Literary Shelf

Anita Nahal's Story Through Her Books

What’s Wrong With us Kali Women? Prose Poems (2021),
Kisses at the Espresso Bar, Ekphrastic Prose Poems (2022)
Hey, Spilt Milk Is Spilt, Nothing Else (2018)

Initially, I came to know Anita through our association in Confluence, and now several years later, I know her through her writings, vision, and leadership skills. I am a proud owner of most of her books. I wrote a review of her previous book, Hey Split Milk is Split, Nothing Else, published in Confluence UK.

MM: Anita, I am pretty intrigued by the title you choose for your books, including the previous book Hey Split Milk Is Split, Nothing Else, What’s Wrong With US Kali Women? and Kisses at the Espresso Bar – where do you get your ideas or inspirations for such riveting titles?

AN: Hello Meenakshi, thank you so much for this interview and thank you for your compliment and this interesting question! Like many writers, I think deciding on titles for poems (or any kind of writing) and books can be both fascinating and challenging.

I take into consideration the perception and effectiveness a title may convey. And what is the intent of the messages of my poetry? I also factor in the appeal of the title to the readers. One wants to make the title attractive enough so people would like to buy and read the book, however, also be true to the missive of one’s writing.

I chose Hey Spilt Milk Is Spilt, Nothing Else for my 2018 second book of poetry because I thought it epitomized feelings, emotions, and experiences that I or others had gone through over the last 30 years since my first book of poetry Initiations was published in 1988. I believe in life most things are like spilt milk… cannot be retrieved, taken back, or picked up, in which case, it’s best to let go and move on. There is no benefit to anyone from mulling over things gone by. Instead, it’s more fruitful to employ those as lessons learnt.

By the time I wrote my third poetry book, What’s wrong with us Kali women? (2021) I wanted to express more intrinsically and vociferously about injustices in this world, which is a common theme in many of my poems. World events, COVID19, killings and civil strife, plus abuse and ridicule of people, especially women, in private and public spaces also influenced my choice of the title. Since I am originally from India where female Gods, such as Kali, are prayed to but in society women are constantly mistreated by some, be it over their looks, their skin color, their desires and dreams, their professional lives, their choices and decisions, the way they raise children, etc, etc, etc … on every aspect of their lives, women are singled out for criticism and abject intolerance and violence especially if they speak up. As if implying that there is something wrong in women voicing about their rights, pain, struggles and efforts for change. At the same time some people also place women on high pedestals binding them to unfeasible, unrealistic standards, perhaps to make sure they fail. Indian poet, lyricist, and screenwriter, Javad Akhtar once said, “We put women on a pedestal. So we do not consider them to be human beings.

Women like men are human beings and both men, women, and of any other identity, need to be held to the same standards. My title underscores that there is nothing wrong with us…we are simply trying to live our lives, like others, as best as we can. The word Kali is also employed to stress on Hindu goddesses and on skin color as Kali goddess is very dark.

My latest fourth poetry book, Kisses at the espresso bar (2022) is composed of all ekphrastic poems…that is poems based on visuals. One of the paintings that I have included in the book reminded me of the espresso coffee I used to have while growing up in New Delhi cafes with our parents or friends. That kind of stayed with me. There is such movement of time, life, connections, and relationships in eating or drinking and there is immense softening and slowing of one’s pace in the same process. Therefore, I decided on a title that typifies as such.

MM: I enjoyed reading all of your books. I call your poems written in different forms…free verse, prose, rhyme, haiku, monoku…yet they reveal you. There are layers and layers of information. They are like abstract art, yet they tell your story. I call your poems autobiographical poems. How do you define that?

AN: Thank you, Meenakshi! Some are autobiographical and therefore, confessional. However, some are observational.

MM: I liked your quote in the Kisses at the espresso bar, “Life is pretty much like a coffee shop…” what do you mean by that, and how do you associate that with your life story?

AN: I am inherently a tea lover and a tea drinker, however, mostly one finds coffee shops where tea is also served so I used the analogy of coffee. And I chose to say the word, “bar” instead of “shop” because an image in my book of a graphite pencil drawing by NJ based artist Anthony Gartmond has a woman sitting on a high stool as if in a bar and with coffee cups and saucers resting on the counter in front of her. Primarily, for me, that sentence denotes that when we sit at such a place…sipping tea or coffee, we are sitting in a public space and we people watch, we observe and see folks come and go, some are animated, some sad or quiet, some joyful…and in the process of watching and observing it can also lead us to think and conjecture about humanity and life…at least I do…lol. To me all of this signifies movement and time. Deep-seated questions about our own existence generally come to play in my mind and heart. I write best within hullabaloo.

