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Poetry is always worth something, whatever people say
Adil Jussawalla's poems are terse, hard, and tangential. The sharp lines draw blood from unexpected quarters. All the qualities that made his previous collection of poems, Land's End (1962) and Missing Persons (! 976), startling are in vengeful evidence in his latest work, Trying to Say Goodbye.
Jussawalla's poetry output is slender, especially viewed against our rather industrial times when quantity is held in reverence as much as - or perhaps more than - quality. But his presence as a poet and as an astute observer of literature has had a considerable impact among practitioners of both poetry and prose, though, by and large, literary festival makers and professional award givers have looked the other way, perhaps to Jussawalla's relief.
Seventy-one-year-old Jussawala lives in Mumbai. He went to Cathedral school before leaving for England where he spent many years as a student, some of them at University College, Oxford. He taught at the International Language Centre in London before returning to Bombay in 1970.
Some of the poems here are hard as diamonds and give off a rare, unforgiving light: the world looks different suddenly. From soot to stone, the transformation has taken over 30 years, perhaps a geological age in a poet's life. Was the wait worth it - if poetry is worth anything at all?
Poetry is always worth something, whatever people who don't read it say. Your own positive response to my poems indicates that they've got through. But if you're asking me if it was worth my waiting such a long time for my newer poems, I'll say, quite honestly, that I wasn't waiting. You have to be ready to wait, and I wasn't ready.
I read the collection with a sense of shock and excitement. In the much rewarded and often celebrated noises that surround us all, your words come out of great silences and create even greater ones. The kind of silences that resound in huge cathedrals of perhaps forgotten gods. How far is this religion relevant in our time and place?
It's nice to hear you say that. My problem, if I want to continue writing poems - and I do - is to prevent these silences from taking over completely. The horror of bad things happening all the time, of living in a cruel present, often leaves me speechless. But there are other silences which you so eloquently mention. Whether found in music, poetry, regions of the past or elsewhere, we need them desperately.
Poetry is a way of mouth. But it takes a certain kind of living for the tongue to wag the mouth. You have lead, as far as I know, a life of splendid failure. To quote from your poem, 'House' : 'Learn balance with nothing to stand on/ Though you have lost heart, lost ground/Go rootless, homeless, but balance'. Do you sometimes pity yourself for the precarious balance you seem to have achieved?
My poems have sometimes dealt with failure - my own and the failures of others. But it's news to me that I've led a life of splendid failure. I've come to believe in balance and yes, it's precarious, but why should I pity myself if and when I think I've attained it? I hope no such feeling of self-pity comes through in my poems. Resignation perhaps, even sorrow, but not self-pity. I may be wrong.
You used to have a gathering of poetry aspirants and students at the NCPA once a month or so. At what point did you think such sessions were a vanity and go into your shell. Though the purpose of poetry may be in the last count social, is
it in its practice socio-phobic ?
You're thinking of 'Loquations', which I started in April l999. I described it as talking poetry in Mumbai and that's what we did every Tuesday, not once a month. I'd read a lot of poetry, I felt congested with it, I wanted to get it off my chest. Later, I got others to get it off their chests. In this way, we got to hear the work of a great many poets from all over the world. In 2003, I felt I had to stop and let others take over.
'Trying to Say Goodbye' is one of the best collections to have come out in a long time. Why did you settle for a private Indian publishing house, and not, say, a British one? Does that amount to a political statement? Or was the whole process of submitting manuscript and transacting business with the normally conceited foreigners or the big publishing houses in India too much of a bother?
Apart from Penguin UK, which commissioned me to edit New Writing in India, all my publishers have been Indian. I'm not making a political statement. Which big publisher of books in English, here or abroad, wants to publish the new work of Indian poets? Since I returned to India in 1970, I haven't approached any publishers abroad because the literary marketplace tells me, very firmly, that I don't stand a chance with them. Also, as is the case of most of us writing here, I have the largest number of readers here, not abroad. Isn't that normal? We need small presses to publish poets. Think of Clearing House, Newground and some other brave ventures in the '70s and '80s. Now there's Harbour Line and Poetrywala. (I'm only speaking of the ones I know in Mumbai;there are many more across the country. ) I completed a number of new poems in 2009 and when I combined them with some earlier work, I found I had a manuscript. Sharmistha Mohanty, who edits the online journal 'Almost Island', said she wanted to publish me and that's how the book happened. I'm a lucky man.
Finally, have you finished saying Goodbye ? Parsis do live long, and I certainly hope you do, if only to bid more goodbyes.
The book isn't meant to be my farewell performance. To those who expect it to be one, I'll say that I hope, in the best tradition of such performances, to have a few more.
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