Vishvāntarā lives in London in a Buddhist residential community and teaches meditation and Buddhism at the London Buddhist Centre. Her poems have appeared previously in Brittle Star, Magma, Poetry London, and PN Review.
Her debut pamphlet Cursive was published in 2015 by HappenStance Press.
Hi Vishvāntarā. I hope you’re well. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Firstly, congratulations on the publication of your debut pamphlet Cursive with HappenStance Press last year. Can you tell us a bit more about how the collection came to fruition?
Thank you for inviting me. The background to Cursive was a twenty-year apprenticeship in writing poetry and learning, very slowly, to communicate what I wanted to say. When I started writing poems with a view to publication, in my twenties, I had no idea how to present my thoughts, stories or feelings with any coherence or legibility.
People who read my poems had difficulty interpreting them and I couldn’t get them published. I had to learn how to write almost from the bottom up, through workshops, reading other poets, feedback and tutelage. As well as being a slow learner, I am a slow writer, and I write relatively little in terms of quantity, thus the road to producing enough poems good enough for publication in pamphlet form was a long one.
However, it has been immensely rewarding to have Nell (Helena Nelson of Happenstance) as my editor, and well worth the wait. She has been a pleasure to work with and the resulting pamphlet is as much a product of her expert editing as it is of my own writing.
Some of your poems focus on animals and the natural world with poems about stags, mice, woodpeckers, and a spider web. I get the sense from reading them that, as well as conveying a love and respect for these creatures, they often offer insights into what it means to be human as well. Would it be fair to say this arises from your own Buddhist outlook on life?
I came across Buddhism aged twenty-eight, and the study of Buddhist thought and practice is encouraged in the movement I’m involved with. After maintaining this study over nearly thirty years my own thought, though still conditioned by my upbringing, societal and personal, has been additionally influenced by, if not suffused by, a Buddhist outlook, particularly in this case by the view of the sacredness of all life and life-forms.
That tinge is bound to come out in the poems, though most of the time I’m not aware of ‘trying’ to make it so. I do now believe the universe is alive – animals, plants, water, rocks are all parts of a living whole and equally living wholes themselves – there is no such thing as ‘dead’ matter.
Additionally, in Buddhism the universe is an ethical universe. Nothing arises except in dependence on conditions, and that includes, in the human realm, willed action and its effects, or ethics.
I am regularly stopped in my tracks by animals – foxes, cats, birds, even insects – and I usually greet them with a few words, mainly ‘Hello’! A reader might think this eccentric behaviour, but as a city-dweller I am sometimes overwhelmed by the unselfconscious beauty of nature as it manifests itself in the city.
I imagine there must be similarities between the contemplative nature of poetry writing and the Buddhist way of life too. I’m thinking of the practice of writing and reciting gathas which seems to me to have much in common with creating poetry. Do you think there is a correlation between the two and does this inform your own writing?
Meditation, like creative writing, can slow down the mind, making its workings and wirings more evident, more creative and more fascinating. I am likely to write poems whilst on retreat and meditating more frequently. I also have more time, on retreat, to write.
And you are right that Buddhists do take time to reflect, and I suppose I do too, in a higgledy piggledy way. However, when I first began to meditate, I was scared that shining too bright a searchlight into my consciousness would drive away the ‘dragon’s breath’ – those leaps of intuition that come from a seemingly divine source, ‘outside’ of the person writing.
I am someone who returns again and again to the same sources of inspiration, the same poems, the same recorded and live music, the same novels, the same teachers, the same teachings. In Buddhism – you are right, we are encouraged to delve deeply into whatever inspires us – to practise ‘more and more of less and less’.
However, as an unintegrated human, I think work may take me in different directions – not just ‘peacefully contemplative’. I would be bored if I thought I had already sussed writing’s single mission for me, should I choose to accept it.
What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry? Are there any dates in the diary you are looking forward to or goals you have set yourself?
I will be reading at Poetry in the Crypt in Islington, on 23rd April, with George Szirtes and Sarah Doyle. This will be my first big reading in a non-Buddhist context. Mike and Nancy are warm and generous hosts and the poets they invite are fabulous so I’m really excited about this.
As for goals I have set myself – well, after the publication of Cursive it felt as though a dam burst in terms of inspiration, motivation and ideas. My confidence has been strengthened by publication and I have, since September last year, completed another pamphlet’s worth of new stuff, a sonnet sequence about my history of mental illness. Now I have an idea for a book, and I’ve started work on that.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I love to write love poetry. I am addicted to it (both love and poetry). This is a love poem to critics and editors – to all who read in depth, with a vertiginously intelligent understanding of what they are reading, and with a curiosity as to how it produces its effects.
I am particularly thinking of my favourite poetry critics such as Seamus Heaney, Helen Vendler, Ted Hughes, C K Williams. But not just those famous names – I’m thinking of all who celebrate and promote the work of other creatives, whether writers themselves or not, out of love. It is a poem of gratitude for the generosity of others. I’d like to dedicate the poem to Nell.
As Much or More
For me, the best critics deserve wonder and gratitude
as much or more than those they critique
whom fortune favours a thousandfold
with admiration, comprehending and not.
And thus my pleasure when I stumbled across,
in an ancient cosmology, the different heavens
tiered up from Meru, the golden mountain,
and ranked in order of virtue and refinement.
The heaven of gods who make love by holding
hands, is superseded by the heaven of those
who enjoy prolonged gazing, which is the one
I’d visit, so I’d need to stop the elevator
a floor below the heaven whose lovers are content
with the merest glance. Anyway, my point is,
in the cloudy heights, the palace of the gods
who take delight in their own creations
is looked down on (with an affectionate gaze)
by the happier ones delighting in the creations of others.