The Test of a Poem is Whether It Can Hold Your Attention, Whether It’s On a Page Or a Screen: Ranjit Hoskote, Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Golden Jubilee Award

As poet, translator, art curator and critic Ranjit Hoskote gets ready to present his latest book of poems, Icelight, Kunzum looks back at Jaipur Literature Festival 2023 when Hoskote sat down with Sumeet Keswani for a chat. They discussed everything from Hoskote’s various practices informing each other, to the place of poetry in the current public discourse, and the newer platforms poets must embrace. By Sumeet Keswani

A Conversation with Ranjit Hoskote

Kunzum: You’re a poet, translator, and art curator. How do these crafts feed one another?

Ranjit Hoskote: They do nourish one another, but not in immediately identifiable ways. For instance, the mystery of a particular painting will be with me for a very long and time, and then it will reveal itself and I will bear witness to that through a poem. Or the form of structuring a poem gives me some freedom in terms of how I think of the career of an artist. For instance, in curating a retrospective, I’d see how that exhibition, as a medium, can reflect a more fluent poetic structure rather than strict chronology or a stylistic analysis.

I think what all the arts do is that they sensitise you to that moment when there’s a leap into unpredictability and [you] come upon something that is a mystery. That is the reason we come back to paintings or films or poems or novels. You never exhaust a great work of art. So, whichever art I’m engaged in at any point, this is the important thing to me. It is also the joy of reading and re-reading. I still go back to a book like Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. I read it when I was a child, and it revealed itself in a certain way. I’ve read it every few years, I’m reading it again right now, and it again reveals itself. I read it first when I was 11 and I’ll be 54 this year; I’m reading it and unfolding a whole new set of meanings—about what is home, what is going away, what is the arch of discovering yourself through alienation. It’s the same with paintings or plays. 

Kunzum: Another poet once told me—in an interview not unlike this one—that the act of translation offered relief to her from the act of creation. Is that true for you as well?

Ranjit Hoskote: No, for me, translation is a form of creation. It’s central to my poetic practice; I don’t see it as something different or unrelated. I’ve been involved in translation since the late 1980s, in one language or another, and that’s all been nourished by poetry. It’s not a relief or an escape; it’s something I do as a part of my poetic practice. I’m working right now on Mir Taqi Mir… when I phrase those translations, to me I’m creating new poems. So, it’s not about getting away from poetry, it’s circling back to poetry and being replenished by what you’re translating. 

Kunzum: Your translation of the poems of Lal Ded, the Kashmiri mystic, is one of the most spoken-about translations. What kind of revelations did it bring to you?

Ranjit Hoskote: A whole range! It took about 20 years to do it. I was in my early 20s when I started and I was in my early 40s when I finished. So it also meant for me a dramatic reassessment of what this place of the ‘sacred’ is—in my life, in life at large—how spirituality manifests itself—not through organised religion, but through figures like Lal Ded who are not trapped in any framework—how one responds to the sacred without getting caught up with how religion is politicised, and how in fact you can resist the politicisation of religion. But there was also a whole range of freedoms that I received from Lal Ded as a poet: forms of expression, a certain elegance of compression, an ability to deal with the everyday and yet transfigure it. I learnt a great deal; for me it was 20 years of being an apprentice to Lal Ded.

Kunzum: Is there another regional poet you’d love to translate but haven’t taken up yet?

Ranjit Hoskote: There are a number of poets that, at various points, I thought I’d work on. I’ve been working on Ghalib for a long time. But I wouldn’t call them ‘regional’ at all. Look at the languages spoken in South Asia, just by the force of how many people speak them our languages are already global—and they are global anyway, through the diaspora. There’s no good description of these languages but they‘re not confined by region. That’s the lesson of a language like Urdu—it’s pan-Asian and it has had different types of inflections and colourings everywhere. 

If not poets, there are very many poems that I’ve wanted to go back and translate. But sometimes you don’t get around to doing it. Even if I don’t translate, I find that lines from Ghalib come into my own poems—I cite him. Those poems are alive to me even in my own poetry. There’s a transformation of your own sensibility when you translate. 

Kunzum: What sets apart your latest collection, Hunchprose, from the rest of your work?

Ranjit Hoskote: I think there’s a gear shift. My use of syntax and punctuation is the outcome of my having worked on Urdu for about 10-12 years. I wanted the kind of syntactic freedom that you have in Urdu. And in the Hunchprose poems, I find that I was able to do this. Also, my concerns with the environmental catastrophe that the planet is going through is strong and prominent in Hunchprose. You already see that in the previous book, but here it’s much stronger. 

Kunzum: Also, you’ve chosen to title the book after the one poem that stings of retaliation. 

Ranjit Hoskote: It comes from a sense of asking what the place of poetry is in the current public sphere. There was a time, and there still is in some languages, the poetic utterance can form part of public life. So, my question in that poem is: Do we cede this ground to non-fiction, to prose of different kinds, or can the poet yet say something? The figure in that poem is the hunchback of Notre-Dame. An ill-favoured hunchback, Quasimodo, makes the most beautiful music with the bells in the cathedral. I was thinking about these contradictory aspects of being a poet, writing poetry, and asking what claim poetry can make. 

Kunzum: While we talk about the claim poetry can make, we must also address the publishing of poetry today. Many people today say that it’s difficult to get poetry books published—unless you have a major online following or have won some award. Do you think poetry doesn’t have as much of a market today as it once did?

Ranjit Hoskote: I don’t know about a market but more people than ever are reading it—they may be reading it in non-traditional forms—online… on platforms of different kinds. I think poetry publishing is assuming different forms. And there are many independent imprints now, even if it’s only English. So, it actually seems to be a good time for poetry.

Kunzum: You spoke of online platforms and people do seem to be reading a lot of poetry on platforms like Instagram. But that medium dictates that the reader has a very short attention span. Do you think that the need to adapt to Instagram affects the craft of poetry itself?

Ranjit Hoskote: That’s a challenge poets have to address, no matter what the medium might be. That might even happen on the page. I think the test of a poem is whether it can hold your attention, whether it’s on a page or a screen. It should prevent you from scrolling on and make you attend to it. But a poem needs to have that kind of power. I don’t think the poet has to subject themselves to the medium but they have to experiment creatively with it, whatever the medium is. 

Kunzum: Which poets have had the most influence on your craft?

Ranjit Hoskote: Oh my god, so many! Agha Shahid Ali, Keki Daruwalla, Geoffrey Hill, Adrienne Rich, Jorie Graham… this could be an infinite list! These are all people I hold on to. 

Related: Chaos Is at the Heart of Most Literature: Amit Chaudhuri Talks about Writing on Cities

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