Friday, March 13, 2009

Straight from the heart

US based poet Pramila Venkateswaran writes on subjects that affect people’s lives: breast cancer, war, mother-daughter relationships and same sex desires

By Shevlin Sebastian

Poet Pramila Venkateswaran’s sister-in-law, Shyamala, died of breast cancer when she was only 48. Pramila was so upset she began writing a poem about it in 2002, but was never satisfied with it. It was only in 2007 that she finished ‘Cartographer of the Breast’. But the impact was immediate.

“The first time I read the poem in front of a large audience in New York, women came up to me and cried,” she says. “They said, ‘This is our experience. How were you able to put it in a poem? Did you have breast cancer yourself?’”

Pramila was in Kochi to give a reading at the OED Gallery from her two books of poetry, ‘Thirtha’ (2002) and ‘Behind Dark Waters’ (2008).

The US-based poet is amazed that a 5 p.m. start actually meant 6 p.m. “Indian Stretchable Time,” says a visitor, as she nods and smiles.

Her poems are simple, sincere and heart-felt. Here is an extract from ‘Uncle’s Letter to Father, 1980:

Your girl going abroad alone,
I can understand if your boy
wants to head out,
but you are sending her to study in U.S.
as if there’s no schools here.

You could never control
your wife, and now look what’s
happened to your daughter.

The genesis of this poem was the opposition within her family when she wanted to go to the US to do her doctorate in English literature at George Washington University.

“This was in the 1980s,” she says. “There was a conservative streak in the country. It was okay if the men went, but my uncle felt that it was not right for an unmarried woman like me to go.”

Pramila, the daughter of a banker, spent her childhood in Mumbai, Mattancherry, Kolkata and Chennai. “In Chennai, at the Holy Angels’ school I had an influential English teacher Girija Karthikeyan,” she says. “She made us write daily.”

Karthikeyan introduced Pramila to the British poets of the 19th century, like John Keats, William Wordsworth and Percy Blysse Shelley. “I got so energised that I started writing poems,” she says. Incidentally, her doctorate is on the same poets.

But her turning point came when noted poet Saleem Peeradina set up a creative writing programme, ‘The Open Classroom’, at Sophia College, Mumbai. Pramila began writing poems in real earnest.

“Poetry is about paying attention to images,” she says. “It comes easily and often to me. I don’t have any trouble coming up with metaphors, similes, or alliterations.”

Most of her poems have been published in the leading poetry journals in the US, like the Paterson Literary Review, Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Atlanta Review, and Calyx: Journal of Art and Literature by Women. She has also been published in several anthologies and in 1999 Pramila was a finalist for the prestigious Allen Ginsburg Poetry award.

Despite the accolades, she admits that the market for poetry is small. “Big commercial publishers, like HarperCollins and Random House, are not interested in poetry,” she says. “They feel it will not sell in large numbers.”

Suddenly, she taps the small number of copies of ‘Dark Waters’ lying on the table and says, “But at poetry festivals, I am able to sell my books. Sales or no sales, I love poetry too much not to keep writing.”

Pramila keeps writing because, language, she feels, has the ability to transform an ordinary event into the extraordinary. “There is a shift in consciousness when you read a powerful poem,” she says.

In her daily life Pramila is a professor of English and women’s studies at Nassau Community College, New York. And she is frank enough to admit that there is an inherent racism in American life. “There is an invisible glass ceiling in the university I work in,” she says. “You have to work harder than the whites.”

But there are positive aspects. “It was only in the US that I have been able to push my talent to the limits,” she says. “And I have flowered as a woman because there is so much of freedom.”

Meanwhile, Pramila is hard at work on her next book. “It is about my paternal grandmother, Sitala,” she says. “I went to Allapuzha and interviewed several relatives to get a picture of her life. It should be an interesting book.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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