Writing Haiku as a Possessed Man: an interview with Paresh Tiwari
We’re honored to offer this wonderful interview between Jhilam Chattaraj and Paresh Tiwari. They journey through the struggle of utilizing the deception of all art, to a vision of the future of Paresh’s favored forms: the haiku and the haibun. Enjoy this deep dive from one of haiku’s most prominent adventurers.
Poet, writer, editor, painter, Paresh Tiwari, is a representative voice of an emerging group of Indian poets interested to explore the far eastern poetic forms, haiku and haibun. His poetry weaves memories, experiences, and a bit of his soul on paper. A poet drunk on sensuality, he explores human emotions in a terroir, free from the fetters of the stereotypical ideas of nation, identity and ethnicity, so often fashionably handcuffed to contemporary poetry from Asia. He is a seeker of the heart and at places rips apart the mask of literature in a language, deeply rooted in the soil of truth and beauty. Paresh is on a mission to popularise the above forms in India and encourage dialogue between those who dismiss them as trivial and the ones who delight in their profundity.
Jhilam Chattaraj: Congratulations! Your book, Raindrops Chasing Raindrops, 2017 received an Honourable Mention at the “The Touchstone Distinguished Books Award”, 2017. How does it feel?
Paresh Tiwari: Thank you, Jhilam. This being my second collection of poetry, the award reinstates my own faith in my work. Somehow, I constantly live under the fear of burning out. The award might dispel my fears for a while and coax me to write more. There however, is a larger picture, in the eight years of the awards’ relatively brief history, I am the first Indian to be on the list. I feel it might in a small way shine light on the Indian haiku scene, persuading at least the independent publishers like Red River Press to be more attentive to this oft ignored sub-genre.
Chattaraj: Why would you call it an “oft ignored sub-genre”?
Tiwari: Haiku’s brevity and apparent simplicity might be its biggest foes. Twitter also has turned a lot of banal descriptions, aphorism or pop-philosophy into hashtag haiku. All this, along with (counter-intuitively), haiku’s democratic accessibility – which should be lauded, has been instrumental in building up a reputation that demotes it from the realm of literature. I have had publishing houses turn down my manuscript, with a curt – We don’t accept haiku and associated forms. I doubt if they even bothered to go through the pages. The haiku poets in answer walled themselves in isolated groups, further widening the chasm between mainstream poetry and Japanese short forms. My attempts to present haibun alongside mainstream poetry – be it in readings, lit fests or in anthologies and books – is about breaking these walls down.
Chattaraj: Your poems primarily narrate a man’s desires, deliriums, anxiety and regrets… How has the haibun, as a form helped you achieve a unity between the kernal of emotional truth and the use of artifice in the poem?
Tiwari: Haibun at the very basic level might be seen as blocks of prose interspersed with haiku. And that’s how simplistic it could be, only it isn’t. A good haibun plays with a delicate balance where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The haiku when used right, links, shifts and leaps beyond the scope of the prose to enrich the reading experience.
My poems rely on the interplay of prose and poetry. If the prose is a meandering path, the haiku are birdcalls. They guide the travellers, not by holding their hand but by telling them that there is more to be explored. The haiku often allow the reader a toe inside the door, or a window to be privy to a parallel scene unfolding in the street below without ever leaving the room. They offer a different vantage point, a new strain of thought.
As you so succinctly point out, my poems are primarily narratives of a man’s desires, deliriums, anxiety and regrets. The form that I write in, helps me expand the scope. It helps me find the link between falling of a leaf and a goodbye kiss.
Chattaraj: A genre that you have nurtured since years. How and when did you commence your explorations in haiku and haibun?
Tiwari: I started out as a painter with exploration of humanity as my leitmotif. Around 2005 though, after two decades of painting, I felt stagnated.
In the winters of 2012, during one of the most trying times in my life, I came across a book of poetry and on one of the pages in this book – tucked away from prying eyes, were five haiku. I was smitten. I was in love. Looking back today, I realise that this was a time when I was trying to heal myself; I didn’t or couldn’t reach out to my friends, family or acquaintances, and had a lot of time for introspection. Haiku gave me a channel. I started writing haiku as a possessed man. Everything was a subject. Four months later, I attended the Annual Haiku Conference in Pune and only when the master practitioners of the form ripped my work apart that I realised how far I was from truly understanding haiku.