Folks who know I practice yoga often ask me if I meditate. And I tell them, I don’t as in the rigid definition of the word, however, for me meditation is sitting at a coffee/tea shop or with the television or music on at home or outside, in the humdrum of normal routine life, and being able to reign in my thoughts, ignoring the chatter of people and clutter of objects, and be able to write a decent poem! That is meditation for me. I create my meditation circle of thoughts in noisy situations.

In the same vein if in my daily life I can have sovereignty over my own actions and thoughts and lead a balanced life with, “…malice towards none and all…” (Abraham Lincoln, second presidential inaugural address, 1865), then I would have achieved in my opinion improvement in my life, which is critical for me. We must as human beings better ourselves so that our children and others can find role models in us to better themselves. The circle of improvement is essential for humanity to survive and improve, I think. For all the above reasons I said, “Life is pretty much like a coffee shop…”

MM: In the Introductory note in Kali Women, there is a mention, “As such her poems reflect variously, impressionist, realist, romantic, confessional, and surrealist styles ….” – How do you explain this?

AN: I think many of us write in an amalgam of styles and even genre. Similarly, in my poems you will find all the above elements, and more, in the way I have depicted a particular theme or emotions, or the semantics therein.

MM: You have often referred to historical, mythological, scientific, or religious characters or events in your writing. How do they reflect feminism? Can you please specify with examples?

AN: Well… I don’t call myself a feminist as that would be depositing myself in a box and I believe there are no boxes. So, I call myself a human being, an Earthian because we live on a planet called Earth. Feminism is indeed central to numerous poems of mine in all my books, and for its depiction I have employed historical, mythological, scientific, or religious characters, or events from the past or have referred to epics as well and contemporary events and happenings too. The fact that I am a single mother, that I immigrated at an older age with a young child, that I survived, cried yet thrived… basically going through numerous testing and taxing experiences and still emerging as a resilient woman…as a resilient human being… that is feminism to me.

I don’t consider feminism to be anti-male or anti anyone or anything. Feminism implies a brave woman who has the courage to speak up when things are not right, when she or someone else is being abused, when a woman can stand on her own feet and make it in this world with or without male support, when a woman can err yet learn lessons, when a woman can help herself and others, to me all that encapsulates feminism. However, I don’t call it the word, “feminism”, I instead use the word, humanism.

MM: How do you justify there is nothing wrong with us Kali Women?

AN: Lol… How can there be anything wrong with women who regardless of their skin color, regardless of any other physical attributes that places them in a prejudiced construct, regardless of their marital status, regardless of their income, regardless of their job titles do what they need to do. To be as best a human being they can be. If that be the case, then what can be wrong with us Kali women? Women, like men, do not seek perfectionism, as that’s not possible. They only want the same opportunities as men. But some men make them feel less competent, pick on them, on their very human faults, bully them, and run them down. In the process making them feel as if there is something wrong with them. And that builds a sense of incompetency, doubt, hesitancy, fear and subsequently, the probability of women failing in whatever they try to do.

Furthermore, women despite all odds, attempt to excel and labeling their efforts or them as over ambitions, too daring, bossy, mean spirited, also detracts from the prospect of women attempting and reaching their full potential as human beings.

MM: In your Ekphrastic poems, what kind of art fascinates you? What do you look into them? How do you interpret them?

AN: Aha…A piece of or art must appeal to me emotionally. It needs to inspire me to feel from some inner core of mine. If that happens, I then try to write a poem on it and mind you the poem may not match the artwork or what the artist may have intended, it is more about the feelings and emotions the art inspired me to feel. Sometimes, it can happen that I may find an art piece invoking deep sentiments in me, however, when I sit down to write, I am unable to, in which case after a reasonable time, I let it go.

MM: I am an artist myself. I like to explore different types of art and art forms. While I love Renaissance, Post-Renaissance, and Impressionist art, I am intrigued by the abstracts of Miro, El Salvador, and Picasso. How would you approach and interpret that form of art in writing poetry? Robert Frost said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thoughts, and the thought has found words,” – how true would it be in your writing poetry about the artists mentioned above?

