I first met Pramila in the early 2000s in Greenburg/White Plains. She was introduced to me by a mutual friend, the publisher and poet Ralph Nazareth. I remember reading her poems in Thirtha and thinking it would take me some years to write like that. My first impression was a glowing woman with a striking presence, her full moon-like face brimming with wisdom and unknown senses open to the world. Yet such feminine presence also carried an innate innocence. Her childlike reactions to the world and its goings on are marked with wonder largely even though disillusionment has touched her soul. More than a decade later, we joined hands to create Matwaala, the first South Asian Diaspora Poetry Fest. Not a year has gone by since 2015 when I thank my stars for her selfless, giving spirit. Rare is such passion that cares about diaspora poetry not just her own advancement. We share struggles, poetry, our mission, critical theory, and just moments of pedestrian friendship that has no labels. She is a rare orchid blooming in Long Island, her perfume is multi-scented. She writes critical essays, teaches English and Creative writing, hosts poetry readings, supports feminist causes, co-directs Matwaala
(often hosting poets in her home), and manages to be a poet ceaselessly. More formally, Pramila Venkateswaran, poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island (2013-15) and co-director of Matwaala: South Asian Diaspora Poetry Festival, is the author of Thirtha (Yuganta Press, 2002) Behind Dark Waters (Plain View Press, 2008), Draw Me Inmost (Stockport Flats, 2009), Trace (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Thirteen Days to Let Go (Aldrich Press, 2015), Slow Ripening (Local Gems, 2016), and The Singer of Alleppey (Shanti Arts, 2018). She has performed her poetry internationally, including at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and the Festival Internacional De Poesia De Granada. An award-winning poet, she teaches English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College, New York. Author of numerous essays on poetics as well as creative non-fiction, she is also the 2011 Walt Whitman Birthplace Association Long Island Poet of the Year. Learn more about Pramila at pramilav.com
Interview by Usha Akella (2020)
"I don't have an agenda for a poem."
Usha Akella: Pramila, it is an honor for me and a great joy to be in conversation with a dear friend. It seems to me that I know you, your poetics, your personality but now is a chance to explore things in a more pointed manner.
I have to start with Thirtha, a gem of a book, that needs to be assigned reading on all South Asian Literature lists. In your introduction you say, ’In my act of fording the oceans between India and America, I become the pilgrim once again.’ ‘Along the way, the pilgrim becomes the conduit for the voices of other people speaking from the emptiness of displacement…’ The sacred as a viewpoint has always been tied to your poetics. What triggered the title and metaphor?
Pramila Venkateswaran: I have been a migrant throughout my life. My family seldom lived for more than 3 years in any city in India. Since I was a child I was always in the mode of adjusting to new environments, making new friends, and learning new languages. Needless to say, I was in-between feeling displaced and finding security. Reading and writing offered me this security. More than these, spirituality offered me a special center. My parents enrolled me in Chinmayananda Balavihar in Kolkota when I was 10, where every Sunday I learned to recite the Bhagavad Gita, heard discourses in philosophy, and sang bhajans. I continued to read Indian philosophy on my own through my teens. So when I wrote Thirtha, the concept of the journey (immigrating from India to the US) was far more than a physical fording. My spiritual and poetic journey, my development into motherhood, were the layers I was exploring. These meshed with the history of this country: the pilgrim metaphor of the early white American settlers who wanted religious freedom as well as the horrendous journey of enslaved Africans who had to find a way to endure servitude.
When writing a poem, you seldom know where you are going to land when you ford a metaphor. Similarly, your spiritual experience is unplanned. The same with motherhood or anything else in life; we can only put the work in but have no idea what will turn out. The fording is all that matters.
UA: So much of your life has been the journey, not the destination, that marvelous poem on the nine days post your father’s passing… the entire fluidity of the immigrant life and life itself is captured in its entirety. How did you write that poem?
