Interview with Poet Akhil Katyal

The Delhi-based poet sits down with Culture Stories, discussing creativity, academia and his latest collection 'Night Charge Extra'

Culture Stories: So Akhil Katyal, you’re an academic as well as a poet! Were you working on creative endeavours during your PhD? Or is that something that came about later? Why did you chose to focus on your poetry?

Akhil Katyal: Poetry cut across my PhD; it was there before, through, and after. But the PhD did twist and hopefully sharpen it, in substantial measure, gave it new content, but also, more importantly, owed its own timely finish to the fact that poetry was being written alongside during those years.

The few hundred words of the poems in those three years held the hundred thousand of the PhD afloat. If it were not for the poems then, for the succour they gave, for the explanations they tendered of my then often dramatic and distraught states of being, and for their warmth, the PhD would have bumbled on for years.   

CS: Can you say more about your creative process? How do you work an idea through to its end – and how do you record your ideas when inspiration strikes (as notes to pursue later, or do ideas come fully formed – in sentences even or stanzas?)

AK: Poems often start with a sentence that strikes you, or a half-sentence, a phrase that encapsulates an entire mood. The rest of the poem is often, if not always, written to fill up the space of that mood, to give it depth and dimension, to give it a shape that you and others can recognize.

And the inspiration for that half-sentence is everywhere, eclectically found in all sorts of worlds – it’s often in other poets (Rafeef Ziadah on hope, W.H. Auden on love, Agha Shahid Ali on loss), many times it’s in cinema (Varun Grover on the beautiful, Emma ‘Vivian Bearing’ Thompson on the impossible, Gustavo Santaolalla on stillness), it’s in conversation with friends and lovers (K.N., A.D.G., T.V.), it’s in long late-night walks (on the Moolchand Marg, near King’s Cross, or at the Regent’s Canal) – that half-sentence, that phrase, that mood is often the immediate residue of the encounter with these many kinds of signals, spaces and people.

If I don’t immediately make a poem out of that clue, if it doesn’t happen that very evening, I often note it down on this stray notepad file on my desktop, and usually return to it that week, and certainly, at some point that year.

That is how it happens, for me, at any rate.   

CS: How do you feel your creative process plays a part in your thematic interests and vice versa? Speaking of process, is there a part of the academic process that lends itself to writing poetry for you?

AK: So in this poem ‘The Hindus never ate beef,’ where I try and make fun of that ridiculous claim current among the Hindu right-wingers in India – a claim that is simply untrue if you look at our history, through a perspective that is not already marinated in casteist and communal bile – in that poem, I rely on the research, most especially the painstaking work of B.R. Ambedkar, one of the most important political figures of the last century and an incredible scholar, and of another writer Ram Puniyani. I read their work extensively and precipitated their findings into a poem. I found that the loud-poem form, the propaganda-poem, the form we know in Rafeef Ziadah and Namdeo Dhasal, as against the softer lyric, was then particularly effective for sharing my opinions on this important ‘issue’ of beef eating in India. How most of us in the subcontinent always ate it. So here, academic research and a political engagement with the world through a particular poetic form combined quite seamlessly.

That often happens (or at least I want it to happen) in the poems I write, one’s that emerge only after you dip into an archive of one sort or the other – ‘Indus, 3180km‘ came after going through the oral testimonials of the Siachen soldiers, ‘The Peace has returned to the valley‘ after going through the local Kashmiri reportage on the events in the valley, ‘Some Letters of Indian Soldiers at World War One,’ after going through the British Library stash of those historic and poignant letters that the Indian soldiers wrote back from the trenches of Europe. These poems require that ‘academic’ work, even as that academic work often finds a suitable expression, a desired form in those poems.



Photo by Vipin Choudhary  

CS: Do you have phases where your interest is drawn to a particular  issue or set of issues? In that case, how have the themes you’ve chosen to address over the years changed or matured? How do you separate the academic from the creative? Do you try to?

AK: My poems have gone from incredibly self-indulgent juvenilia to a point where the rest of the world also exists in them. That took its time, and that form was arrived at, over years, only once I gained more confidence with the language, English or Hindi-Urdu, and also, once the kinds of experiences that my twenties threw me into, made it necessary.

There was a time when I could write little else than fawning verse, much, I imagine, to the chagrin of my then boyfriend. But at that time, only that kind of verse made sense to me, only that kind of verse – dipped in honey, soaked in love – was kind to me, it lit the horizon of all that I could think and write. And once that relationship went, the world came shattering in to take its place, never fully, yes, always coexisting with his memories, yes, very abruptly, yes, but quite, quite irrevocably.

