Been a while since I posted anything on here. It’s been a busy time, with the devil-year ending and bringing with it some good news. I secured PhD admission at Leeds Beckett University, UK and is currently in the process of the tedious visa application journey. It is hectic to say the least.
While the initial excitement has died down, (read: waking up thinking “we’re moving to Leeds”) I still find myself looking up Quora posts on PhD life, and Instagram photos of snowclad Leeds. While its too early to say when the move might actually happen, thanks to the new COVID-19 strain in the UK, it is reasonable to expect a February in Yorkshire, as one of my proud and overjoyed former Professor put it.
I would love to elaborate on what I want to be working on, but this blog post might not do justice to the topic. I am still reading around the topic and hoping to gather some kind of foundational basis on the subject, than make a fool of myself in front of my guide. I am also prone to 4 am anxiety, resulting in an hour-long early morning reading and then a guilty, yet satisfied return to bed for more sleep. This has been life for the past two weeks.
In other news, my book launch with The Quarantine Train is scheduled to happen this Sunday, January 10th at 6 PM. Will be posting more details on social media soon.
I have also begun using the Alicia Souza planner, which is bringing me unreasonable joy for a 20-something year old. It has all those cutesy stickers that should not, logically, make someone happy, but want to throw up and yet, its good to have some colour and joy in life. I’d recommend TinyChange planner though – it’s the best one I’ve used.
On the days that I get out of bed late, poetry comes by so easily pouring from the crevices of my mind onto the page. But on some days, like today, when I have woken up in the morning, taken a shower and sat back to write, prose comes uncalled. It is this uneasy distinction between both that I think defines each of them. Poetry arises like some intercranial glue, a waning moonlight that shines onto the page unwillingly, involuntarily; prose writes itself like the borders of a country after war, defines itself in neater terms and takes shape willingly. I keep this distinction in mind and tuck it away for future reference. It is what, in my head, defines my work.
Ever since I left traditional office jobs to accommodate my mental health and emotional well-being, I have been thinking more about the nature of work itself. It is important to note here that in my last teaching job, I suffered like no other person, from high levels of anxiety and a crippling depression that resulted in not having enough numbers to go on to teach for a second year. I could not get out of the bed five days in a row, for two weeks straight. It was as simple as that. While working, I experienced spurts of energy that let me type like a maniac, but when I wasn’t working, I was a blue human under a blue quilt. That blue quilt still remains in my life as a token of all the suffering I underwent during those days.
The signs of suffering from mental health issues are numerous. You tend to go glassy-eyed. You do not tend to register the goings on around you, you numb out. Later, I would realise that these symptoms were also mixed with the side effects of the medicines I was taking at the time, that it was all not me. I remember crying about taking medicines itself; why did I have to go through that? Was there a reason I was suffering from all this?
The truth is, even when I got the job at the prestigious Department of English at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore I was unwell, and hardly reading/writing enough to do my job well. I took it upon myself to get better while on the job. This not only made matters worse, but built a bad reputation among colleagues. I was perennially the sick one, the absent one. The truth is, that it was my first tryst with mental health issues, and Bangalore being Bangalore had seen a lot worse before me. They tolerated me, like I was a necessary evil, even showed kindness when I hardly expected it. But they could hardly be expected to keep me going for more than a year when my numbers did not show how well I was doing towards the end of the second semester. I even had some wonderful classes that I will remember, but my teaching was not to last. It was a demanding job, including syllabus-making and college-level teaching, but it was a great introduction into the real world after the bubble of University of Hyderabad.
Where does poetry and prose come into all this? Poetry and all kinds of writing had deserted me when this episode came about. I was roaming the world, taking walks and trying too hard to birth that moonlight, but it just was not happening. It was only months later, when I started feeling like myself that poetry appeared. And yet, I was writing – academic writing with no soul, only facts and interpretations. When poetry appeared again, I was a mess, a recovering mess. It came with the rush of suffering, with tears, with so much sadness.
