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Poet C.P. Surendran on his new book, Available Light

By April 17, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu

C.P. Surendran talks about light, its absence, diving to the sea of the mind and the cell phone


C.P. Surendran’s latest book collects his new and old poems. The title, Available Light, is what first caught my attention and drew me later into the collection. A photographic concept popularised by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Satyajit Ray, this largely refers to the technique of photographing subjects in natural light, avoiding any artificial source. There are complexities and grey areas lurking in ‘available light’ — a perfect title and metaphor for poetry. And Surendran’s combines the harshest commentary on life, love and people. Yet, the harshness descends on the reader with lyrical drama. He says, “I am hypnotised by life and its genius for terminations, lit absences.” To him, the images we conjure up in the mind or in the dream state do not require light at all. “Indeed, there is no source of light inside us save the memory of it.” Whether he is talking about places — Tranquebar or Hades — or responding to the Holocaust, or commenting on poetry in India, the dark corners of history and consciousness punctuate his verse. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

Tell us about how and why you use light as a concept and title of your new book of poems.

Light as a running theme was not consciously sought. But when I set about writing Available Light — not quite unlike a novel, as I was writing many poems without a break — a theme emerged.

I believe it is the metaphorically fuzzy logic of the mind, and not the sequential logic of the typical computer programmer that allows one’s imagination to take a leap. The workings of the mind’s logic made light assume other dimensions. The idea of light in the opening poem, ‘A Note To The Self From Tranquebar’ — say, the first lines: “In a village by the noon, the sun rises in every room/ A shade of doubt, and I get the door. Vanakkam./ My father, brought to light by the sea. A petal I kept/ To mark the pages of my life turns dark as the rum/ Ove Jedde took back to his silver mines in Kongsberg.”/— almost becomes its antithesis later, the idea of the dark.

The title of the book refers also to the fact that available light is a concept in photography. The supply of light to humans is finite in more ways than one. Light is time; after all, the sun will burn out in some 5 billion years? Its absence, the dark, is the spectrum we can’t see. Ghosts come from there. And other nameless things we see in dreams.

Why have Hades and Hadal been a preoccupation in your recent work, be it your novel or poetry?

Hadal originates from the word ‘Hades’, the other world in Greek mythology, the dark, shadowy place of afterlife. It also alludes to a certain deep zone in the sea where pressure and density are great and only a few predators are able to inhabit the sunless waters, and where the “Cold is without thought.”

The novel Hadal refers to depths of human intrigue. It is loosely based on the so-called ISRO spy scandal of the 1990s, but seen from the perspective of a highly imaginative, corrupt and prurient police officer.

The poem by that name refers to the shadows thrown up from the bottom of the sea. I am drawn to depths, and the light at the heart of the dark. Let’s say, I am hypnotised by life and its genius for terminations. The gilded ephemerality of it all is perhaps what makes everything about us both necessary and insignificant. How to come to an understanding of this extraordinary act of suspiration that has somehow coupled itself with the consciousness that will come to pass? It’s when I write that I know what it is to be most alive and most dead, the mind free as if in meditation. Free because it is focused. A little light caught on the long run; just about shows the next step, and then down you go.

The David poems are a striking and disturbing feature of this collection. How and when did you encounter David in your poetic consciousness?

I’m obsessed with the mid-20th century. The despots, the wars, the utter contempt for individual life, the cold, the snow, the constant drawing and redrawing of the maps in war rooms.

In all history, the mid-20th century world descended the farthest into hell. That is what we could do to each other. Recall Primo Levi’s (a concentration camp survivor) If This Be A Man. Everything was extreme. Somehow I can’t seem to get out of that time. It’s like a constant alarm bell. In my latest and forthcoming novel, Saving Elizabeth from Stalin, too, I slip into the deep sea of those years again and again like a diver looking for something he will recognise if only on sight. David, of the series David, Don’t be Sad That was A Dream, came to me once in a dream.

I began the series as a tribute to Paul Celan, a poet I like very much, and who, like some of us, had to re-appropriate the language in which racism and dominion are still exercised.

The David in the poem is a Jew reliving the Holocaust experience. But he could be anywhere, including Mumbai, because I suppose I associate that city with railway tracks and cattle-commuting, a common sign of the non-individuated, cabbage life that a lot of people led under the Nazis.

There are 30 poems in the David cycle. I didn’t think there were so many when I started out. But images kept coming back, and I thought I should purge myself of them.

How has poetry as a genre evolved in India between your last book andAvailable Light?

What evolution? As ever, there are infinitely more poets than readers in English-speaking India. The social media is agog with their outpourings — the single device that complicates life the most in all history by obsessively attempting to simplify it is the cell phone.

But I believe there is more awareness of the possibilities of the word, ironically again, because of the social media. The truth is, English-India still has no reading culture primarily because English is seen as a career language. Not the language of your inner world.

Also, how to save poetry from creative writing courses and professors? How not to be a careerist and still be a poet? Questions, questions. One way or other they all lead to the issue of what one can only term as a perverse rectitude of the moral imagination, whose visible effect so far has been one’s enduring social and intellectual isolation. Often I see poetry as a sentence passed on life and death. And I serve it, like most writers perhaps, one eye on history, the other on my shrinking wallet. How tragic. How comic.

A writer and literary journalist, the interviewer’s first book of poems, Nine, was published in 2015.

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