Interview by Zoë Brigley
“It took longer than I expected to adjust to thinking in Hindi, but I think that initial frustration allowed me to appreciate even more the enriching experience of perceiving the world in more than one language.”
I’m cutting down the middle — each half, a coral crib. The name for it, hovering up my throat. Listen — my tongue’s fidgeting into position, practising p-a-p-e-e-t-a under a ceiling fan. The motor’s stirring up a murmur, folding in my voice the way maa would take my head into her lap — fingers scratching lightly, making passage for her lullaby — another set of intonations, another basket of sounds, wriggling in me even now — today as this spotty rind’s catching the light and daadi’s shuffling through the door frame, shorter than I remember. We’ll speak of this berry — these black seeds, easier to translate than God’s will. Easier to meet eyes with than uncle — now a photograph — garlanded, silent. His half-smile on the windowsill, the same as daadi’s as she’s watching my palms drip with juice. I’ll tell her, this is my favourite fruit. Maybe it is, or will be — warm and ripe with plosives. *Papeeta: Papaya
In this poem, sound seems to be very important, and you evoke it directly and indirectly. I remember years ago doing a workshop with the poet, Joanna Klink, and she talked about how you can create sound in a poem through describing the other senses. I think this poem does that in descriptions of feeling a finger scratching or seeing a person shuffling – there are also sounds here! Is sound and music important to you generally?
What a fascinating workshop! And yes, absolutely — sound and music play a huge role in my life. I often find myself craving specific albums, voices of loved ones or sounds of objects like the ceiling fan in my poem. I think this longing for sound is indicative of its ability to respond to or evoke emotion and memory, which might then evoke other senses too. I suppose I conjure sound in my writing, then, as a means of connecting to places and people, especially when I’m physically distant from them. This use of sound isn’t unique to my own writing, of course; a poem that springs to mind is Seán Hewitt’s Tawny Owl in Fog, which begins,
There it is again – that willowed crySeán Hewitt, ‘Tawny Owl in Fog’
that takes me from myself
I love that sound is an active subject here, transporting the speaker without permission. This entry into the poem, with its use of the word ‘again’, also speaks to how familiar we can become with certain sounds and the journeys they take us on. For me, for example, the hum of a sewing machine always carries me to my sister’s bedroom in Essex. The scream of a fox, to our old home in Ilford. Himesh Reshammiya’s song, Jhalak Dikhla Ja, to Ajmer, where my cousin once convinced me that singing it would invite ghosts. Interestingly, these sonic markers of time and place weren’t something I could have predicted them becoming. I’m wondering now which sounds and songs might later remind me of this current time in my life…but perhaps that’s a tangent for another day.
Your line breaks are elegant and urgent. How do you approach enjambment?
That’s very kind, thank you. For me, there are a few different factors that come into play when I’m deciding line breaks. I usually read aloud whilst writing and sometimes simply break the line where it feels most natural to pause. Other times, if it suits the feeling of the poem, I might look to deliberately break the line where it feels less natural. I’m also often thinking about which words I want to emphasise by placing them at the end of a line — is there an image or question I want the reader to hang onto? Otherwise, is there a way I can use the line break to create surprise or double meaning? These are all ideas I’ve picked up from reading and speaking to other poets. Ocean Vuong in particular is a poet whose use of enjambment I really admire. I recently re-read his poem, The Bull, and was struck by the intentionality of the enjambment, especially in the lines,
my godOcean Vuong, ‘The Bull’
was stillness. My god, he was still
’That brief moment after ‘still’ — where we imagine a motionless bull, wonder if it’s god — is, I think, a beautiful example of the magic a line break can create.
This poem is devoted to exploring language, and how we might feel differently if the thing we eat is called a “papaya” or “papeeta”. It feels enriching to have a diverse understanding of language though. Were you thinking on these ideas while writing the poem?
Yes, I was thinking a lot about language whilst writing this poem. I started writing it when I was in India visiting family who speak Hindi and Sindhi. I understand Sindhi but struggle to speak it so usually rely on Hindi to communicate. As a result of the pandemic, though, it had been about four years since I’d last visited and had to converse in a language other than English. It took longer than I expected to adjust to thinking in Hindi, but I think that initial frustration allowed me to appreciate even more the enriching experience of perceiving the world in more than one language. I was, and still am, fascinated by the ability of language to shape the way we think. I remember reflecting, for example, on the different ways to communicate ‘you’ in Hindi. From least to most formal, there’s ‘tu’, ‘tum’ and ‘aap’. It was interesting to observe my own choices, and those of others, when addressing different family members — at times, it felt like I was hearing a hierarchy unravel. As well as differences, I was also more attuned to similarities between words in English and Hindi. I don’t touch on it in this poem, but at the time of writing, I was thinking generally about how English and Hindi have both evolved and the impact of colonialism on both languages. It’s something I think I’d like to explore further in another poem eventually.
Karishma Sangtani (she/her) is a poet based in London. Her work appears in magazines such as The North, Ink Sweat and Tears and Modron. She was shortlisted for the 2021 Aurora Prize and the 2022 Creative Future Writers’ Award. Karishma is a member of The Writing Squad and the Roundhouse Poetry Collective 22/23.
You can follow her on Twitter @karishmalily
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