‘Nonsense is a way to fight power’, says Michael Heyman

"I have travelled to many places and collected a lot of nonsense. You can find more nonsense when you go to places where there has been a lot of political tragedy," says Michael Heyman

Written by Dipanita Nath | Published:December 2, 2016 12:41 am
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His session was called “Do Not Listen to These Nonsense Poems and Songs”. It was packed. Michael Heyman, American writer-professor-scholar-performer, better known as “the Doctor of Nonsense”, regaled the audience with a lot of nonsense, ranging from poems and songs to gibberish and chanting. The curtain raiser was the poem, The Bathing Hymn by Sarita Padki, part of an anthology, The Tenth Rasa, which Heyman has edited.

“Om Haveum bathum namaha / Om Take um offum clothesum namaha / On the body, applyum oilum namaha / Scrubscrubum namaha / Rubrubum namaha / Scrubscrubum namaha,” he chanted, sitting in a yogic meditative pose, and the audience in the age-group of five to 50 cracked up. Heyman was performing at Bookaroo, a festival of children’s literature that was held in Delhi recently. After every piece, instead of boring things like clapping, the children shouted out, ‘That’s nonsense.” “It feels so good when you say that to me,” said Heyman, 46, a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. After the last of the young mob — and their parents — had left, Heyman talked about why nonsense literature isn’t always a laughing matter. Edited Excerpts:

How would you define nonsense?

Scholars of nonsense have many different kinds of definitions. There is no one answer. The way I approach it is that nonsense is a kind of manipulation and subversion of language and logic that is usually humorous and joyful. One scholar said that when you make good nonsense literature, there is a tension between meaning and no meaning.

How did you come into nonsense literature and performances?

I was studying very serious Romantic poetry at the Oxford University and discovered that somebody had written, in a very serious way, about nonsense literature and they mentioned Edward Lear. I thought, ‘this is what I want to study’. I finished the degree with Romantics but I went forward with nonsense. I got an MPhil in Romantic Studies at Oxford but wanted to do a DPhil on Edward Lear and nonsense. They didn’t want that so I got booted and had to leave Oxford. I finished the degree later at University of Glasgow in Scotland where they embraced nonsense.

What explains the power of nonsense literature?

Nonsense is almost always used as a kind of weapon. It is a way to fight power, often without the power knowing. If you are writing nonsense, they don’t quite understand it, and so, they can’t say that it is seditious. I have travelled to many places and collected a lot of nonsense. You can find more nonsense when you go to places where there has been a lot of political tragedy. Most importantly, nonsense is joyful — you can protest and have fun at the same time.

How are you responding to the American elections or the nationalism sweeping the globe?

When Donald Trump won, I was crushed. I live in a liberal place in Boston and we woke up and the world had changed and become a terrible place. I decided to do something that was done many years ago. After World War I, some of the Germans who were avant-garde poets, surrealists and Dadaists, felt that the German language had betrayed them, so they decided to write in non-language. There are pieces that come out of that era which are protests against the world and nationalism. The thing I did at Bookaroo — grimm, glimm, gnim, bim bim — is a composition by German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. I am doing this piece as a kind of statement about now.