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‘You can’t kill poetry just as you can’t kill love’

Atul Mital | Updated on December 28, 2018 Published on December 28, 2018

Rhyme and reason Jayanta Mahapatra was 40 and a physics lecturer when he published his first collection of poems   -  SHASHIKANT V PATIL

After a lifetime in feted verse, nonagenarian bilingual poet Jayanta Mahapatra confesses that it’s been a lone, painful journey, but it is still poetry that sustains him

At 90, Jayanta Mahapatra says he likes to “plod” on, writing poetry in English and his mother tongue, Odia. His newly-launched book of poems Sky Without Sky is another feather in his cap, coming after nearly 40 published volumes of poetry, translations, short stories, essays and memoirs. Mahapatra, who taught physics in Odisha from 1950 to 1986, was the first Indian English poet to receive the Sahitya Akademi Award (1981) and was recently given the prestigious Tata Poet Laureate Award. In 2015, Mahapatra returned the Padma Shri (conferred on him in 2009) as a mark of protest against what he called the growing “moral asymmetry” in the country. Excerpts from a tête-à-tête with the poet on the phone and through post:

Your poetry has matured with time, delighting readers and revealing new meanings with every reading. What inspires you?

There is this thought I have that happiness — or whatever — would forget me if I stopped writing poems. And, so, I plod on, “making” my poems in English and my native Odia. I can’t say whether it (my life) is a socially or politically engaged one. But poetry lets me deal with the new realities we are facing... and I don’t think the poetry that I feel and write is going to be killed, ever.

We invent our mythologies out of all walks of life, my friend, from things we see and we’re not able to see, from among the living and the dead. This is where my poetry comes from, right? I’d like to think of it that way.

You were the Indian poet to have been published in the ‘The New Yorker’ about 15 years ago. How did that feel?

It felt exhilarating (at first) to be published in The New Yorker. But, somehow, I didn’t think much of it — for my poetry has been appearing regularly in journals such as The Sewanee Review (the oldest literary quarterly in the US), The Hudson Review, Poetry (Chicago) for over 40 years. I hope you’d call that an achievement. But when an editor (Alice Quinn of The New Yorker) says on her own that she should have noticed and published my work earlier, that means something. Practically speaking, it isn’t easy for me to get my manuscripts typed and sent regularly to foreign journals. I don’t have that kind of money. I retired as a college teacher, no UGC scale etc. — so things tend to slow down. I don’t even own a computer, and sending work or contacting editors has become tough indeed.

I’ve sent all my publications, books, awards, souvenirs to the FM University, Balasore — where they’ve been displayed in a room (JM Heritage Gallery). I really wanted to lighten myself; it was my age, I suppose, and my Indian-ness; added to the fact that there was no one to take care of my “library”, which had around 45,000 books.

What are your thoughts on writers returning their Sahitya Akademi Awards in protest against communal and other killings?

There have been protests almost always. Even Rabindranath Tagore returned his Knighthood, and Khushwant Singh his Padma Award. I, simply, listened to the small beat of my heart, or conscience, whatever you might like to call it. Poetry sustains me. All other things, who knows about them?

How has your poetry changed since you started writing?

I would say that my poetry changed over the decades by becoming stronger and going deeper into the psyche. I’d have to go back 50 years or more to when I published my first poems... I’d ask myself now: Was I in a hurry because I was 40? As critics and readers discovered in 1972, the poems were not immediately accessible, some readers even called them “abstruse”. But the poems I wrote, as I began working up from Close the Sky, Ten by Ten to A Rain of Rites, came out of a small sense of childhood deprivation and a blurred feeling of unhappiness... Slowly, however, my poetry began to change. I realised I wasn’t the centre of the universe, but there was another vast and feeling world around me and I had to see, and hear.

Is poetry becoming popular again?

I couldn’t say if poetry is becoming popular, or important again in our lives, but a lot of poetry is being published and read, almost everywhere, and that’s a good sign... Poetry takes much meanness out of us. But, frankly, a poetry “revival” will happen on the Net, where anyone can publish anything. I’d say that our writing of poetry will go on, as it has all the time.

Poems are meant to be shared. Poetry, like love and like the demand for happiness, has its own urgencies. You can’t kill poetry just as you can’t kill love. I don’t know what else to say. It’s been a lone, painful journey for me, and I still don’t know where I’m going. My favourite poet, Fernando Pessoa of Portugal, is so right when he says:

“I’m nothing,

I’ll always be nothing.

I can’t even wish to be something.

Aside from that, I’ve got all the world’s dreams inside me.”

Atul Mital is a Delhi-based journalist

Published on December 28, 2018
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