September 30, 2014
Ao, on the ‘unnamable power’ of poetry
For the Herald
In first BA visit, author Temsula Ao talked to the Herald about her connection to verseAside from being a short story writer and a poet, Temsula Ao is a retired English professor. Her interest in language has also resulted in an investigation about the oral tradition of her own community, the Ao Naga. And yet Ao, of Indian origin, doesn’t seem to be concerned with the language barriers that separate us globally. To Ao, poetry is a sort of language that stands on its own, whether at readings in public libraries or at performances at the subway station.
During her first visit to Buenos Aires, where she marvelled at how people are so tuned in with poetry, Ao participated in the Poetry Festival that took place throughout the Book Fair. She took some time to talk to the Herald about this experience, and about her connection to poetry as a whole.
How has the audience received your readings at the poetry festival?
It’s amazing how the language of poetry can communicate beyond the barrier of the differences in languages. I write in English and I had sent several poems in advance to be translated into Spanish. My translator seems to have done a very good job, and after each reading the response has been very heartening because even if I do not understand the language I can see it in their faces; I can feel the warmth of their response. So, on the whole, I’m very happy about my experience reading poems to people who do not know my language.
Which styles of poetry did you hear?
What I was able to do was to watch their presentations. Some were very matter-of-fact, some were a little hesitant, and some were dramatic at times. It depends on individuals more so than countries, I think. It also depends on the kind of poetry that a person is reading. If it has a very deep context, then obviously the rendition has to be serious. My handicap is that I could not understand the language, but then in some cases I felt as if I was moving with the rhythm of the presentation, and it was quite exciting.
Do you think there’s a universal language of poetry? Can we all be moved by any kind of poetry, or do we have to share a code or understand its history?
For poetry to be universal the experiences have to be sort of mutually felt, which is possible in many human contexts. But when you talk of code, then we look at the extra aspects of human existence, like politics and geography and economy. For example, somebody writing about hunger may not have that kind of a direct response from a person who has never known hunger, who has never slept on the pavement. For him or her it’s something come out of an exotic imagination, but for the other person it’s a reality of life. So human contexts differ, but I still believe that poetry can transcend all barriers to touch another heart.
Why do you think poetry connects on such a deep, primitive level?
I wouldn’t call it primitive; I would call it rather a very sensitive, creative level. Because even though we do not share the language, person to person we seem to connect. It has happened not only this time, but whenever I have gone to such conferences or meetings or festivals: some unnamable power seems to be at work, blending us, bonding us. And it becomes easier for us to understand. Over these past few days, my assessment of the other person has become clearer and clearer, as if I’m getting to know him or her better and better through whatever we have been doing collectively.
What is poetry to you? How would you define poetry?
It can have several definitions. When I read someone else’s poetry, then sometimes it’s bewilderment, because I may not be able to understand what the poet is trying to say. And then when I do understand, it opens up a new world for me. I feel wonderment at the human mind for being able to articulate and reach out to such lengths. And there is the other aspect of me trying to be a poet, trying to write poetry. For me, these are bright flashes that occur. Sometimes, I’m able to grasp them and give words to them, and many times I’ve been lazy and I kind of want to kick myself because I may have lost many beautiful things. Through some bitter experiences, I always keep a pen and paper near my bed. If something occurs to me and I feel that it’s worth putting down on paper I scribble it, and that has helped. Maybe what I scribble in those mad moments may not always turn out to be good poetry, but among the lot some good things have happened. And so poetry is, perhaps, some kind of a search. Being able to write that one good line of poetry when you feel that “ah, I’ve got it!” those are epiphanic moments, and that for me is the pure pleasure of poetry.