Crocus Debuts: Interview with Maya Chowdhry

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maya chowdhry t a l k s a b o u t T h e

Seamstress

and t he Global Garment

Crocus 30 Poems Competition Interviewer: First of all, let’s talk about winning the competition, congratulations! What does this debut collection mean to you? Maya: I have been wanting to have a collection published for quite a long time, but I just didn’t seem to make it a priority. In 2007 some of my poems were published by Flax Books. This came with a free professional development session with the publishing manager. During that session we talked about publishing and pamphlet competitions -- it has been on my mind ever since. It was a good opportunity to focus on my poetry. When I saw the Commonword competition, I entered it, not at all thinking that I would win! Interviewer: Preparing for the competition must have been an interesting process. Was it difficult to make your selection? What did you feel magnetised the poems to each other?

She chose ‘monsoon’, a poem that I didn’t think to include because I could hear the play that it came from. I also think I was put off by the opening line: The birth of Maya. I worried that people might think the whole book was just about my life! In the poem, Maya is the virgin aspect of the triple Hindu goddess. Sarah encouraged me to include it. Now, seeing how the collection holds together, I think she was right.

Playwriting versus Poetry Interviewer: You have a long and diverse writing history with a lot of experience as as a playwright. Is it natural for you to write for both forms? Maya: I have to be in a different head space to write plays, especially because structure is so important. A play is a big story. I find poetry much more liberating.

Maya: I had to lay my poems all over the floor and look at them visually! It wasn’t straightforward. I took a few out, slept on them, and put a few back in... This was going on a month before the competition deadline. What I found was a thread of different, but not completely unrelated themes and a mix of various free-forms. Interviewer: So, is your submission exactly the same as the publication?

author interview

Maya: No, not exactly -- the poem ‘monsoon’ turned out to be a surprise addition. While I was working on the collection, Sarah Hymas, publishing manager at Lit Fest offered me some editorial help. She requested before our first meeting that I send her more than 30 poems so that she could make her own pile of selections.

Her politics take us from the city to the sea, via barges and bedrooms. From spices to the post office, nothing is too small, too insignificant, to be part of her manifesto for a new, responsible observation.

Any subject matter with poetry can be expressed in any way or form. I have written plays for fifteen years and I found it difficult to follow through my poetry ideas at the same time -- they were always being squished out!

On being a writer... Interviewer: Your journey as writer shows commitment over a long period of time. This debut collection spans from 1989 to 2009, twenty years. At what point

Sarah Hymas, Editor, Flax Commonword, 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS * website: www.cultureword.org.uk * telephone:+44(0)161.832.3777 * email:crocus@cultureword.org.uk


did you decide that you were a writer? a poet? Maya: I have always felt compelled to write things down. I started writing when I was about fourteen. I found this diary from 1978, it was full of poetry. I think it was my way to survive being a teenager. I was brought up in Scotland, at that time there were hardly any other Asian people -- there was bullying and racist incidents. Writing was a survival thing. Before that, when I was eleven, I went to India. I saw other kids starving on the streets. I thought, ‘How can we live in this kind of world’? When I was quite young, I was conviced about how I wanted to be. I told my mother that I wanted to be a vegetarian. At first she wouldn’t let me, but then she agreed as long as I cooked my own meals. I joined a vegan society and kept writing. Interviewer: The back cover of your book mentions ‘politics and responsible observation’ leading to the ‘open-heart of humour’ -- Can you talk about how you see your role as a poet? Maya: The other day I woke up at 6 am -- I had to write. It was after the recent experience of a visit to the seaside and seeing a rag doll in a shop that was a ‘golliwog’. I thought, what is going on? I didn’t say anything because it was a family holiday and I didn’t want an incident. Anyway, I came home feeling terrible about not speaking up -- then all of this writing came out. I visited the seaside shortly after my lecturer put an upsetting slide on the overhead projector. It showed a postcard from 1919 of a lynching and it had some terrible writing on it. Afterwards I had a nightmare. I was very affected and wrote a lot. All of that writing will go into a poem. I’m really glad that I have a place to go, to express these deep emotions. I do want to talk to the world and to other people about these things. Yeah, I could write an essay... But there is something about a poem, about the journey it takes you and the reader on... Interviewer: Can you pinpoint what it is about poetry that you feel is different to other forms of writing? Maya: There is space between rhythms, emotions, structure and shape. All of this space where the reader can take

