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On the art of poetry and translation: Manu Kurup

On the art of poetry and translation: Manu Kurup

Indian Poet Manu S Kurup

Over the weekend, poet Manu S Kurup will be participating in the Ethos Literary Festival 2018, speaking at the session, ‘Do critiques add value to poetry at all?’. We caught up with the poet over email, and in this exclusive interview to onWriting, he speaks about translating cartoons, the art of poetry critiques and his attachment with Malayalam literature. Edited excerpts:

1. You have written a paper on Kiriti Sengupta’s poems and reviewed his book. How has your association with his works developed over the years? For our readers who may not have read his works, what was it about his poems that you admire?

My first serious experience of reviewing came with reviewing Kiriti Sengupta’s books. I chanced upon them and found them to somewhat match my early understanding of Indian philosophy. It is the profundity of the themes he presents that I admire the most. For someone who admires simple, straightforward thoughts, those poems make sense. It may not be something that every reader of his connects with. Also, it is not necessary for one to have philosophical inclinations to understand Kiriti Sengupta’s poems. He is a poet that thrives on the many dimensions of meaning his poems provide. That is what makes a poet important regardless of the age/times they live in.

I first read ‘My Glass of Wine‘. It changed my perception of poetry as I was still on a sabbatical from reading poetry. It’s been five years since and the book still makes excellent reading on a good day of solitude and wine. A free verse from the book is one of my favorites. I have used it on many occasions to revisit the book.

The Source

For years I’ve been searching
the flavors of
birth and death

Do they exude the same?

They are as fragrant
and fresh as the
ancient fruit.

2. I have been going through your research papers and three themes stand out – translation, cartoons and Malayalam fiction. What does translating cartoons include? What role do cartoons play in your life, and how did you come to research and write about them?

I have always been fascinated with cartoons. I grew up in a charged political environment with my parents and uncles constantly engaging in political as well social dialogues. So, dissent and critique were two words that I got familiar with.

My fascination for cartoons took a turn when I started concentrating on the art of political cartooning. I doodled cartoons of political nature occasionally though not getting anywhere with it. When the time came for thinking different for my PhD topic, I chose political cartooning as the main theme with the idea of dissent in a democracy as one of the sub-themes.

Political Cartoons have a long history. Yet, it is one of the most undocumented forms of art. Recently, the academic world has started looking at it as something worthy of documenting.

My study traced the emergence of Political Cartooning, the powerful tool that it had become in the 19th and 20th century and its essential position as a critique of power since the conclusion of the Second World War.

And, the ‘translating’ part is not exactly the same as that of the usual meaning it is associated with. The idea of translation has gone through a paradigm shift long back yet Indian academics are still in the dark about it. It is no longer only about translating from a source language to a target language.

A cartoon is translated when it is being read. There are political cartoons that simply never had any sentences in the box. How do you translate that? It is a case of inter-semiotic translation, something that is not widely done in India. But, if one has to think in terms of the traditional meaning of translation, political cartoons were translated from one language to the other, right here in India. The famous cartoonist Kutty was bilingual as his cartoons published in both English and Bengali in two different dailies. OV Vijayan’s cartoons used to get translated occasionally for the purpose of getting a point across in his political writings.

As for Malayalam literature, how has your connection with it developed?

I lived in Kerala till was 20, so my connection with Malayalam literature is very strong. My parents, being students and teachers of Malayalam and English themselves, instilled the habit of reading in me at a very early age. The library at home gave me a wide understanding of Malayalam as well as English literature. My grandfather made sure I read the classics, mythologies and occasionally, some science fiction. Dinner tables were usually about recent poems or buying a newly published work of fiction.

My father, being a professor of literary theory, gave the first inputs on understanding, critiquing and reviewing. My mother, being a teacher of grammar made sure that I read and wrote correctly. Though I grew up with Malayalam literature in my veins, I shifted to English Literature and later Indian Literature in Translation. My days at the University of Hyderabad helped in understanding the latter more clearly, and shaped my opinion.

Manu Kurup Poet

3.  In your review of Reflections on Salvation, you write ‘My present philosophical self hinges on my readings of Nietzsche’. What is it about Nietzsche’s works and ideas that you most relate to?

I have always found Nietzsche to be a philosopher of high value to be read often to polish the modern human mind. In fact, I am of the opinion that without the writings of Nietzsche there would be no modern thought. I regard his idea of Übermensch to be of importance. Thus, Spoke Zarathustra has played an important role in my understanding of Nietzsche and his ideals. When I first read Kiriti Sengupta, I was still in the hangover of a fresh reading of Nietzsche and it certainly influenced my reading of My Glass of Wine.

Just like all the other readings, the readings of philosophy also changes over the time. I think we understand philosophy depending on where we stand at a particular point of time in life. While Nietzsche formed my basics in reading philosophy, there has been other influences as well.

