Rochelle Potkar is an award-winning poet, fictionist, screenwriter, critic, editor, and translator. We sat down with her to understand how these different artistic pursuits come together in her life, what inspires her, the thought behind her workshop crafts, and the duality of Instagram poets’ popularity and poetry books’ lack of sales. Don’t miss her haiku on Kunzum! By Sumeet Keswani
A Conversation with Rochelle Potkar
Kunzum: You wear many hats as a writer: poet, fictionist, screenwriter. What do each of these forms bring to your life, and which one do you enjoy most?
Rochelle Potkar: I believe the story idea is like a soul, and its form and genre is the avatar it decides to shape into, as it meets the air of the consuming world. So, first and foremost, I like to witness a little zygote of an idea deciding which avatar to take. That nascent stage of creation is divine.
The haiku brought to me distilled brevity and to mould word to imagery, and imagery to words. I think the haiku is a classical form of poetry. Once you begin writing it, it’s the most addictive form (like a candy crush of words) that one can play inside one’s head. Imagine every little experience and epiphany can be used in a haiku.
Haibun taught me to levitate with the abstraction of prose and not worry about endings: Act 3’s. The other forms: short story, novel, and screenplay made me a structured and disciplined writer. The screenplay opened up the maximum scope and canvas for storytelling. No form is as dynamic, vast, and fast-moving over its surface. While novels have depth and mine interiority right up to the bases of their story-and-character-icebergs, screenplays play with the tips of those icebergs, and yet you must know the whole iceberg. I enjoy screenwriting the most. This form has pushed me to become the most of what I can be: the whole storyteller. All these forms bring out a different writer in me, as if I too am a shape-shifting avatar. The funniest fact is that I try hard to live a conflict-free life, but in narrative fiction, conflict and drama are what one is supposed to seek. No drama. No story. This duality is sometimes mind-boggling.
Kunzum: You once said in an interview, “While my poems are confessional, my stories are camouflage.” Could you elaborate on how you pick a form for a certain idea/story/sentiment?
Rochelle Potkar: It’s mostly the other way around. The idea picks me, or sometimes half of an idea, like a game of tag, and then we wait on a metaphysical park bench for the other half-idea to join us on a bus ride of exploration. For instance, I am currently developing a story on a RAW agent, and I would have never chosen this idea of my own accord. Similarly, poetry comes to you. It attacks you like a bolt of lightning on a dark field or a wild animal on a jungle path. It is the distillation of higher wisdom on a long journey.
But I also collect crucibles of story ideas I feel interested in and wait for their nucleus to awaken. I look for theme, setting, world, and worldview. All characters, like people, seem benign when you first meet them, but once they unravel, a galaxy of discovery opens up. A lot of storytelling is to do with an instinctive sensorium of stalking the idea, picking its scent like a hunter, until its ending. I find magic in the ordinary too.
Kunzum: You’re also a translator, editor, and critic. What do these roles bring to your own craft?
Rochelle Potkar: When I translated Marathi poetry, and once Gujarati, I realised that under the snow-frosted veneer of language and its borders, the melt of meaning like water under the ice is the same. Human experiences in any language are the same. I came closer to Marathi—my third language. As an editor, I use my restless-snipping-scissorhands to fulfil the itch of editing. Curating an array of work for a journal, anthology, or festival shows me the collective zeitgeist, exactly like a visit to a contemporary art museum.
As a critic, I have learned to balance the merits and demerits of a piece of work. I have reviewed mostly poetry books. And I must admit I have done that with generosity. As a form, poetry doesn’t sell much, so I don’t go too severe in my critique. Why turn off the few readers interested in a niche form, by being over-critical? These roles inform a 360-degree perspective in me for my art and craft.
Kunzum: You also conduct haiku/haibun/free-verse workshops. Tell us a bit about why you choose these verse styles in your workshops.
Rochelle Potkar: One is: this three-form combination offers something different in a crowded place of many poetry workshops. But that is still surficial. Deeper still, these workshops offer an array of forms for the participant to read, analyse, observe, absorb, and write in. They get a wider palette to choose from and pursue. Most participants are a bit of storytellers and poets. And haibun is a flexible form that embraces you as both. When you liberate your expression, you can go beyond the tenets, conventions, and syllable counts to just enjoy writing and expression. In my workshops, participants have written some stellar first works.
