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‘I’m constantly responding to what’s happening around us — how can one not?’: Poet Sudeep Sen

Poet Sudeep Sen on his new book of poems, Anthropocene, that brings together themes of climate change and pandemic

Written by Surbhi Gupta |
May 23, 2021 6:10:10 am
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Tell us about the idea behind Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation (Pippa Rann, the UK/Penguin Random House), your new book of poems that ties together themes of climate change and the pandemic? Has nature always inspired you as a poet?

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I have always been deeply fascinated with the natural world and its phenomenon. I have marvelled at how solar and lunar gravitational pulls choreograph the seasonal orchestra — how the wind’s slipstreams dance, the oceans churn, and earth’s tilted rotation creates the vicissitudes of tides. For a while as a youngster, I even wanted to become an oceanographer — so, I could explore the earth’s deepest point in the Mariana Trench, and ride icebergs in the Arctic/Antarctic photographing the colour-blazed magnetic lights of Aurora Borealis/Australis.

As an avid reader, I have been tuned in to the global discussion on climate change — this man-made tragedy that threatens our planet in what has become the critical age of Anthropocene. With the melting of polar ice caps and the rapid thaw of glacial sites — humanity faces, among other dangers — discharge of dangerous levels of methane and CO2 gases, and the activation of infectious life forms that were frozen for millennia. Add to this, rising sea levels, increased frequency of natural disasters, a growing tribe of self-serving Fascist leaders — and life as we know it seems to be imploding. So, it was impossible not to respond to all this in my creative sphere.

How was the experience of writing this book, touching on the myriad subjects of climate change, the pandemic COVID-19, lockdown and the migrant crisis?

I have been writing on climate-related phenomena for a long time. My poems frequently dwell on the theme of excess. Having lived in Delhi for most of my life and braved its predominantly hot weather for decades, I have often written on aspects of ‘heat’. Heat annoys, repels, inspires and exasperates: “Heat outside is like filigreed sand on my skin — / swift, sharp, pointed, deceptive, furnace hot.” (from Heat Sand)

In the early 2000s however, I lived in Bangladesh for some years. As a result of living for half a decade in the region of the ‘two Bengals’ — West Bengal in India and Bangladesh — I published a book titled, Rain: “It is bone-dry — I pray for any moisture that might fall from the emaciated skies — // There is a cloud, just a solitary cloud wafting perilously — // But it is too far in the distance for any real hope — for rain.” (Drought, Cloud)

During the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, things were changing so fast around us that it was deeply affecting our society — the play of politics, the way people thought and reacted, the changing culture of ‘working from home’ for the privileged and lack of work for the dispossessed, the gruesome images of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres in the unforgiving weather riddled by hunger and pain, the quarantine, the virus — how can all these not affect you. To make matters worse, the pandemic was accompanied by floods, locust attack, earthquakes, and more. The entire experience has been visceral, powerful and moving.

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Was Love in the Time of Corona your first poem on the pandemic? Did you expect the kind of response it received from the world over?

It was among my initial poems, certainly the first one to appear in a public forum — in fact, on the pages of this newspaper. Thereafter, the poem took on a life of its own — broadcast, published and translated worldwide into many Indian and foreign languages. It deals with the horrors of the early pandemic days, weaving in motifs from the Krishna-Radha lore, Bertolt Brecht and Gabriel García Márquez, ending with a plea: “Hope, heed, heal — our song, in present tense.”

Have you written anything on the second wave of COVID-19 in India?

Alongside reading and thinking, I write everyday as a discipline, as riyaaz. Consequently, I am constantly responding to what is happening around us — how can one not? It is one way to maintain sanity and balance. Besides it is also important for an artist to document and record, to voice dissent and provide hope to people/readers. On a personal level, it can be cathartic, though I do not write for that reason alone.

Is this book more political compared to your others?

Guided by the nature of the subject matter explored in this multi-genre book (creative non-fiction, essay, prose, poetry and photography), yes, many of the pieces may appear more political than my earlier work. Having said that, I try as much as possible to couch the overt politics within the texture and subtlety of a literary trope. That is where the challenge is — make the obvious, newsy and political into art that is universal and time-sustaining beyond the present.

Ultimately, poetry is a fine-tuned art — private and public, immediate and transcendental. This haiku from the book illustrates the point I am making, Ash Smoke: “Something still remains, — / otherwise from ashes, smoke, / would not rise again.”

What are you working on now?

It is an ongoing book on classical dance (and music) titled The Whispering Anklets. I have had the joy of collaborating on this with Aditi Mangaldas and Dinesh Khanna, who you will know as amongst India’s best dancers and photographers, respectively. The book has shaped up beautifully thus far.

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