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"Poetry is late for meetings": an interview with Medha Singh

In August of this year, the Garhwal Post of Dehradun, India, published the following interview with poet Medha Singh. We thank the publishers for their permission to republish that interview online for the first time, here in NERObooks. - Eds.

About the subject: Medha Singh is a poet from New Delhi. Her first collection of poems Ecdysis (2017) was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai. Her poems have previously appeared in Nether, Muse India, Beyond Borders, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Journal of the Poetry Society, and others. She has bylines in The Hindu, Mtv (indies), Bordermovement, Rock Street Journal and Rolling Stone, where she wrote on music. She received her degree in MA, English Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. In 2015, she was part of an exchange program as part of her master's degree, at Sciences Po, Paris, where she read International Relations. She is currently working on her second book of poems and a short text on travel fiction. Her poems are forthcoming in the Sahitya Akademi and Red Hen anthologies of Contemporary Indian Writing. Her interests range widely, between philosophy, photography, cinema, music and painting, owed largely to filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. She is Editor-at-Large at Coldnoon.

Medha Singh

The poet in July 2017, communing with wine. Photograph by Rahul Das.

Garwhal Post: Please share with us how you gravitated towards poetry.

Medha Singh: Fairly naturally, through my parents. I was exposed to the domain of Hindi literary writing through my father, and then through my mother a little later. Even though they wrote in styles distinct from each other. Fascinating, how people in love saw language so differently, their inner worlds interacting--one catches a glimpse, it's exciting, like there is something more underneath, the mystery never to emerge.

The first dead-loves of my life were Rilke, Rimbaud and Neruda. Astonishing, still, how I could feel myself change with each reading. At a young age, it seems like magic, as though something else speaks through you. I took off from there.

Besides, I was reading philosophy texts very early on, between thirteen and fifteen. I enjoyed my solitude intensely because of that. I felt I needed to write, though all that came out were poems, and maybe prose tracts that were poetic in nature. I could never reproduce the rigor that I encountered in philosophy.

GP: What is your idea of poetry?

MS: A philosopher friend of mine from Freiburg once said, “Poetry is really the queen of writing.”

It has no relevance. That's why it exists. It's late for meetings, and disappoints its lovers. It expresses the inexpressible, but it is still expressed in a way, even if marginally... I mean, it tries. If any kind of creative expression started to concern itself with being relevant in worldly terms, it would cease to exist when it stops being so. So it continues on. Any kind of creative enterprise is totally useless, it's futile, it's done for its own sake. Which is not to say that I agree with the notion of “art for art's sake.”

Even if it takes on the idea of “use,” it's still not the same as being ‘useful' in that material sense.

A socially motivated orientation as regards any creative writing has a role in transmuting people's inner workings, their emotional frameworks, yet it's also something else. Poetry, always sharpening one's sensitivity upon each reading, bringing that sensitivity to an idea of personal ethics, and transforming that ethics into a larger politics. At the same time, art or poetry is never fixed in time. It goes beyond itself, exists for those that haven't arrived, are still to be born. That's why it is so powerful, it changes people's values.

Was it John Berger who said all of life is poetry, because anything can be transformed into a poem? I think I read that in the essay “The Hour of Poetry.” It sticks to me. Poetry empowers us in that it extends the function of language, or I think it betrays its vulgar functionality. It operates within it and above it, says the inexpressible, says what often shouldn't be. It's completely audacious in that regard. That's empowering and debilitating. Especially when talking about death. These days I only write about death. That is what poetry is to me for now, but it will change too, I hope.

GP: Please share with our readers a bit about your first poetry collection, Ecdysis.

MS: I feel like it's a first book. Just a first book. I'm testing the waters.

GP: What are your literary influences?

MS: I repeat a friend of mine in saying, it's Nietzsche. He taught us never to bow to anyone. This is, of course, a short answer. If I were to give you an answer regarding the people I like, this would be a long essay.

Of late I've fallen in love with Seamus Heaney (again!). I've been reading Death of a Naturalist and Door Into the Dark. Currently reading Ranjit Hoskote's Central Time. Although, the poet of poets to me will always be Arun Kolatkar. I'm always reading Kolatkar.

It's harder to sound like oneself: the telos is to resist being influenced.

GP: You have also been writing about music for various online portals. Where did the interest in music stem from?

MS: I wrote for Rock Street Journal when I was eighteen, because I wanted to know that I could publish, that my ability to treat the subject at hand was good enough or if I needed to do more work (to be published). I didn't have a dilettantish interest in it... maybe playing, but intellectually I was wholly consumed. I listened to rock music all the time (still probably not enough, and as much as a practicing musician, for sure).

I grew up listening to my parents' old cassette tapes and pirated CDs that were circulated around in the late nineties and early 2000s. I felt very drawn to the idea of a rock band, the mélange of guitar, drums and bass sounds was wholly consuming, loved the Beatles and Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Cohen, Patti Smith, Joplin, although I didn't listen to them album by album, I learnt to do that (very late) because that was the professional way to go about it. I remember I would get into arguments with my peers recreating totally outdated debates over music, older than I am. Things reach India twenty years later, and I didn't like much new music.

I liked being in that space around those upper middle class kids, but soon saw the problems with it: smug apolitical attitudes, the amount of sexism in the indie space, the astounding intellectual paucity. I left it in good time. My own ideas about politics were taking shape, but to be true I echo Sontag in that she heard a Dionysian sound and had to follow it, I didn't encounter her until my second year of undergrad, really. It blew me away when I read her interview for Rolling Stone . One could indulge in the aesthetics of sound, it's okay to love something and just experience it. I still write about it, but that's for no one else.

GP: What is your opinion on the numerous poetry slam events cropping up across the country?

MS: Cringefest.

GP: What are you looking forward to at the Valley of Words: International Literature and Arts Festival 2017 in Dehradun?

MS: Books and fireflies, maybe a small wild cat.


Banner graphic: photo (cropped) of blue ghost fireflies in North Carolina. Sourced from ScienceFriday.com; photo credit to Spencer Black.

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