The Tamil poet on how her poetry has become a form of close and intimate conversation with the reader, freed from the poet talking to herself

With three volumes of poetry, three novels, two collections of short stories and a travelogue, Tamil writer Salma (the pseudonym of Rajathi Samsudeen) has made her mark as a distinctive Indian literary voice. In this excerpt from i, Salma: Selected Poems (Red River), she underlines how poetry is ‘a play of words which builds on the deep layers of experiences,’ and how it finds itself, changes and forms on its own:

Has your creative process changed gradually given that your life has undergone a huge transformation over the years? You began from a constricted closed space — physically and mentally — and now you travel across the world, on your own, freely. How would you map these shifts from where you stand today?

Literary compositions arise mostly out of our own experiences when we keenly observe the life of people around us, trace social conditions and political happenings to convert these into creative ideas. This is also the technique to build something powerful. In life’s journey, our creations are like travel companions to our changing outlook. Moving with our changing lives and times, journeying with and through them, and creating through it all is natural.

Today, when I look back on my life, I would rather say that the freedom in my life has improved rather than say that my life has changed. Because even now I am functioning from within the same set up and family surroundings. Since the problems of my community and the struggles faced by the women of my community have not been recorded much, I continue to create my poems centring around those issues. I travel inside them because these should be debated. My first thought has always been that it should become possible for this community to merge with the mainstream.

My poetry today is still projecting issues centred around women’s lives, their politicised status, questions of feminism, etc. The changes in the process of creation have naturally taken place over the course of time. I hope that such changes will be possible in the coming years as well.

i, Salma Selected Poems by Rajathi Salma, translated from the Tamil by Srilata Krishnan and Shobhana Kumar,

Even though I have managed to break out of a tight and closed system, I continue to write so that many women like me should find a way to take the leap as well. This is my aim even if I travel around the world. For me the identity of poetry is a delicate combination of intimacy, privacy and cultural language. It is a play of words which builds on the deep layers of experiences. There is no comparison to this form of creation. It finds itself, changes and forms on its own.

I still don’t believe that the difficulties around me and in my mind have completely vanished. But it depends on how we are able to fracture the limits. Poetry should be seen as an open space to write. This ‘space’ also determines the thought processes of a creative person. I don’t believe that I have rescued my creative freedom just because I am able to travel freely. Difficulties are still being thrust at us all through religious fundamentalism and cultural policing that is still monitoring creators and their creations.

Even though I am going around the world now, I am still a person who comes to nest with my family, my society and its controlled surroundings. But today, that society and my family do not control me. I am not dependent on them and I have, to some extent, the freedom to express myself as I wish. Therefore, I am expanding my creative forms to novels and short stories as well.

Are you a writer who is conscious of her craft? Do you pay close attention to the language you use, its sound, rhythm, tonality, alliteration? Do you feel some poems lend themselves to rhyme and others to blank verse? Is this a conscious choice for you? Do you keep internally editing your poetry, or do you write different drafts? Do you read aloud to yourself so that your words can speak back to you and show you a way ahead? Do you turn to readers who you trust before you send your poetry (even prose) out into the world?

Language is a pivotal aspect of the poem. No one doubts that. The reason is that precise language is valuable in poetry. In modern poetry, there seems to be no place for monai, osai, layam or rhythm, alliteration and the other grammatical elements as seen in traditional poetry. The structure of poetry has changed over time. There was a time when modern poetry was established through images. This can be seen in poems that complicate language as happens in fiction, and send their readers searching for the knot of the poem, keeping them in a kind of a trance. C Day-Lewis has said that images are verbal portraits. Images played an important role in the development of new poetry. Beautiful and ornate words created some visual images in the minds of the readers.

Over time poetry began to speak directly to the reader. Poetry is a joint effort, a combined experience, as the poem from its creator penetrates the psyche of the reader. Poetry has become a form of close and intimate conversation with the reader, freed from the poet talking to herself. Language and form synchronise and take shape as a poem. All at once, the form, language and words emerge and come together. The content of the poem comes consciously. Whatever affects me, or disturbs me, becomes a form of poetry. When writing is a chore, I am not satisfied with it in the first attempt. I chisel it through repeated attempts. I continue to recast the poem till it has shed its extra weight and words. I edit to drop any words that I consider redundant. I can’t always complete this process in a day. Sometimes, even after much time has passed, I retain a compulsion to make corrections, to lines, even deleting or rewriting words. I search for alternatives. I weave around my ideas as I tighten my diction. The way language works within the poem should also lead to my inner satisfaction. At the same time, it is also crucial to release oneself after the writing is done for a sense of liberation. Nothing compares to the sense of satisfaction of having written a good poem.

Excerpted from i, Salma: Selected Poems by Rajathi Salma, translated from the Tamil by Srilata Krishnan and Shobhana Kumar and curated and conceptualised by Chandana Dutta, with permission from Red River

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