interviewed on Dec 1, 2018
Accra, Ghana and Mumbai, India
Smeetha’s recent poetry features in literary journals like Life & Legends, Unlikely Stories Mark V, Muse India (Curated by Prof Gjv Prasad -2017, 2018), Neesah, Indian Review, an international anthology titled 'Writing Language, Culture and Development, Africa Vs Asia Volume 1 Anthology'; and forthcoming in a national anthology of contemporary Indian English Poetry’ ( Sahitya Academy, 2018). Her early poems are collected together in 'Thoughts Meander', (2008).
She is an artist who has a deep engagement with poetry. Her main theme of work is the Universe Series, exploring the mystery, oneness and unifying energies of the universe using both traditional and new media.
Taseer was born in Amritsar, but forged an early connection with Chandigarh where she grew up and lived with her family.
Her published works appear in The Sunflower Collective, Coldnoon Diaries, Muse India, Kashmir Lit, Life and Legends, Open Road Review, E3W Literature, Destiny to Write anthologies and Indian Express. She has recently edited the Poetry Section of Equiverse Space, with Smeetha and others.
She has also been shortlisted as one of the Contemporary Indian English Poets in Muse India by the distinguished writer prof. GVJ Prasad and her poems have found a pride of a place in that issue.
Q. How do people around you, describe you?
Taseer: How can I be sure of this !
Q. How did you come up with the title, "EquiVerseSpace : A Sound Home in Words" and what does it portray?
Smeetha: As the Chief Editor of this anthology, in which four talented editors have presented works of more than seventy creative writers and poets, it was imperative I came up with a great name for our labour of love. As the editing process was drawing to a close, a search for the perfect name had started in my mind, and I looked at names that hinted at 'equality' and carried notions of belonging together. In the initial rapture of discovery, there were some combinations that suggested themselves and I shared these with Taseer, who looked at them and provided her own ideas. So now there were a handful of titles to work with.
In the meantime, Taseer was shifting continents, on the way to her new destination of Accra in Ghana; and I got really immersed in the final stages of editing. The titles must have churned in my mind and evolved in new ways, for one day the whole thing fell in place as 'Equiverse Space' came up in my mind, in response to my own probing of what the anthology meant to us - a creative, safe, equal, expressive space to belong to.
When prompted by the publisher's form for a sub-title, ' A Safe Home in Words' emerged naturally, as if on cue!
And thus, 'Equiverse Space - A Sound Home in Words' crystallised into a beautiful reality, adorning the cover of our anthology.
Q. What was the thought process behind bringing this book out?
Taseer: A literary forum for a collective theme of voicing several narratives on the feminine consciousness through the medium of genres like poetry, haiku,essay and the others.
Smeetha: A creative space to belong to, encouraging change, experimentation, innovation.
Q. EquiVerseSpace opens up a new dimension of equality, akin to the ‘swing’ of Jazz. You have also come up with the term "femme-jazz-word-quartet". Would you please elaborate on these?
Smeetha: The landscape of jazz as we know, is an extraordinarily fertile, emotive, evolving one, but what is often forgotten is its history, its eerie shadows of limiting realities rooted in slavery and agonising conditions. It speaks of a bygone era of entrapped people who had 'Talking Drums' to convey coded messages in the face of looming, ever-present threats. Its beginnings also hark back to the African 'call-response' tradition of working in the fields, the beautifully democratic system of working together in rhythmic, synchronous ways, connected by shared understanding. Early 20th century jazz, characterised by 'swing' - that magical moment when a soloist 'takes off' into ecstatic spells - was also the jazz that found it difficult to define its own 'swing', its most magical element. "Define it? I'd rather tackle Einstein's Theory!" was the common response from band members when asked to define it. In the '40's, when war efforts started shrinking bands considerably by enlisting men; the focus shifted from bands & instruments to 'improvisation' and the world of jazz erupted into an innovative, experimental, ever-changing space of renewal. 'Bepop' followed Swing.