4. How has your journey as a poet been; from writing your first poem to now writing for publication. Have your thoughts on poetry changed? What does poetry mean to you?

My first poem was some time in 1998. I did send it for publication but never heard of it after. My first published poem was in 2002, in a rather unknown magazine which did not sell more than a few copies. After that, over the years, some poems have gotten published here and there. I post many on my blogs as well. Whichever the platform is, I only write when I have clarity regarding what I have in mind. My thoughts on poetry remain the same since the beginning – it should make sense and it should not have too many implications.

Poetry is a kind of message you leave behind of a particular time, emotion, feeling, a thought, memory or an understanding.

It can be cryptic or clear, depending on whether the poet is completely in agreement with his/her (fragment of) thought. Every time I write a poem regardless of its size or subject, I ask myself this question: ‘Are you sure you want to leave that behind?’

5. Over the last two years, in India and globally, translations have taken spotlight. As an academic in the field, have you too felt a change? Where do you think the space of translation stands today?

I would like to say that translations have been playing a major role since much before two years. In Malayalam, wide variety of translations are available of Neruda, Mistral, de Burgos etc. The space of translation offers a lot more than earlier and there is a wider acceptance to translated works. Though I was a dedicated student of English Literature, I decided to shift my base to Translation Studies only because of my growing fascination towards the interesting discipline.

6. Your session at ELF 2018 is on ‘Do Critics add value to poetry at all’. So, without giving too much away, what are your views on criticism in poetry? What do you think makes a good critique of a poem?

I think, any work of art is subjected to criticism. It is absolutely essential for the author, and for the art of thinking, conceiving and writing. It’s also good for the readers as well as the art and the artist.

But, a work of art is an extremely complex thing. It is a living thing with a soul and must be treated like that. I am against the kind of critiquing that would separate the blood from the flesh and the soul to analyze wording, spacing, and all that. I think criticism should rather focus on the effect of the work in discussion. It should focus on the effect it created in the critique and how s/he puts it on paper. In fact, the criticism itself should become another work of art. I think all critics/reviewers must take a glance at the few chapters of On Literature by Umberto Eco, to understand what to look at in a work of art.

Poetry especially is a difficult thing to critique upon. Fiction is easy compared to poetry. It gives a larger canvas to drive your points forward. When I attempt to review a collection of poems, I try to stick to my definition of poetry as I said before. I try to see them as a message (or a group of messages) left behind by the poet. Once it is completed, it’s for those who attempt to decode it and use it as their food for thought.

In some cases, it is a time-consuming effort. You have to read them and see if it clicks! You have to re-read them. Then you have to read the whole book again, emphasising on the titles they have chosen to see if there the order is random or it has some intriguing sense hidden in them…Some collections are more difficult because right from the beginning, they don’t make any sense. The order of poems will be random with emotions gone haywire. It’s like a child has thrown some colorful pebbles on a pristine beach! You gotta clean up after and try and make sense in some way that might help a future reader.

So, to answer your last question, I think there are many parameters that one can have to have a good critique of a poem. I usually go for very less number of them because I feel it is an unnecessary thing to keep a collection of poems on a table and dissect them as one might a frog in a lab! I’d start with content and vision. Then, emotions and imagery. Then I’d go for originality and language.

7. This may sound a little cliché, but what role do you think do poets and poetry play in society. Have you ever thought about how you could take your poetry to the masses? Do you think digital can help enhance the poetic experience and help you in any other way as a poet?

I think the role has tremendously changed over the past couple of decades. It no longer fits the discussion that used to happen in the Victorian Era anymore. Poets have larger roles and they’re no longer shy on topics, time or their work, and are braver now, embracing the tide of time. Poets, let them be of any language, converse with each other and understand each other perfectly these days. Not that such a thing did not exist before but the conversations have become easier now and messages of social, political or cultural nature get exchanged in a faster manner with more freedom. This improves their chances of being heard a thousand times more.

I think poetry should be out there regardless of its reach. Also, poems and poetry recitations on specific topics, issues etc attract a lot of crowd and ends up giving it a position closer to individuals. It has come down to earth a lot more than its previous position.

Platforms for publishing poetry have increased giving opportunity to a lot of creative people out there to show the world their art. Young poets no longer get tired of initial rejections. I remember being in despair when I got rejected thrice by the same magazine in 2003. Online magazines were less then, so were magazines of repute. Even in the case of availability, gathering information on those were a problem. But, now everyone has access to information regarding publishing spaces and with good researching skills, one can get a poem or a short story published somewhere.

You can read his academic work here.


Prakruti Maniar is editor and partner of Purple Pencil Project. She loves all things language and literature, and is committed to bringing non-English Indian and world literature to the mainstream.

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