And love and loss has remained since, the mainstay of my verse, often schmaltzy, but also often, I am told, not altogether bad. And lately I have found that my poems have stopped distinguishing between that which is love-and-loss at my doorstep and the love-and-loss that reaches me through the stories not immediately mine. I have latched onto this change, this alleged expansion of themes, it grounds me in my world, and gives me anchor, after love. I have a fuller relationship with my times with poems such as this. I find myself in a more responsive, more alive connection with my part of the world with poems such as this, whether they are the ones on the Hindu right-wing ascendance, on Delhi, on Kashmir, on sexuality, on Gaza, on cities and neighbourhoods, on war, on migration or on illness. Or on love.        

CS: What role does format play in your poetry? You use many different formats in this collection. How do you see format as a part of the creative piece?

AK: Form is everything. It transforms the world from the dust-bin for your self-indulgence into the vessel for your emotions. It is often the difference between the sentimental and the searing.

Agha Shahid Ali, one of the poets I admire most, said that form came to his aid when the subject matter – whether the losses in Kashmir in the 90s, or the death of his mother – became too big for him, too big for his poems. At that time, form allowed him to find habitus in his own words. It gave him both restraint and eloquence, in fact the eloquence was premised on the restraint that the form gave him.

Whether it is the rhymed couplets of the ghazal, the five repeating end-words of the 65 line canzone, the return-flourishes of the villanelle, all of it gave him the skeleton on which the flesh of his pain could be mounted.

Form, which often comes with rules of rhymes and repetitions, might seem initially like something which binds you, but always in its practice, it isn’t so, each of its ‘requirements’ become opportunities, each of its limits become launch-pads. The will to repeat in the canzone or the sestina forces you to think through your state of emotion, the need of the radif and the kaafiya in the ghazal takes you to newer worlds precisely in finding that elusive right rhyme. This is why form has always been fascinating to me, and often the vehicle through which I send my words out.     

CS: In addition to writing your own poetry, you translate poems from Hindi to English. How do different linguistic registers or sensibilities come to play – or not – in your work? What are the pros and cons in working in multiple languages?

AK: There are only pros. What could be the cons of a world that is given to us in numerous ways, rather than as a tyranny of the singular. In my part of the world, we all are at least good bilinguals, so-so trilinguals and amateur polyglots, we all are. My city Delhi speaks in at least four languages, mainly, and forty, if I start counting all the words I hear on the streets.

As years passed, I realized I have to write for this world, for cities like this, rather than for an imagined purism of an audience that exists nowhere. This is the sort of world I grew up in, this is the world I’d hate to see narrowing. Translations allowed me to be honest to the world that anyway exists only in translation, only between languages rather than with any one of them. And at the worst of times, translation checks cultural arrogance, especially relevant for the times in which folks will kill and ban to safeguard ‘Indian culture’. Translations contaminate the world, which is to say, make it really liveable.

I can’t tell you the magic of Langston Hughes in Hindi, the hilarity and pathos of Dorothy Parker in Punjabi (one of my students Tarun Thapar did that!), the stunning stillness of Mangalesh Dabral, or the full-bodied sensuality and longing of Amrita Pritam, in English. And it’s the same with forms my friend and colleague ADG’s work tells me about the sonnet going from Italian to English and the ghazal going from Urdu-Hindi to English. And English is that much better, that much roomier for that. That’s true of all languages, translations make them roomier, allow them to constantly change shape, that is, keeps them alive.    

CS: Are there turns of phrase that are imported into the English language in your poems (from Hindi, Urdu or other languages that you speak)?

AK: There is a poem about the neighbourhood I live in in Delhi – ‘Near Eros Cinema, Jangpura Extension‘ – where a little bit of Hindi-Urdu and French jostle with each other in the crucible of English. That is truer to how I hear my neighbourhood, how it sounds to me. To the rickshaw-guy from Bihar, for that matter, English and Punjabi words will jostle with each other in the crucible of Bhojpuri-Hindi. To a French guy working in the embassy and renting a house here, a different combination will form his template of the world.

That orgy of languages, that sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly reaches the poems, was as true of Delhi as it was of London, whether when I lived in Stoke Newington or in King’s Cross. Other than the poems such as this, I think a definitely Urdu-Hindi sensibility affects the English ghazals I write, which comes to me via a much sharper and more capacious voice of Agha Shahid Ali, who himself came to it through Ghalib, Faiz and Mir.