A few months later, I came across haibun; something that would become my lifelong love. It took me two years to understand the basics of these forms. From there on, the journey has been about bringing my own sensibilities to the forms.
Chattaraj: Your own poetic vision is evident in the beautiful structure of the book. How did you categorise the poems? Also, how do you decide on the title of a poem?
Tiwari: Structuring the book was rather difficult because the sections are not really concrete. After countless readings of the final selected works, I noticed a pattern. The works charted a journey from the external to the deep within – a need to make peace with what I found there – and then a movement to the outside once more. In my mind’s eye, it looked a bit like the ‘Golden Spiral’.
And that’s how the book eventually structured itself. Into four chapters starting with works that flirt with magic realism, before moving on to celebrate the process of breakage, the eventual healing, and glimpses of past. The book ends with works that brush shoulders with and comment upon the socio-political narratives of our times.
As for the title, I like to use my title as an additional thread in the tapestry of hybrid poems. The title, the poetic-prose and the haiku when read together form a coherent whole that would just not be the same if we were to remove any one of these elements. How far, did I succeed? Well that’s something for the reader to decide.
Chattaraj: As a reader, I found the poet a little less accessible. Numerous characters populate the text, how can I find you?
Tiwari: When I was young, I used to make paper collages with my mom. We would then stick these together on a chart paper to make a different picture. It was a patient enterprise and a small collage often had thousands of paper pieces stuck together in the mosaic of a new creation. The poet, his persona that you search for is a careful sampling of the people and situations that linger within him and it’s all there in that slim book. I would like to think that each of these works – no matter the character or the voice that has been employed, while telling the story – are the shards of my life. The experiences that I have written about have at one point of time or the other shaped who I am and will always be a part of my existence.
Chattaraj: In the collection, your experiences often begin at a certain geographical location, say a street, a sea shore, but they never emerge as a concrete space with its own characteristics or even a name. Is there a conscious effort?
Tiwari: It wasn’t a conscious effort to strip a place away of its identity or name. I would like to believe places do retain their identity – at least the one that holds importance in the context of the story being narrated.
In terms of the geographic locale, the book unfolds in India. But this is merely a layer in the book – reflected mostly in the images put together. Almost every haibun in this book is planted in the soil of relationships, and in one way or another they explore the topography, the highs and lows, and the inadequacies of those relationships. The nameless places are one of the ways in which I have distilled these works into their most elemental form.
Chattaraj: This elemental approach, I believe, takes the reader into a meditative micro-cosmos woven by the threads of your imagination. You create a world that is contrapuntal to the real world ridden with conflicts. How do you do that?
Tiwari: By acknowledging the deception of all art. Good literature, I believe does not recount how things happened but how they should have. What is truth anyway? We as writers and poets often leave a lot out when we tell the truth. Sometimes, we even embellish it. This living, breathing mutating truth is what interests me. This collection of hybrid poetry is my pursuit of truth. And it plays out in a world that’s my creation.
I have taken liberties with the widely accepted definitions of the real and the imagined, with chronological timelines and order. I have spoken to painters, poets, and surrealists who are no longer amongst us. I have made love to well-thumbed books, to robots that could be mistaken for lovers, collected melting clocks, and shared an umbrella with mongrels. The world that I have created in this book is fashioned out of enveloping sheets of truth and perception, truth within that perception, and perceptions outside of truth. With every piece in the book, I have attempted to spread out the jigsaw pieces of my life in front of the readers, inviting them to put it all together.
Chattaraj: Well, I have unearthed a few things about you, through the book: your modern, cosmopolitan soul but more than that, I am curious to know about the ethnic and cultural influences on your work?
Tiwari: I was born in Lucknow – the old parts of the city. My life began in a haveli owned by a Muslim family. It was a crumbling mansion – a run-down relic that had seen better times. The door archways were carved with aayats that looked like creepers until inspected, keenly. On the second-floor of this mansion, around a courtyard lived eight families, mine included. Ours was the only hindu family. I remember learning rudimentary Urdu even before Hindi. I remember the taste of mutton curry far more clearly than that of halwa-poori. I also remember celebrating Holi, Diwali, and Rakshabandhan along with Ramadan and Eid with the families of that mansion.
