You started writing in the 1970s. It's been more than five decades. Tell us about your journey as a poet.
I began writing poetry almost by accident. I have explained this in my essay, “An Apology for Bangladeshi poetry in English.” Until the age of sixteen, I didn’t take serious interest in poetry. I enjoyed poetry when I read or studied it for exams, but in Class Ten a wonderful teacher, Brother Hobart, opened the window of my consciousness to the splendour of poetry, and in particular made me aware of the possibility of writing poetry using free rhythms like DH Lawrence. I began reading widely and would browse in anthologies of modern poetry, and then started attempting poems on my own. At that point in time I thought that I would seriously take up writing prose. But then I found out that I didn’t have the temperament to become a fiction writer and I fell in love with poetry which has remained with me ever since.
What distinguishes your poetry from your contemporaries?
I haven’t ever thought about that. The answer is up to my readers to figure out because they will read my work alongside other poets and they can see better how I differ from the others. But in general if you ask me to locate myself in a tradition, I would say that the primary tradition that I belong to is the tradition of South Asian poetry in English, which began with Henry Louis Vivian Derozio and comes down to our time. In the 20th century we have important poets like Dom Moraes, AK Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Nissim Ezekiel. I see myself in this tradition. And at the same time I am a Bangladeshi writing poetry. Even though it’s in English, my poetry is a part of the Bangladeshi literary scene. My poems are rooted in Bangladeshi reality. At the same time they belong to a broad tradition of postcolonial poetry, which includes poets from the Caribbean, from Africa, from South East Asia and of course, also South Asia.
In your poem, “Ode on the lungi,” you said, ‘There are more people in lungis than the population of the USA.’ It talks about sartorial hegemony and demands egalitarianism. How did you come up with the idea of such a brilliant poem?
Well, it’s impossible to explain how words and phrases and images come to me. I came up with this idea of writing something on the lungi. There are other poems about other items of clothing which must have influenced me, like Ferlinghetti’s poem, “Underwear”, then Pablo Neruda’s poems about various ordinary objects, odes on different things. Then I thought the lungi is something that we all wear but we don’t wear it in public places. It is something we wear in the bedroom. Often people will change into pajamas or trousers before meeting a guest in the drawing room. So that set me thinking of this peculiar and rather ambiguous position of the lungi in our lives. The presence of Whitman is quite fortuitous. I don’t know how it came about. I just thought, yeah, he is a poet of democracy. If you wore a lungi to the White House, you will not be allowed to go in. And then I thought let’s bring Whitman to Bangladesh because there is a poem where he says ‘passage to India…passage to more than India’. I played with that phrase so ‘more than India’ means crossing the border to Bangladesh, which is a fanciful way of looking at the phrase.
An enlarged edition of your poetry collection, Published in the Streets of Dhaka, will appear at this year’s DLF? Tell us something about the enlarged edition.
Well, the earlier edition went out of print which means people must have bought it up, and that is gratifying. I will have one extra poem retrieved from my first collection and I think I am adding two lines to “Ode on the lungi”. And I am also updating the collection that appeared subsequently, Pariah and Other Poems. That will also have some new poems. The enlarged second edition of Pariah and Other Poems will also appear at DLF this year. So the two volumes together will contain nearly all the poems I have written. Just some of the early poems are left out.
How do you feel attending the Dhaka Lit Fest 2017?
Dhaka Lit Fest which began as the Hay Festival is something I have been associated with right from the beginning. I participated in the first pilot event. Then when it moved to Bangla Academy, I participated in every lit fest. It’s always a very interesting and pleasant experience to see hundreds of people going there to listen to writers and talk about their works. A festival like this brings the writers and readers closer. It helps readers find a lot of books that they might be interested in. Because a lot of book sellers have stalls and literary works which the visitors might not otherwise have come across are displayed and sold there. So that’s a very heartening aspect of the festival that books get sold and readers and writers get a chance to interact.