Jeet Thayil (born 1959) is an Indian poet, novelist, librettist and musician. He was born in Kerala and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is the author of four collections: These Errors Are Correct (2008), English (2004), Apocalypso (1997) and Gemini (1992). His first novel, Narcopolis(2012), was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. He is the editor of Give the Sea Change and It Shall Change: Fifty-Six Indian Poets (Fulcrum) and Divided Time: India and the End of Diaspora (Routledge).

In this interview, Jeet Thayil talks about his 2004 poetry collection English.

T.S:  In the faux prologue poem About the Author, you have quoted lines from Gerald Stern`s Odd Mercy and have evoked the names of Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel and your father. Similarly Gerald Stern wrote about the streets of New York, the feeling of homelessness, had characters like St. Augustine, Walt Whitman and Noah and a section that dealt with dietary laws and restraints. Was this at the back of your mind when you were writing this poem? There are also the poems about your grandmother (My Grandmother`s Funeral and The Other Thing) where you talk about her “clenched refusals of food and water”. 

J.T: The poem is a fictional autobiography that aims to tell the truth. There is a section that deals with literary heritage, and the speaker situates himself as the heir to various poetic fathers as well as his real one. Gerald Stern was one of my teachers at Sarah Lawrence and I was struck by the way he appropriated all of literature as his rightful heritage. It seemed to me the correct way for a writer to operate.

T.R:  In many of your poems such as Moveable and Doune, one gets a sense of how memory is not just the past but how one establishes a personal history and myth “with fragments from the memory museum”. How significant were the role of memory and nostalgia while writing these poems?

J.T: Memory as a fragmented, mostly unreliable faculty is a constant in English. The speakers in many of the poems confuse fictional biography with real biography. ‘Moveable’ is addressed to the idea of happiness; that is the ‘you’ in the poem. Also, the speaker carries a nail in his head: his memory is suspect, if not completely false.  

T.R: One notable feature of your poems in the collection is the way you juxtapose diverse landscapes in a single poem, the way you throw in outsider perspectives on constantly shifting settings. In the poem It Wasn`t Until the Lawyer Told Me, there is this scene where walking out of the Manhattan subway, you have the vision of the streets of suburban Bombay. Could you talk a little on this style of writing?

J.T: I stole the idea from a poem by AK Ramanujan, who probably stole it from someone else. When you travel a lot you realize that all cities are one and the same, and sometimes you find similarities even when they’re not there, for instance, between a canyon in Manhattan and a street in Bandra, Bombay. It comes out of viewing the world as essentially flat, negotiable, interchangeable; and there is an implied spiritual exhaustion and yearning.

T.R: In this collection, you have poems written on diverse places like Bombay, New York, Doune, Hong Kong and Nepal. In two of your poems (Skewed, Afloat and The Immigrant Martyr Elect), there is a sense of the ‘I’ in the poem letting everything drift with a refusal to settle (“I know how to fly, not how to land”). Were you writing about the feeling of displacement?

J.T: ‘Afloat’ is a poem in which the speaker is one of the men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. I read it out in New York and it led to a squabble with some listeners who felt that terrorists should not be given a voice in poetry. My view is exactly the opposite. If those who are placed in opposition to you are not given an imaginative voice, what is the point of literature? We read to inhabit other lives, or at least I do.

T.R: In the second part Shapeshifter, a manual-like sequence of poems written with clarity and rich imagery, one gets a sense of how any metamorphosis, figurative or literal, is tinged with the impossible, the precarious zone between the normal and the strange, the difficult practice of being anything. Are these poems about survival in the broader sense?

J.T: I am willing to accept that interpretation. In a way, they are about inhabiting the consciousness of other life forms. 

T.R: In poems like Psalm Secular and Yet Another Mother Poem, Heroination and It Wasn`t Until the Lawyers Told Me, there is the parallax view of religion, eroticism and addiction, of how one informs the others. Could you talk a little on this subject?

J.T: Religion, eroticism and addiction are ways of filling the god-shaped hole.

T.R: In the title poem English, you talk about “the seven colours of wisdom, each with its own worm”, the “dung beetle” reminiscent of Kafka`s Metamorphosis. Were the “seven plums” informed by Charles Demuth`s Seven Plums in a Chinese Bowl, an artist who painted the watercolor during his difficult years of convalescence? 

J.T: I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Charles Demuth.

T.R: You have written a villanelle with Baudelaire`s line, also another poem which ends with Baudelaire`s famous utterance “Crenom”. Were you indebted to his poetry, his world of inner violence, the fleeting ephemeral city life and his typical ‘nostalgie de la boue’ ?

J.T: Baudelaire has been a constant influence on me, since I first read him at the age of 14 and attempted to make translations of his poems. 

T.R: Borges in his Harvard lectures said “When I write… I try to forget all about myself. I forget about my personal circumstances. I do not try, as I tried once, to be a “South American writer.” While reading your collection, the reader feels that you are writing from a borderless country, a sort of mental inhabitation of the poet.

J.T:As the back cover of English says, the narrator of the poems is “a citizen of no country except the republic that gives the book its title.” As a citizen of the republic of English, the poet owes allegiance to nothing except language.

T.R: You have been an editor for The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, Give the Sea Change and It Shall Change: 56 Indian Poets, Fulcrum, 2005 and 60 Indian Poets, Penguin India, 2008. What do you have to say about Indian Poetry today? Also what advice would you give to young aspiring writers?

J.T: Poetry is a difficult vocation; and young poets have my deepest condolences. Or, as James Wright told his son Franz: “You are a poet. Welcome to hell.”