“For me it has always been about the ‘interior landscape’…”
What has influenced and shaped your deep connection with the natural world, which often appears in your poetry?
I use the natural world to draw parallels with our mechanised, automated world. Birds and beasts are used as metaphors and analogies for the human condition. The poem “Domestic Creatures”, for instance, is a reflection on the extended Indian family; “Bats” draws upon childhood fears of the dark. A poem like “Cheetah and Snow Leopard” comments on our exploitation of the animal world: "it took an age for you/ To shed your fur/ And stand on two legs/ But just a day or two/ To forever ambush/ The streaking arc/ In the blurred forest”. So does the poem “Animal Planet” with those “corkscrew antlers” of a stag hanging on a wall like a trophy. It is an uneven battle between man and beast, and I try to bring things closer to home.
Whatever the subject—and the animal world is a small part of my preoccupations—I believe in conciseness and clarity. The test for a successful poem can be gauged by just how much has been left out. It’s a bit like a bonsai plant being constantly pruned. I’ve never believed that the more obscure a poem, the better it is, and that poets are some special guardians of a mysterious, arcane and unapproachable world. In fact, many readers are turned off by a kind of poetry that is obscure and unfathomable. Even the poet may find it hard to provide a lucid explanation. There are also reports on the dwindling readership of poetry in the UK.
Has the increasing emphasis of technology in our world today led to your distancing in any way from your connection to the natural world? And has this emerged in your recent poems?
No, and indeed it may have deepened the connection. Though, I may add, I’m no “nature” or “pastoral” poet. I’m no fluffy idealist who believes we can live without technology. In fact, as someone from the humanities, I greatly admire the strides made in technology. However, it took me a while to move away from my old typewriter. And of course, I earn my living as a journalist and editor, so there’s no escaping modern technology.
How has living and working in Goa influenced your writing?
It actually took me several years before I could write poems related to Goa. For me, poetry is not about moments recollected in tranquility; they emerge instead from a certain immediacy and level of tension, and from subconscious worries. Goa can be a beguiling and deceptive place. It took me several years before the place could get under my skin to spark off a few poems. But on the whole, I’ve written only six or seven poems that relate directly to Goa. In any case, it isn’t actually the physical presence of a place that invokes a poem, though there are many other poets who respond to this kind of stimulus. For me it has always been about the “interior landscape”, but a landscape that needs to connect with the outside world. I’m quite wary of this approach falling prey to self-indulgence and obscurity.
Has the current atmosphere of intolerance affected you or your writing?
I don’t see myself as a directly “political” poet. But politics is a very large term and I’m certainly not apolitical. The beauty of poetry is such that there are different ways of tackling the “politics” that affect our everyday lives. I don’t write “Socialist” verse with its narrow definitions. But there is politics in our everyday lives— the politics of gender, race, environment, and family, for instance.
Do you see changes in the publishing world with regard to poetry? We have seen small presses like Poetrywala, Almost Island and Copper Coin enter the picture. Is there a greater interest in publishing poetry today and are there enough takers?
I don’t think there is a greater interest, especially among the mainstream publishers. One or two of them publish a title or two in a good year. It is the smaller, specialised publishing houses that have committed themselves to keeping poetry alive, though they make no money from their endeavours.
The production qualities of these small presses have improved greatly in recent years. The only problem is the distribution across the country and the collection of dues. In terms of the sheer quality regarding both content and looks, and apart from the small presses I’ve mentioned, you need to look back at the outstanding series produced by Adil Jussawalla’s Clearing House, and those striking cover designs by Arun Kolatkar. Among the forerunners was also Newground. Both these publishers were from Bombay, which was the epicenter of poetry publication and blessed with a hortative culture back in the seventies and eighties.
When can we look forward to your next collection of poems?
After eight individual collections, I’m now looking out to publish my New and Collected Poems. Even after pruning it down, the book runs into 280 pages. Perhaps it will see the light of day next year.
Selfies From Calangute
Here I am posing with
A topless blonde rising
From the surf like a model.
Her breasts wobble like
Beach balls. Here’s another
On her tabletop tummy
Behind my victory sign,
Her bra in bold relief.
Now her middle finger
Points to heaven as she
Scorns your leery glances,
Bermudas and tinted glasses.
Under the beach umbrella
Right there is that lucky
Masseur who doubles up
As a paid lover, kneading
Unguents into her shoulders,
Inner thighs and the small
Of her back till she sighs
Like the frothing tide.
Here I am again with a fat
Cuban cigar, a cowpoke
In a sombrero, my teeth
The keys of a grand piano.
And here’s a tribal with brass
Bangles caught in the frame.
Her mirror-spangled blouse
Reflects me at the right angles.
It’s all there to be shared on
WhatsApp and Facebook till,
Minus our far better halves,
We’re back again next Christmas.
Manohar Shetty has published several books of poems, among them Domestic Creatures (OUP, New Delhi) and Living Room (HarperCollins). Anthologies featuring his work include The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (ed. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra) and in collections edited by Eunice de Souza and Vilas Sarang. He has also been a Hobhi Bhabha and Senior Sahitya Akademi Fellow. He lives and works in Goa.
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