Even though we moved out of that place when I was around nine years old, this is the city I remember. My poems often wake up with the morning adhaan, float on the back of paper kites, chase after the tennis bowl smashed by the local gully cricket sensation, skirt by the ankles of rice-pudding sellers, spotted mongrels, and crumbling paan-stalls before settling over the sounds of evening aarti.
Chattaraj: Beautifully summed up! Your words and poetry remind me of T.S. Eliot’s concept of “Objective Co-relative”. Is this a part of the way of a haibun or a product of your poetic consciousness?
Tiwari: I depart from the aesthetics of haibun essentially in the use of ‘Objective co-relatives’ in my poems. It is unique to my interpretation of the form. Haibun traditionally eschews embellishments and poetic devices. The prose is terse and matter-of-fact. This is not to say other English language haibuneers completely shun poetic devices such as ‘Objective co-relatives’, but only that my work quite generously and almost unknowingly embraces them.
Chattaraj: You have embraced a form, added your own tinge to it and that makes me wonder about the genealogy of your style?
Tiwari: The list of things and people I appreciate is long and diverse.
I suppose my style however, has not just been influenced by the writers I read or admire. My style takes its cues from the way Van Gogh used whorls of paint on canvas, how Giovanni Strazza chiseled the delicate lips of a virgin under a marble veil and also how Ghalib knotted couplets on his handkerchief. As for writers, here’s a non-comprehensive list – in no particular order – Billy Collins, Gulzar, Michael Ondaatje, Kamala Das, Ruskin Bond, Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and J.K Rowling.
Chattaraj: That’s an eclectic list! Would you like your poems to be translated?
Tiwari: A part of me wants my works to be translated in Hindi and Urdu. So that I could reach back to my roots not just with my subject and themes but also with the language. Unfortunately, I don’t think the kind of imagery I use will work very well in either of these languages. Incidentally, I also at times write in Hindi. But my works in these two languages are such disparate voices that I often wonder if it is even written by the same person. I however think my works might fare well in Spanish or perhaps even Japanese.
Chattaraj: Aren’t you afraid that some things could be lost in translation and on that note, have you lost anything in your pursuit of poetry?
Tiwari: My zealously guarded melancholy. I had to let my guard down and invite others into my imperfect world. I am still unsure of how to deal with this loss of privacy. At the SIES College Mumbai, after a fairly interesting workshop on haibun, a young student came and said, ‘I wish to write like you one day.’ And I thought, no you don’t. No one should wish to write like this. No one should be this naked or this vulnerable. This exposed to empathy, judgement, ridicule or even associatively from others. My writing skates a thin line between the truth of emotional vulnerability and the truth as an entity. Sometimes, those close to me or those I meet over a cup of coffee are unable to differentiate between the two.
Chattaraj: Your language evokes truth, often in the Wordsworthian sense but your thought embraces a Modernist approach. Hence, I wonder, is your work “poetry as emotion recollected in tranquillity” or “poetry as an escape from emotion”?
Tiwari: What an incisive question! To be honest, I never thought of it consciously. I haven’t formally studied poetry and am not familiar with the various discourses on the subject. At first it seems rather intuitive that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity and it might be for a lot of readers and writers. For me however, ‘poetry is an escape from emotion’. Some of the more difficult themes, emotions, trajectories of my life are garbed in the clothes of the fantastical and surreal. I believe, I have often used the artifice of craft to meet these truths on my terms instead of theirs.
Chattaraj: Your truths primarily stroll around women- What inspires you about women?
Tiwari: Where do I even begin? I suspect I don’t just admire women. Admiration is too watered down a term. It’s pale and lack lustre. Women elicit far more than that in me. I think it all begins with the body. The feminine form contains a certain raw, untamed, natural vitality and a hint of mystery that the masculine can only desire, never imitate. This could also be a reason why the most alluring love poems are written by male poets – they are after all about women (and I say this with no intent to marginalise gay love poetry). I have been fortunate enough to cross paths with women who decimate every conceivable barrier.
