Tikuli Dogra: Poetry is life for me
Tikuli Dogra is an internationally published poet, author and blogger from Delhi whose work has appeared in print and online literary magazines including Le Zaporogue, MiCROW 8, The Smoking Book (Poets Wear Prada Press, US), Life And legends, Levure Littéraire 10, The Enchanting Verses Literary Review, Open Road Review, Cafe Dissensus, Mnemosyne Literary Journal, Dissident Voice, Women’s Web, Tuck Magazine, The Criterion, Peregrine Muse, Knot Magazine, Asian Signature Magazine, The Bombay Review, The Thumb Print – A Magazine From The East, The Peacock Journal and The Peacock Journal Anthology, TEKSTO- The People’s Magazine, Guntur National Poetry Festival Anthology, Melange – a Potpourri of thoughts, Le Zaporogue Print editions and the much acclaimed Chicken Soup For The Indian Romantic Soul(Westland). Her debut poetry book, Collection of Chaos, was published in 2014 by Leaky Boot Press. Her second book of poems Wayfaring was published in 2017 by Leaky Boot Press. Her third book of poms Duets, written in collaboration with James Goddard, is set be released in November 2018. She blogs at tikulicious.wordpress.com
Let’s start from the 2017 Indian Blogger Awards and your winning the award for poetry. How did you feel winning the prize?
Winning the Indian Blogger award for poetry is very special to me. It really warms my heart to see how my work is acknowledged and appreciated nationally and internationally. I’ve been blogging with WordPress for ten years now and during all these years I got a lot of opportunities to connect to other poets/writers some of whom later became my mentors. Sharing my work through platforms like Indiblogger helped me to widen my readership.
Awards do help immensely though they may not directly open up opportunities. I never thought of monetizing the blog and yet got a good number of readers and great exposure. This sort of validation of one’s work is a great catalyst in facilitating more writing opportunities for me.
I am really impressed with how far and wide you’ve covered with your page. I remember first knowing about your work over a Facebook share and digging in to read you more and getting to know you afterwards. Isn’t it wonderful, the possibilities of the internet? Let me squeeze more than one question here: what does poetry mean to you? And having blogged consistently for ten years and counting, what would you mark as distinctions in addition to readership and community since publishing online?
Yes, David, the Internet is a wonderful medium. If used for the right purpose in the right way one can always find fascinating stuff to engage with. For me Facebook has been a great tool to connect with poets/writers/artists. I discovered you and your excellent poems and many others. James and I even wrote collaborative poems via Messenger and now those impromptu poems are in a book titled Duets. Isn’t it wonderful how one can bridge distances and create something beautiful together without even meeting/seeing each other?
Poetry is life for me. I find it more intimate and tender to express in the form of a poem. It is a natural process of expression. Poetry flushes out a feeling, an emotion, a thought, a question that you never knew lay buried inside you. A little arrangement and rearrangement of words opens up a lot of possibilities. Life is a great teacher and I have a student’s heart. My life is too chaotic, and in poetry you can say a lot in a few lines, you can play around with words and have a finished piece in a short time. That’s what I love about them—poems. It is also a form of protest. When I read a good poem by someone I feel it in my pulse. I see my face in their experience and that is why I write. To feel this connection is very important.
Blogging gave me the platform to raise issues which are normally pushed under the carpet. It also helped me channelize my energies and evolve as a person.
Winning the Indiblogger Special Award for poetry last year at the Valley of Words Literature Festival is my biggest distinction in all the hard work I put in over the last ten years. Apart from my blog, I have been published in many online literature magazines and journals and that has been an excellent offshoot of my blogging as well as my online presence.
Talking about publishing online: what are your thoughts on publishing online vs print or traditional publishing?
Though I love the old fashioned print publishing, and the dream of holding a book in your [my] hands is something I still enjoy, I do see the importance of online publishing too. The market is changing and, as writers, I feel we must go where the readers go. Many good online journals have print editions and anthologies too. I have been fortunate to get be published in some, so as a poet I take the middle path. Digital vs print has always been a topic of debate. Personally, I feel publishing on the internet gets you a larger readership, along with the visibility there is also a staying power in online work. You can go to the archives and look up an old poem/short story/essay etc. So, with blogs, journals, lit mags becoming influential, the writing—especially perhaps poetry—gets a lot of attention. I have read some outstanding poetry online. I have readers who appreciate my web-based work. So, an intelligent mix of both traditional and contemporary is the best way to progress in my opinion.
Some stray questions in one (laughs): what is it you do not like about poetry? As a poet yourself, does poetry mystify you? And what is that one thing you wish people get about poetry?
