Interviewed by Jagari Mukherjee
Sahana Mukherjee is a Charles Wallace fellow at the University of Edinburgh in Creative Writing (2017). She is always trying to understand the language of silence. August Ache is her debut book of poems.
1. There is a sense of grief pervading the poems in August Ache. Rain/monsoon/water constitute sustained metaphor in pieces like Here Comes the Sun, Anniversary, and The Sea. And yet, the poems have an unmistakable fire. How important are grief and anger/water and fire in the conception of August Ache?
Well, I have been an introvert all my life. I have felt things – love, hurt, rage, pleasure – intensely and repressed it all with as much ferocity. I say ferocity because this has cost me my sanity at times. Nevertheless, I’ve always been comfortable with this. It is how I have lived all these years. My poetry, on the other hand, is where I have tried to be what I couldn’t be outside the scope of letters. My poems have thus expanded my personhood instead of just reflecting it. While it is true that I have lived with water and fire all my life, it is only in poetry that I could strike a balance between the two. I have certainly taken many elements from my life to write these poems, but once I poured them into my work, they took the shape of their own – they became lies, but lies that are probably closer to the truths somehow.
2. In his Introduction, Ra Sh talks about the presence of The Other in August Ache. Do you think that this presence can be attributed to you, as a poet, being an empath? How important is the quality of empathy for a poet?
Well, yes, there are many such presences in August Ache. Even the ‘I’ is just as many. They are people I have met and also characteristics I have been attracted to. Some presences are also completely made up. My poems, in general, are conversational. But, whether through this, I have been able to reach the position of an empath, I cannot say. I have merely experimented with the idea of the “other.” I don’t think it makes me an empath; only an observer, or a listener, at best.
To answer the second part of your question, I will say that empathy doesn’t come so easy no matter how important it is. What happens more commonly is sympathy, and we often mistake the two as the same thing. For a poet or a visionary of any kind, empathy is perhaps the destination we are heading to. It’s an arduous process, long and often defeating. I believe it is important for everyone to be empathetic, not only poets. But, at the same time, no one is one-dimensional like that. One can be greatly empathetic at a particular moment while being apathetic in other situations. Such contradictions are only too common, and poets are no exception. The quality of empathy can be felt only if one also has equally experienced pity, sympathy, and apathy alike.
3. The opening of August Ache carries a quote from Agha Shahid Ali. Could you tell us a bit more about his influence on your poetry?
I read Shahid’s poetry when I was in my first year of undergrads. A friend and professor had introduced me to his work at the same time. I was immediately taken by his ability to weave words together as a weaver works on his shawl. The sheer intricacy of his poems was spellbinding. Once I got introduced to his work, I started working on the coarseness of my poems, trying to ease out the rough edges, pulling out the extra words, the extra lines, etc. I learned how even a poem as political as “Farewell” could be written with the sensitivity of a love poem. But, of course, Faiz had also taught me that, only in a different language. Apart from this, I grew a strangely spiritual connection with Shahid’s poetry, something that had never happened before or ever since. I have found comfort in his poems on my worst days, so perhaps, when I write now, he’s always there in my poems; he is a lasting presence.
4. Which are your three favorite poems in the book? Or is it hard to pick and choose?
Oh, it isn’t hard at all! I hate most of them now that they are “out there.” So, among those I don’t hate, I think the series entitled “Stranger at Your Door Tonight” is still a favorite. Two other series “Letters to Kalmia” and “Stories Pass Like Weeks” are also still close to my heart.
5. Tell us about one particular memory that is buried in the pages of the book.
There are too many; I am a hoarder of memories. But, if I must pick one, it’s a memory from when I was six or seven years old. It was time for my afternoon nap, but with my grandmother already asleep and snoring, I tip-toed out of bed—because remember, afternoons were the perfect time for all kinds of tomfoolery—and slipped into the kitchen. It was summer, I remember and I had an inhuman craving for mangoes. I was still not allowed to touch the “bothi,” and ours was an old one; the blade wasn’t very safe. Anyhow, I took a mango from the basket and squatted down to peel it off, but while peeling it off, I accidentally also peeled off my thumb-skin. I don’t remember eating the mango after that, but I was definitely too scared to tell anyone, so I pressed my thumb hard to stomach to avoid a confrontation. Of course I was found out because the blood wouldn’t stop oozing and it was also hurting.
You won’t find this memory anywhere in the poems, but it’s there in various other ways. That afternoon still feels like yesterday, but only I can sense the real distance in between. I remember this particular memory most vividly because of many other events that unfurled later in my life that took away the spaces I once used to inhabit—the kitchen, the room where I used to sleep with my grandma, etc. One memory leads to another, and the chain is endless.
6. How and when did you decide that your manuscript is ready for publication?
I wanted to wait longer, honestly. But, then I realized I had to start the process. That is when I got in touch with Dr. Ananda Lal. Thankfully, he still hadn’t retired from JU. So, after much procrastination, I walked into his office one day after class and said I would like him to look at my poems if he had the time. Dr. Lal happily agreed and asked me to get a few poems the next day. He had a good look at them and said he would love to publish my book. It was only then that I first started arranging all my poems into a manuscript. If I weren’t prodded by my friends and also by one of my professors who kept insisting that it was time I got a book published, I probably wouldn’t have taken the first step.
7. Who are some of your favorite contemporary poets?
Two of my most favourite contemporary poets are Omair Bhat and Rohith. They don’t have a book yet, but I’m hoping they will, soon. I really admire and enjoy reading Mihir Vatsa and Huzaifa Pandit. Souradeep Roy’s poems and translations are wonderful. In the anthology entitled FIVE, I liked Manjiri Indurkar’s chapbook. I admire the novelty of Linda Ashok’s poetry, her poems are very sharp.
8. Do you have a (poetry) reading list for your readers?
Well, I will just make a list of all the poets who have helped me through phases of writers’ block: Agha Shahid Ali, Anna Akhmatova, Paul Celan, Eunice D’Souza, and Richard Siken
9. If you had a chance for bartering your poems for anything, what would that be?
I will barter it for nothing less than someone else’s poems.
10. Three reasons why August Ache is a must-read for poetry lovers.
I sincerely want my readers to answer that question because I am curious!