Thank you, Vinita, for giving me the opportunity of an interview with you. Congratulations on your fifth book of poems ‘Twilight Language,’ with its attractive cover, and congratulations on winning the Proverse Prize for your beautiful book. It was my mother who first inspired me to love the beauty of twilight, and I published a poem, ‘Saying Twilight in Two Languages,’ dedicated to her. Each day, she would ask me to turn on our house lights as the period of twilight commenced. It almost became somewhat of a tradition. To this day, I faithfully follow the practice of turning on the lights as the sky changes to those spectacular colors of twilight. Your book deals with twilight as the language of grief. I am intrigued by the title and treatment of the language of twilight in your book, which leads me to my first question:
In the author’s note to your book, you mention that ‘Twilight Language is a book length collection of poems. It derives its name from the polysemic language and communication system of ancient India. Literally speaking, it is crepuscular — looking at dimness.’ Could you elaborate on how your title reflects the theme of ‘dimness.’
Ever since the pandemic has happened, we – as in, the entire world – seem to be living in an era of unprecedented sorrow and struggle. Who could have predicted that a time would come when we as a collective, would endure a global disease with devastating consequences, that we’d be battling a catastrophic virus, that we’d face the loss of loved ones on a scale far greater than all the wars put together. If this isn’t dimness, what is? Compound this grim atmosphere with the very real climate crisis, and the picture looks even bleaker. My collection of poems, ‘Twilight Language,’ attempts to address this very real crisis that confronts us today. The impact of Covid might seem mitigated but we’ve far from seen the back of it yet, because of all the new strains and variants that crop up at regular intervals.
Can you tell us about the Proverse Prize, its origins, the criteria for this award, and perhaps share the citation you received along with the award? This award is added to the long list of accolades for your poetry and is so well deserved. Share with us, some of those as well, if you may.
The establishment of the Proverse Prize was announced in 2008 at The Proverse Prize Dinner, held in Hong Kong, and entries were received for the first competition in the summer of 2009. As of June 2022, eight women and eleven men have won or shared the Prize. The Prize carries a citation of ten thousand Hongkong Dollars and publication of the book. Gillian Bickley, and her husband Verner Bickley, the co-founders and co-directors of the Proverse Prize have done a brilliant job of taking the prize forward year after year. I feel particularly honored and humbled at winning the prize this year. This year, the prize was given to a novel by Dami Jung from Korea, and to my poetry collection, ‘Twilight Language.’ We shared the prize money equally.
I must mention here that Team Proverse works meticulously in editing the poet’s manuscript, chisels it and polishes it really hard, to make it ready for publication. I’m grateful to them for the painstaking attention they gave ‘Twilight Language.’ Regarding the other awards that have come my way, at the risk of sounding immodest, may I mention that I won the Rabindranath Tagore Literary prize in 2018, the Gayatri GaMarsh Prize in 2015, the Chicago Tall Grass Writer’s Guild prize for my poem ‘Gift,’ on the theme of the moon, the Architectural Poetry Competition, 3rd Cycle, a couple of prizes from the Hour of Writes, and a few others in my long journey with poetry, spanning two decades.
In the author’s note you also mention that, ‘The book is a conduit of hope and a better tomorrow; a visage of the poet’s experiences in this vast universe we all inhabit; The poems will help the reader recognize their own distinct connection with the earth and establish a practice of deep listening to nature.’ I am struck by your sincere desire for all mankind to find hope, through your poems. In the light of your statement, could you shed more light on how you wish the poems in your book to bring hope to human beings. Please share some examples for readers. Also, in the context of hope, could you explain what you mean by the phrase ‘deep listening to nature.’
Thank you for this beautiful question, Kavita. Hope, in any context, comes first and foremost by appreciating what we have. If we respect the bounty around us, we will perhaps safeguard it. Hope is embedded in the desire to preserve our precious gifts. We hope that we will not lose our treasures. My poems are a humble attempt to expose that beauty, expose the gifts of nature, the kingdom of trees, the splendor of planet earth and, above all, the sheer marvel of being alive. When poetry creates awareness of the capitals of life, it simultaneously generates hope that one will not allow that capital to drain away. So, my poems work in subtle ways to provide that nudge of appreciation and thereby sensitize readers towards preserving what is to be cherished.