There are two ways to understand this – one which works, one which doesn’t. The one which doesn’t is to say that the English that I use is simply peppered with other languages. That’s bunkum and damn patronizing for any language other than English. The one which works is to say that my English itself is transformed once the other languages have made room in it, once they have always-already made room in it, once I come to the realization that there is no English that I could use or do use outside these other languages to begin with. That’s as true for Hindu-Urdu, and so one continues to invite a Jackie Kay, or an Emily Dickinson or a Dorothy Parker into Hindi-Urdu, even as you take Mangalesh Dabral, Om Prakash Valmiki, Dushyant Kumar or Amrita Pritam into English. You make room for yourself in those languages, and in turn, for those languages in yourself.        

CS: There is quite a lot of memory at play in your work. What role does temporality, memory or nostalgia play in your poetry? Who or what has inspired you to take on this thematic interest?

AK: I don’t know if it ever presented itself quite as formally as a ‘thematic interest’ to be voluntarily taken up or not taken up, as much as it was matter of emotional survival, that told me that if I did not speak to those memories, that if I were not putty in their hands for those several years, I’d sooner be cinder and ash.

Memory allowed me to meet my friend and teacher who’d passed away, it allowed me to apologize to a past lover for my excesses, it allowed me to go to cities and streets far away, to forgive or to be forgiven. Other than saying this, I can only say that the preponderance of memory, time and loss in my poems has hopefully got sharpened by reading other poets who work with the similar ‘themes’ whether it is Agha Shahid Ali, W.H. Auden, Mark Doty, Vikramaditya Sahai or Dorothy Parker.  

CS: How do you understand place with respect to your poems? In using specific geographic reference points, what do you hope for your reader to understand?

AK: It grounds the poem. It does not pretend that the abstraction of thought one has arrived at, the emotional locus one has reached, or the clusterfuck of affect that one is trying to live out, is a thing independent from the very material, very ordinary or extraordinary, things, happening around you. The most relatable effect is created via the encounter with the specific, not in the banal crucible of the so-called universal. There is no universal that is not always-already arrived at through the relationship with the immediate, whether it is a Delhi flyover where you had that sinking feeling, or a London canal where you walked in love, whether it’s a PM whose 56 inch chest spells doom or a Tory swine who likes the sound of his own voice, whether it’s that street where someone particular was assaulted, or that bus-stop where you bumped into someone for the last time. Love, loss, time and beauty all walk on earth, their feet firmly planted to the ground. So you have to begin from there. The lyrical is not beyond the place, it sits in it.

CS: You dedicate and reference people in your work, is that for you, for the people you are speaking about, or for the reader? What is the reaction you have or want to get from these dedications or references?

AK: Those dedications are often acknowledgements, someone wrote something which became the starting point of the poem, so it is a hat-tip to them, someone said something, or performed it on stage, that  then formed the very axis of the poem, so you express gratitude to them, someone let something roll off their tongues during an ordinary conversation and it made your knees go soft, so they have to be there in the dedication, the poem would have been impossible without them. These are often people I know, just as often those I don’t know, some that I will never know, and several who will never read it. But they need to be acknowledged. Whether Mir Taqi Mir, Agha Shahid Ali, Parveen Shakir, Lalita Subbu, Avtar Singh Sandhu ‘Pash’, Dorothy Parker or Dushyant Kumar. To those I know, whether my rock Anannya Dasgupta, my chum Vanshika Sahni, my go-to-guy-for-everything Vaibhav Iype Parel, or the lovely, lovely K.N., of course, that acknowledgement is also a gift, I think (and hope) that they love it and I love it that they love it.        

CS: How have friends, family, and the larger academic and creative communities responded to your work? How has that made you feel as a poet? As a person?

AK: It’s an incredible feeling. Five of my absolutely favourite Delhi poets, for instance – Aditi Rao, Anannya Dasgupta, Rene Sharanya Verma, Vikramaditya Sahai and Aditi Nagrath – agreed to read their works along with me at my book launch. I was damn kicked about it. You could see happiness pinking my nails that evening. It grounded me in this city, with its poets and performers. It gave us that shared narrative of the city, and of poetry in it. There was so much joy and generosity in the jugalbandi they did that evening and it felt amazing. The response has been lovely, I could scarcely have asked for anything else. Also, my mother, Sunita Katyal, who is also a poet, has made it a point to announce the arrival of the book to everyone she meets. I can live with that.

CS: Is there anything you would like to add about your work, process, inspiration, or anything else?

AK: I think I’ve said enough, no!?

If you feel that Akhil Katyal hasn't said enough, find out more here, or read some of his poetry and listen to a recording of his poems here.