained in hibernation. It was only in 1999 that a collection of prose and verse was taken for publication by the International Centre of Ethnic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka. My late husband was posted there as the Deputy High Commissioner, so I published under my maiden name Jayshree Misra. This book was not marketed in India.
March 2018, I decided to dedicate a selection of poetry in honour of my late husband, who succumbed to cancer, after a brave struggle, at the age of barely 62. The manuscript was taken up and published by a newcomer publisher in the industry, Pepperscript.
B: Poetry is becoming more and more popular both as a performance, and in the form of published collections to accompany certain occasions and celebrations (eg. Earth Day, Mental Illness, etc). Moreover, diplomats are publishing many poetry anthologies to bridge cultural ties. Do you have any thoughts on why poetry anthology is often taken as the medium for all these occasions?
J: Poetry is now making a comeback, but I hesitate to define the term in today’s context.
The poetry of yore has ‘metamorphosed’ into words that flow colloquially and instantly. Insta poets like Rupi Kaur get a million reads per few lines of thought! Amazing! Again, I will say these words are popular today.
Mental wellness is a sensitive topic but now, due to social media, it has been brought out of hiding. The Upanishads speak of the disintegration of the environment and exhort people to preserve. How often do we read the Vedas or Upanishads today? I am grateful for translations in English. If writers today highlight these issues in poetic form or prose as poetry (a new genre?!), it creates awareness.
Performance poetry or the Spoken Word is quite in vogue now, yet far removed from the theatrics of Shakespeare’s narrative verse or our very own tradition of oral story-telling ballads. Today, words are crisp, lines are short and the emphasis is on the visual ‘wow’ factor.
Many diplomats write on foreign policy, some write historical books, others fiction and poetry. They are published seamlessly as the elite designation tag helps publishers market and sell. I am not amongst this fortunate band of diplomats, I am a non-designated diplomatic spouse, Retd., so after waiting four years to “hear” from certain publishers, I uploaded three books on Amazon KDP at the end of 2018 and am delighted to see them available on Kindle and in print versions.
B: As a poet and an educator, do you feel that poetry anthologies (especially the academic variant/ children’s anthology) play a role in the building of a literary canon? Do you feel that the selection and exclusion of poems by editors involve a certain ethical debate inside their minds?
J: I do indeed, yet would hesitate to affirm the ethical debate inside an editor’s mind.
Over the past forty years, I have met and been in correspondence with editors both in India and overseas and conclude that they are mostly subjective in their choices for publication. Perhaps ‘double editing’ would serve us best. Is a sub-editor today basically a slightly glorified proofreader? How do senior editors train their staff? Are editors hoping for sales, and entertainment, rather than academic content, meant to educate and refine readers from an early age forward? Reading habits and a fine sense of critical thought begins in childhood. There needs to be a sense of propriety, in the books published for children, bearing their age in mind. Fantasy brings in a world of escapism, where good triumphs over evil, the ‘bad guys’ are punished – in a way, this sets parameters off right and wrong, again defined by society and culture.
My book of verse for children, Tales from India (2019) not only introduce children to rhythm and rhyme in language but also carry a social message that children may relate to easily ̶ caring about animals taken out of their natural habitats.
B: Many seem to consider the medium of English and the poetry of the Indian English poets to be elitist. What are your thoughts on these accusations?
J: I do believe it is a matter of competency in the language rather than elitism.
B: As a poet and educator who is fluent in multiple languages, how do you operate during the process of creativity? Do you write exclusively in English, or if you write in multiple languages, does writing in a particular language affect the way you think or approach a certain subject?
J: I was born in Cuttack and studied at the local convent, so I was bilingual by the age of five. Then we moved to London for five years. I began to study Hindi at the age of ten back in Cuttack. In London, I had begun to study French, but back in Cuttack and Bhubaneswar, the two places where I completed high school, French was not offered as a language of study. Without practice, I soon forgot the rudiments.
I went on to study English (Literature) at Delhi University – B.A. (Hons) and M.A.- and do write exclusively in English.
B: We have come to a point in literary history in India where more and more books are being printed in English. An anthology of Indian poetry now often consists of several poems which have been translated from other native languages, including Dancing Earth, 100 Great Indian Poems, etc. Although brilliant, they seem to exist in a grey space, still, because they are not prescribed in English Literature classes in colleges or universities. Where do you locate them in this multilingual, multicultural country?
J: This is a very important issue that you have highlighted. In the mid-70s when I read for my Masters at University, we were not given the choice of opting for Modern Indian Literature, though it was listed in the syllabus! We have a vibrant community of writers in English and it is important to include them at school and university.
As an international educator of English Language and Literature overseas, I really enjoyed the International Baccalaureate Diploma. It offered a wide range of writers – including the Classicists. One part was World Literature. As IB teachers, we could choose authors for prescribed reading and I included Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land in my list way back in 1994 at the International School of Panama!
Dealing with Publishers
B: What was it like to deal with the publishers when you first presented your poetry anthology back in the day? Did they demand any changes, or were there a negotiation phase that went through in the production of your anthology?