The rustling heap of leaves,
yellow and brown
discuss the greens they wore in summer
In the book – the dry leaf.
I stare at its hardened veins
reckoning years of thirst.
On the tree
leaves croon birds to sleep
the moon too lulled to a sickle by the murmur.
For every leaf that falls
a memory is pressed
into the withered bark of time.
‘Deep listening to nature’ is a phrase I love. It means being truly, richly and essentially, aware of the natural world – tiny insects, wildflowers, the sky, the ground beneath your feet, the fruits gemming the trees, the breeze on your face, the silken touch of water… just everything! It’s about synchronizing your energy, your Prana with your surroundings. This harmony, this integration should not be done overtly. You shouldn’t be deliberately exclaiming at the wonders around you. Rather you should take them in silently, purely with every breath, registering with every fiber of your being, how splendid, how miraculous, these phenomena are.
When I was about seven years old, I had two drawers in my cupboard dedicated to all the stones and shells that I’d collected in my forays into nature. I’m grateful to my mother who allowed me these indulgences and did not think of them as trash. I say this because those were the years that laid the foundation of my deep connect with nature. It has stood me in good stead. Now, whenever I need solace or inspiration or counselling, nature provides it for me. Nature and everything that is natural, is a great life coach, trainer and psychiatrist. Even the harsher aspects of nature like earthquakes, tsunamis and floods have important lessons hidden in their occurrence. It may seem brutal to say this, but it’s true. If we don’t learn our lessons now we have nothing left to bequeath the forthcoming generations – the children of our children.
There are so many moving and relatable poems in this book, and I certainly have mine; too many to name. I will say though that ‘Fathers are Like Autumn Trees’ and ‘Mumbai’, are the top contenders for me. I wonder if you have any poems that were more meaningful to you, and perhaps, some that you enjoyed writing more than others. Please share some poems, or even lines from poems that are special to you.
Thank you for naming those two poems. ‘Fathers are like Autumn Trees’ is rather special to me too. Like you Kavita, I too shared a rather special bond with my dad. It’s easy for me to write father and mother poems. They seep out of my pen almost effortlessly.
That said, for a poet, all the poems they write endear themselves to the poet in one way or the other. However if were to choose a couple from ‘Twilight Language,’ then perhaps I’d enlist these two:
Trees have Always Spoken to Me
of the mica of loved ones buried in soil.
of rivers palpitating underground.
of the aching, tired bones of animals and insects
of lost childhood, erasures and loss
of unmet prayers and apocalyptic days
of frail roots that struggle to keep leaves green.
They speak of woodpeckers
Who’ve hammered patterns on its crinkly bark
like intricate, wooden block prints,
of crows who’ve built nests in its Y-branches
parakeets who’ve roosted in its hollows
and made it feel like a Grandpa.
Trees speak to me of touch.
Turning and turning in an ever widening gyre
trees speak of another year of rain
recorded by a ring.
The sun’s sightless knuckles kneading
life into its phloem
murmuring, it is equally sweet to laugh or cry.
At any point in time,
its arbor restful, limbs within limbs.
The antithesis of darkness
synonym for joy.
What shines in pupils—
what escapes the clouds.
A luminescent sword
splitting blackness in two.
Queen’s necklace on marine drive,
barely a bead in Dharavi.
Abha and Anwar in two tongues,
one common lamp keeping faith alive.
Blazing orb in the sky
leaves sipping yellow to turn green.
Roaring fireplace, warm cottage
intimacy the color of a fluttering Monarch.
The end of the tunnel sought in meditation
the burst that blinds the eyes, if seen.
The inferno of a pyre,
a criss-cross of logs. Ghee and mashaal.
Light—a five-letter word
jarring the five letters of death.
Dharavi—the sprawling slums of Mumbai
Mashaal— torch with high flames
It is interesting that you have placed this quotation directly above the author’s note. What is the significance of these words?
Snake: “Nothing is lost.
We still serve, in ways you can only see
through your heart. When an animal or a people
become extinct, they serve as ancestors.
… [T]heir participation is still woven into
Life‘s inner fabric.”
