How do different cultures influence your work?
My work reflects my life so what I have experienced and seen does enter into my poems, and, for example, if I had lived all my life in India and had never really gone abroad, then my poems would be very different. I would not have written about Germany, I wouldn't have written about Italy or England or the United States, nor would I have written about experience which occurred in those places, sometimes in the natural landscapes of those countries. I feel that I'm an outsider wherever I am, and I think that being an outsider gives me a different perspective on life and on any culture including my own. And, so yes - my travels and the fact that I've lived in so many different places have really determined and influenced my writing.
Can you read one of your poems?
I'd like to read a poem called 'Incessant'. This poem would not have been written if I had never gone to Caracas, Venezuela. This poem is also an example of how sound can inspire me to write something. I use the word 'serena' within the text, and 'sirena' is a Spanish word which means mermaid.
Incessant Incessant, unearthly speech from creatures so close to the earth - These night crickets in Caracas - Mechanical birds, I thought at first, computer sirena voices - How I turn and turn trying to follow them. How they interpret and reinterpret Erik Satie - And they must know Philip Glass - Precise, constant - they take over even the private night in my brain. copyright © Sujata Bhatt, used by permission of the author
Why is poetry important to you?
I think poetry is important because it enriches our inner beings. And for me personally I cannot imagine living without reading poetry, or living without writing poetry, and so for me poetry is as important as oxygen and water. I cannot find any concrete utilitarian value for poetry, I cannot say and I think no-one can say that it will cure cancer or pay your bills, but it provides something that cannot be measured.
How do you begin to plan a new poem?
The way a poem begins for me always varies. Sometimes it can be an image, something I dream of or something I witness. It can also begin with a line: frequently I have the first line of a poem and I don't know where it will lead to but usually if I write it down and concentrate on it, I do get more lines that I can work with. Sometimes a poem can also be inspired by a piece of music for me or an experience - travelling for example has sometimes led to unexpected poems. So there's no one thing - almost anything can inspire a poem, even reading the newspaper, I might read about something to which I respond to with a poem.
What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your writing voice?
I think there is a level of dialogue that one can achieve in writing that one cannot in speaking, and poetry of course also involves metaphor and a subtle nuance with language that one may not come up with when one is speaking, because I think when one is writing, or when I am writing, I'm almost in a trance, and I'm not aware of where the words or images come from, they just do, so I don't consciously think about it. And I think one enters a very private and inner world where the most intimate things can be spoken about in a poem, or alluded to in a poem, and I think one wouldn't have that quietness or concentration in a conversation.
Do you read your poems aloud when you are working on them?
Yes, I do - I do read my poems aloud when I am working on them, and in fact I need to do that in order to know how the poem is working or developing. Once I have a first draft, I have to listen to myself reading it to see how it sounds and to see whether I stumble over anything, and then I also like to read it to a friend, so they can also hear the sounds and they might be able to hear something that I don't catch. And I think that for me the sound and the meaning and the tone of the poem and also the subject, all that comes together organically. If the poem is working and if I'm at that level of concentration which results in the writing of a poem, everything just comes out more or less the way I want it, if it's really working, and I do get unexpected rhythms and sounds that I hadn't thought about before, and sometimes of course I have to polish it up, but the raw material is there for me already.
Why do you choose to work in English?
I write in English because English became my language. When I was a girl in India I was sent to an English school, and also in between as a child I had travelled back and forth between the United States and India. So actually I learned English first in the United States when I was five, and then we returned to India shortly after, and I continued attending an English school over there, and so that's why I write in English. My native language is Gujarati, and in some of my poems I've mixed Gujarati with English for various reasons, which pertain more to the poem than with anything else, or perhaps the poem reflects the way I think, or it reflects a part of my life, and so I've used both languages in some poems, but I really feel that English is my language, as it is for many other writers from India.