J: I was first published overseas in 2000 in Sri Lanka, under my maiden name Jayshree Misra. This happened by a chance remark and my interest at a Literary conference. I was asked to send my manuscript of prose and poetry. The editors replied that it met their theme for the year and a limited number of copies were published. It was not marketed in India.
After my husband retired in May 2015, I decided to try to get published in India but was met with the run-of-mill wait for 6 months turnaround.
Pepperscript Publishers, co-founded by three friends and engineering students, Sanchit Goel, Prateek Verma and Anubhav Goel in 2013 reached out favourably and I decided immediately to go with them. There was a decent contract to sign. My younger daughter and I hosted an evening of Literary Appreciation at the IIC with my book of verse. The invited audience responded well to this innovative book launch. I also asked the audience to read their poems with mine.
B: In my research, I have so far come across over 25 established Indian online journals/magazines that publish poetry including the well known THE CARAVAN, MUSE INDIA, JAGGERY, PUNCH MAGAZINE etc. But they are often categorized into themes – poems for awareness month etc. Even the very old POETRY magazines have separate categories – poems for children, poems for teens, poems for birthdays, marriages etc. More and more online platforms are becoming didactic. What are your thoughts on the kind of poetry being published in the digital space?
J: I have been published online on three of those platforms. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find publishers for Poetry, unless you are well-known in the country, have been published overseas and won awards. Print on Demand is now common, as publishers cut losses and marketing costs are often borne by the poets.
This is a harsh reality. Its termed “contributory publication cost!” The online platforms are also particular in their choice of poems and poets. I feel it is easier and faster to scroll the internet /smartphone, to find the kind of poetry to read, rather than stating that online platforms are didactic. But, yes there are many didactic sites.
B: As a poet and a diplomat constantly moving from place to place promoting poetry, do you believe poetry has a future, not just in classrooms but in the public sphere?
J: I was a diplomatic spouse overseas, a litterateur and a teacher. I found my colleagues were interested in my hosting personal events that also promoted our culture and its literature. I write in varied genres – verse, short fiction, short stories and informal essays in conversational language, now termed ‘blogs’.
There has been a resurgence of interest in poetry, even though this may be termed Insta-Poetry on Instagram, with some achieving celebrity status. Also, it has been well-researched that the average attention span of a person is four minutes – so quick reading is now the norm.
So yes, there is a future in both the classrooms and in the public sphere too – oration has always held sway!
B: How did your latest collection Uncertain Times come about? We have all had a collective shared experience of fear and confusion over the last one and a half years owning to a pestilent virus. How did you write during the pandemic among the anxiety and the uncertainty? Did you notice any difference in the way your creative impulse fired during the pandemic as opposed to regular writing in the past?
J: I was very distressed when on March 25th we were placed under curfew. My son had flown back overseas just before international flights were cancelled. I feared the conditions where he worked and travelled in East Africa. My daughter lives in Delhi. Then came the images of the migrants vying for a place on a bus, in the hundreds, later out of sheer fear, beginning to walk home filled me with utter despair. So many died on their journey home. It was heart-wrenching. Suddenly I began to fret about my life and it filled me with an uneasy fear that I would not see my children again or my mother and sisters, friends.
I wrote down two words: Stillness and Calm, added Stillness…time has lost its beat, as Covid 19 cases rise, the lockdown continues. Calm…the connotation has metamorphosed.
Days passed somehow. Sleep patterns altered drastically.
My first poem was written after seeing the migrants and wondering about others who lived alone, Disquiet in Isolation. Humra Quraishi, the author and journalist, and a very dear friend published it in her columns. The second, Towards Midnight, was written a few days later.
I did not sit down to compose. The words and visions came at random, at odd times, even past midnight, and I would write at one go. I could have edited them, but felt, under the circumstances, they remain as a “spontaneous overflow of emotions” though not recollected in Wordsworth’s tranquillity. Pablo Neruda’s poem, Keeping Quiet, was being quoted all over social media.
These two lines are evocative:
“we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.”
And we still are.
In July 2020, I sent a document of some 20 poems and a few thoughts, entitled Uncertain Times, to Pepperscript Publishers, who had published Trips and Trials, and requested them to upload as an e-book. Gayatri Manchanda, a very dear friend, gave me her beautiful collage artwork for the cover. She sadly passed away in May 2021. Gayatri was a self-taught artist who specialised in acrylics and watercolours.
I would like to end with these words:
I write poems
in the clouds
of my mind,
oft in sunny skies
then in starry ones,
… word by word….
Jayshree Misra Tripathi has been a consultant, educator and examiner in English Language and Literature, for the Diploma of the International Baccalaureate Organization. She worked in print media in the late ’70s and ’80s in India. Having lived in diverse cultures for over thirty years with her late husband, a career diplomat in the Indian Civil Service, her short fiction and narrative verse dwell upon journeys through the diaspora, highlighting women’s ‘voices’ and cross-cultural conversations.
Benjamin Karam: Benjamin Karam is a research scholar in the Department of English, Tezpur University. His research intimately deals with book history and the philosophy of publishing.