Mohineet Kaur Boparai is a research scholar at the Department of English, Punjabi University, Patiala in India. Her research is concerned with subalternity, agency and subjectivity in the selected novels of Toni Morrison, Amy Tan and Abdulrazak Gurnah. Her first book of poems, Poems That Never Were was published in 2007 by Writers Workshop, Kolkata. She has two subsequent poetry collections, Windows to the Ocean and Lives of My Love, published in 2012 by Middle Island Press. She is 26 and lives at Moga. She is teaching English at the Panjab University Constituent College, Nihalsinghwala.
(“Coffee With the Poets” interviews
are conducted by Christina.)
Hi, Mohineet! Congratulations again on your relatively recent marriage. It was evident to me in publishing two poetry collections for you in quick succession that your life currently is full of love and poetry.
MKB: Thank you Christina. I published two books last year with you and it was the first year after marriage so it was full of discovery and loads of newness and freshness. My book Windows to the Ocean is dedicated to my husband Guramrit and my brother Fateh, because I felt they were most important to me at that juncture. After marriage one begins a whole new life; the past suddenly becomes more clear and important because it is something we’ve been somewhat misplaced from. At that point, my husband was the discovery and my brother was the nostalgia; I had always felt that Amrit and Fateh shared something but I couldn’t pin point it, maybe it was how they lived their lives and hence, my dedication “Who carry a tune in their hearts when they walk”. The second book Lives of My Love is about how I experienced my love life with Amrit and is dedicated to my niece Abeer. Her name means “fragrance” in Arabic and “festival color” in Hindi. My dedication reads, “When you blink your eyes, a solitary leaf dances in the wind”. On the surface, it is about her eyes, but the impetus behind it is more than description. Her eyes are natural, they are innocent and the movement in them is patient, almost like the effortlessness of the seasons.
Thank you for sharing that heart-warming personal insight. I have been intrigued by India for a few decades now as it seems like a place of such creativity, color, beauty, vitality… What is it about your culture that sparks such fine creative expression?
MKB: I believe that living in India has given me an experience of living in diversity. The number of languages spoken in India is 438; there are several religious beliefs, and cultures living under a homogeneous governing system. There is so much to learn and observe, not only in people but also in the geography. There are the Himalayas, Ganga-Brahmaputra plains, the vast Deccan plateau that covers most of southern India and the Thar desert; Tropical, alpine vegetation and xerophytes; maritime climate as well as the severe seasons of north India; metropolitan malls and slums; local artisans and foreign brands. Living in such a space, there are so many different things to experience. I am particularly drawn to the landscapes and the colorful tribal people. The diverse cultural intermingling motivates creative expression because there are so many different cues to catch when one goes about perceiving the land.
You are India’s gazing bright star. How do you define poetry, and who or what inspired you to understand what poetry is, what makes it poetry?
MKB: Poetry is an overflow, and hence it begins from some kind of containment of what is within. And because it is within and accumulating, it has a certain impetus to come out. At the same time it is fluid, liquefied and must be solidified. I believe, in this process something is always lost, something is gained and something is revealed. So poetry is in many ways is a discovery of the self, society and the universe. A discovery also of a certain type of emotion that I think poets only experience when they are writing. I believe that it is an emotion that feels like some form of saturation and then slowly it begins to disappear and when it is finally lost, there is nothing more to write. It is like playing hide-and-seek. First you face the wall and count (one faces the commonplace); then you begin your search (which is the challenge, the looking about and looking for) and the search involves some chemical secretions in the body, maybe a little bit of adrenaline too (and you are enjoying the whole process). It is a process that involves the head and the heart that ultimately lead to some hidden acumen and acuteness. And the whole time that you are writing, you are also being insightful and imaginative, and the hidden is being revealed one by one, coming out of the hiding place it inhabits, into the scorching heat of the summer holidays that are past with childhood.
To the second part of the question, I think I’ve been writing poetry since a very long time, since I was a teenager, but in the beginning it was not even perception, it was merely a rhyming of lines and a collection of images. But I store my poetry in diaries and on the computer and therefore I remember the poems I wrote as a twelve year old. One was about birds, another one was written after I saw the movie Titanic, and another one was about a scary night in a palace. So as a child, what inspired me to write poetry were my childhood whims, all the things that somehow caught my imagination and loaded me with their immensity. The inspirations have been the same ever since- things that are massive and mysterious, things that I must understand. The inner inspirations, however are never all intrinsic, there is always another side to them- the overt, the things we catch from the outside like birds who later want to break open their cages. The external inspirations are events and people. There must be a long list of people who inspired me. My parents firstly, because they were always the first ones I took my poems to and the fact that they were excited and overwhelmed by my obscure, childish attempts at poetry, they encouraged me to write on. Then, when I met my husband he and our family became the driving force. His patience motivates my pen and my second collection is about what I feel about him and what turns my life took after meeting him…he dives into my work, he takes it on his tongue and plays with the sweet sour lollipop that my poems are. Metaphorically, it’s as if we plant seeds together, not in the soil but grafting them in the roots themselves. Inspiration comes from observing the spontaneity in people, their venerations for different things and an acceptance of their idiosyncrasies. Then there are so many friends and mentors who’ve motivated me. That is all how I get spontaneous, involuntary inspiration. But poetry is also a conscious process and hence I must look for inspiration. This I find in the environment and other poets. I search for it, by being open to observation and discovering new poetries. I have been inspired by the unfussy depth of Wislawa Szymborska, Sylvia Plath’s immense heart and the metaphoric life of her poetry related to painful realities, poems by Siegfried Sassoon, A.K. Ramanujan, R. M. Rilke, Pablo Neruda, and most recently I am discovering the German expressionistic poets like Gottfried Benn and Else Lasker-Schuler. These poetries are like riding a giant wheel, like going up and coming down in a circle, dangling your feet that won’t touch the ground and being awed by the enthusiasm of these poets.
