Adil Jussawalla is not a prolific poet. With just three books — Land’s End (1962), Missing Person (1976) and Trying to Say Goodbye (2011) — to his name, his output has been marked by long absence from the literary scene. Yet, he is one of the most influential writers of verse in the country today, counting Nissim Ezekiel, Arun Kolatkar and Gieve Patel as his contemporaries. On Saturday, he won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Trying to Say Goodbye, a book of poems that he published after a gap of 35 years. In an interview with Kevin Lobo, Jussawalla talks about the “unexpected” award, and what it means for an artform that seems to be slowly fading away from public consciousness.
Were you expecting the award?
There were so many talented contenders and I feel enormously grateful for the award. Some people have been saying that the award has come late, but I have not been publishing books for so many years. The award will make the book more visible, and it’s also good for the publisher, Almost Island, a small press. This award is an indication of the good work that small presses are putting out. I remember the joy we felt at Clearing House (the press he founded with Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Gieve Patel), when Kolatkar won the Commonweath Poetry Prizein 1977.
Are the poems in the book bound by a certain idea?
I don’t really know if there is a common theme to the book, but I do feel that one way or another, it has a narrative. I feel that a reader must not dip into it, but read the book from front to back. However, that can’t be helped with poetry. One thing I am dealing with in the book is the recovery of the past and myself. It has been archeological in a sense, that I went about digging for old poems from my time in London. I am digging into my memory and past. The title poem is about a woman talking to her partner where divorce is in the air, but she can’t do it because there are reasons why it is not possible.
Tell us more about the book.
The poems are also about certain words and memories that have stayed with me. There are poems that were written before my London days (Jussawalla went to study architecture there, but gave that up for literature). I also write about some characters who were left over from my the first book, Land’s End.
You’d said in an interview that a writer out of print is a dead writer. Does this award now help keep your work alive?
It’s impossible to keep all writers in circulation. As time goes by, older writers drop out of sight because there is no market for them. Unlike art, which appreciates with age, books are given away to the raddiwala. Once the second impression of 500 copies goes out of print, a third impression is on the cards.
Do awards such as this breathe life into poetry?
It’s good that poetry is not getting neglected by the Sahitya Akademi in favour of fiction. Poetry does have festivals dedicated to it, but fiction overwhelms poetry when it comes to larger platforms. I hear there are seven other books of poetry that have won the award this year. There is always hope that some more people will read poetry, thanks to it.