AN: You are a true painter, Meenakshi; I only paint the words on paper and so find myself inadequate in truly comprehending the probabilities of meanings in myriad arts forms. And I shan’t be able to authentically express about the artists you have mentioned as their art is not something that I have studied. Yes, a quilt done by quilt artist, Manju Narain on a painting by Picasso’s find its way into my book because it inspired me to write…that is the quilt, not the actual Picasso painting,

I am a visual learner and always wanted to combine art with my poetry. Unable to draw myself, in my second book, Hey Spilt Milk Is Spilt, Nothing Else (2018), I converted pictures I had in my personal collection into pencil line drawings through a website and inserted one for each poem in the book. To write a full collection of ekphrastic poetry was only a natural corollary.

True to Frost’s quote as you have said in your question, I try to find emotions, feelings, meanings, and depth in the art on which I write poetry. I am mostly fond of surrealist, realist, and hyper realist art. However, any kind of art can impress me depending on whether it speaks to me. Additionally, I try to visualize that if I walk into a painting could I find something new or different that I wasn’t aware of or knowledgeable about is what also intrigues me. Can I meander in the layers of the art as expressed by the artist and find or debate the conceivable connotations of life. In the poems in my ekphrastic collection, Kisses at the espresso bar, I have either alluded to or referenced an artwork of Meret Oppenheim, Salvador Dali, René Magritte, Man Ray, Giorgio de Chirico, Yves Tanguy, Amrita Sher-Gill, and Frida Kahlo.

The artists whose works are in my book distinctly and profoundly shaped my poetic outpourings towards not only their amazing art, however, also these had me immersed in questioning injustices that exist and persist in our world. Some of the art pieces also urged me to delve into basic, raw human emotions. I would like to give a shout out here to the seven artists whose creativity is stamped beautifully in my book…Lorette C Luzajic, Elizabeth ‘Lish’ Škec, Madan Tashi, Madhumita Sinha, Michael D. Harris, Manju Narain and Anthony Gartmond. They are mixed media artists, sculptors, painters, quilt artists, visual artists, and graphite pencil artists respectively though some work on more than one medium. Their artwork is striking, intriguing, surrealist, postmodern, and hyperrealist. What an astoundingly exhilarating writing journey it was for me!

MM: In going through both your books, Anna Akhmatova’s poem kept ringing in my mind, I Taught Myself to Live Simply. She had her share of trials in life, yet she revealed and reflected on life’s meaning in trying to find positivity. I see that a lot in your poems. Whose poetry and art inspire you most?

AN: Yes, Anna Akhmatova’s poem is wistful and simply, yet eloquently expressed and I love it. Yes, indeed, while I share the tribulations of life, mine, and that of others, ultimately, I slide towards positivity, and I truly believe in making life a optimistic as possible. A constructive approach toward daily living gives us that grateful lens with which to live normally and peacefully in harmony with self and others.

I shan’t say it’s any one specific art or poetry that has inspired me the most. I find an emotive affiliation with many writers, some of whom are not poets, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Candace Bushnell, Maria von Trapp, Anne Franck, Paulo Coelho, E. H. Carr, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak to name a few. Among poets, Phillis Wheatley, Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Amanda Gorman, and other writers such as Kamala Das, Chitra Baneriee Divakaruni, Ralph Ellison, of course my own father, Chaman Nahal. Sometimes it could be a particular poem that really impresses me such as, “Migrations” by Keki Daruwalla or “Philosophy” by Nissim Ezekiel, or “Heart and Lungs” by Cyril Dabydeen, or poems (too many to mention here) by so many of my luminous contemporaries and younger poets that I admire deeply. I am also inspired by cultural manifestations such as movies, television shows, art, music, and dance. And for me, life is my biggest motivator of thought and action, goader of critical analysis and teacher of wise expression.

MM: Thank you, Anita. I want to say that your poems fill me with different emotions, and your style and use of the varied forms of poetry writing intrigue me. I name your style Neoliberalism in poetry writing, integrating different approaches yet modulating them to your techniques and concepts.

AN: Thank you, Meenakshi for your excellent questions that made me ponder and what could be better. Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share my views on poetry and writing.

04-Feb-2023

More by :  Dr. Meenakshi Mohan

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