PV: My poems do begin with the emotional resonance of an experience. I wrote “Thirteen Days” in response to losing my father. The immigrant’s experience of grief is peculiar. The passing of a loved one is always at a distance. It almost feels like one is going through the process in slow motion; the distance between the dying person, the news of the death, and the expression of grief happen as if in slow motion because of the space between continents, contrary to the speed of technology. Therefore, the mourning is that much more intense. I could only imagine my loss in pieces, so I broke up the writing in the form of the Hindu death rites which are 13 days, a mystical number in many cultures. Writing in sections allowed me to get deeper into the loss. A lot happens in the 13 days, the conversations in the family and the actual rites themselves which are highly metaphorical. I wanted to bring these metaphors into the poem for they helped me visualize my father’s soul in a place of comfort and for me to reach a feeling of completion on the 13th day. I also wrote my own mantras for the 13th section, which helped me personalize the rites.
UA: I must ask in wonder, how do you come up with lines like (pg.60, Thirtha, ‘We are hyphens, male-female… mantra-hymn-namaaz… I taste Cauvery in New York… We are on both shores at once, both or more…’
PV: Usha, just like you come up with such interesting juxtapositions in your poems! I have always wondered about the strange combinations we are made of. Let’s look at the lines you picked here. We are socialized to be male or female, but while I am aware of patriarchal violence, I am so conscious of us being beyond gender when I read Vedanta. The mystics have always been aware of our ability to move between worlds. In our immigrant lives, we are constantly in two or more dimensions, constantly adjusting to our environments, whether it is the workplace, our children’s struggles, and our writing. In poetry we naturally keep shifting between different dimensions, simultaneously carrying the literal and the metaphorical; we write in two or more languages in a single line; we also have an ear open to the numinous.
UA: Women, women, women… their lives, their portraiture has been a fixed focus for you. Your latest book which I reviewed for IE was about your grandmother.
PV: Isn’t it surprising that women’s artistic productions are seldom preserved? My family lost the songs my grandmother had written. My cousins and my aunts had just a vague memory of the songs she improvised. That women are seen only as fit for carrying out their roles as wives and mothers has always bothered me. Much of the feminist enterprise over the last three decades has been to retrieve women’s lost work. My intention was to memorialize my grandmother and bring her voice to life, as well as show how she was oppressed. Women make art despite the obstacles placed in front of us. Virginia Woolf conveys this most tellingly in A Room of One’s Own. And art, in turn, helps us survive.
UA: So what are PV’s poetics?
PV: As much as poetry is heightened speech, it is also natural speech. Like many Indians, I speak multiple languages and these feed into my lines. The English we speak in India is peppered with turns of phrases and words from our mother tongue as well as the languages of the neighborhood. The English I speak here has the New York colloquialisms which include a smorgasbord of languages, from the Yiddish to the African American idiom. And added to that are Tamil and Hindi. And this mish-mash (and English itself is a salad, mind you) enters my poetry. If I say to my daughter, “Hey, kanna, add tadka to the rasam,” I am using the colloquial “Hey,” followed by the Tamil endearment addressing my daughter, then the command, followed by the Hindi word “tadka” which means seasoning, and “rasam” which is a tamarind based soup. My daughter who is born and brought up in New York understands me perfectly. Interestingly enough, the poem which has this line will make sense within its context, and the audience does not need a glossary. Every hyphenated American poet writes with this mix of languages.
Images and metaphor are also languages within a poem. We create these to find new ways to describing things and end up discovering something we did not know before. For example, I wrote a poem “Lake Woman,” in which the lake is a wild woman who takes and takes at whim; although I did not imagine at the time of the writing that what I was describing was a kali figure, the poem surprised me later with this discovery. The poem taught me that kali lets you drown in the darkness but also lets you emerge supported and loved.
UA: It’s long bothered you; Indian scholarship and academia has not erected an indigenous poetics or critical theory; largely we are governed by Western cannon, poetics, forms and approaches to reading and writing poetry. How would you imagine an indigenous poetics to be closer to the soil and culture of India?
