POEMS ABOUT BANGALORE, THE IDEA OF GOOD POETRY, AND MULTIMEDIA COLLABORATIONS WITH ARTISTS FROM DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES TO PRESENT WRITING
By Kulpreet Yadav
Kathryn Hummel is the author of Poems from Here (Walleah Press 2014) and the forthcoming Broken Lines: Writings from a Disrupted Lifetime in Bangladesh (Leadstart). Her diverse, award-winning poetry, fiction and non-fiction has been published and performed throughout Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US and Asia, often in collaboration with musicians and fellow writers. Throughout her travels in Australia, India and Bangladesh, where her doctoral research in narrative ethnography was based, Kathryn has completed residencies with Australian Poetry, Forever Now, 1 Shanthi Road and, most recently, the Kena Artists’ Initiative in Bangalore. More details are available at www.kathrynhummel.com.
This interview was conducted over e mail.
Kulpreet Yadav: Your website says that you write to reflect the world’s wit, warmth and chaos. Why limit yourself to fewer themes? Why not anger, pain, dissent and hatred, so as to bring these subjects to a more open scrutiny through reaction and interpretation. In short, what worth is good writing without being provocative and intimidating?
Kathryn Hummel: The phrase ‘writes to reflect the world’s wit, warmth and chaos’ is what those in the biz sometimes call a strapline, which serves to whet people’s appetite with a general idea of my work. My themes are listed elsewhere on my website and include: belonging; identity; gender and sexuality; conceptions of beauty; life as an outsider; postcolonial realities; time; memory and urban/suburban life. This is not an exhaustive list, though! I try to address themes that contain the potential for countless variations. Although any definition of ‘good’ writing is subjective, writing doesn’t necessarily have to be provocative and intimidating. It’s a bit of a gimmick to think that writing, if it’s to be seen as good or commercially successful, needs to be dark or have shock value; if writing is engaging and evocative it can also be good. My friend Alex often tells me to write about happiness, which I find much more difficult to capture and describe than sadness or pain.
KY: What is good poetry for you: a notion about something ordinary that is profound, a thought in transition that helps the poet and the reader connect the dots about life, or a flash of realization about anything under the sun that is worth preserving?
KH: My idea of ‘good poetry’ is broad. I like poetry that I find beautiful or amusing or that makes me think in a different way. I am always looking for originality of theme or perspective and sincerity of voice when I read poetry. One of my favourite poets, Frank O’Hara, wrote wonderful poems about everyday experiences, life philosophy, as well as moments of inspiration. All the ways of writing poetry you’ve mentioned involve concentration on the self and the outside world, emotion and sensory experience, so I don’t think one is better than another. My own poems are usually inspired by an incident I experience or observe and write about immediately, even if it’s just a few words. Afterwards, I take time in expanding the idea so it becomes more substantial but also more removed from the emotion that inspired it. It takes fine balance to write a poem that still reflects that first reaction and it’s a process I’m still refining.
KY: As I see it, your tendency to experiment and innovate has created tempting forms of writing as you merge fiction and nonfiction with poetry and photography, even with music. Where do you think this process is taking you? Do you have a destination in mind? Shall I say, where do you see yourself after 5 years?
KH: I enjoy collaborating with artists from different disciplines and experimenting with multi-media ways of presenting my writing. In the first case, you are merging your skills to create something unique and sharing ideas that can trigger so many more, leading you down pathways you might never have gone as a solo artist. In the second case, mixing genres of writing with different ways of presentation, like photography, can add more layers to your work and help communicate your intentions better: when I perform my photographic prose poems in front of an audience (eg. Dhanmondi Morning Metaphors <http://www.blackmailpress.com/KH31.pdf>), some people respond more to the words, some to the visuals and some to the music. I hope that this process of mixing media will help make poetry more accessible and remove some of its highbrow literary associations. Over the next five years, I want to become more technically skilled so that I can explore the genre of new media poetry deeper and concentrate on work for exclusively digital presentation. As far as my collaborations with musicians, artists and other writers go, I can’t predict—which makes the prospect of the next five years even more exciting.
KY: Your research in narrative ethnography and your extensive travels in India and Bangladesh, how have these experiences shaped your writing thoughts?
KH: The year 2007 was significant for me, since that was when I began to write poetry seriously. It was also the first year I spent living in Bangladesh and the year in which I met my friend Kaiser Haq, a poet, teacher, translator and prose writer. Kaiser’s work influenced me a great deal, as it varies in tone from loving and celebratory to sharp and satirical, as did his guidance and feedback as a mentor. In Bangladesh I was also introduced to the work of Jibanananda Das, the pre-modernist Bengal poet, whose writings on Kolkata still pulsed with life and reflected the views I saw around me every day. The story of Jibanananda’s life and death also intrigues me: he was unappreciated during his lifetime but contributed so much to the advancement of contemporary poetry.
Many of the poems in my collection Poems from Here are based on my experiences in Bangladesh and India; my forthcoming non-fiction book Broken Lines is a compilation of articles I wrote in Bangladesh from 2007 until the time I submitted my PhD thesis, which also involved Bangladesh-based research. I’ve recently released a poetry chapbook The Bangalore Set, which is all about my observations of Bangalore. While I don’t write exclusively on these countries, the time I spend in them does inspire me and lead me to record my experiences in writing. I am, however, always mindful of the dangers of privileging the researcher’s voice (often the white researcher) and of appropriating narratives. I would never presume to claim authority on a place I am only visiting—even if I lived in India for years, I could never come to the same understanding of the country as someone born there. At the same time, I continue to write about my experiences because I feel there is something to be gained from the outsider’s perspective, though not if this means overlooking a local one.
KY: Tell us something about your book of poems on Bangalore.
KH: Inspired by the concept of NaPoWriMo, which encourages poets to write a poem a day for every day of April, from mid-August I started to write a poem a day for thirty days on the topic of Bangalore, mainly to help me explore the city more and looking outside my experiences for inspiration. In October I began a writer’s residency at Kena Artists’ Initiative in Bangalore and decided to edit and publish the poems in a chapbook—the result was The Bangalore Set, which I like to think of as my tribute to the city and the people I met during my stay there. The chapbook was launched at Kena on October 18 during a fantastic open mic poetry slam. If anyone is interested in reading The Bangalore Set, copies are available from Kena (http://www.kenablr.in/) and selected bookshops in Australia—an ebook is forthcoming on Smashwords and associated platforms.