Vidyan’s debut full-length collection Grun-tu-molani was published by Bloodaxe in 2014 and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Michael Murphy Memorial Prize.
Hi Vidyan. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your debut collection Grun-tu-molani. Reading the poems there is a sense they have one foot in Sri Lanka and one foot in the UK, and one foot in the past and one foot in the present. Do you think it’s fair to say the poems are exploring how our personal identities are shaped by culture and heritage?
Absolutely – it’s a hybrid book partly because it emerges from a hybrid personality; and partly because I feel poets from whatever background should be free to invent, craft, analyse, experiment, rather than feel bound to a narrowing conception of their identity.
If you’re a minority poet there are pressures placed on you to write in a particular way: to stick close to the details of your everyday life; find a single true authentic empowered ‘voice’; to fit yourself into a narrative about exile, or returning to a long-lost homeland or home language, etc.
I’d compare these to some of the distorting emphases women writers bravely defy. My partner Jenny is a novelist and had a novel turned down by publishers because of the feeling that a female protagonist should, first, go on a ‘journey’ and, second, have a life-changing experience on the way. Well, life isn’t always, or often, or, really, ever, like that.
I’ve come to realise that even the ways I, for example, put together a sonnet may be indirectly and unconsciously influenced by my upbringing by Sri Lankan Tamils in a mixed area of Leeds. So the poems express, I hope, a complex heritage in their subject matter, but also in the way they’re written.
Tamils have a great respect for English, and indeed one of the factors in the run-up to civil war in Sri Lanka was the appointment of many of them to English-speaking roles in the colonial administration. This came about because schools which taught English were set up by the British in predominantly Tamil-speaking areas of what was then Ceylon.
So I come out of all that. I didn’t experience the clichéd narrative where my Asian parents wanted me to be a doctor – they’re very happy that I studied literature at university. They also never placed any pressure on me to have the sort of arranged marriage they had.
Sometimes we talk about the English poetry foisted on them at school back home: my father can still quote FitzGerald, etc, from memory, and my mum was made (I’ve written a bit more about this in PN Review) to learn off by heart Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, though she had no idea what a daffodil was!
The book contains a long poem about Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress located in Sri Lanka. I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about what piqued your interest in this place initially as a subject for poetic exploration, and how extensively did you have to research before writing it?
It was a terrific privilege to be given the time and intellectual space to draft, and write, this poem. This occurred while I was a research fellow at Selwyn College. The Ancient India and Iran Trust Library in Cambridge held useful texts and I wandered down in the summer and spent a few enjoyable days there learning more about Sigiriya. (To the extent that you can learn anything hard and true about it – what facts we have quickly turn mythical.)
‘Sigiriya’ remains the only poem which I’ve really researched, in the same way I would an essay. I really enjoyed this process; the feeling that the material wasn’t all being pseudo-magically extruded out of me, out of my own compulsions, prejudices, egoism; that there was something relatively solid to lean on.
Recently I’ve experienced that feeling in trying to write a novel about Sri Lankan Tamils in England – drawing on my family life, and the stories (in both senses) of my parents.
On the subject of Sigiriya, I should mention two other poets who have written on the topic: Amali Rodrigo, whose debut is out now from Bloodaxe; and the Irish poet Richard Murphy, whose father was the last British mayor of Colombo – he wrote The Mirror Wall, and is a very interesting writer I think.
I’ve been to Sigiriya twice, and climbed it once – I hadn’t had any breakfast, and got rather dizzy on the way up! It really is an astonishing place. From the top of the red rock you see the green jungle stretch out for miles.
On the way up you find in a cave the remnants of the Apsaras – painted cloud-maidens. And there’s the ‘mirror wall’, inscribed with graffiti from ancient visitors to the royal fortress of Kasyapa – also more contemporary pen-scribblings (these are discouraged).
I discovered Senarath Paranavithana’s translations of these poems in the library in Cambridge and decided to include one in the sequence. Amali has some lovely translations in her book.
You also translated a number of Tamil verses from the Purananuru with some assistance from your father as part of the collection. How did you find it collaborating in this way and what were the main challenges you faced in composing these lyrics?
When my parents moved to England almost forty years ago, my sister was a toddler; I was born here, in Leeds. They made the decision not to teach us Tamil. The ostensible justification for this is that they didn’t want us to speak English with a compromised accent (we both had speech-classes and so I don’t have a Leeds voice either!) but I’ve come to see it as them drawing a line under their past in a politically-troubled country.
In England they would be a different kind of minority, one who spoke English and tried to integrate. So though I have the residual feeling that I should one day learn Tamil, I do respect their decision. And I accept that distance between me and my heritage inscribed in the non-speaking of a language as something meaningful.
Writing those translations with my father’s help was a wonderful experience because we crossed that distance together. He Englished the originals (spotting a few errors in existing translations!) and I turned them into workable lyrics.
One of the challenges involved turning very long sentences into ones you could actually follow in English. But it was really a great pleasure. We keep talking about writing some more translations together, this time of Tamil songs from films. I had a go at one but couldn’t quite make it work.