(Laughs) It may seem very odd now when I say it but over the years I have begun to dislike the ‘dreamy creamy’ stuff dished out in the name of poetry. Some years back I was writing something similar and then one day I purposely took down many of my earlier poems from my blog and elsewhere. Once you learn the nuances of the craft you know the good from the bad. I also detest the use of clichés in poems.
I like to be mystified by poetry. I like the unknown, something that holds me, makes me think beyond what is visible, beyond understanding. I think good poetry is all about taking the reader beyond the familiar. You peel a few layers and think you’re close but then there are more layers. Just like art. Poetry should mystify so far as to draw you into it.
Most of the time we are in pursuit of mastering the art rather than leaving an element of mystery in it which I think is a mistake.
You’re also into memoirs, life-writing. I should mention that it was a piece you wrote about the art of hugs that first got me into reading you. We’ll talk about that later. Let me ask this about your nonfiction: what motivates you to document life and living? When or how do you know that this or that is to be written about?
Everything I write documents life and living. I began documenting about various social issues especially women’s issues on my blog when I was struggling to find my stilled voice. Turbulence in my personal life made me seek a safe place where I could pour out not just the issues that plague our society but also various things I was passionate about, food, travel, art, music etc. I was motivated by readers and friends to share my essays and slowly I diversified the topics. I usually don’t plan any posts on my blog. Since mine is a personal blog, I just write whatever connects with me on a particular day. It could be a poem, a story, a travel memory, a recipe, something about my city, a photo story or some socially relevant topic. These days, I feel my blog has become a bit neglected because of my complete involvement with writing for publishing but I try and keep it going by sharing as and when possible.
’Cause, I notice you share quite personal stories bordering childhood, love, loss. Do you ever struggle in deciding what to make public or not? If I’m allowed to say, what are your own rules of engagement?
Frankly speaking, I really do not stop myself from writing anything on my blog. It is my personal space and I share whatever I think readers will engage with. I have a huge readership and everything I post connects with someone or the other. That said, I have lessened writing about my personal struggles to a large extent. Mulling over certain issues only causes more stress and I don’t get the answers I seek, so unless the topic is very relevant I avoid doing such posts. Also, I am dealing with a lot of personal issues and unwanted people keep snooping looking for personal updates that they can pick on—maybe ‘use’ to start an argument. At this point in time I don’t wish to deal with that, so my writing is limited mainly to non-personal issues.
I also feel the blog has become a bit congested with various topics so I am thinking of streamlining it. Even then I follow my own rules and that is writing about anything that I find worth sharing on a particular day—maybe…at any given time.
There’s fiction as well. There’s food and travels and bits of psychoanalysis. How do you juggle all these aspects of you? Which among them is most convenient for you?
Walt Whitman says, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” I think this aptly describes me. I believe we all have multiple selves and the idea is to maintain a perfectly balance[d] interplay between them. There are some distant past selves and distant future selves, a short-term impulsive self and a long-term contemplating self and each is essential for growth [a fretting self… hahaha], the conflict continues and sometimes one self wins, sometimes the other—another. I simply go with the flow. We juggle many things during our everyday lives, even in our writing. One needs to know what the need of the hour is and then surrender to that.
I have read and heard about hundreds of writers who start a piece without conscious knowledge of where the writing is heading other than that wave of emotions or inspiration guiding their spirits. I am one. Are you? What’s a typical beginning for your work?
Yes, definitely. The beginning is usually a sudden flash of an image, a moment of ecstasy when an idea strikes, sometimes a dream, a thought, a snippet of overheard conversation, a piece of music, my inner chaos or for that matter the chaos around me—all can become a poem or a story.
A line from one of your poems continues to strike me. It says, “even the leafless trees whisper.’’ This speaks to me in many ways. Even as a poet myself, it still astounds me how metaphors are made, how words come to life; let me ask you, what is the spirit of words? Where do they come from?
I think words are magical. I am often surprised by my own words as they form themselves on a page. Often the metaphors are observations/experiences from daily life. Even when you think that writing poems is a solitary craft it is not. All the time the poet is subconsciously touching the realms of animate and inanimate, and every touch sparks a reaction from which the right words spring to life. I think we have an invisible archive of memories within us that gives meaning to our poems.
Still on the line, ‘‘even the leafless trees whisper’’: it reminds me of a bible character, Jonah and the withered tree. It also reminds me of Jesus and the fig tree. Quite a number of biblical connections, I perceive. Do you remember the particular story or inspiration behind this poem? Interestingly, it’s titled ‘Journey’.
