The last time I was in this lecture theatre was for the launch of Lani Wendt Young’s latest book with the Pacific Community of Brisbane. Today I am at a partnership event between the Queensland Poetry Festival and QUT, where they are hosting the poet, Jeet Thayil.
It’s a free public lecture, but there are many poetry students in the audience, students of the immensely talented poet Sarah Holland-Bat (I am pictured on above with her.)
It’s an interesting room with its sloping ceilings and curving walls that give it a Pacific feel, and the red plush fold out chairs add a feeling of majesty. It has an arty feeling to it, and is certainly not a sterile feeling room.
Sarah introduces Jeet, an Indian poet, novelist, librettist and musician. He is best known as a poet and is the author of four collections, and as Sarah puts it is a ‘Renaissance Man’. He was also short listed for the ‘Booker Prize.’ Currently he is the poet in residence.
Jeet then begins his presentation. He shares with us a series of poems and let’s us know the book will be for sale later. He gives us a pitch, ‘For the price of a good wine, or a Hungry Jacks meal, why not buy poetry that will last you longer and nourish you.’ $30 is the price of the collection of poems he is selling.
He reads us a poem devoid of the usual poetry tricks of rhyme and scansion, much more like prose. ‘Declaration of Intent.’ It is a delicate piece, ‘ a love poem perhaps’ and leads to a hushed reflective room rather than applause, but that will arrive later. He follows this up with a poem equally delicate, called ‘The Haunts’ Phrases float in the late afternoon lecture theatre and hang there’ as a tremble on the stair, a slit on the moonlight’ ‘a white shadow’ ‘ music as a hunger.’ I find myself thinking about white shadows. So it looks like I am going to have to buy the book to read this poem again.
A change of mood is on the way though, and looking at the audience Jeet performs a series of poem that have a gentle humour and satirical tone, they are mini – How to manuals. the first is ‘How to be a Toad’, and is about how not to be beautiful! This is followed by, ‘How to be a Leaf’, perhaps a feminist poem. This is followed by ‘How to be Horse’ (with an obscure reference to Song by The Doors), ‘How to be a Crow’ and ‘How to be a Bandicoot.’ In India the bandicoots are unkillable. Jeet is uncertain if we know what they are, but we do. The final line of this poem makes me think perhaps these Bandicoots are symbols of Man -‘Adam’. Accompanying each poem is a gentle tide of laughter which grows stronger with each piece. But they are more than pieces for laughter and leave traces of ideas to follow up later.
For the next piece he tells us a story before performing it. He tells us that it is in a set Urdhu verse form, a Ghazal, that should never be written in English but urdhu and that if you read it in Northern India you will have shoes thrown at you. He explains the form, but then proceeds to performs it in English, as this is the main language he has command over. ‘Malayalam’s Ghazal ‘
Next Jeet tackles ‘the myth of the poet’ who burns life at both ends, who lives their life taking drugs, drinking too much, and having relationship dramas. He performs a poem of a love hate relationship with Baudelaire, someone who typified such a life style.
Jeet does not find this kind of poetic life a good model for a poet to have clarity in their writing, later students will quiz him on the link between drugs and creativity and he will myth bust that quite firmly.
Now that he has shared with us a range of poems, with a range of tones, Jeet gives us 15 reasons not to write poetry. He begins with ‘it will make no money!’ He develops a theme that he will come back to in question time. That of the difference between the novelist and the poet. The life of a poet is not easy, as there are no big advances, you fly economy class to conferences, and have an obsession with daffodils, April, names of trees and birds, and everyone asks you what your day job is. And finally he ends with you make no money. Just so we won’t forget that.
And now it is a question time. Jeet is asked about the connection between drugs and creativity. He clearly refutes that one should take drugs to be creative, and later I find that he has long fought a heroin addiction.
I ask about the transition from poetry writing to novel writing for die hard poets. He feels that poets focus on the beauty of language but can often lack the structure of a page turning plot when they write novels, but still they can have a beauty of language intact that some readers will like.
This is another theme he develops because he speaks about how for him poets are full of joy, and more likely to dance on the tables and stay up late. Novelists much work hard, and go to bed early to get up the next day and work hard to finish their books. They treat it much more like a nine to five job. They also have the chance of being translated, which doesn’t really happen for poets, as they are so hard to translate.
One student asks him what he would do if he had to write a poem for a piece of assessment, and he answers them with a piece of advice, about working a strict form like a ‘sestina.’ He explains that working in strict forms gives you the freedom to dance in a cage, but the cage is actually a place of freedom.
One student asks him about confidence, and he explains that all good writers will always have some doubt, and the day they stop doubting is probably the day they should stop writing.
Someone asks how did the Booker Prize nomination change your life, and he answers, ‘Well I was asked to if some poems of mine could be published in a book.’
There are more questions about the difference between poems written for live performance and intricate poems written to be read several times, from a page, so you can absorb them.
One student asks when should you give up writing, and realise you are just terrible at it. He doesn’t think that poets can or should give up writing, and can write poems whether or note they are published. The road to publication can be long and hard, but it is worth pursuing it, and continuing on with your journey.
He talks a bit about anthologies of poetry, and how difficult they are to edit, because poets are so particular about the lines, and other details. It is not an experience he would like again, but they are important, in that they highlight the work.
Another person asks about how he began writing, and he tells us about spending many years as a journalist, and then returning home to his Indian Parents, (which by the way they love you doing) who provided him with the equivalent of an arts grant in rent free accommodation.
His definition of ‘what is India’ and who is an Indian writer is broad and disasporic. He is interested in the Indians who live all over the globe. This is something I can certainly relate to as a diasporic Papua New Guinean Australian, who like Jeet, knows of my mother’s tongue, but I do not speak it. Later I will talk to him about having a poem of my own translated by a cousin in to my mother’s village language. Here I am chatting away.
(This photograph was tweeted by Sarah Holland-Batt)
This lecture was tentatively titled ‘How to be a Leaf’ but it is perhaps more a guide to ‘How to be a Poet.’
So I write this in tribute to Jeet.
Be not a poet for money or fame
but because you are
to language’s beauty
as a regent skipper to a flame
yet don’t burn your life at both ends
but find clarity and freedom
inside the cage of tiny set forms and
Don’t succumb to the cliché of
mad and bad poets in words or in life
and once you know all the rules
then you can trash all the rules.
Your craft is your canoe
although others will often think you
You cannot help but follow and fan the
(c) June Perkins
*regent skipper – a kind of moth