what they want... An essay would be very direct, going exactly where the author leads. But in a poem, there is space for the reader to deviate, go with you or without you... For example, everyone laughs at the poem, ‘the sky will be closing in 30 minutes’ -- but it has a very serious aspect. Especially when you really think about, who is this mr. blue? There are parts of this poem that are addressing terrorism, security and capitalism -- but it is very gentle. I am leaving space for the reader basically. It highlights a communication with the reader. Of course it is fine when people laugh at this poem... What’s wrong with shopping as well? I feel as though I don’t want to take myself too seriously.

I see this “ It opened up with

poetry

and

art come from candle

meant that

Poetry as Art Interviewer: So, how do you see this book? Is it a conversation, an assembly of experiences or a philosophy? Maya: I see this book as art. The first time I thought about looking at my poetry in this way was on a trip to Los Angeles. I went to a poetry workshop with Michelle T. Clinton. It was a multicultural women’s writing workshop and an older man named Ralph turned up! I liked that, I thought it was funny. Michelle was a blackbelt, and she opened the workshop by lighting a candle and incense. She talked about all of us being artists - not just writers or poets. It was the first time I thought, yeah I am an artist. Interviewer: What exactly does that mean to you, to be an artist? Maya: It opened up the idea of going on artistic journeys with poetry. It also addresses an ‘other worldly-ness’

and the question: where does art come from? What stirs me to wake up at 6 am to write? It can be a bit scary sometimes. It was a way to acknowledge the power of poetry and it changed how I looked at my work. This happened in 1991. Afterwards I took my writing more seriously. I bought a book on writing poetry, and applied her ideas of practice and discipline. Something about the way she blew out the candle, meant that even if we write to difficult places we could come back. It was quite a held space -- a lot of good writing came out of that time and it is an experience that has stayed with me.

Commonword, 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS * website: www.cultureword.org.uk * telephone:+44(0)161.832.3777 * email:crocus@cultureword.org.uk


book as art. I went to a poetry workshop in Los Angeles... the idea of going on artistic journeys addressed

?

an

‘other

Something about

worldly-ness’. Where

the way she blew out the

even if we write to difficult places, On ‘Genderality’ Interviewer: The story about Ralph is quite funny and it leads me to touch upon how gender issues are freely addressed in your poems, ‘Genderality’ being a great example. What is this poem about? Maya: This poem came about when I was invited to participate in a poetry slam. The theme was Mars vs. Venus, men vs. women. Since I haven’t really participated in slams, I couldn’t decide whether I should take part or not. The more I thought about it, the more wound up I got thinking about the male/female, mars/venus division -- I also happened to get into a raging argument with my sister, who at the time had been reading Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus -- that stirred some ideas! I think those categories can be oppressive in their simplicity. That is when I wrote ‘Genderality’. During the slam, a guy came up to me and said, ‘I wasn’t sure which side to vote for until I heard your poem -- now I might vote for the women!’

Choosing a title and cover... Interviewer: The cover is very attractive and the title is very interesting, how did you come up with them? Maya: Thank you! The cover came out of the title and the title is a combination of two of poems in the collection. The seamstress has a kind of a mysterious quality and the global garment nicely tied in the politics of the book. When it came time to work on the cover, I had lots of these crafty bits and a piece of material. The designer said she would try to make a collage. She had access to the poems and I let her come up with her own interpretation. I think she was influenced by subtle aspects of the book like move-

does

we could come back.

ment, the Indian Ocean and flecs of gold. It felt as if it was sensitively put together and I trusted her decisions. For example, I probably wouldn’t have included the picture of my eye, but her ideas seemed to work. I am very pleased with the result!