‘Journey’ is one of my Acrostic compositions. Most of my poems are based on personal experiences. Some of the poems are from my travel memories. I think the images from my stay in Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh were the backdrop for this one though I did not go there in January but I have experienced the winter in the mountains and this poem conveys the spirit of those beautiful virgin landscapes still untouched by tourists. Trees and mountains both are symbols of a life’s spiritual wisdom and continuing journey to me. I have often stood still on such cold nights taking in a kind of energy I can’t explain. Something stirs within me when I am in communion with nature, especially trees. The poem is part of my second book Wayfaring which is about journeys, both physical and metaphysical.
Still on the line (I’m sorry, I can’t help it): it brings my mind to what some people believe (me included), that plants talk, they whisper, they communicate. What’s your understanding of this science or ecology?
Yes, I do believe that plants communicate. Throughout literary and musical history there have been references to songs of trees, the way they speak, the weeping willows, the whispering pines, the crackling leaves, the snapping of branches, the rustling leaves, and the steady hum floating through the quietude of forests. Now scientists have also confirmed how trees communicate through the lattices of underground biological pathways. Everything in nature communicates with everything else to work as a single organism. I learned from my grandfather as a child how his plants would communicate with him, I found it fascinating and as I grew up I learned how a touch can help a plant to flourish or cause it to wither. Trees have always held a very special place in my life. Lean against a tree and stay still, quiet the chatter of your mind for a while and you will definitely hear its song. As for bare trees, they have had a huge impact on me. There is something very calming in shedding what’s not yours or needed. It is essential for ones growth.
Back to the bit about hugs: the piece deeply resonated with me, I still go back to read it. I love hugs, and purely so. But it seems to be a strange aspect of our social life these days. Like you asked, ‘‘why do we feel so uncomfortable giving a hug as we grow up?’’
Thank you for appreciating. As I suggested in the essay, we don’t teach our children the importance of non-sexual touching. As a species we have moved so far away from the basics [essentials] of life. I think the kind of society we have created has a lot to do with the inhibitions we have. Simple gestures of hands, hugging have become lost in the rigid code of conduct society has forced on us. In recent times, children have been taught to avoid strangers, but I have seen this hesitation in families too, between parents, children, siblings and friends. Maybe people have come to expect that their personal space should not be invaded—and there you have it, ‘invaded’ a hostile act. Aren’t we depriving our children of something essential? What will they become when they grow up, if not screwed up, frustrated adults fighting an inner battle with their instincts? To be held in true love is a rare experience these days.
Sometimes want for a real hug consumes me like wildfire and I wonder if the love we put in our words will ever transform into hugs.
Let’s talk about food: what’s your favourite?
I love home cooked Indian meals. Simple, wholesome, balanced with [the] right amount of spices and flavours. There is so much variety for every season. The lip smacking makki ki roti and sarson ka saag (unleavened flatbread with cooked mustard greens vegetables) with generous homemade white butter and buttermilk is something I love in winters. Every region has some of my favourites. If you talk of world—maybe in international cuisine—I love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food.
And how has food inspired your work? I ask particularly because recently a lot of the delicious things I’ve been consuming are not only going to my belly, they’re entering my poems. Sometimes I imagine a cooking show on TV strictly for the making of poems and delicacies. Oh my, then shall we know who is who. (Laughs)
I am a lover of good food and follow a lot of chefs including home chefs to know about world cuisine. I try different recipes whenever I can, I read about food history too. I had a dream of opening a book café in the hills. A sort of relaxed space where there would be books, music, food and quiet. There is something enchanting about the tastes, textures, scents, sights and sounds during a cooking experience. The sizzle, the crackle, the steam rising from a teapot, I have incorporated a lot of it in my writing. I have written lots of nonfiction related to food. I do post recipes on my blog whenever I make something new—or on Instagram /FB—with a little food story etc. I feel there is a nebulous relationship between food and poetry…both nourish body, mind and soul on many levels. You know how cooking is all about layering one thing after the other, sometimes just a hint, a suggestion of a spice or an intense flavour complemented by something mild. Poetry and food are both about good fresh ingredients, good recipes and the right proportions. Both are multilayered. Here is one of the poems from my debut book Collection of Chaos:
I miss the taste of the sun
its sweet heat dripping
from your mouth to mine
I miss the summer
the cayenne dusted mangoes
eaten as they should be
with bare hands and abandon—
in just the way we love
Travel, exile, these are major themes in your work. First, what’s that unforgettable travel you embarked upon? What cities would you love to visit or even live in before you die? And are there cities or places you dread?
