We first interviewed Sharanya Manivannan after the publication of her short story collection, The High Priestess Never Marries. That interview can be read here. This interview was done in the light of her recent poetry collection, The Altar of the Only World.
The world ‘Only’ in your title: should we pause on it? Sita, Inanna, Sita-Inanna – they reach the underworld in your poems. Yet this underworld is not the world being referred to as the only world, and is certainly not the world where the feast (let’s say the one in the poem ‘Benediction for the Feast’) eventually takes place. What is this underworld, then? We arrive at the altar after a passage, but what have we passed through? Where has Inanna been?
Inanna has been to the very edge of consciousness, and fought for her soul. This is very much within the spectrum of human experience, even if a trauma of extreme magnitude. The psychic landscape in which the journey of the meta-mythic composite narrator takes place is one which can be illustrated through motifs and metaphors, but the experience itself is by no means hyperbolic. The title comes from these lines, from the poem “Nightblindness”: “I have stepped into the void, virgin one. / It gave me what it knew, and I carried / its teachings through into / the altar of the / only world.” To the virgin one – the word indicates here a lack of awareness, not sovereignty (as I explored in the story “Ancestress” in The High Priestess Never Marries) – this material plane is the only world. The presence, co-existence and possibility of other worlds are fantastical as best. Inanna’s journey comprises of a descent, a purgatory state and an ascent: the world she returns to is unchanged while she is permanently transformed, but imbued with knowledge, which she then brings forth. Which is why she says in another poem, she says, “it is intricate; my ichnites / are there for you / who seek passage.”
What grace are the personages (could I say characters?) in your poetry seeking? Is it the same as having an understanding of love. I quote from the poem ‘Tagelied’
I wanted something other than
myth and antemeridian promise.
I wanted the taste of your fingers
in my mouth for all eternity. But how
did I not read the line of that horizon –
love is a form of phosphorescence,
a shyness, slow to cast its light,
but slower still to unfurl its shadow.
I’ve been asked this question before, in various modes and for various reasons, and I’ve never arrived at an answer that felt entirely whole or that I wanted to keep. That could be why the blurb of the book has the phrase, “the many meanings of grace.”
So yes, love is a form of grace – with or without understanding. There is also grace in the religious sense: to be touched by divinity, abstractly. And then there is grace in the sense of personal strength, and the capacity to inhabit this in a way that is at once gentle and powerful. It’s an attribute often linked to those who grieve, where grace is essentially somewhere between acceptance and fortitude. And, of course, there’s the grace one falls from. I would say all these forms of grace are encountered in this book.
Lucifer in one of the poems in the final section, “Starsong”, says: “Every constellation I wander / I wander with your memory / oscillating in me, and in / this way I keep your praise, / and with me all the cosmos / pulses with grace.” In my initial draft, the line had concluded with the words “your grace”, but when I revisited the manuscript I felt No. Having gone through the journey she has gone through, our narrator would never hold on to the dregs of devotion she has for the one who cast her out. So the universe pulses with grace itself, an ethereal and eternal substance.
From the poem ‘Insomnia’
My hair so fragrant that
bees clustered around it,
their murmur in my ears
the exact timbre
of dying stars.
We should never have left the island.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this Sita missing Lanka’s forests after her rescue(?). What do you think is gained when we rewrite an old myth or an old story? In other words, why is this malleability necessary, and what do we lose when we aren’t allowed to enhance / invert / mutilate / subvert the usual positions of our mythic characters, or even our gods?
Central to my vision of Sita is the version of the myth in which she was the baby Mandodari gave birth to after accidentally consuming a grail of blood kept by her husband, Ravana, for a sacrifice. This baby is set into the water, like Karna and Moses, and the basket she floats in finds its way to the fields of Mithila. I love this kind of humanising origin story, which brings the body, blood and human folly into the telling instead of sterilizing everything. Even in a parthenogenesis tale like Mandodari and the grail of blood, the underbelly of human nature – desire, wickedness, sexual alchemy – aren’t absent. The Karna origin story is similar – we see Kunti’s lust, curiosity, confusion. But then the Mahabharata is allowed complexity that the Ramayana, in mainstream dogma, is just not.
So this is why Sita longs for Lanka after she leaves it. There’s something there that is true to her in ways that have nothing to do with the dynasty she married into or her destiny as, well, a divorcee and single mother. And when Ravana kidnaps her, she experiences déjà vu as the chariot arrives over the island. So these lines in the poem “Daughter by Blood and by Way of Sea and Sky”:
Ask me what I knew of islands
and I will unring each key in an archipelago
of lyric-locked song, lip-latched colostrum,
scent of sudden rain in the tea-terraced mountains –
how I drew my breath in as chariot-shadow
loomed over ocean-sieged land;
how my terror made way for
memory, memory, memory.
I never saw my work with the Ramayana as rewriting as such, because there are hundreds of Ramayanas already. One does not need to look far to see the canonical changing, and sometimes being challenged. I work essentially with the esoteric and with lacunae. I think we stand to lose an enormous amount when myths remain set in stone. This loss is not only creative or intellectual but in fact spiritual. When one reads the bhakti poems, for instance, you see shades of doubt, anger, demand and interrogation. Faith contains all of these. The pretense of faith – the use of faith to assert privilege, dominion over others or political power, as well as a refusal to better one’s personal failings – is what finds offense. Sita’s choices as personal volition, rather than as accordance with dharma, are so much more interesting, volatile, relatable – and therefore valuable to those who see spirituality as personal and not as structural.