The aim of my workshop is to transfer one of the basic beliefs of my creative life: make plenty of muddy mistakes and through them masterpieces: both with equal pleasure and freedom. And forgive your first drafts! Evolve in a triangulated process with your art, in time, in self-knowledge. [There’s also some muddy masti in shape-shifting a free verse poem into a haibun by adding a haiku or writing lyrical prose and then line-breaking it into a poem.]
Kunzum: Many industry insiders say it’s almost impossible for a first-time poet to get a book published in India today unless they come with a guaranteed online readership. What’s your take on that?
Rochelle Potkar: Yes, readership is always the challenge and hence publishing. I got an invitation to publish with Paperwall (Poetrywala) only after I came back from Iowa’s International Writing Program, and my book was published in three flat months. My second book, Paper Asylum by Copper Coin, is now heading towards a UK edition. My third book of poetry, however, even with two international prize nominations, can’t get a big-five publisher, say if I want a wider distribution. The replies are the same: the slate is full, or they are not looking at poetry right now.
So, it may always be tough no matter where on the gradient you are, but a new poet can start by investing deeply in the craft, publishing a cluster of poems in journals, anthologies, and magazines, and building readership one step, one day at a time. Very few poets get royalties or agents since there is no money around publishing poetry.
In fact, the whole idea, to me, that poetry—a metaphysical art form—should survive in a capitalistic world seems a miracle. The capitalistic world needs cash cows, not clairvoyants, or then only celebrity clairvoyants. But these bottlenecks teach one resilience and inventiveness. And that’s good life skills to have on a long literary journey. Poetry is a B2B market largely, unlike fiction and screenplay, which are B2C markets.
Kunzum: With the emergence of Instagram poetry—and these poets being published in print as well—do you see any seismic shifts in the craft of poetry going forward? Can you think of any poet(s) of a past era who would’ve enjoyed instant Instagram popularity today?
Rochelle Potkar: I have not consumed a lot of Insta poetry, but whatever I have, I have enjoyed in its performative or mixed-media way. Eventually, any poet, be they of stage, page, or reel, has to have something fresh and unique to say. So, craft investments stay, no matter the medium of expression. Insta poetry is a neat way to increase readership and solve bottlenecks of readership and hence sales. But I believe every poet, like a river, will find their way into the homes of the reader. No one specific template will work. The messenger should also suit the medium, not just their message.
Poets are quite a reclusive bunch but let me think… Kolatkar might have been a big Insta superstar. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Namdeo Dhasal too!
Kunzum: Which writers have shaped your own writing?
Rochelle Potkar: Different writers at different stages of learning these art forms. I have read many writers, poets, and screenwriters, and all influence me in the great work they do or their lacunae, which inspire me to approach the form better. It’s very rare for me to enjoy a whole book of fiction or poetry without skimming past a few paragraphs and pages. But The God of Small Things was the first immersive novel that brought me to writing and to a genre called literary fiction. I was a commerce graduate, you see, with a post-grad in advertising, working in a corporate setup. But William Trevor, Tessa Hadley, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chekov, Borges, Calvino, and Rushdie are some cornerstones. I am a restless, impatient reader, and it takes much to pin my attention down.
Kunzum: What’s in your to-read pile right now?
Rochelle Potkar: Many screenplays. Revolutionary Road and American Beauty this week; also a bunch of research material for my projects from how organised crime and the mafioso function for one project, and naval combat for another project, and a few poetry books for reviews.
Kunzum: If you were to recommend 5-7 books to our reading community, which would they be?
- Patna Blues, Abdullah Khan
- Lies our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden, Nilanjana Bhowmick
- The Bellboy, Anees Salim
- Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music, Amit Chaudhuri
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, Sohaila Abdulali
- A God at the Door, Tishani Doshi
Kunzum: If you were to write a haiku on Kunzum bookstores, how would it go?
kunzum, kunzum - in this honeycomb my nectar of books (Kunzum looks like a beehive of books)
kunzum la. . . book spines guiding all wilderness (A tribute to the founder, Ajay Jain)