Chattaraj: At this point, I cannot help but ask, if you think men and women write differently?
Sometimes you want to talk
about love and despair,
and the ungratefulness of children,
A man is no use whatever then
You want then your mother
Or the girl with whom you went through school,
and your first love, and her
first child – a girl –
and your second.
(The Female of the Species – Kamala Das)
We see a different world – quite literally – and we write about it differently. It is theorised that since men have more testosterone receptors than women, particularly in the visual regions of the brain, there is a huge perceptual chasm between the two sexes. Despite being an artist, I can rarely identify as many shades of nail paint as an average woman would.
But that’s not all, even evolution might have prepared us in a slightly different manner, all in a bid to ensure we eventually find our way here and talk literature. Coming back to literature, I believe men meander around the wild a lot more in their writing. It is almost as if we still are chasing and hunting. While the women look more closely inwards as if they are sitting by the mouth of their cave, one eye focussed on the toddler crawling her way to the lone tusk in the farthest corner, another peeled on the slowly building fire, whilst also being aware of the sabre tooth prowling the area.
Chattaraj: That’s a very interesting way to put your ideas and coming to men meandering around the wild, how do your charter your ideas as a poet, painter and a naval officer?
Tiwari: I often picture myself painting with words when I write. The painter and the writer in me get along quite well to be honest. For instance, I often try to tell stories when I paint and evoking the visuals, the colours and the texture of a scene comes quite naturally when I write. The naval officer? Now that one is often at odds with the other two. He craves order, discipline, and accountability, everything counterintuitive for the artist.
Chattaraj: So you are perennially uniting the opposites! and that brings me to my penultimate question. Indian poetry in English, has often been about experiences specific to Indian, or ethnic sentiments. But poets like you, have dispelled that by making the self, the sole subject. What are the terrains, you think emerging Indian poets could explore?
Tiwari: I would want us to write without thinking about posterity. Without wondering if our poems would last. More than exploring a particular terrain with the intent of bringing a new face to Indian poetry, I would like us to embrace our own sense of imperfection. The soil in which we sow our ink could be anything – travel, love, longing, finding and transforming our identity across borders, self-actualisation, socio-political issues, megalographic vignettes from history or even our ethnic sentiments – as long as we treat these subjects as a part of our personal history, embracing breakage and repair as something to celebrate, rather than something to disguise, we should do well.
Chattaraj: And how do you perceive the future of haiku and haibun in India?
The Japanese form of poetry might be the most ill-understood form out there. Haiku and by extension haibun, continue to be widely misunderstood as an exercise in counting syllables.
The form’s democratic accessibility may also have had a role to play in an apparent demotion of the form from the higher echelons of literature. But it is this accessibility that would eventually be the most important contribution of Japanese forms to world of poetry. Haiku makes most readers believe that they too can write. And though this belief might have its downsides, it helps in liberating poetry from the quills of a select few.
In that past three years or so, these forms have seen a slow but steady growth in the country. And even though the road is long and tortuous, it does look inviting.
Poet, artist, and editor, Paresh Tiwari has been widely published, especially in the sub-genre of Japanese poetry. A Pushcart Prize nominee, he has published two acclaimed collections of poetry. Raindrops Chasing Raindrops, his latest collection of haibun, was the recipient of the Touchstone Distinguished Book Awards – 2017.
Paresh is the resident cartoonist for Cattails, a journal by United Haiku and Tanka Society, USA and the serving haibun editor of the literary magazine Narrow Road, a tri-annual publication. He has read his works at various literature festivals, cafés, theatres, galleries and has conducted haibun workshops at venues across India in an attempt to dismantle the boundaries that keep the various forms of poetry and literature from sharing the same spaces.
Jhilam Chattaraj is presently working as an Assistant Professor at R.B.V.R.R Women’s College, Department of English, Hyderabad. She has authored two books: Corporate Fiction: Popular Culture and the New Writers (2018) by Prestige Books International and the poetry collection When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays (2018), Authorspress, New Delhi. She divides her time between teaching, conducting workshops, academic research and creative writing. Her academic and creative writings have been published in national and international journals like Cha-An Asian Literary Journal, and World Literature Today. Currently, she is working on a book of interviews of young Indian poets.