PV: The thing is indigenous poetics do exist. Unfortunately, they have not been disseminated widely among the English-speaking Indian literati. We can find many riches among the rasa theorists like Abhinavagupta and the Tamil poetics described beautifully by R. Parathasarathy in the introduction to his translation of Cillapatikaram. Much of what we call Indian poetry existed as musical compositions and religious poetry, so a poetics evolved around the arts and philosophical poetry compositions. When I look at Sankara’s poems, they are so intricate in meter and rhyme, assonance, and alliteration, while at the same time bring out the rich meaning while conveying it with “bhava” (tone) to convey the bhakti rasa (devotion). So, if academics can use these theories to look at modern works, that would be beneficial; at the same time, some of our modern writing evade these theories, so we need to create a poetics. I find that this is happening as we speak with Dalit poetics, which has been in process in different languages, particularly in Marathi. And in Tamil, Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan, editors of The Oxford Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing set out the theories to examine the poetry written by contemporary Tamil Dalits. Because of the variety of Indian languages and the paucity of translations we don’t really know the extent of the development of current theories. And in terms of writing in indigenous forms, it would be wonderful to disseminate these forms globally. For example, I love to experiment with dance forms such as padam, or the musical form such as vanchipaatu (boat song). And when we delve into the literatures and the arts of India, there are a wealth of forms.
UA: How does a poem begin and end for you?
PV: I begin with an image and see where it takes me. I don’t have an agenda for a poem. Sometimes, I may pick up where I left of. Or I may start with an earlier stanza and see how that develops. The end of a poem sometimes happens all at once. Sometimes the end comes after a few drafts. I write both free verse and formal poems. The poems find their vehicles. I have fun with poems. Although the “work” of editing takes place, play is the essential impulse that drives poems.
UA: The aural level to poetry is vital to your writing. You often use song in your poems and sing at your readings? Share a little about the presence of aural culture in your life.
PV: From my childhood I have been exposed to Sanskrit chanting, classical music and Bollywood songs. As a teenager I was crazy about ghazals as well as American pop songs which played on the radio every Sunday afternoon. I remember memorizing Barbara’s Streisand’s song “Stranger” and Paul Simmon’s “The Sound of Silence” when I was in 10th grade. The thing is in school we had to memorize poems. In fact, I had to learn by heart chunks of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and “The Merchant of Venice.” In Hindi class, I had to learn the doha of Kabirdas and Tulsidas. I was fascinated by the epigrammatic content and meter of the doha. In music class, the teacher expected the students to know all the songs and their notations by heart. Music is the baseline of poetry, so if we feel the beat of a line, the content comes later. Poetry works more by sound than sense. Much of this memorization became a part of my neural system.
UA: What’s your impression of contemporary American poetry today?
PV: Oh, there is so much to love about contemporary American poetry. It is a richly diverse field. The poets I love are Natasha Trethewey (how she personalizes historical memory), Naomi Shihab Nye (combining the political with her emotional connection to human suffering), Carolyn Forche (for her superb craft that delves into the unsayable aspect of terror), Claudia Rankine, Kazim Ali, Martin Espada, Joy Harjo, Robert Hayden, Alicia Ostriker.
UA: And Indo-American poetry?
PV: Matwaala as well as anthologies such as Indivisible have exposed us to the richness of South Asian American poetry. There are many poets in MAPS and Indivisible who bring in such a variety of writing, because these poets bring insights from their different histories, cultures and continents: Meena Alexander, Usha Akella, Indran Amirthanayagam, Kazim Ali, Zilka Joseph, Varsha Shah, Vijay Seshadri, Sureeni Sundaralingam…The list is long.
UA: Both Thirtha and Singer of Alleppy carry portraits of women on the covers. Tell me a bit about your choice to work with your sister for your covers, and the decision of stark portraiture repeatedly.
