“Poetry for him is an Ordinary Mystery.” : Guillermo Rodriguez on A.K. Ramanjuan (Interview)

March 16, 2020 at 9:15 PMMar (Literature, Media, Poetry, Slice Of Life)

Samvartha ‘Sahil’: My first question or rather a request to you is to define the corpus of AK Ramanjuan (AKR) through an image or a metaphor and explain the different dimensions of AKR that get reflected in that image/ metaphor.

Guillermo Rodriguez: There are a series of crucial metaphors in AKR´s life and poetry, and many of them are related to nature, such as the (upside down) tree, the orange (fruit) in the tree, the snake etc. But I would say that (window-)glass is perhaps one of the most enigmatic and powerful images in AKR`s poetry as well as in his aesthetics. He once scribbled in his diary notes, “glass is good, it reflects to the outsider and refracts for insiders”.

Guillermo Rodiruguez

That is, depending on the point of view (where you stand) and how light hits the glass, you may either see yourself in a mirror reflection or see through the window to the external world, to the outsider who in turn may not see you standing behind the glass but see his own reflection. The window-glass is therefore a metaphor of the complexity of the human “self” which is invested with an inner and outer “vision” and composite “relations”. And glass is fragile, as is “the self”; it can break into pieces. Ramanujan´s choice of glass metaphors also testifies to his kaleidoscopic view of the world and to his belief that “truth is only in fragments.” In his poetry there are abundant glass and mirror metaphors. He often plays with perception, view points and optical effects, showing us how an image can be constructed from a concrete visual sense impression and then move beyond the particular in concentric circles, expanding meanings and reflections; thus performing a poetic play of mirrors, as it where. The related concepts of reflexivity and self-reflexivity were also a central to his understanding of Indian literature.

SS: Can you map the ‘becoming’ of AK Ramanjuan, tracing his journey as a writer and thinker? It would be great if you can mark the major milestones and turns/ shifts of this ‘becoming’. I mean evolution of his intellectual and creative self.

GR: There were several crucial moments and milestones in AKR`s life which defined his intellectual evolution and writing career. In 1943, for instance, when he was barely fourteen years old, AKR failed a final exam in history, which made him turn to writing prose and poetry in Kannada. Another decisive moment in his youth was when he threw away his sacred thread, thereby shunning his Brahmin tradition and legacy; instead, he embraced rationalism, existentialism and other philosophies, as well as medieval Kannada Virasaiva bhakti poetry which advocated an anti-brahminical revolutionary stance. Years later as a Professor of English in Belgaum in the early 1950s he was drawn to folklore and collected oral tales and women narratives. This was also a very fruitful period in his life as he began to flourish as a poet in English. In 1958, tired and disappointed with teaching English, he decided to study linguistics in Pune which eventually took him to the USA in 1959 as a Fulbright Scholar. His moving to America, and his constant “in-betweenness,” crisscrossing between disciplines, traditions, cultures, and tensions, moulded his multicultural intellectual profile and fed into his creativity. Linguistics and structuralism as a young researcher and professor in the U.S. in effect became the foundational ground on which his intellectual “toolbox” rested. This, along with his accidental discovery of an anthology of Tamil classical Sangam poetry in the basement of a library at the University of Chicago, marked his scholarship as well as poetic style which stayed with him throughout his career. In the latter phase of his life his structuralist convictions were shaken by post-structuralist theories (the later Barthes, Kristeva, Derrida etc.) which he also absorbed creatively into his own thinking and work as a writer.

SS: Like the title of his essay 300 Ramayanas we can say that there exist 300 Ramanujans, though 300 might sound a bit of an exaggeration. But the Ramanujan as a poet, as a translator from English, as a translator to English, as an essayist, as an anthropologist, as a writer in Kannada, as a writer in English, as a reader in Kannada, reader in English, reader in Tamil, as a researcher. How do these various facets of AKR flow into one another and influence one another? As an interviewer, on behalf of the (imagined) readers I request you to elaborate on this with some examples.

