Asha Viswas is a former professor of English, Banares Hindu University, Varanasi. She has published three collections of poetry, five books of criticism besides numerous papers on diverse topics. Her volumes of poetry Melting Memories (1996) won Michael Madhusudan Academy award, Mortgaged Moorings (2001) got Editors Choice award by the International library of poetry, U.S.A. and The Rainbow cave and Other Poems (2011) won critical acclaim.
T.S.Chandra Mouli: How and when did you get into poetry?
Asha Viswas: I wrote my first poem when I was in Class XI. It was published in the college magazine.I think my two elder sisters made me a poet. I was the youngest of the four daughters and there was a lot of difference in our ages. As I was excluded from their games and teen-age talks, I went into my own shell, weaving a poetic world of my own. The childhood loneliness and a sense of alienation has never left me. Without my sisters I would have never got this itch for poetry writing.
At college level I wrote some short stories too. I wrote a number of poems while at the university but never showed them to anyone. It was only in 1981 when I was working at the University of Calabar, Nigeria that a colleague, Robert Meredith from Harvard University, U.S.A. read some of these poems and encouraged me to publish them. I felt the poems were too personal and there was this fear of rejection. It was only in 1996 that I published my first collection Melting Memories. Fortunately, it was very well received.
Please tell us something about your childhood and your studies.
After my father left the army and became a Civil Engineer, we moved from one small place to the other in western U.P. There were no good schools. All of us studied at home. In my childhood I attended one Hindi medium school for a couple of months. It was my mother who taught me English at home. She had immense love for literature and had a passion for drawing and painting. My father was a scholar of Arabic, Persian and of English. From him I learned to read and write Urdu. My father wrote some short stories in English. I inherited my mother’s emotional and hypersensitive nature and my father’s love for literature and flair for language learning. In 1980, we settled at Aligarh for our education. My entire college and university education was at Aligarh and Hyderabad.
What perceptible influences are there on your poetry?
Shopping around the literary world I found something hypnotic in all the Romantic poets. My allegiance to Shelley, Keats and Coleridge has not changed. I was delighted and intrigued by William Blake when I taught his poems for fourteen years at B.H.U. In between Tennyson and Browning also seized me. I am a tremendous admirer of Auden, Yeats and Eliot. Amongst the Australian poets I love David Malouf, and John Tranter. I read many African and French poets during my four years stay in Nigeria. I am acquainted with some Russian and Spanish poets too. It is for the readers of my poetry to discern influence of any particular poet on my poetry.
Do you feel social consciousness or ideological approach is necessary for a poet?
I still believe that a poet should be guided by inner convictions and should aim at aestheticism. A poet should try to be a poet first and should not build his/her web with lies and propaganda. However, contemporary issues cannot be ignored. Though the boundaries between the self and the outside world cease to exist only when one is dead, yet a poet should go beyond the ‘I’ to push back the boundaries. My third collection of poems has more social awareness than its two predecessors. In “History’s Horizon” and “Myopic Sight” there is a sensitive description of the existence of the poor people. In both the poems opposing social classes are presented from the point of view of the oppressed. “The Ganges Grumbles” can be read from the angle of eco-criticism.
What are the recurring themes and images in your poetry?
In my poetry love is a recurring theme – I would call it love for love as Shelly said – “I love love”. Love takes different ‘Avtaras’ – it is love for my mother whom I lost in 1986. It is always presented as love in separation. It is only in separation that one knows its profoundness in all its dimensions. There is no physical love, it is a spiritual, unworldly longing. I write a lot about nature. That is my second love. Nature helps to “obliterate the ‘I’. The vast spaces of nature make you feel so small. That is why perhaps there is lot of water imagery in my poems. For drawing one’s images, one has just to look around. They are all there. I have written a number of poems on terrorism. The themes of my poems are universal – love, death, existence, suffering, hopes and desires etc.
What drives you to write poetry and what does poetry mean to you?
For me poetry is the voice of one’s dreams, a vehicle to explore the chaotic subconscious. For me a poem should be thought-provoking, written in a language which should not be flowery. In the secrecy of poetry one can write one’s autobiography as Hardy said. But this autobiography should be wrapped carefully. Poetry unearths our emotional existence. It reinvents the common-place to create something new. There is always this fear of “time’s winged chariot hurrying” – the fear that moments are slipping away from our grasp and these need to be saved in poetry. I love poems that express the true feelings of a poet. Eliot said – “A poem may communicate before it is understood.”
Do you feel poetry festivals or ‘meets’ promote poetic creativity? Are they relevant at all?
It is encouraging to have an audience. A poet writes to express the inner self, yet he/she always yearns to be heard. The Jaipur and Hyderabad literary festivals draw a number of literature lovers because some great writers are invited. We can meet them, learn a few tips for writing.
What is the present poetry scenario?
Opposing the no-poetry after Auschwitz syndrome, there is more reason now to write poetry. We have, in India concrete poetry, lesbian poetry, gay poetry, feminist poetry, situationist poetry, Marxist poetry, Chinese and Japanese poetry. For the small place poets the web is changing things a bit but there is no help from the established ‘Lords’. The present day scene appears fragmented. The small place poet feels this anxiety of disappearing in the crowd. Instead of shared attitudes, there are group affinities.
Did your professorship ever come in the way of your poetry?
See, poetry has its moments and poetic glimpses suddenly emerge from somewhere. There is no fixed time for their visit but teaching is every day work. You have to read a lot to teach. That way poetry quietly waits. Supervising Ph.D. scholars’ work takes a lot of time too. Now I get more time to cater to my creativity.
What is your message for the budding poets?
For the younger generation there is an excess of influence of television, films, magazines and news-papers. They need an artistic response to this shaping factor. A writer works in a specific intellectual, social and political ambience. He cannot ignore contemporary issues for a long time. It does not, however, mean that a poet should become a mere reporter of all that is happening around him.
Thanks, for your time and sharing your invaluable views with us, ma'am.