What did selecting poetry from the past eight years entail?
I’ve been working on Central Time for about nine years. The process began right after I had put together my previous book of poems, Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems 1985-2005 (Penguin, 2006).
My method of working is to build up towards poems from notes, fragments and drafts, which I put down in a series of notebooks maintained over the years as an archive. Some poems, like The Poet in Exile, have been in gestation since 1992. Others, such as Night Runner, emerge from a time in 2006-2007 when I was translating a set of ghazals by Ghalib. A number of the poems in the section “The Institute of Silence”, are revised versions of texts that first appeared in a collaborative project that Atul Dodiya and I worked on together. Titled Pale Ancestors (2008), it was an artist book that included 48 of his watercolours with as many of my texts.
About the process of structuring Central Time, I wanted the book to unfold as a cycle of 100 poems, in five phases or sections.
Could you share instances of how the poems dedicated to artists come about?
They emerge from long-standing fascinations or dialogues that I have had with them or their work, with the enigma of their images or the trajectories of their art. The Invention of the Senses, dedicated to Japanese artist Masaki Fujihata, has its origins in an experience of spending time in one of his interactive environments, ‘Beyond the Pages’. You step into the space, and the image of a book appears on a table. As you ‘turn’ the pages of this illusory book, various experiences are triggered off: a stone appears, as does an apple and so forth, until you are completely enchanted and yet bewildered by your relationship to the book, to language, and to the event.
Do you set aside time to write when travelling, or are you a serial scribbler?
Annotations of place, in my poems, refer to where I may have begun work on a poem, or to the experience that sparked it off. I rarely write a complete poem when I’m travelling. Unless, of course, I’m a resident somewhere outside the city for a long period, as for instance in Utrecht, Munich or Berlin. I make notes, put down fragments, phrases or sentences, isolated images, and make drafts when I’m travelling — but I do that when I’m at rest as well.
Adil Jussawalla had recently said that poems are a poet’s memoirs. Your poems certainly do seem to trace your life.
I like the way Adil phrases this thought, and agree, to a certain extent. For me, certainly, it’s true that the poems are, at one level, an unfolding memoir. But the memoir as such has its place too. The poem works best through compression, the memoir benefits from expansiveness. The detail in a poem could be more enigmatic and reclusive than invitational; the detail in a memoir could be more gregariously offered, allowing the reader to enter a world previously inaccessible. Some poets also present their memoirs, their accounts of experience, even their arts poetica, through essays or lectures.
You are known for your long essays on the art world, as much as you are known for your poetry. How do you make the switch?
Since I never go away, either from poetry or art criticism or cultural theory, there’s no question of coming back. My explorations in various domains have always continued alongside one another, and have informed one another over the last three decades. In one sense, I was socialised into such a world of hybrid practice. My first guru, Nissim Ezekiel, was a writer whose gifts took him to accomplishment in many different directions: poetry, art literary criticism, editorial activity, and teaching. My second guru, Okwui Enwezor, is similarly gifted: he is simultaneously a poet, curator, essayist, journal editor and museum director.