“Poetry makes it possible to observe things”

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Poetry can mean anything to anyone. Like a work of art, the meaning of a poem can change depending on who reads it. This is usually the case unless a poet intends the work to be read in a certain way, says Itisha Giri, poet and podcaster. Giri, who launched her first poetry book, ‘An Archive’, last week, is sure people will perceive her poems differently than she sees them. She knows very well that they will take their own form for different people.

Giri, who is also the co-creator and producer of the popular feminist podcast “Boju Bajai”, has been writing poetry for 12 years. His poetry has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies. She is also the editor of “These Fine Lines”, a collection of poetry composed of young women poets.

In ‘An Archive’, Giri contributes 37 poetic verses, sometimes as herself and sometimes as an observer of events. She covers a range of topics, sounds and feelings missing from our everyday language, memories of people who are gone, cultures surrounding death, how language plays with power and how a connoisseur of words can use this same language to deconstruct this control.

In this conversation with the Post Srizu BajracharyaGiri talks about her journey as a poet, her love for words, the inside and outside of poetic writing, and how poetry makes a difference.

Let’s start with your journey into poetry. When did you start writing poems?

When I was studying at Budhanilkantha school, I used to participate in many poetry recitation contests, where we had to memorize someone else’s poems. And as a child, I was really into the rhythm, the melody and the repetition of the poems. For some reason, I just liked reading poetry out loud. I remember when I read Bhupi Sherchan’s collection of poetry “Ghumne Mechmathi Andho Manche”, I was amazed at the play on words.

Later, when I went to the UK for my higher studies, I started reading anthologies like “Staying Alive” and “Being alive”, both of which are a collection of poems [from a mix of contemporary poets] respond to certain feelings. These collections were really important to me. But I [intentionally] began reading English translations of Nepali poems like the “Himalayan Verses” by Professor of Nepalese and Himalayan Studies Michael Hutt, then Manjushree Thapa’s translations of Nepali poems written by women poets in the columns of the Nepali Times.

I’ve always been drawn to the works of socially engaged poets, and for me, the fact that poetry can respond to injustices and create conversations around injustices was so impressive. Making poetry could create urgency and immediacy, which also contributed to my interest in writing poetry. And I was introduced to these accomplishments because I read works by poets like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Meena Kandasamy, Kamala Das, and Sharon Olds. Their social engagement with poetry pushed me to write my poems.

I wrote my first poem when I was 10; it was about a lost cat and my childish attempt to be a poet. But it wasn’t until twelve years ago that I started writing poetry with the intention of publishing it.

And now I just like to write poetry. It’s a painful process, but I think it allows you to observe things and react to events. For me, poetry is a kind of perfect medium to collect all my experiences and feelings. When I write poetry, I feel like I can stay true to a moment or an image in time. And when I feel like I’ve captured everything that’s going on in my head, there’s nothing quite as fulfilling as that moment.

How to read a poem?

There is no one way to read poetry. A friend of mine asked me the same question because he feels intimidated by the genre of poetry. A lot of people think poetry is not for them. But we think too much. I think the way to read poetry is to read anything. And each time you read it, you’ll start to see different things. Maybe on first reading, the images might resonate with you, you might find an idea that strikes you, or you might just like the rhythm and melody the poem carries.

And sometimes, if you like this poem, you might want to come back and read it a second time. And when you do that, different things can reappear. Everyone approaches poetry differently, so I think we should approach poetry with an open mind. We shouldn’t think we should feel a certain way to get into a poetry book. Poetry is more about your relationship and engagement with the text. There are no rules, and I think that’s just what makes you feel good. Step into the poetry with the way it invites you.

Some of your poems in the collection ask people to read from the poet’s point of view instead of relating to their own experience. Was it intentional? Most people think poetry should be relatable, but what was your approach with your poetry in the book?

There are different poems in the collection, and not all of them ask readers to follow my insight. This collection has more to do with time and memory. And throughout these poems there is also an interplay between the inside and the outside – of me looking at my experiences and understanding and me looking at the experiences and understandings that are happening in the world and around me. Depending on the poem, you might feel differently. In some poems, I linger in the present and seek to be aware of my surroundings, which could be the socio-political climate or a certain incident. But when I look, I move between past, present and future.

In some of my poems I look to the past and remember things – and remembering itself distorts and challenges the order of things.

I wrote these poems sitting uncomfortably between the inner and outer worlds I gaze at. Some of the poems in the book were written spontaneously, and some of them took a long time.

If we read between the lines of many of your poems, we can get a sense of feminist understanding and how patriarchy works. Is it something that you consciously weave into your poems?

When I write poems, my words come from a place that is informed by my history, my experiences, my relationship with places, time and language, so I don’t really think I will write a feminist poem because I think it will happen anyway. But there are certain poems that I wrote to get people to react to a certain incident, either out of shock or awe.

For example, I decided to write “When I Have a Daughter”, in response to the acid attack case that occurred in 2015, where two students were doused with acid while they went to their school lessons. I was shocked and angered by the incident, and when the poem came out, many people literally read it. Some of the comments I received were like how can you abuse your daughter like that. They said the poem was a bit too extreme.

But that was also the motive: to excite people in a certain way. To make them think while they read what’s going on here. The point of the poem was to make people think about the kind of world we live in, where a lot of parents have to worry about their children’s education. And so, with this poem, I was conscious. But the intention isn’t like I want people to react that way – the intention is like it happened, and I have to respond, and there’s urgency to respond, and I decide to form or structure to respond to it. When you compare “When I Have a Girl” to “A Survival Guide for Young Girls,” the two have different styles. “A Survival Guide for Young Girls” is written in a narrative style, while “When I Have a Daughter” contains a kind of dark satire. So that’s pretty much where my writing takes me.

Most of your poems are written in free verse. Can we talk about why you prefer free verse poetry?

I think free verse primarily centers your emotions and your language, which gives you some freedom to make authorial choices. But, at the same time, using constraints, as I did in ‘An Archive of Consonants’ [one of the poems in the book]allowed me to get into some crevices of language that I might not otherwise have discovered, which in the end also felt very liberating.

Does poetry make a difference when served in book form? Was there a reason you thought you should bring your collection in book form instead of putting it on the internet or recording it like people do these days?

I wanted this book to have a certain shape and format, which I think would have been impossible if it wasn’t in book format. If you look at the design of the book, it works like a collage and relies on visual elements. The first poem in the book also functions as a marker to be read in a certain way. And I think it wouldn’t have been possible if I just downloaded a PDF file online. Of course, all mediums are wonderful for poetry, but I imagined my book to have a certain design. A lot of thought has gone into the placements of the poems. I had in mind an ideal reader for whom I wanted to frame the poems.

This book has been in the works for a few years and it has been a wonderful experience. But I’m also ready for whatever happens with this book. I just hope people enjoy it, and that’s all I can ask for.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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