The birth of a book is a blessed day. The day I interviewed Sudeep Sen in January at his apartment in New Delhi about editing The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry, his latest poetry book Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1978-2013 arrived in boxes from Gallerie Publishers. Shelves and shelves of poetry books share top billing with an eclectic collection of visual art, including Sen’s photographs. He took the photo on the cover of the anthology. Behind his desk is a framed draft of a poem by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the prolific Indian writer and later-in-life visual artist.
SS: There’s a confidence in the language, an unabashedness. One or two generations ago English was a post-colonial language. It’s no longer the case. For me, English is an Indian language. It is one of our 26 official languages.
CW: So it’s about owning the language not in reaction to a colonial history of oppression?
SS: No, it’s more than that. English just happens to be one of the tongues they are using very freely as an everyday thing. Take me for instance, I have three mother tongues: English, Bengali and Hindi, that’s how I grew up. It’s very unself-conscious. English is a language I learned from my parents and grandparents who are Indians.
When I travel abroad, people say “oh you speak English very well” and I say “and so do you.” The English language is interesting because there are so many different Englishes. There is Caribbean English, Australian English, American English, English English, Asian English, Indian English.
CW: What did selecting the poets teach you about those Englishes?
SS: That it is complex. Take David Dabydeen in the book, whose work is known as part of Caribbean literature. He’s from Guyana and grew up in the UK, an Indian diaspora poet who writes just fabulous English poetry of the highest order. His ancestors were Indian laborers. He writes about cooking dhal and roti and curry. Some of his poems are very steeped in Western painting, including this fabulous love poem called “Turner” I excerpt in the book.
The Indian diaspora is very complex too. The older diaspora is five or six generations as opposed to Indians in America and the U.K. of just a few generations. Africa, South Africa, Fiji and the Caribbean all have large Indian populations. Those migrations happened as slave ships. They would take an entire village, the priest, the barber, the teacher. Their descendants still sing the songs my great-grandmother sung.
CW: What impact would you like the anthology to have?
SS: I’d like more of these poets to be read in India and abroad. Literally very few are known beyond small poetry circles. There are so many young poets writing and it’s so difficult for them to break into the scene.
CW: That said, does it surprise you then the anthology is getting reviews from mainstream print, radio and television. And that a few months out, it is slated for a reprint.
SS: It has just baffled me the impact, fabulous reviews in places that don’t even touch poetry usually.
SS: I think primarily because 90 percent of the work is unpublished work, which is rare in anthologies. It’s new work that is difficult to access all in one place.
CW: I couldn’t find an online source to purchase with shipping outside of India for either book, including www.harpercollins.co.in. (Readers, please comment below if you know where online.)
SS: U.S. and U.K. rights are still being negotiated for the anthology. It is however available via online portals.
CW: There is a lot of embrace of traditional form among the poets. Why?
SS: I think this is more a generational thing. The younger generation is excited about the language and so comfortable with it that they are actually trying out hard forms like villanelles and sestinas. Many of them are also bringing in classical Indian verse forms. Ghazel in English is a good example. Contemporary writers embracing older forms but still making it contemporary is bound to lead to good things.
If you are going to write free verse, you need to know what classical verse is. You need to know what you’re breaking. You don’t have to stick to any of the old rules as long as you know the rules. So much of the bad name to modern poetry is because you can write a sentence chop it up into five parts and arrange it in a column and call it a poem. That happens all around us.
CW: Do you see any trends of the poets who are not living in India and writing from other places or is it simply a reflection of where they happen to be?
SS: They bring in a certain injection of the local culture. Indian poetry is being written by so many different kinds of Indians and that’s certainly making it richer. Take the Americans. They are writing about very American things that may or may not be understood here. However, many of them are rediscovering Indian roots.
CW: Are readers in India more open to poetry because of the many languages here with different rich poetic traditions?
SS: Yes, because poetry in other languages outside of English has a long, long history. It is very much imbedded in our larger cultural sphere and very much part of our upbringing. For example poetry is integral to the music traditions in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, extremely advanced.
CW: And where is English poetry in the scheme of things?
SS: English poetry is in a smallish circle relative to the bigness of India, a niche audience.
CW: But in a global context, isn’t India the second largest publisher of English in the world?
SS: And will be the second largest in not very long.