Prose still took time. I was not able to articulate what I felt, even after. I remember crying to my then-boyfriend, now-husband that I was a medicine-taking maniac who could not control her talents anymore. I remember asking my younger sister for advice on teaching. I remember my therapist telling me that I face the second greatest fear of humans – public speaking – everyday with gusto and that I should be proud. It did not feel that way. My students were alternatively kind, sometimes rude, sometimes helpful, sometimes uncaring, as students are wont to be. I remember almost every single one of them and would probably be teased or ignored even now for everything I blurted out in class. It was not a good time, but I can look back and say that I made it through that storm.
Teaching and writing with anxiety could have been better. I could have been more honest with my students for what I was going through. I could not, because I experienced a misplaced sense of burden to behave and act like a teacher, and was nervous like any first-time college professor. But in the end, I am left with the regret that I did not share my burdens with them, even as I know that there might have been one or two, I could have identified with or saved from similar worries. This is what it feels like to teach with mental health issues. This post is late by months, even years, but I’m glad to get it out there. Peace.
Instead of a focused analysis, today I’m going to touch upon the material I read, namely 5 cantos of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and the poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. While I have never attempted reading the first poem before, the second poem is more familiar, yet unfamiliar every time I read it.
Dante’s work is epic poetry, a foray into the depths of hell where the rings of hell hold many famous names; we meet Homer and Ovid, Pythagoras and Euclid. Virgil, the poet, is the shade of the guide and Dante is led to by him. The translation of HW Longfellow is not difficult to read, and I’m finding it enjoyable. I thought it would be more difficult to understand, but it is easy enough.
Wallace Stevens in his poem talks of the blackbird, with 13 sections dedicated to it and tied together by it. Each narrative is disconnected to the other, and the narrative is prism-like. A classic example of Cubism, the poem deserves to be read less an Imagist poem, and more a cubist poem. It elevates the image of the common blackbird into a bird worth writing a poem about. The poet democratizes the voices and perspectives of looking, of seeing and of being. This is a poem that therefore requires a lot more close reading than I’m doing here.
I’m also rereading “Persuasion” by Jane Austen and reading essays by R.W. Emerson on the side. His essay “The American Scholar” is a favorite, where he talks of the necessity of a scholar being a man of life, of action.
And that’s it for today. Managed to write some poetry, as well and keeping a reading record on my new iPad. Life is exciting. 🙂
Leave your comments below and let me know if you’d like to suggest any poems I should read and write about!
Before we begin the analysis, a piece of good news. One of my poems will be featured in The Alipore Post in December-January! I was so happy to receive the acceptance today morning. It did make up for the bad day that today is turning out to be.
Today, we are going to look at two poems by that modernist giant Williams Carlos Williams. From his collection Al Que Quiere!, the poem “Spring Strains” and the poem “Dance Russe”. Both these poems are somewhat erotic, the first set in a natural setting with flowers, the sky and birds and the latter in a suburban, very human setting. They also share the element of dance, which is interpreted differently in both.
“Spring Strains” is formally haphazard, 29 lines long and set in 5 stanzas of varying lengths. I am not usually a fan of nature poetry but when Williams does it, he does it with a twist. In this poem the word “strains” in the title says it all. This poem is a tug of war for the “blue-grey buds” on the “blue-grey twigs” to stay against the wind struggling to whip them across to the air against the sky. This scene is portrayed very erotically by Williams, who uses phrases such as “erect with desire”, “slenderly anchoring”, “drawing them in” and “bursts instantly” in the first two stanzas. The buds are being pulled in the wind current, upward, in a “terrific drag”. The poem itself conveys the strain using appropriate verbs like I mentioned above. In the end, the very “tap-roots” are loosened and the buds are “flung outward and up”.
Although it is a poem set in nature, which usually conveys order and neatness, this poem is all about the disintegration of order, the loss of normalcy, anarchy. Its a poem that reminds me of Byron, for some reason, and does in fact smell more Romantic than modernist. The counter to this would be the one phrase that Williams uses in the fourth stanza. He says “counter-pulling mass upward”, as if he is a physicist, as if the buds are defying gravity. Contextualized in his ideas of poetry as a field of action, and his awareness of the effect of Einstein’s theory of relativity on poetry, I do think this phrase was loaded with meaning. Apart from that singular piece of evidence, this poem leans more towards Romanticism than modernism.