GR: AKR`s life and work was multi-layered. Moving from his native Mysore to Chicago and around the world, wherever he went and worked he continued to enlarge his multidisciplinary outlook both as a scholar and artist. This heterogeneity was further nurtured in his manifold professional engagements at the University of Chicago. He stated in an interview conducted by Chidananda Das Gupta in 1983: “One of the fortunate things of my life is that I have been able to keep the miscellaneousness interests of my youth alive – because I landed up in a place where this was formally recognised. It’s good to feel that these interests are not hobbies I pursue outside my field.” In AKR’s intellectual and artistic “miscellaneousness” there is, however, a continuous dialogue and reflexivity, which were also characteristic principles of Indian literary texts as he stressed in his essays. The multiple traditions, languages (mainly English, Kannada, and Tamil) and disciplines AKR absorbed therefore formed a very creative interaction in his self and in his work encompassing the diverse scholarly interests, the poetry, as well as the translations. In his work as a scholar and translator he imbibed terminology from linguistics, literary theory, classical Tamil and medieval bhakti aesthetics, cultural anthropology and other disciplines which he constantly revised. And his interests remained always in balance between the “higher” arts and disciplines and the popular forms of expression such as traditional oral tales or proverbs. These multiple realities were not independent variables but inter-dependent branches of the self.

SS: Is there a Ramanjuan way of crafting words, inclusive of his pre-verbal thoughts, and what defines it?

GR: The process of writing for AKR is cyclical and open-ended. There is no conclusion in poetry; poems for him, as Valery said, are “only abandoned.” He did not believe in a pre-verbal, original form before it comes to the poet, that is, in the existence of the poem before it is written. As a trained linguist he was very conscious of language and for him only through the process of writing and re-writing and revising did the poem come into being, as “a form emerging like a face in the water.” As he explained, poems often started as a ”stir”, but then they needed to be carefully nurtured and cleaned up until they matured, lest they got “lost” or spoiled. This we learn, for instance, in the poem “Children, Dreams, Theorems.”

SS: Can you elaborate a bit on AKR’s fear, while writing, of not being able to write poetry again? And please throw light on what does this fear speak at large about the writer AKR.

GR: One could say that AKR’s suffered from an acute existential anxiety, and this became almost a chronic state. He was constantly “looking for the centre” and to deal with his recurrent fears and personal depressions he often sought advice in psychology. But writing poetry also became a way of finding himself; poetry could simultaneously be the cure and the site where his existential tensions were creatively expressed. Even a good number of his early poems from The Striders (1966) deal with the anxiety with which all poets look for inspiration and tackle his worst nightmare: the fear of the self-conscious poet whose mind is full of images, phrases and words of other poets, but who is not able to make them his own. This fear, along with his primordial fears (various types of animals, but also sex, death, drowning or falling etc.) haunted AKR throughout his life.

SS: AKR seems to have been fascinated by what we can call ‘ordinary mystery’. Do you see this as an undercurrent across his body of works? How does he arrive at these ‘ordinary mystery’, articulate them and decipher them in his works?

GR: I deal with this interesting issue at length in my book When Mirrors Are Windows. AKR’s poetics is aware of the metaphysical dimension of artistic grace, yet in his poetry he wanted to show how poetry is different from divine inspiration in that it “works” somehow like ordinary life. He developed a pragmatic attitude to art and life. And so his concept of grace does not recognise a superior force; AKR sees art as a special type of event that can happen anytime, it may come as natural “as leaves to a tree, or not at all” (a quote he borrowed from Keats). Poetic inspiration is therefore expressed as a paradox, for him it is an ordinary mystery: “Poetry happens unbidden and has to protect itself,” he said in 1980 in an interview by Murali Venkatesh, “it’s a mystery, but mystery itself is ordinary. Only we make of it something miraculous.”

Even if the right images and words come to the poet, the origin of imagination still remains a mystery to him. So many of the poems, and in particular, the ones he wrote during the last phase of his life and which are collected in “The Black Hen” (published posthumously in 1995), deal with this “mystery” and play with the notion of poetry writing. One only has to read between the lines to see that there is as meta-poetic undercurrent in much of AKR`s oeuvre that attempts to illustrate or perform the “ordinary mystery”.

(Interview conducted via email in March 2018 for Ruthumaana and published on AKR’s birth anniversary – 16 March- in the year 2020)

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