The process of drawing parallels between jazz and feminism has been an intuitive one, recognising the shadows in their structures, trends, history, evolutionary process, and a call for extremely creative responses for survival. After all, 'feminism' does happen to be the most misunderstood, misinterpreted word in the universe! Even while 'equality' defines its core value, disputes rage on the surface on superficial grounds that distort, disaggregate, discriminate and disburse what little unity women (and supportive men) are able to accumulate. A patriarchal appropriation, if one sees right through the smoke screens and mirrors.
The anthology carries a discussion between four equal-rights-enthusiasts whose innermost ideas, opinions, feelings, reservations, transitions towards feminism come to the fore during the exchange. There's a sort of musical resonance in arriving at shared understanding; and I like to believe that this kind of music is the sweetest, tugging at chords in the heart... as electric as the guitar's ! In introducing the section, I've taken creative liberties when requesting readers to imagine a Dream-Jazz-Word-Quartet, where each participant is introduced as a jazz band member playing to her strengths!
Q. As you mentioned, it is an anthology of creative writing with all forms of the written word- poetry, short stories, essay, discussion and more. Would you like to tell us about some, or all of them briefly?
Smeetha: If the anthology is a home in words, then each creative piece carried therein holds up something vital, something indispensable, defining spaces for individuals who have written it. The poetry is the garden, a foliage of evergreen thoughts, ideas in full splendour or buds yet to bloom, thorns of contention open to the sky. The poetry really defines who we are. Names on the gate. Free verse, ghazal, sonnets, sestina, experimental, reign in the poetry section 'Let Her Glow', edited by Taseer Gujral.
A gently winding path with verse on both sides leads up to the home, doors and windows open in warm welcome. Hanging from trellises, curving round pillars on the porch are beautiful short forms of poetry with their roots in Japan, adapted and renewed in their new home. A nest for haiku, haibun, tanka, senryu in 'Hazy Moon', edited by Kala Ramesh.
Stories fill the cool airy interiors of the hall, nooks and crannies lighted with hope, or realisation. They soar right up to the high ceilings or stay confined within dark bureaus, relishing the solitude. Short stories and flash fiction in the section 'Look Here', edited by Abha Iyengar. Strains of jazz erupt from the library where four word musicians create sweet music of understanding, the deep resonance audible almost. Equal rights or feminism held up to the light, in the 'Dream-Jazz-Word-Quartet', edited by Smeetha Bhoumik.
The inner chambers hold out the promise of conversations with favourite people - poets, authors, and many creative ways to enhance understanding. Stories do that. By telling people they are not alone. There are short stories, conversation, essays in this section titled ' Close Encounters ' edited by Smeetha Bhoumik; with a special conversation 'Poetry Takes a Walk with Arundhathi', presented by Aekta Khubchandani.
In Book Review, reviews of two thought-provoking works of fiction is presented by Mohammad Farhan - Kamila Shamsie's 'Home Fire' and Lisa Halliday's 'Asymmetry'.
'Body & Soul' presents excerpts from two precious books very dear to our hearts - Priya Sarukkai Chabria's ' Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess'; and Shreya Sen Handley's 'Memoirs of My Body'.
Q. How difficult(or easy) was it to zero down on the final content and the authors?
Smeetha: Arriving at a final selection is a task of enormous responsibility, and we have been fortunate to receive exceptional submissions from around the world. Works of more than seventy poets and writers have been featured, the selection criteria being the work itself, irrespective of age, citizenship, such other parameters; making it a cohesive force of creative expression. Much of the poetry has been read blind, without identifying information.
The fabulous artists represented in the anthology are in exalted company with poets/writers like the following, to name just a few:
Priya Sarukkai Chabria
Shreya Sen Handley
Dr. Santosh Bakaya
Maya Sharma Sriram
Amit Shankar Saha
And many other inspiring figures.