The next poem “Dance Russe” is one of my favorites, by Williams. The title hints at an Avant Garde Russian form of dance, something akin to ballet. However, the images in the poem is that of a poet dancing naked in his study while his wife, child and the nanny take a nap. The poet figure asks something like if anyone sees me like this now, who will not say that I am the happy genius of my household? The poem ends there. It is an immemorable scene, that of a suburban family man, a pediatrician in Rutherford, New Jersey, dancing wildly singing about loneliness, claiming his title of the “happy genius”. The word “genius” here is meant in the sense of “creator” or originator, rather than the now conventional meaning of the word.
This is not the only suburban poem written by Williams. He has delved into the suburban loneliness, the tug of war between the wild uncivilized impulses of man, and the imposed social order of the suburbs. This dynamic is interesting and Williams, as someone who experienced it, has captured it in poetry. The poem is also significant in its oblique reference to shadow play, as if the poet himself is a puppet rather than someone enacting his wild impulses. Its a poem that raises many questions.
I am fascinated by the poetry of Williams and will probably return to examine more of it in the coming days. And that’s it for today.
Here are the links to the poems discussed here, and you can leave your comments down below. Have a good day and stay safe!
The world is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost half of its population has been under some kind of quarantine or lockdown for about a month.
[And I have been diligently cleaning, cooking, reading, writing, watching Netflix and occasionally painting coasters. Hey, whatever keeps us sane these days, right?]
The anxieties of these times are difficult to describe. Firstly, we don’t know which friend or acquaintance is going to kick the bucket. It is probable that some people we know will get diagnosed with the coronavirus and will, most probably, recover. Most of us will get through unscathed to the other side.
But what waits on the other side?
The “new normal” they’re calling it. The coming year or two will be challenging. A worldwide economic recession is guaranteed. The world on the other side of this pandemic, might look very different… There might be changes in laws, in social conduct. Governments could easily impose restrictions that help ensure minimal chances of another epidemic. There might be a surge in the number of people who prefer WFH. There might be new and improved protocols for health emergencies and more interaction between AI and the health sector to increase chances of identifying threats to public health in the future.
These are, of course, the possible good outcomes.
The bad outcomes range from bioterrorism to an extended economic crisis that ensures this generation and the next work until 65 years of age to rebuild the global economy.
Let’s hope it doesn’t go there.
Here’s what I’ve specifically been doing to keep my sanity.
1. Petting Thomas. Thomas, our pet cat, has been a reliable care animal. As long as he gets his crunchies and water, he’s super cuddly to be around.
2. Cooking new dishes from minimal ingredients. This is fun, because it’s sort of like preparing for doomsday. Or, being in a really stingy MasterChef finale.
3. Keeping news intake to once a day. I’ve been guilty of bingeing on news throughout the day. This means that I’ve opened the News apps on my phone more than thrice a day in the past. This induced panic attacks and a heightened sense of anxiety that I strictly restricted the time I spent online worrying about things I can’t control.
4. Gardening. I grew sprouts, planted a carom plant, tended to my beautiful jade plant and managed to kill the mint plant. There’s something uniquely refreshing about aiding growth when there’s so much news of death. It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve done during the lockdown.
5. Reading. I was reading Educated by Tara Westover when the lockdown was declared. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently, and perhaps, ever. Since then, I’ve read short stories on Granta, scoured through comics, finished a book on the pandemic by Zizek, finished another book Less by Andrew Sean Greer and began reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Fowles. I shouldn’t be saying this, but reading-wise, I think I’m making the most out of this pandemic.
The end to this is not near. There might be a new wave of coronavirus in the winter, they say. There might also be a locust attack on farms in the summer, they say.
We don’t know what the future holds. But whatever it is, at least we now know collective action works. We really are in this together.