Given that you’re working with three mythical figures, and the many ways of looking at their stories, one presumes that the writing of ‘Altar’ involved a fair bit of research. What is your conception of research? How do you approach it? Please give us a window into the material you were consciously engaging with while writing the poems.
I’ve been wanting to tell this story, because it’s something that I didn’t remember to share in the first few interviews I did about Altar, largely because it was lodged at a far crevice of memory, tangled up as it was in an old hurt. Let’s call it proto-research. Let’s call it prediction. In the days before I wrote the book’s first poem, I watched an ottanthullal performance by Suresh Kaliyath on an evening when my heart was being shattered. In it, he danced a slightly obscure episode of the Mahabharata in which Hanuman, that cross-epic hero, encounters his arrogant half-brother Bheema in the forest, and humbles him. The dancer did something uncanny during the performance. He singled me out, pointing at me, and singled out another member of the audience, sitting at a distance, and instructed that person to, well, bring me the saugandhika flower that Draupadi had longed for. It was an experience that was tinged with mystery, for unbeknownst to himself the performer had tapped into the private and highly sentimental, and had an effect on some of the gathered that went beyond appreciation of his beauty and craft.
All of this is to say that my first mode of research was empirical. Art and ritual have certain things in common, and when they are intertwined as they are in some of the folk and classical traditions (aside: what a stupid, bigoted binary that is) – when they are so intertwined, the effect is multivalent. I immersed myself in performance forms, from theatre and dance to film and music, because in them I heard and saw Ramayanas that didn’t always conform to the canonical version. And if they did, they did so with an emotionality that complicated the dogmatic.
Then came literature. Suffice to say that I read many Ramayana iterations (a bite-sized and by no means comprehensive selection from my bookshelf can be seen in this light-hearted piece: http://agentsofishq.com/ramayanas/), but literature was particularly important to me where Inanna and Lucifer were concerned, because here I could not access thriving traditions (artistic or spiritual). Scholars whose work with Inanna were important to me were Betty De Shong Meador and Diane Wolkstein, both of whom worked with the hymns of Enheduanna, a priestess of Inanna in ancient Sumeria and the earliest known poet whose name is on record. Where Lucifer was concerned, I went on an entirely different tangent, running with the association of Lucifer with the morning star/Venus. So I researched astronomy, and for someone who does not have a mathematical mind I absorbed what I learnt through metaphor. One moment I recall is when the violinist Sara Michieletto told me about the song of the pulsar, which she was studying. How poignant it is – a dying star, having imploded, sending out a swansong. Who hasn’t experienced that, deep within the dark and shattered heart?
There are lines in ‘Altar’ that could very well find a place in the stories of ‘High Priestess Never Marries’. Also vice versa. You started as a poet, and the felicity with language that you have is unabashedly available in your prose (becoming one of its remarkable features). How do you then find a differentiated impulse for poetry? And what is the difference for you, if any? If I could put it in a crass way: Which projects shall become ‘Altar’? And which ones shall become ‘High Priestess’?
Thank you. This is one of those questions that demands a reconstruction, but memory is fickle – and when forced, it is false. I’m mulling this question, and find myself unable to pinpoint precisely where a choice is made. So perhaps what’s likely is that there isn’t exactly a choice? Something is already a poem when a line occurs to me, or something is already a story when it calls to me. I’ve never had a confusion happen between the two, at least none that I couldn’t resolve and remember thus. However, because both the collections you mention are thematic in nature, there is a guiding logic to how I filled their contents pages (a logic which also entailed removing pieces). So I always have in mind the larger project, although now and then something comes up that doesn’t fit anything I have planned. Perhaps holding the larger projects, their respective manuscripts, in my head helps a developing piece into the right channel. I often know years ahead that I will try to make something a book, and it’s not so much an impulse than an intuition or an instinct if you will that moves me forward.
The binary – page poet vs. performance poet – is false, and the two categories are not mutually exclusive (neither are they collectively exhaustive, some claim): but what do the terms denote to you? And are the recurring tiffs between the groups who wear these labels a signifier of some sort of crisis – a tension between the injunction to be authentic and the injunction to be emotive? Also, are there other labels that are more useful or instructive?
I’ve been both in my life, and this is who I think the false binary hurts most: those who are considered exclusively performance poets. If we insist that there are polar points, we force poets into one mode or the other. Page poets have it easier, because their work takes a form that can theoretically travel further, and certainly outlive them. There is prestige associated with having passed through the high levels of gatekeeping that allow poetry to be published, and none of this precludes them enjoying taking the mic on occasion. Stage poets on the other hand are forced by this binary into a cocoon, and while some move into recordings, for the most part the snobbery of people on the page poetry side keep them from trying to cross over.
This is a pity, but the way to dissolve these binaries somewhat isn’t to focus on the poets themselves but on the gatekeepers. Why do major publishers do so few books of poems? What kind of infrastructure can support poetry houses? How does pedagogy need to change so that people might not be so traumatised from having been being forced to memorise poetry in school that they cease to engage with it later?
I’m not sure which group it is that has the injunction to be authentic and while group has the injunction to be emotive, because I’d argue that a good poet, no matter what their medium is, must at least aspire to be both. The labels are useful as descriptions, but limiting as identities.