Q. Would you like to share a few of your favourite lines from "EquiVerseSpace" with us?
Taseer :From Anna Sujatha Mathai's poem ~ Hints in a World Caught Between Living and Dying ~
Laughing, we throw out our hair
to the moon, saying Catch
And the night of sad memories
Drifts away across the sea
to lost continents.
We throw away the burqa of shame
And gaze deep into the eyes of our lovers.
We laugh and we weep as we sing
How beautiful are the feet
that walk upon the waters
that walk upon the mountains.
Smeetha: The entire poem 'Invocation : Spirit of Water' by Priya Sarukkai Chabria that opens our anthology.
Q. (To Smeetha)You have received various rewards and recognitions. Please tell us about them.
It is a warm feeling to be acknowledged and awarded of course, creating ripples of ecstatic emotion that last a long time ! Over the years it's been a great feeling to have been acknowledged for the creative expression that a kind universe has bestowed on me; first in art, ( Special Recognition Awards in painting for 'Spiritual' and 'Mumbai Fast' from Period Gallery, USA, 2004, 2005); then in the poetic space of Women Empowered-India founded in 2016, awarded in 2018 by MAP Fest Mumbai, for creating opportunities 'for the women, of the women, by the women'.
These are the outwardly visible manifestations of recognition and rewards. There's a rich, glorious, internal facet of reward too. And that is the precious and acute appreciation of every moment of creativity, each poem written or work of art created, the recognition that this is the true everlasting reward to be cherished and celebrated with gratitude in the heart. That only this leads on to the all other rewards...
Q. (To Taseer)You have also received major accolades for your poetry. Please tell us about it.
Taseer :I am a poet, editor and a translator. Some of my published works appear in The Sunflower Collective, Coldnoon Diaries, Muse India, Kashmir Lit, Life and Legends, Open Road Review, E3W Literature, Destiny to Write anthologies and Indian Express. I have also been shortlisted as one of the Contemporary Indian English Poets in Muse India by the distinguished writer prof. GVJ Prasad and my poems have found a pride of a place in that issue.
While he reviewed the Equiverse Space in the Hindu Literary Supplement, Mr. Keki Daruwalla gave me a special mention and said my poems touched him the most. I see this as a beautiful compliment that has set me going to write and achieve even more.
Q. (To Taseer)Has travelling to various places and experiencing different cultures affected your writing in any way?
Taseer: For as long as I can remember, life has been a journey. Circumstances have so surfaced and happened that I have lived across the length and breadth of India and journeyed to distant lands. While I have experienced the searing sun of The Thar, I have also felt the warmth and vibrance of the Gujaratis and the Rajasthanis, and while life took me to the far Eastern confines of Assam and the North eastern states, I have experienced the beautiful wilderness of the landscapes, at the same time saw and felt the pain of a region wronged and a people marginalized. As I brought up my children against a changing cultural and geographical terrain, I realized I have become more empathetic, compassionate and appreciative of the differences that mark different people and even began to celebrate them in my poetry and writing. Every little nuance has become a precursor to a new piece in poetry and writing and I won't have it any other way. Work and assignments have brought us to a primitive civilization this time - so for some time we have made Accra in Ghana ( Africa) our home.
Q. How did your storytelling and poetry journey begin? What motivated you to walk this path?
Taseer: Till I started working on poetry as a genre for my doctoral thesis, I largely associated it with the canonical poets as Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron. I didn’t think much of the power and strength of poetry and considered it merely as an aesthetic instrument to beautify language and expression. This was in early college.
And then I worked on the poetry of Adrienne Rich for my doctoral thesis, and to my amazement realized the deep latent strength of poetry – I realized that it is not merely what and how something is said and spelled in poetry, but every little pause and lurking spaces that signify so much more – and it is in this unsaid that poetry becomes stronger that prose and other forms, for it is not as overt...and how emotion trickles down from the same play of words differently for different readers is sheer magic. In fact, Adrienne Rich says about Poetry
~ But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination's roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, ‘There is no alternative.’ ~
“ Legislators of the World ” ( The Guardian)
If you ask me, I started penning poetry only after I had imbibed its essence, which is also after having my first child in the year 2000. And after this, I have continued to fall in love with poetry every single day of my life.
