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Through a poet's eye

Sudeep Sen, best known for his poems, was in the city recently. An interview with the poet and film maker

SUDEEP SEN has achieved a lot in his 38 years. Born in Delhi, and educated in India and the U.S., he is an internationally acclaimed poet, and his work literally crosses continents. He is also a film maker and writer of prose.

MetroPlus caught up with the dynamic person whilst he was visiting family in Chennai, and asked him about the importance of poetry today, especially considering the present state of current affairs. Excerpts from the interview:

What is the place of poetry in the modern world of electronic information, corporate globalisation and media spin?

Poetry generally occupies a very quiet space in human existence; it's never at the forefront of things. However, it's incredibly essential to civilisation... poets are the philosophers of the world. It seems that it may have a lesser significance these days, as people are much more visually orientated, television and so on. For some people, it's an escape, it's therapeutic.

Do you think it's important that poetry should be political in nature?

Poetry is always political. You can't divorce politics from any kind of writing. An interesting thing is that our Prime Minister has recently published a book of English translation of poems, called "21 Poems". If you see the foreword, he says, "I really relate to the poet side of me rather than the politician", but really you can't divorce one from the other.

You draw upon a multitude of different cultural traditions in your work and cite numerous influences. So do you see poetry as an international language?

Poetry is just as much an international language as any other form of literature. I don't think we can extract any one kind of writing over another.

A Bengali, Sudeep also speaks English and Hindi. He considers all the three languages his mother tongue although he chooses English to write, because he says, ``It is more truly democratic, it keeps on expanding, and has the capacity to absorb words from various cultures and languages.''

So, do you get criticised for choosing to write in English even though you are from India?

Oh, all the time, it happens in India much more than abroad. Traditionalists would say, why aren't you writing in your mother tongue? So I just say, `This is of my mother tongues'. I don't see the differences at all.

What is the link between your poetry and your education?

A lot... I would hear my grandmother and mother chanting their prayers daily. The interesting thing that partly answers your question is that I have seen the Hindu Gods and Goddesses, the Koran and a crucifix in a shrine at home.

When I was growing up, I didn't quite realise the significance of it. My mother said to me, `It doesn't really matter who you pray to, they are all the same God.''

Do you see it as a privilege these days to be able to read and contemplate poetry in a world where the division between rich and poor is so wide?

I would say so, definitely. It's getting even more and more severed, the division between rich and poor is widening. Fortunately in India there's large middle class that straddles both ends, and that is a very useful thing.

Considering this, how can poetry be made more accessible?

I think a lot of people need to get off their high horses, and realise that literature, like any other art form, is for the people. That should be the attitude. The moment you take a `holier than art thou' attitude about poetry you've had it, you're killing the form. Fortunately, people of my generation recognise this and that gives me hope.

So many poems are born out of conflict. Why?

Conflict makes you think. If you are in a completely comfortable zone, it is easy to become numb. You need to be pushed to write, there needs to be a tension. It is usually, not always, a more interesting, edgy kind of writing that comes from these things. As poets we are odd, a strange breed, we have these invisible antennae that stick out and pick up things that generally go unnoticed.

Sudeep Sen's most recent collection of poems is called `Postmarked India, New and Selected Poems', published by Harper Collins.

He has also published a visually and poetically stunning volume, `Postcards from Bangladesh' (University Press), which explores the rich culture of the country through a collection of photographs and new poems.

His next collection of poems, `Monsoon' (The Bengal Foundation), will be available from mid-April.

JONATHAN HYDE

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