Though I always dreamed of travelling to different places I seldom got a chance to do so. For years I just flipped through travel magazines, read travel memoirs and watched travel shows to fill my mind with images of those places, their people, their culture etc. Most of the time I fantasized about being in some distant place, doing things I always desired to do. It was much later I got real opportunities to travel. Mostly I travelled by train or road, being scared of air travel. My most memorable road trip was to Kinnaur and Chitkul in the North East frontier district of Himachal Pradesh, India. The night drive on the notoriously treacherous old Hindustan-Tibet Road that appeared to be a sheer incision in the overhanging rock face, the roaring Sutlej river in the gorge below, the gorgeous Baspa river thundering alongside the camps where we stayed for a few days. I did a series of travelogues on my blog about this trip. It is one of the most memorable travel expeditions since my teenage days when I did the astounding trek in Kullu district with YHAI.
Oh, there are many cities, many unexplored places I would love to visit. Spain, Italy, Syria, Turkey, Greece are some of the countries I would love to go to. I also wish to visit the North East India especially Sikkim. No, I don’t dread any city or place.
As for exile, I believe that roots, displacement, memory are nothing but tastes and smells that shape the dreams of a generation. I’ve been in a perpetual state of unbelonging since childhood. It is difficult to imagine the pain of loss, the angst, the outrage and the constant longing of those who are yearning to return to their homeland, people who are displaced/ exiled for any number of reasons. Personally, the feeling of homelessness is the closest that can come to what a person may feel when they are forced out of their birth country. This sense of alienation, of despair seems familiar to me. It is one thing to live in a house and another to have a home, to feel at home.
I feed on my dreams just as they do, longing for a home that is perhaps not even there, searching for my identity, my purpose in this world. For me exile is not just a geographical concept it is also an emotional, mental state of mind. Some poems are born in the margins. They emerge from feelings of rootlessness, despair and loss. I wonder if someone can actually know the agony of being exiled from their homeland without experiencing it. Perhaps not.
I wrote six poems from the point of view of someone in exile and I don’t know if I succeeded in bringing out what I actually felt while writing them. The pain seeped deep inside my fragmented self making its way into the hollow of the bones and I wondered if the feeling of exile was limited to the physical banishment of people from their own land, or does it go deeper than that, and create the possibility of emotional exile too? Is a life in the margin also an exile? Wayfaring has a whole section of poems of exile.
Can you briefly speak about the Indian poetry community from your angle of sight?
I think the contemporary Indian poetry scene is brimming with good things. Several distinct, skilled voices have come to the front and that is a good sign. Lot of youngsters are writing [poetry] and [doing it] quite well. [There is a heartening—why not—it’s heartening] to see the formidable corpus of vernacular literature being translated in recent times. I have noticed an increase in quality online and print journals—vernacular, bilingual and English. Finally, some mainstream publishers have stepped in and filled the gap to give opportunities for poets and writers to showcase their work. There are some prestigious poetry prizes in place too. The Indian poetry community has expanded its horizons considerably in recent times. The new poetry is definitely challenging the old order. There is an intense social and political awareness but all the poetry is not just of protest and revolution, there are rich references to the love for the cities one has lived in or places one has grown up in. I see a lot of beautiful portrayals of human characteristics. Poets are challenging the stereotypes and over the years Indian poetry has broken the restrictive barriers in many ways. We have some brilliant queer poets at the center stage now. The emergence of the marginalised voices of minorities has been the biggest revolution in the Indian poetry scene. They are openly writing of their oppression, despair, suffering and struggle. The voice of resistance is more direct in poetry than in any other form.
There are a lot of literature festivals, open mic, poetry readings even in small cities and these platforms have brought the community together from the margins to mainstream. Performing poetry was missing from the scene some years back, but now one can find poetry evenings in many cities.
Any words for fellow creatives?
To aspiring writers I would say keep writing. Never be afraid to rewrite, edit, revise and discuss with any sympathetic peer group or mentor. Also, read as much as you can. Give your readers something that will make them open their hearts to you.
This last thing: I don’t know if you consider it, and I don’t mean it in any negative terms: what becomes of your blog of these many years when you pass away? Do you intend to archive it beyond the web? Say a book? What are your plans for these beautiful writings?
I write because I am passionate about writing. The craft is important to me. If my writing is appreciated by readers then it is already archived beyond the web. This is the most satisfying thing to me. Though much of my work from the blog has become part of books/magazines etc. and some is saved for upcoming projects. I never really think too much about the future of my writings there.