Andrea Mathieson, The Book of Snake, 2021
The epigraph that you mention led to a rather interesting anecdote. Team Proverse requested that I take permission from Andrea Mathieson before using those lines in my book. So I wrote to her and received a warm and generous response from her, granting permission to use the extract from her Book of Snake. In fact, we continued to correspond and have struck up a friendship. She lives in Canada, and is extraordinarily self-aware. ‘The Book of Snake’ is a book about listening to one’s soul and communing with nature. So, I have a natural affinity towards her and the way she thinks.
Regarding the meaning of those lines, it’s a message to humanity about the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything on earth. Even the animals that we’ve allowed to go extinct, live on as our ancestors and co-habitants of our planet. That is the beauty of the tapestry of life: the art of interiorizing all of creation into our spirit, our soul, our consciousness – call it what you will.
I observed in your small but significant note, ‘In Gratitude,’ that you mentioned a number of fellow poets you wanted to thank. I was particularly delighted to read your acknowledgement and inclusion of the wider community of writers. I wonder if you could tell why it was important for you to express your gratitude to other poets.
Gratitude is very important, Kavita. Even though writing poetry is an act done in solitude, the canvas of our life as a poet is enriched by the presence of other poets. People who’ve taught us something about the craft – consciously or through inspiration, folks whose work we look up to and admire, fellow poets who provide a platform for our work, who afford a space to our voice, colleagues who applaud even the tiniest bit of good work we might have done, who encourage and support us through thick and thin. Those are the things that nourish a writer. How can one not be grateful for these people in one’s life? I’m deeply thankful to all the names that I’ve mentioned in my book and many more besides. If it wasn’t for my friends and colleagues, my work would be severely stunted.
I read from one of your posts that it is customary to make an acceptance speech for receiving the Proverse Prize, and that it has almost become a tradition. Could you share some highlights from your speech.
I have to admit that I took the task of writing my acceptance speech quite seriously. The tradition of making an acceptance speech for Proverse gave me an opportunity to take a top view of my voyage as a poet. It gave me the chance to sum up things, as it were. It felt really nice to share who I was as a person. What had made me who I was? You could say it provided me the chance to bare my heart before the readers. I tremendously enjoyed recording the speech. Here’s a small excerpt that I’d like to share with you:
Last but not least, I’d like to say here that, as poets, we’re constantly searching for answers to the questions swirling around us. Even if we don’t find the answers, we’re compelled at least to write about things with honesty and gumption in the hope of having addressed them somehow. Because poetry as an art, is in the end, looking for what is lost. In my book too, the poems address the worldwide disorientation of the past couple of years in multiple ways. And I sincerely hope that you as a reader, will find solace from my poems and courage from my words. I sincerely hope that my collection will address, at least partially, your concerns with the issues plaguing our times.
Once again, Vinita, I would like to thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions about your book. I am sure your book will have pride of place on the bookshelves of poetry lovers all over the world. I wish you all the best for your future endeavors.
Thank you so much, dear Kavita. Your questions were gracious and sensitive, and I deeply appreciate your warm resonance with my poetry. I hope we meet soon. Thank you so much for reading my collection and asking me these extraordinarily nurturing questions.
Note: Book of Snake by Andrea Mathieson: Her book is based upon sixty shamanic meditations as well as a lifetime of dreams and real encounters with snakes at numinous moments in Andrea’s life. The Book of Snake alters how you experience your own life-energy along with your perceptions of the world.
Vinita Agrawal is an award-winning poet. Her books of poems include Twilight Language / The Natural Language of Grief, Two Full Moons, Words Not Spoken, The Longest Pleasure, The Silk Of Hunger. She has edited The Yearbook of Indian Poetry in English, and Open Your Eyes, an anthology on Climate Change. She is the Poetry Editor at the Usawa Literary Review. www.vinitawords.com
Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca was born and raised in Bombay. Her first book of poems, 'Family Sunday and other Poems', was published in 1989. Her poem ‘How to Light up a Poem', was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. ‘Light of The Sabbath’ is her recently published chapbook. She has taught English, French and Spanish, in private schools in India and overseas, for over four decades. Her poems have been published in several anthologies, including the Journal of Indian Literature published by The Sahitya Akademi. She holds a master’s degree in English and American Literature, and a master’s degree in Education