PV: As you know my sister, Jayashree, is an artist. I have resonated deeply with her work over the years. I know the time, thought and talent that goes into each of her paintings. Similarly, she experiences my poems as a part of our shared history. When we choose a painting for the cover, it is a conversation about the painting and the poems. I think the portrayals of women on the covers are stark for they reveal both suffering and the inner beauty of understanding. This is one of the aspects of the poems in Singer and Behind Dark Waters.
UA: How is it being an Indo-American poet in Long Island. You are involved in various activities there and were poet laureate.
PV: I am part of a close-knit community of poets. It is indeed amazing how it magically grew over the years, thanks to Performance Poetry Association, which was formed by two guys in the 1990s. Today they have more than 1000 members, with poetry being hosted by many in every town of Long Island. I host two venues, one in Barnes and Noble bookstore, and another in The Setauket Neighborhood House. Additionally, we have two poetry publishers, Local Gems Press and Allbooks, who have provided much opportunity to the younger poets. As poet laureate, besides giving readings, I tried to involve the youngsters in writing poetry by giving workshops in the local elementary schools. I also arranged for poets to read every couple of months at the Veteran’s Home. I organized readings at a local farm to encourage poets to write nature poems. There are too many activities to list here. A memorable recent activity was to mentor young poets from elementary to high school. Each poet was assigned to a couple of students. I mentored two young girls and they wrote delightful poems which were featured in a mentor-mentee anthology edited by a recent poet laureate, Gladys Henderson.
UA: You are an activist involved with women’s issues. Please share some of it.
PV: I do writing workshops with breast cancer survivors. I did this for 4 years through Maria’Z Foundation, and I have continued that work with Strength for Life. Apart from that, I am a founding member of Women Included, a transnational feminist organization. We write articles on different issues facing women transnationally. This transnational focus helps our readers view women’s issues without borders, thus challenging stereotyping of women across cultures and nationalities.
UA: Problems you’ve encountered as an Indo-American poet in the US?
PV: It has been an uphill battle to get published. Publishing poetry is not easy, but in my experience, for an Indian woman to find a publisher is even harder. At least now you are beginning to see more women of color in poetry journals, but in the 80’s and 90’s when I was trying to find a publisher for my first book it was challenging. I have continued to persist and find homes for my poems. Nevertheless, with each book, I begin anew. Yes, it is daunting. One has to have a spirit of steel, indeed.
UA: Why did you take on Matwaala? We both know it brings us no commercial benefits. To work year after year promoting other poets so generously at NCC and elsewhere, why? What are your ultimate goals for it, when will you think its work is done?
PV: The idea of our mission in Matwaala is truly inspiring. It challenges the notion of individualism and profit that are antithetical to poetry, but unfortunately is so endemic to capitalism. I find in poetry a counter culture which buoys my spirit. In that sense Matwaala is truly a collective. The US does have pockets of these collectives throughout history, for example, the Beat poets, the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, and in Long Island at present, the Performance Poetry Association. Saleem Peeradina describes the collective of the Bombay poets in the 1980s. In these collectives, poets worked together for the love of the craft and cheered each other toward success. In Matwaala, “I” is replaced by “we”; I find this liberating.
UA: Your work with youth?
PV: Working with young people is essential; they carry our missions and develop and improve on them. I am thinking of our daughters, our young girls who are American poets in the making. If we are laying the foundation, they will make history. At Matwaala, we have continued to inspire youth by involving them in readings and workshops, for we can read the tea leaves.
UA: Does poetry change the world?
PV: Poetry has been the voice of those who are unheard and invisible to dominant groups. It has a role to play in society. It may not topple governments (though in some cases, such as in Nicaragua, poetry and politics are inseparable), but it achieves a shift in consciousness. Poetry is the voice of our conscience. Someone hears a beautiful line and their heart is lifted. A vibration happens. This subtle connection between people that a poem enables, makes poetry invaluable.
UA: How do you find the courage to persist?
PV: At this moment when we are facing a global pandemic, I find shelter in poetry. Words offer encouragement and hope when we are unable to find them in the midst of despair and uncertainty. The very act of lifting the pen and writing on the blank page is miraculous. It is an event to be celebrated.