Saturday, March 8, 2014

Muse India - Issue 54 : March - April2014

Leena Manimekalai: In Interview with Rajaram Brammarajan

Leena Manimekalai is a poet, film maker and activist committed to social justice. She has made a dozen films about the dynamics of caste, gender, globalization in contemporary Indian society, art therapy, student politics, and environmental issues. Specifically, her films have dealt with the subjects of eco-feminism, indigenous rights, water rights, and fishermen/refugee rights in the background of Tamil ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka. Her films have been acclaimed critically in both national and international forums winning several awards in prestigious international film festivals and civil rights circuits. Leena has received the Charles Wallace Art Award, the EU Fellowship and the Commonwealth Fellowship so far. She has published four poetry collections and is currently editing a feature length documentary on enforced disappearances in Srilanka.

This interview with Rajaram Brammarajan took place via e-mail.

RB: Which is the exact moment when a poem begins to form in your mind?

LM: When time and space explode into word, some mystery is unraveled. It is the repose of that ecstasy that is what poetry is, I used to muse. Apart from those moments inherently and involuntarily stirring, sometimes I do write to relieve me of some issues or to go beyond them, wade through them. When the links and chains of power such as family, society, gender, religion, caste, nation, philosophy, ideology etc interfere with the wanderings of the self, the 'I', at that time also I attempt to write to resist, disturb and protest. Thus poetry comes to me of its own or I go seeking it.

RB: Do you have any specific themes beforehand, to write poems? If so what are they? If not, what trigger you to write poetry?

 With all my hate and love with existence, with all the contradictions and congenialities, writing takes place. I have penned poems to burst open and tear apart my own self. With the desire to taste my own blood oozing out of those scratches and wounds I have written poems. I have written to love as well as to betray. For, writing should be inclusive of both the noble and ignoble things of life. One's pride, hunger, deceit, sins, heights and abysmal falls, celebration of life - writing should mirror, reflect everything.

When I write winning over self-censorship, I experience the bliss of freedom. And, I am enslaved by this bliss.

RB: In your view, what is the role played by style in modern Tamil poetry?
LM: I resist any control exerted over me by language. I rebel against it. I sincerely feel that my literary activities are openly declared war against the rules and norms of language. My first and last objective and goal in writing poetry is to act against the dos and don'ts of writing poetry, that one should write this way and words and expressions should be used in certain ways alone. Language is a subtle and novel rope of power. It is all over me, entwining and crushing like a deadly snake. I make love to it and deactivate its poison and so proceed with my life as a poet. If there is a path that stands in stark contrast with all the styles and expressions found in Tamil poetry so far, there will be my imprints for sure.

RB: How do you choose the words for your poetry? Or, does the poem instinctively select its own choice of words?
LM: I choose each and every word with utmost consciousness. As language stands as memory, and that memory remains deep down, etched in all the divides and disparities that exist in the society, I have to handle it with utmost care and caution. For, if we choose to be a little indifferent about it, it would change the poet as an agent and henchman of power. The poet can never stay away from the challenge of language. That's his curse or bliss.

RB: There are those who complain that modern Tamil poetry has the element of ambiguity in it and that it is not easily comprehensible. What do you have to say about this?
LM: The poet is at liberty and is entitled to indulge in all sorts of mischief and surprises in handling a language. Comprehension, ambiguity, everything is the poet's choice. It is absolutely unnecessary to be afraid of anybody's complaints and condemnations in this regard. The very claim that everything can be dissected, examined and given a verdict is but power mongering. Aren't we still unraveling the mysteries of those poems by publishing so many books of commentary which the poets of the Sangam era had left behind in their poetry. I am one who always wishes to keep something or other hidden and concealed in my poems.

RB: Do you write poems when they come to you? Or, have you written any poem on having been asked by some magazine? If so, which one gives you more satisfaction?

 In the initial stages I have obliged several magazines and given them poems. but, they are not satisfactory to me and I have made it a point not to include them in my poem-collections.

RB: Of all your poems which one[s] is[are] your favourite[s]? Why?
LM: I am yet to write such a wholesome poem.

RB: As a discerning reader which are the plus and minus points that you find in your poems?
LM: With my poems I am always at a conflict. Whenever I read them those emotionally charged moments and the passions of it all overwhelm me making it impossible for me to get into the poem objectively, as just a reader. As far as my poems are concerned I am one who has miserably failed as a reader.

RB: Who is your favourite among the contemporary poets? What in their poesy that draws your attention most?
LM: My favourite poets are Yavanika Sriram, Selma Priyadarshan, Madhivannan, Sahib, Ilango Krishnan. Among the Eelam poets Karunakaran, Nilaanthan. The self-examinations and micro politics appeal to me a great deal.

RB: As for as the Tamil pop magazines are concerned has the space and demand for good poetry increased now?
LM: Pop-magazines have always been and will always be against intense and serious poetry. A few of my poems did get published in that space and they too must have possessed some sort of consumer aspect in them.

RB: As a woman writing poetry do you feel that your poems should focus on women's issues or they should have women as their prime theme?

 Gender bias and oppression is the origin of slavery. Its wail and scream would invariably be heard in art. Till the time the shackles are removed for good we cannot write the voiceless words of it all. Keeping the doors and windows tightly shut, you cannot inquire why we peep through the key-hole.