I must say I find your poetry awe-inspiring! When do you feel that you write your best poetry?
MKB: My most satisfying poems come from phases when I’m vexed. I think it is because we usually indulge in masking our emotions. When I experience strong emotions that have not had an outlet, I sometimes write poetry. My most cherished poems ironically belong to such phases. It might be because at that time I’m true to myself, or maybe because my brain is working in a different way. But emotions alone cannot generate poetry. There has to be something in store in ones perceptual space and philosophical core for the poem to shape up. When I write a poem under the influence of emotions, I usually don’t know what I’m writing about. The first few lines are spontaneous jottings and then the poem automatically begins to shape up into a more or less coherent whole. Then, I come to understand what is within me and after the initial spurting beginning, I get a middle and end that I can use to shape my poem. It is here that I understand what is most prior in my thinking. Talking of a poem, we usually don’t divide it into a beginning, middle and end. These categories have been traditionally reserved for drama and sometimes prose too. Poetry is a breaking of barriers. It is free and hence it should not have structural constraints. The beginning, middle and end in a poem for me, does not mean a sort of structural division, but a division in the change of mindset when one is writing. The workings of one’s psyche shift and reshape as one writes a poem. This reshaping has a flow and hence the allusion to Aristotle’s dramatic beginning, middle and end.
Excellent. We could go in a hundred directions with that. Would you care to share one of your own favorite poems?
A door in a frame lies by the roadside,
Twisted at an angle, like a convex glass,
Only, it is too full for the sun rays to pass
But somehow the air focuses its lens on it
And burns it from the inside
People see and think that it is termites eating wood
This door is sans house, or hands to open
It, or footsteps to walk through it
Now and then some wind comes
And opens a crack between the door
A smile twisted into smoke
Comes out and the wind mourns
Dust collects on it, it endures rains and
No one comes to fix it back
Because it is skin shed from
Muscles and bones
But there is always something left behind
Here is a door with its eyes waiting to
Thread dreams walking through itself
Very nice selection from Lives of My Love. Something unique about this particular collection is that you included a few of your own bright symbolic watercolor paintings to accompany some of your poems. Do you find it more likely that your poetry inspires you to create visual art, or is it more likely that your art inspires a poem as you paint it, and why do you think that is?MKB: I think in my case my poetry usually inspires art, rather than the other way round. I paint the image in the environment that triggered the poem and at the same time try to bring in the thrust of the poem into it. When I paint an image after writing a poem, I have dwelt on it, given it a linguistic form and solidified it; then only the space and colors need to be consciously thought of.
Your poetry is alive and blossoming with imagery. What do you consider most inspiring visually or otherwise, what sprouts your imagination?
MKB: In writing my poems I lay a lot of emphases on figures of speech. It’s probably to do with my painting; because when one paints one begins to observe. Somehow I think we derive pleasure from beauty. In the case of poetry this pleasure is extended to the not so apparently beautiful. One begins to see beauty in many ordinary things. I incidentally find some works of literature very inspiring simply because of the beauty they infuse into the images. To name a few that come to the mind: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Toni Morrison’s novels- especially Tar Baby and Sula, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Wasteland”, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, the expressionistic poets etc. Images whether in literature, movies, paintings and most commonly in day to day life, are very inspiring for me; they somehow infuse me with imagination because as a poet suddenly I’m reading new meanings into things that were not even in my creative radar.
What I respect about your poetry, even beyond your fine natural balance of heart, mind and soul, is that it contains genuine depth – it rings true to your truth with nothing hollow. (I trust that you can elaborate on this; choose your angle.)
MKB: Poetry cannot be shallow, because then it will lose its strength. It is jam packed and heavy but has lightness enclosed in its heaviness as its other Janus face. I think the natural balance we are talking about in my poetry comes from spontaneity, from scribbling the first draft completely from within, without much second thought; and yet it’s not like free association. Then, when I read what I have written, I understand it from several perspectives- from the original perspective, but also from several other viewpoints that have unconsciously propped themselves in the poem. This makes up for one truth leading to another. And because the truths are mine, they are interrelated. The truth, and the voice in poetry go together. And since the truth is so difficult to comprehend, since it is always transforming, evasive, its immensity engrained in minuteness, it is deep. When I tap immensity or the minuteness that carries it, the poetry automatically gets its depth.