Q. Tell us about some interesting or memorable incidents from your life.
Taseer: When you see life in a wider frame and join the dots in retrospect, every little event or memory seems ineresting. I have beautiful memories of my childhood when all we needed were hot cups of tea on our rather limited terrace to have uninhibited conversations with my parents and siblings. Also moving from place to place has given me an amazing repertoire of events I often knit in my writings, consciously or not so consciously. An example would be a sheer sense of awe I experienced on visiting the Living Roots bridge in Meghalaya - an exercise in sustainable use of resources while embracing the environment. We have so much to learn from our ancient cultures.
Q. What importance does arts and creativity hold in your life? How vital has it become to explore this side of you everyday?
Taseer: For me, art is a way to define and express my own self - my life experiences,perspectives and world views. It empowers me each day of my life by offering me fresh insights and overviews. Though art is a skill, it is not an artifice,but a natural extension of myself. Creativity is a hammer and a gift to chisel my artistic skills and the more passionately I learn to use it , the more sharp and deep the result will be. So creativity is also an added dimension to my art.
In the context of exploring the artistic and creative in everyday life, it has become a deep hunger of the spirit now - from as small a thing as putting together an ensemble for my daughter, or taking out the porcelain for my special guests, to bigger observations as Period architechture when I am travelling, to various art forms in my reading and writing, it is all a one organic activity to satiate the deep hunger of my mind and spirit. Its long since the dance and the dancer have become one as W. B. Yeats had observed in his poem "Among School children"
Smeetha: It's the oxygen I breathe !
Q. Talk to us about your growing years and your home. How did all this influence your writing?
Taseer: My father was a professor of psychology - a visionary ahead of his times. Mother had studied Punjabi literature and would often talk about scholars and litterateurs. We dint socialize much and lived in our own little world abounding in freewheeling conversations on art, literature, politics, sociology and anything that interested us. We were together and content in our little world. Life was simple, demands were few. Little things cheered us. The love for reading and nature seeped deep into my conciousness from thereon and impacted my poetry and writing in various ways.
Smeetha: My poetic journey is an extension of my art, a natural and inevitable consequence that seems preordained. My art and poetry fuel each other.
Life around me is interesting, exciting & adventurous most of the time, so my life feels like a collage of their collection, quite impossible to put down every notable moment here !
I grew up in a beautiful home with a garden where my absent minded professor father pottered around his rose bushes in true Wodehousian style, hampered in his efforts by flying dachshunds or inscrutable cats who chewed up his roses, or jumped at him from fridge-tops...while his post-graduate students lurked around corners as he tried to go to the weekend movie on campus and they got him back home with their thesis, not budging before dinner time.
My brother and I looked straight at him smiling as we met him coming down the road from his department, he looked blankly at us without recognition, lost in thought, in a reverie of his latest hypothesis/ equation/construct. Mother pasted stickers with important urgent requirements on his back, so that his students could remind him about them. And they unobtrusively got it off his back too, oh how they loved him ! In the evenings they stood around in circles, going round & round slowly as they chatted about everything in the universe, shared cigarettes in hand. The junior most undergraduate to the seniormost professor, and everyone in between.
Mother, Ma, an erudite, intelligent, gorgeously humorous, even-tempered, kind, generous, creative writer, home-maker, devoted mother of two, unparalleled human on earth. She gave us everything. My poetry, my art.
