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Ambika Ananth, Shanta Acharya

Shanta Acharya – In Conversation With Ambika Ananth

Photo of Shanta Acharya by Late Sama Swaminathan

Shanta Acharya is a widely published author, both in her professional field of Asset Management and as a poet. She is considered a highly evolved and ‘happening’ poet. Reading her poetry is an intimate experience; it is like seeing the way she sees the world. Her interpretation of her experiences settle in unobtrusively. As one of her poet-friends, Mimi Khalvati, said, “Shanta’s poetry shows a rare combination of lyricism, intelligence, sagacity and a wicked sense of humour. She is not afraid to tackle large themes, to take on the abstract, metaphysical, spiritual or to use the idiom such themes demand. It is refreshing to find these qualities in such an engaging and individual voice.” Her various worlds blend with ease into her work. 

Here Ambika Ananth engages Shanta Acharya in a conversation to understand how she achieves that and other interesting facts about her poetic oeuvre. 

Ambika Ananth (AA): Your background as an author ranges from poetry, literary criticism, reviews and articles to books on asset management. Such a range of skills is rare, indeed. What is the connection between poetry and asset management

Shanta Acharya (SA): As E.M. Foster said: “Only connect.” At a practical level, there is definitely a connection. I was born to a family of teachers and academics in Orissa, and my education had certainly equipped me to be one myself. But thanks to market cycles, laws of probability, karma – whatever you prefer to call it – I ended up in London working in the asset management sector. I am not complaining, but such are the vicissitudes of life! As far as writing poetry is concerned, it has been the only steady thing in my life; the only link between my past, present and hopefully future. It keeps me sane and alive. 

The apparently conflicting worlds of poetry and business are not as opposed to each other as they are made out to be. Having lived in various worlds, I have learnt that the best business people are not dissimilar to great artists, thinkers or poets; both are driven by the power of imagination, their creative instincts. Both are visionaries, their clarity of vision enables them to be disciplined in thought and action. 

Coming to your question about how I blend these disparate worlds? When I write I am not conscious of the need to keep my worlds apart or otherwise. On the contrary, as T.S. Eliot reminds us, a modern poet is skilled in multi-tasking. To what extent two opposing worlds exist in one space depends also on the reader. We see what we want to see; we see what we are capable of seeing, and also we see things we do not understand. There are various kinds of seeing, knowing, understanding. What I put into a poem may not be what you get out of it. But does it matter? Perhaps not, as a great poem ultimately stands on its own. The poet becomes redundant once the poem is delivered to the world. One of my poems, written in two sections, “Dear Tech Support” and “Dear Customer,” has taken a life of its own in cyberspace. There is no mention of me as the author. I would definitely appreciate the recognition, but in other ways it is amazing that the two poems are so realized in the minds and lives of others. Are they great poems? I don’t know. Only time will tell; even if a single poem of mine survives, I will have achieved my goal. 

Coming back to the process of writing, it is alchemical. Sometimes, I switch from polishing a poem to revising the draft of my book on asset management or vice-versa. 

AA: Would it be correct to point out that each of your poetry books has a unifying theme with a distinct voice? Looking In, Looking Out is quite different from Shringara though they both appeared within a year of each other; similarly with Not This, Not That and Numbering Our Days’ Illusions. So, to understand your poetry, one really needs to read all the books, or end up with a partial picture, perhaps? Also, is there a chronological progression of ideas, thought, diction, between your books? Is there something about the publication history of the four books that might shed some light?

SA: You raise many valid points here. Yes, each of the collections has a distinct personality as it were. Not This, Not That, my first book, as the title suggests explores the idea of the Self arising from the Hindu concept of neti, neti. While not a religious person, I find the notion of neti, neti of tremendous relevance. In fact, Numbering Our Days’ Illusions carries on with that theme, albeit at the level of relationships between men and women.

Looking In, Looking Out, appearing almost a decade later is poised, has more fun playing with issues relating to how we see reality, the inner and the outer etc. Shringara, my latest collection, explores death as it defines life, and loss as a means of defining oneself. Shringara, as you know, in classical Indian paintings and sculpture is typically represented by a woman (could be a man in the modern world) getting ready, putting on make-up, sitting/standing in front of a mirror, facing herself, her world. Preparing for life, her lover, whatever... That image reminds me of Shakespeare’s ‘ripeness is all.’ We all prepare every day, put on different clothes, to face the day. When we die we are also ‘made up.’ Shringara for me refers to all kinds of preparation we need in our lives for Life itself. Our families, friends, experiences (both the ones we have and the ones we don’t) – all shape us, make us who we are… Don’t you agree? So, there is an integral connection between the four collections. 

Regarding the question of simultaneity of experience, the publication history may shed some light. The journey of a poem from when it is born (i.e. written by the poet), then published in a journal to finally finding its home in a book can be an interesting process. Most poets manage to get a collection published every few years; the intervals may vary somewhat, but publication is fairly steady. To that extent, my experience is very different, if not unique

When Rupa accepted my first collection - may I add as a result of Keki Daruwalla’s recommendation - the volume had gone through several iterations. Not This, Not That appeared finally in 1994, by which time I had written a lot more poems, as you will appreciate. As a result, Not This, Not That, included poems that were written as late as 1993 - The Night of Shiva, for example - and others as early as 1978. Numbering Our Days Illusions also has poems that were written over an equally long time period. 

My publishing record has been rather promiscuous, but that is not uncommon in the field of poetry. So, the long journey a poem makes from conception to finding a home in a collection can be a fascinating process. One good thing about these long gestation periods is the luxury one has of not just re-visiting the poems, but also in sequencing them in a body of work; like making a quilt, finding the right ones that fit together. Thus, each volume has a unifying theme though containing poems written over decades; perhaps that is why the collections have that element of simultaneity? 