You’re right, and your response brings a few thoughts to mind: Firstly, some of your poetry sounds dream-inspired. Do you pen your dreams into poetry? If yes, then how important do you feel this is, and why?
MKB: I feel poetry is inter-textual and like other literature, it is connected to other disciplines, because it is related holistically to our experience. Your question reminds me of psychoanalysis, especially Freud’s dream interpretation. There have been several studies I believe on the coexistence and relation of art to dreams. I do pen my dreams into poetry, parts of them, if not the complete dream. In my poem, “The Years without You”, from the book Lives of My Love, I remember a dream from early childhood that I could not forget because it was almost like living paradise:
There is a fairyland, in a dream I have not forgotten
Flowing slow fountains on its body
Where flowers suspend from the sky in a rain
The grass is blue and there is a tinge of pink in the sky
Every monsoon I relived the dream
Until your eyes blinked open in its sky
And the colours came back to their place
I feel myself lucky if I remember my dreams and if they are emotionally intense; but that is occasional. My poetry is dream-like because maybe it has a lot of symbolization and that makes it like a collection of anecdotes which is also true for dreams. Also, my poems are somewhat less than natural. They aren’t what reality is to our usually busy senses. Rather, they are like an unconscious delving into the superficiality of what we take to be reality. Beneath the superficial, reality has another life. It is almost like delving into the unconscious that is deep-seated and like an iceberg, is beneath the surface and only a tip of it is available to sight. What lies beneath the ocean is massive and that is what poetry should fathom. This reminds me of my first collection with Middle Island Press, Windows to the Ocean; maybe that is where my poetry follows dream and trance.
Responding to the second part of your question, I think all poetry essentially requires mazes and incompleteness, a middle of the road termination too, so that we are almost always ready to relive it. Like dreams, our poetry is spontaneous and effortless. It just comes to us, sometimes, we feel, from nowhere. This birth from nowhere is like a seed hibernating in the soil. We don’t see it unless it props up like a shoot. Also, if a poem speaks too directly, either without symbolism, imagery, metaphors or such devices, it loses an essential part of its suggestiveness. Thus dreaming literally or metaphorically is at the core of good poetry.
Exquisite, Mohineet! Thank you. Secondly (back up a few paragraphs), I am drawn to your statement “…because the truths are mine, they are interrelated.” My mind sees a web with you at the center, reminding me of the creative arachnid symbol, and I feel that you have justified yourself as a poet in the most beautiful subjective way in what you so naturally stated. Your poetry is a solidified matrix of you. Would you mind sharing another poem?
MKB: Thank you for the wonderful observation Christina. That’s true I believe. The self, establishes my poems on a plinth of the external. Thus what is within and what is without come together when a poem is being written. The ‘I’ can never really exit completely in a poem, and some amount of deep role playing while writing a poem happens. It is like drama; you play a role but every actor would play the same role with idiosyncratic stamps. Coming to truths, I believe that there is no single truth over time and space that is true for all human race. The truths of a poet while writing are much different from the truths we carry with us in routine lives. This is because, as I have mentioned earlier, the truth of poetry is very intrinsic and deep-seated. I would love to share a poem with you:
A Love Story
You birthed me an organ from your arms
You endured the pain of the sky pushing its way out
-The infinite- that once hibernated under my tongue
Now wishfully enfolds me into a fire ball
You carried the heat on your back
To rejuvenate the dying winter
Its juices seeped into your spine and
Collected into an ocean
From where a story may emerge
Suddenly, in a whirlwind
And sweep the city clean
But we’ll always be in its single monster eye,
Rooted; while the city floats, cracks like a dream
In its gorilla embrace
All stories come glowing out of your sun
With you, my shadow widens into a shade
Then into a dream with no ends
The dream of sunburnt soil begins from the feet
And now we realize, only to forget again,
“The garden is never grown from above,
It is always waiting below with closed eyes”
Your imagination is like a child who knows no boundaries, sees only possibility. It’s so very inspiring. You have a list of honors and awards to your credit that is no less than astounding. What do you feel has been your greatest academic or literary achievement?
MKB: Thank you Christina for the wonderful applauds for my literary achievements. I believe there is still a long way to go and my achievements are merely a brushing of some archaeological pits in me. The big achievements are still to come as (I hope) my poetic side is slowly and continuously revealed to me. I am always extremely happy on publishing a book. I published my first when I was 21; and though it was highly experimental, I was so enthused by it that I slept with a copy under my pillow for several days.
What are your long-term literary aspirations?
MKB: In the coming years, I plan to publish more books of poetry and get some more strength and sound into my poems. I want my poems to be enthused in a reflexive, relaxed way. At present I feel my poetry has more pace than I love. I also plan to complete my PhD in the next four years; it would make me more critical and give me a wider evaluative space to understand poetry.
Certainly, and I wish you the strongest wings for your developments. Your ambition is incredible and I am certain that you will arrive where you wish to be, that you will continue to dream your dreams into reality.
MKB: Thank you Christina, it was such an insightful talk.
[Christina raises her mug to Mohineet who takes her cappuccino “…with extra chocolate powder on top.”]