RB:In the 80s and 90s, why, even now modern Tamil poems have found and are finding place in little magazines or alternate magazines alone. This being the case, when all those who function in this alternate magazine circle do not get the recognition due to them, is it a valid accusation to say that women writing poetry were/are suppressed and sidelined?
LM: For 2000 years writing has been only by men. Except the women poets of the Sangam Era and Andal and Karaikkal Ammaiyar writing and history were in the hands of men. And, now when after 2000 years women have surfaced in significant number in the field of poetry it is but natural that the focus and attention are more on them. And it is a myth to claim that men's dominance and control over the realm of literature and the recognition due to them have come down. For, most of the women who have come into this field function as betrayers of their fellow women writers for the sake of being safeguarded and promoted by the male bastions. And also for publication and critical assessment. In short, a good number of women writers and poets are like characters in a play on Feminism directed by man.

RB: There were those who criticized and condemned the poems of women writing poetry on moral grounds and poetic grounds. Is it right to club the two together and brand them as male-chauvinists?
LM: The text written by women, even when it centres around sex and sexuality, man who has been the oppressor down the years has no right to critically assess it or morally decry it. Surely, he can't have such right. First and foremost, man should approach a text written by women without his several crowns of 'male-consciousness' and 'socially and historically accorded supremacy'. There can never be another oppressor like the much acclaimed Grammarian Tholkaappiyan. And, a person who happens to be a woman and a writer need not adhere to the rules and regulations laid down by him. This very question is born of a traditional, conservative mind. It is my magnanimity that I chose to answer this.

RB: Is it wrong to review the poems of women at all? Are they to be considered above criticism? Is it a healthy trend? In your view which is a healthy review or criticism of the poems of women writing poetry? How should it be?
LM: Here the texts written by women are viewed as those very women themselves. This is done both by men and women. The text is lost and the body is what is displayed. In the name of assessing a 'female text' all kinds of violence is heaped upon the body of the female who has authored the text. Even those women who have been functioning as stooges to male dominance and power coolly partake in this violent assault.

A text written by a woman should be viewed as a separate entity from the concerned woman's existence and physique. Unfortunately our society has not yet reached the psychological heights for this.

RB: Don't you think that the very coinage 'women poets' gives room for any man, whether he knows poetry or not, to sit on a pedestal and speak about women writing poetry in a patronizing tone? Or, do you think that this coinage is essential? If so, why?

 The adjective woman's poetry is not required for the text. When I am referred to with such an adage it makes me cringe in shame.Perhaps such identification and classification is needed in a society ridden with gender disparities. But, when it turns into a favour or concession I would like to stand diagonally opposite to it.

RB: History is twofold: the history of the past and the history of the present. So, even if you genuinely feel that women were suppressed and oppressed in the literary field in the past which is not the whole truth, today women writing poetry get more attention than men. Can we call this as injustice meted out to your male contemporaries?
LM: I think I have already answered this question.

RB: It was when magazines like Kalachuvadu encouraged and promoted women writing poetry, on a continuous basis the number of women writing poetry increased. Of course, even before that women interested in writing poetry were writing. Now you can see that there is a lull and not many women entrants have appeared in the field of poetry? So, can we say that it is not suppression but lack of encouragement and promotion that come in the way of women writing poetry?
LM: Kalachuvadu is a corporate firm that brings under Brahminist surveillance the various trends of literature such as Feminism, Dalithism and the writings of the marginalized sections of society, gender-wise and sexual-orientation wise. The way it goes about doing this is condemnable and yet writers without spinal cord allow this to go on. This publishing house habitually sabotages those who refuse to come under its dominance and function as unfettered writers, whether they be men or women, with continued campaign against them filled with lies and abuses. So it keeps striving hard to establish its supremacy and dominance as the 'Throne of Tamil Modern Literature'. True, it has brought to the fore quite a number of women writers but equally so it has wiped out the existence of several women writers. What do you say to that?

RB: What should be the relationship between poetry and life, both on an individual level and on a social level?
LM: As far as I am concerned if I am separated from my poetry I am just a lifeless body. That's all. But, I don't agree with referring to poetry as merely an expression of the inner world. Throughout history it has been poetry which has energized people and made possible many new social movements. So, in my view, poetry is the conscience of mankind.

RB: As a woman writing poetry how far have your personal space and social space expanded?
LM: Thanks to my poetry I have been celebrated, loved, and also much abused, attacked. Dragged to court, cursed, hated, subjected to sexual assault, thanks to poetry, I have gained and lost a lot. Yet, it is poetry which holds my hand with all the love in the world and takes me along the magical pathway of life!

RB: It is said that more than writing about sex and sex related issues it is writing about one's own jealousy, deception, arrogance, ill feelings in one's poetry as a confession which is more difficult. How do you view this observation?

 I have dealt with my jealousy, wrath, arrogance, bitterness, weaknesses, filth, deceptions - everything in my poetry. Sure, I will write more in the coming days. Can there be sex and sexuality without all these?

RB: Is it a must that a writer or a poet should also function as a social activist? Isn't it enough to use one's writing as the tool for initiating social change?
LM: The very act of being a poet is being an activist. For, what is the use of any art if it is not driven by social concern? Though there is no need to go into the streets and fight, writing itself is an expression of dissent. It is the veritable weapon for change.

RB: There are absolutely no new Tamil rhymes, songs or poems for children. As a poet, tell us a way to set right this scarcity.

LM: We should become children. We should retrieve the child in each one of us. We should write a lot. How else can we compensate for this awful deficiency in the real life of Tamil Literature?