AA: Some of your early poems are short; each line of these poems is also short. For example, poems like “Prayer,” “Wisdom,” “Faith” in Not This, Not That. Then, the poems towards the end of that collection have longer lines; the poems are longer too, as is the case with the powerfully moving “Belshazzar’s Feast” or “The Night of Shiva.” Both types of poems have a very strong impact, the idea behind the shorter poems are no less powerful than the ones inherent in the longer ones. How does the process evolve?

SA: It is true that more of my early poems are short; they also have shorter lines, while my more recent poems tend to be longer and individual lines can also be long. I don’t think there is anything unusual about that. I reckon each poem demands its own structure; style and content go together. What is expressed is perhaps as important as how it is expressed. So, best words in the best order are best reflected by the supporting theme, as long as the integrity of the poem is maintained. Some poets value style more than content; for me a great poem is one that wins on both counts. My early poems are more concentrated, in the sense that I have focused on one image; like meditation. It lets the mind fix on that image and then the reverberations follow; it is similar to throwing a pebble into a calm pond. The equivalent for the later poems is like bathing in a river where you have to be alert to the underlying currents. There is a narrative supporting the other elements in the poem; the lines are long, tensile, stretching the imagination. 

AA: You have now lived abroad for over two decades, mostly in England; you’ve also been actively involved in the world of poetry. You were on the Council of the Poetry Society, and you have been hosting monthly poetry readings at Lauderdale House in London since 1996. Do you think your work is being better recognized now within the mainstream in the UK? What is your view of contemporary poetry in Britain?

SA: There are two different questions here. The first one is perhaps easier to answer; do I think my work is better recognized within the mainstream of poetic writing in the UK? The answer is “don’t know”; it is difficult for me to comment; you should ask some “mainstream” critics, poets in the UK what they think? 

What I can tell you is some 200 poems of mine have been published in 60-70 journals in the UK. If you include my publications worldwide, these numbers double. So, whenever I feel my poetry is not being adequately recognized or appreciated within the UK or any where else for that matter, I remind myself of the occasion when I was told by a “famous” poet in the UK that she had not received the kind of attention she deserved. So, these things are relative. The mainstream in all constituencies is defined by exclusion. Perhaps, I have not received the sort of attention I deserve, but I prefer to think that the glass is half-full rather than half-empty. Also, why should I attach more importance to an incestuous circle of blinkered editors in the UK, supported by the Arts Council, when I want my poems to be read and appreciated by people any where in the world? 

As far as the second question is concerned – my view of contemporary poetry in Britain - it is too big an issue to deal with in a few words; demands an article on its own. In brief, contemporary poetry in Britain is thriving though dominated by, what for lack of a better word I refer to as “establishment” poets. The predilection for “celebrity” culture is also a sign of our times – even in India. In the UK, one is branded as an “Indian” poet, and left in the outer margins of the grand circle of British poets. Black British poets have fared better than poets from an Asian background. Major publishers of poetry in Britain, all substantially supported by the Arts Council, do not typically have an Asian list worth talking about. Faber has recently published an Asian male poet, while Bloodaxe and Carcanet among them have published three Asian women poets! The smaller presses are more open, but they simply do not have the marketing budgets available to larger publishing houses. Though not all small publishers neglect their minority poets, some do. The profile of Asian poets in the UK is therefore barely visible. 

AA: You have written a book on Indian Thought on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Would you like to comment on that?

SA: The book is based on my doctoral dissertation submitted for the D.Phil in 1983 in Oxford. It is encouraging that it was published 18 years after it was written; cannot imagine anything similar happening to the research I have done on asset management, for example. So, it is quite reassuring to go back to some poems written over a quarter century ago, and still find it fresh, new and well worth re-reading. 

As far as Emerson is concerned, Indian thought played a number of complex roles in the writings. My book traces his evolution as an American ‘renaissance’ man of his time. I seek to establish the relevance of Indian thought to the development of Emerson’s mind, and more importantly his mode of expression. I examine major themes in his writing – with regard to his idea of the Self, Illusion, Evil, Compensation – and the revaluations he was able to achieve in defining his own self. Only if more people were like him, capable of keeping an open mind – particularly as one gets older. 

I had personally embarked on a similar journey that Emerson had undertaken in his lifetime. The four years I spent in Oxford reading Emerson not only helped me understand his mind, but also in getting to know myself better. As you remarked earlier, the process never ends unless you allow it to be so. In my view, that is death, when you lose that “original relationship with the universe” as Emerson put it. 

AA: You have several publications related to the field of asset management, not just books but also articles, reviews and interviews. How do you manage to maintain that balance, find the time and the inner resources for your poetry? 

SA: Poetry, literature, and the arts are something I have to return to again and again like a diver seeking a breath of fresh air. No motivation required; it is vital to life, to my survival. Though I found myself in the world of finance more by accident than design, I consider myself fortunate to be given an opportunity not only to acquire a new skill, but to understand the how the world works. Had I remained an academic in an English department somewhere, I would be grappling with all sorts of issues that have nothing to do with the reading and analysis of original texts. 

What I find fascinating is that similar developments occurred in the world of investing. The pioneers of the investment world took risks and created wealth; not many investors today have sufficient knowledge of the underlying businesses they invest in. Just as literary theory has usurped the space the text occupied in the teaching of literature, in the world of investing modern theories replaced the need to know the underlying businesses one invested in. I’d like to think that the range and depth of one’s experience in different aspects of human activity can only enhance one’s reach as a writer.


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