As well as being a poet, you are one of the editors at online poetry journal Prac Crit alongside Dai George and Sarah Howe. Could you tell us a bit more about the genesis of this project and in what ways do you think the original vision for the journal has been met or exceeded in these past couple of years?
Sarah founded the magazine and oversaw its design which is such an important part, I think, of what Prac Crit does; the kinds of conversations we try to include, between poets and their interviewers; between poems, and readings of them.
I’m delighted with how Prac Crit has developed. It has been tremendously exciting to reach out to some of the poets I most admire and have them agree to be featured. The idea, as I see it, is really that close readers don’t ‘murder to dissect’.
To look closely at how a poem is constructed is (I suppose this is how I feel about my critical writing too) a form of respect; it’s like heeding the particularity and peculiarity of another person, rather than immediately validating them by turning them into another version of yourself, or banishing them for being other and different and not of your kind.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the poetry diary you are looking forward to?
I’ve begun working on a new collection of poems. One title I’m considering is Keep On Keeping On.
Poetry is sometimes said to be a matter of self-expression, but I’m more interested in communication. It takes talent to speak or write eloquently; it also takes talent to really listen to somebody else.
So the book will contain poems about communication, its failures and successes, across, I think, dividing lines. Rather than write a book about my own tribe (whatever that is) I’m interested in conversations across the boundaries which have been fixed and hardened by identity politics.
Take that aggrieved claim – don’t we all know it from our relationships with those we love most? – You don’t understand. You don’t understand what it was like. If I say to a white friend – if I say to you – actually, you don’t understand what it’s like to be a Sri Lankan Tamil in England and have ‘paki cunt’ shouted at you out of a car, few would disagree.
But maybe, in another sense, by knowing me, talking to me, and through an effort of the sympathetic or ‘moral imagination’ (David Bromwich has written provocatively about this) they, you, do understand. And could it work the other way; through really loving a woman, could I, a man, understand, to some extent, what it’s like to be one?
Love, after all, is premised on this idea, which runs contrary to the tribalisation and identity-marking and grievance-policing of contemporary social politics. And how could a writer ever do without a belief in the imagination? As Shelley has it in his Defence of Poetry:
‘The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own’.
At the heart of the book will be, I hope a series of love poems, sonnets, if possible, about a mixed-race couple. The thing about being in a relationship of this kind is that even if, say, one’s Asian parents aren’t disapproving, and the other’s white parents are far from being racists, there are still a range of subtle emotional differences to work through. I don’t think this kind of unmelodramatic everyday awkwardness is often written about or filmed.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’ve been rattling on about Shelley, so here’s a poem which mentions him and has a bit of italicised Wordsworth in it too. I live in Durham, which means a lot of train journeys back and forth to see now distant friends. So I’ve had the chance to eavesdrop on quite a few conversations between strangers – or failed conversations, where one person does all the talking. This poem is about one of those.
What fascinates me (and I don’t mean this in a purely sarcastic way, as in ‘what I love about the stupidity of this is…’) – what fascinates me about bigotry is its quality of fervour. This separates one class of intolerant person from, say, your Jeremy Clarkson-types making isolated reactionary remarks like an infant smearing poo on the wall to get mummy’s attention.
I’m more interested in how inspired some are, when they start to complain about people, or groups of people, who they may be legitimately threatened by, or simply paranoid about without justification. This energy becomes available to them which goes on and on.
So the speaker of this poem is listening, on the train, to one woman dominating another woman. Really talking over her and allowing her no time to speak. But what she’s talking about is Eastern Europeans and she cannot stop. Seeing this kind of person as (evilly) inspired – a sort of bad opposite to the traditional view of the poet – suggested a parallel with Shelley.
Shelley takes Dante’s terza rima into English, but it’s very difficult, in English, to live up to the lucid grammatical emphases and effortless rhyming of the original. So Shelley’s version, in ‘The Triumph of Life‘, is sort of hectically blurting and energetically propulsive – it’s a bit like watching parkour, a runner dashing with what appears to be spontaneous adjustments between linked rooftops.
It’s an impure composite that both belongs in English and doesn’t, and whose brilliance is, as I say in this poem, ‘insecure’. So I decided to compare that style with the spoken postures of the ranting on the train. For in a way it was rather impressive, it was so sustained!
And though the poem does criticise the person saying these things and poke fun (Shelley’s writing great poetry; she’s just full of hate) I also wanted to draw attention to the insecurity (both emotional and economic) which lies beneath much anti-immigration rhetoric.
So I hope my poem – without subsiding into a form of wishy-washy good-on-both-sides tolerance of intolerance – doesn’t read as straightforward condemnation. I’d like there to be generosity in it, but that’s for readers to decide.
On the train, another complains
of Eastern Europeans
with great vigour and spontaneity.
An overflow of powerful feelings.
Her quiet friend has vanished
but for her
atom of polite assent,
an iterated, needless murmur.
The tirade has the scintillating
onwardness of Shelley,
in the form he took
from Dante and his vulgar tongue
into English where it doesn’t belong,
and beautiful without footholds.