The music of Annie DeFranco, Jackie Kay’s dramatic monologues and poetry for the screen. I’m interested in all of those... Narrator: Yes, it is really great to see how creativity can have such an influence on the artistic work of others. Speaking of which, what are some of the main Influences in your writing? Maya: I like the musician Annie DeFranco, she can be funny but she can also write about things that are difficult to hear. I find her inspiring. I like the work of Jackie Kay. She is very very funny. I’ve gone to see her recently performing her Ma Broon monologues. Being from Scotland, I remember reading about the Broons, this Scottish family. Jackie Kay read, ‘Ma Broon has a colonic irrigation’ and ‘Ma Broon’s vagina monologues’ -both just very very funny. She is really inspiring as a poet and a playwright. Interviewer: What about your multimedia interests? How does that blend together with your writing? Maya: I really believe all of my passions will simply just work together. Before writing especially for print, I was working on hypertext poetry and flash poetry. I was actually making work for the screen and not the page. Because of the whole web 2.0 stuff, people are using the web for so many different things, especially work and social networking. There is less room

and time to see it. So I am interested in doing work that is more for a gallery, where the audience is a quality audience. Nowadays, people might engage and interact with the web poetry in the middle of their emails. That isn’t ideal. In a gallery, people would go to see the poetry in the way they might visit an exhibition or go to see a film. Interviewer: That sounds really interesting and pioneering in terms of taking your writing forward! What next? Do you think your next collection will take a similar amount of time? Maya: Oh, I hope not! This competition has been a great reason to focus on my poetry. So, that is what I am going to do. Interviewer: Finally, can you choose a poem from your collection to explain and share for this interview? Maya: Hurry Curry! I’m really into food and cooking, and I chose it because it was a lot of fun to write... My friend and I turned up in Wales for a camp, it was absolutely pouring it down and so we rushed into a little post office. There was a Pataks Original Curry Paste on the shelf. My friend said, ‘lets get this and make a curry’. I wasn’t sure at first, but she knew how to do it. It was great and i’ve been using it every since! At first, I intended to write a recipe poem... Interviewer: What do you mean exactly when you say recipe poem? Maya: Basically, it is a list poem of ingrediants and a recipe that you could actually make. While I was in a poetry class I went on a journey with it and I ended up in an entirely different place... It ended up being a recipe for the world. EP

Commonword, 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS * website: www.cultureword.org.uk * telephone:+44(0)161.832.3777 * email:crocus@cultureword.org.uk


hurry curry rain heralds her arrival she pours herself into the land in the post office she discovers Pataks Original Mild Curry Paste and begins blending the ready-made with the soon to be made her grandmother’s words sizzling you can’t make a curry in a hurry she lowers the heat and adds the paste in a hurry imperialism gives rise to the recipe’s arrival resisting the way curry had to me made dissension - the right to her roots on the mother-land the Kala Pani and Sound of Skye blending could she put haggis in a curry could she resist her birthright of curry would her grandmother’s ghost know it was with haste and a hurry of blending that this soil felt her arrival in the mountains and vales of this land until in the earth’s womb a pact was made and on her table acceptable ready-made? lowering the tone with her curry giving her tolerability in this land if Tescos could do it in a hurry globalised food had its arrival aisles of ready-meals blending chicken and tikka masala blending allegiances made departure and arrival of the colonial curry judgements made in a hurry about who can migrate to the land harvest the land through the blending and mixing in a hurry until the recipe is made a bastardised curry makes its arrival blending promises made we land a new kind of curry hurry to await its arrival

Title: The Seamstress and the Global Garment ISBN: 978-0-946745-28-9 Price: £5 Available from: www.amazon.co.uk www.cultureword.org.uk For more information about Maya Chowdhry check out Maya’s Website: www.mayachowdhry.net For readings contact: info@mayachowdhry.net

Interviewer: Eileen Pun © Crocus November 2009

Commonword, 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS * website: www.cultureword.org.uk * telephone:+44(0)161.832.3777 * email:crocus@cultureword.org.uk