Q. What role has your family played in your writing career?
Taseer: My father was a visionary and a professor of psychology, and my mother studied Punjabi literature. Together, they gave us a very strong value system and always motivated and encouraged us to chart our own course in life, to never be scared of being our own selves and to have an unfaltering belief in our capacities and ideas. Largely, it is my parents and some people like my teachers in school and college too, who have inspired me with their commitment, dignity and elegance. Then there are books, places and nature, in all its vastness of heart and spirit –that I find inspiring.
Q. What is your writing process, a typical writing day routine?
Taseer: I really do not claim to have a process for poetry is not written like prose.I do scribble words, phrases and observations in my journal and when a moment strikes, it all comes together in the garb of a poem....a particular piece might be written in some minutes, hours or even days.
My day usually begins with meditation, a brisk walk, tea , music and then lots of reading during the course of the day. I am still trying to get used to my kindle. I try to include healthy meals and conversations with my daughter. We try to identify the new plants and birds we see in Accra ( Africa) these days. Some toucans and hornbills are a new reward for our efforts.
Q. Do you remember the first story or poem you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
Taseer: It was some sort of a poetic dialogue between the spirit and the inner devil. I was reading Dr. Faustus those days and was heavily fascinated by his character and that of Mephistopheles. It was published in the university journal and I was raised to be the Secretary of the literary Society.
Smeetha: "Durbal ka raksha karna balwan ka dharm hai...."
Hindi class in primary school. Wrote this when asked to write a doha, I shared what Ma had said.
Q. What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
Taseer: I haven't still tried book marketing.
Smeetha: Word of mouth works, as do great reviews.
Q. What do you think makes a book sell, or makes a reader buy it?
Taseer: I think the writer's total commitment to the subject they are writing on and their engagement with the reader to a certain extent too. Of course different genres have different strengths - research, a tight plot, weave of words, credibility and a good resolution make for good writing.Smeetha: Emotional appeal that he/she connects to, or the hype around a book created by exceptional recognition.
Q. What’s the most moving or affecting thing a reader has said to you?
Taseer: A reader once told me she would be the first person to buy and read my anthology when it comes out, and that she can't wait for it.
Q. What are your favourite three books, and why?
Taseer: Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Amitav Ghosh'sThe Hungry Tide, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and many more.
Q. Who are your favourite three authors and what do you like the most about them?
Taseer: Three is so very limiting - Forough farokhzad for her raw,visceral poetry, Adrienne Rich for her poems and scintillating prose, Amitav Ghosh for his vast deep canvas and characters, Agha Shahid Ali, K Satchidanandan, Ismat Chugtai,Amrita Pritam and a host of others. Please dont limit me here.
Q. Tell us about the other books or poetry that you have published.
Taseer: Some of my published works appear in The Sunflower Collective, Coldnoon Diaries, Muse India, Kashmir Lit, Life and Legends, Open Road Review, E3W Literature, Destiny to Write anthologies and Indian Express. I have also been shortlisted as one of the Contemporary Indian English Poets in Muse India by the distinguished writer prof. GVJ Prasad and my poems have found a pride of a place in that issue.
Q. What are you working on next? Any writing projects which are work-in-progress?
Taseer: Working on my first anthology of poems.
Q. Tell us about your publishing journey and what all was involved in it?
Taseer: When the time comes.
Q. What challenges do you think are faced by writers, what’s the worst thing about the book industry according to you?
Taseer: These are daunting times. Everyone is writing or is in the process of writing a book. Mediocrity thrives. Readers are few. Though mediums like self-publishing democratize writing to some extent, good talent is often compromised or not even offered a chance to come out. There are coteries of writers in big cities and a lot of groupism, one-upmanship and politics ensues even here- all at the cost of good writing. It can be a very sad situation sometimes.
Q. What all other than writing and poetry form an important part of your life?
Taseer: Nature has always been a very inspiring force in my life - the moment I dissociate myself from the natural world, I notice a split, a rupture, a darkness in my own being. I have to be near the world of trees, plants , birds and scapes in order to create.
Q. What message do you want to share with budding writers?
Taseer: Read, read and read...writing will come if you have it in you.
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