I talked to Amali Rodrigo about her first collection ‘Lotus Gatherers’ (Bloodaxe).
PART ONE: THE POET
Paul: What was it like growing up in Sri Lanka?
Amali: I grew up in a town called Kandy, in the central hills. It was the last kingdom of Ceylon. It fell to the British in 1815. Before that the Portuguese, later the Dutch ruled the coastal areas. Kandy has a castle (now a temple), a lake, and green green hills surrounding it-perhaps the reason why I need to see either trees or water from my window wherever I live! I had a quiet, sheltered childhood really. Many school holidays were spent in tea plantations (sometimes rubber or coconut estates), along with a troop of cousins. They were wonderful mysterious places for kids, because we could roam free even after dark.
Paul: Which languages did you learn to speak? What is your relationship to English?
Amali: English and Sinhala. I grew up bi-lingual. Although my secondary schooling was in Sinhala, I mostly read in English, we spoke it at home, and you could say I thought in English too from a very early age. There are of course untranslatable and eloquent words like Aiyo that would be mixed in for effect! Since English has become the ‘carrier’ of my imagination and everyday expression, it is incredibly important to me, but I bring into it the music of my other tongue.
Paul: Did you read much poetry growing up?
Amali: No, not really. But I did read a lot. We inherited a well stocked library from relatives who migrated to Australia. I was pretty much the only reader in our family, so that room became my domain. I remember my favourite book when I was about eight or nine; it was one on Greek myths with a cover photo of a rather fierce Poseidon.
Paul: When did you start writing? Who and what has fed your development as a writer?
Amali: It was all accidental. I took a de-tour and never left! My first degree was in Econometrics (with a lot of maths). I worked in Economic research. But I had cancer about 17 years ago. I guess that made me a lot more introspective about the meaning we create in our lives. I think I became sharply aware that “you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth” (Goethe). After moving to India, I couldn’t get a work permit as a foreigner, nor was I allowed to volunteer. All this came together, and I began to sign up for summer schools here in the UK and writing courses at Arvon, Ty Newydd and Moniack Mhor to simply explore both poetry and prose. I read a lot and wrote a lot. Initially I had wanted to become a travel or nature writer. I even wrote a novella (with all the house moves I have no idea where it is!). But poetry was where my heart was, and at the beginning of 2010 I promised myself to focus just on that.
Paul: Which poets have influenced you? Which do you regularly go back to?
Amali: Keats, Cavafy, Rilke, Dante, Basho, Elliot, Heaney, Kavanagh, Medbh McGuckian. Joy Harjo, Simic, Glück, Plath, Hughes, Tomaž Šalamun, Milosz, Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert…I should stop now shouldn’t I!
Paul: Sri Lanka has such a beautiful shape on the map. It reminds me of a teardrop or a small gem. What does the shape of the island mean to you?
Amali: Exactly that Paul! A teardrop and a splendid jewel, like the yin yang symbol, each a part of the other in every way.
Paul: The civil war in Sri Lanka raged for 26 years. How did this affect your life and person?
Amali: I was never wounded in any of the bombings or suicide attacks, although several friends or acquaintances were. One time, a few lost their sight in the Central Bank attack-they were in glass walled offices across the road. They saw a lorry mount the pavement and crash through barriers but continued to watch. All that glass. It’s strange isn’t it how we react (or don’t to danger). Those years we would simply try to avoid crowded public places, or the rush hour. No one wanted to be in or beside a crowded bus. I have heard several explosions or watched the ‘mushroom’ they create in the sky. And the aftermath. Newspapers and TV footage were rarely censored for graphic details of severed body parts in the early years. This experience has fed into the poem ‘The Eye”. There are a couple more ‘war’ poems in the book; “Making Candles” a poem of childhood, and “How to Watch a Solar Eclipse in a Bowl of Water”. The latter is not based on the civil war, but the experience of an extremely brutal communist uprising.
Paul: You have also lived in Mozambique, Kenya and India. What were these experiences like?
Amali: There’s still a lot of Portuguese and also Brazilian influences in Maputo, and it had a laid-back Latin feel to it. It has a beautiful coast and the most divine sea food, so being an ‘islander’ I felt quite at home. Also, they had a long civil war and it was not long after it ended that I lived there. So, there was a pervading sense of relief and calm. It was great to live so close to South Africa and Swaziland too. I adore Kenya, the wildlife, the mild weather in Nairobi, and the people have such a wonderful sense of humour! India, although a place of such rich and varied experiences, it was not easy to see the poverty in Mumbai. It’s a very humbling experience, the lottery of where one is born; 50 yards apart might have meant the difference of having every opportunity in life, or none. And the incredible courage and resilience of some women I’ve met who overcame this.
Paul: What of Sri Lanka do you embody? What do you bring with you to the UK?
Amali: Oh this is a difficult one! Maybe textures, sounds and rhythm, a different way of seeing?
Paul: To what extent does the colonial past weigh present, in society and culture? Is it visible? (this may be a stupid or inappropriate question, so please ignore if so).
Amali: Not at all, this is an interesting one. And a difficult one to answer because there are so many nuances to it. Now it’s second or third generation post-independence, and I don’t think there is the direct anger displayed in society that was visible in the first generation; for instance, I’ve compared Derek Walcott’s poetry to his contemporary, the Sri Lankan poet Lakdasa Wikkramasinha (1941 – 1978) in my Master’s thesis. What’s visible is possibly the fallout of colonial rule, as with the Partition during the British Raj. Ceylon (having always been a separate country from India, despite the proximity) was also governed as a sovereign country, but the British divide-and-rule strategies during this time contributed to the rapid rise of post-independence Sinhalese nationalism. One of the root causes of the recent ethnic strife is here I think, when Sinhala was made the national language; Sri Lankan Tamils lost an appreciation of their identity in that single stroke.
Paul: Where are you now based?
Amali: In London. I feel very much at home here.
Paul: How did you negotiate the UK poetry ‘scene’ when you came to the UK? Did particular people or organisations guide you?
Amali: To be honest I’ve never really attempted to ‘negotiate’ it as such, I’ve just gone with the flow! Maybe that comes out of having moved around so much too. I had published in magazines and performed here before (and also made friends over the years through Arvon course etc.), so wherever I went I’d see a friendly face, and never felt alien or daunted. Besides, the UK poetry ‘scene’ is incredibly inclusive.
Paul: We met at Lumb Bank on an Arvon didn’t we? 2011?
Amali: Yes! A while back! I think it was with Colette Bryce and Phillip Gross…
PART TWO: THE BOOK
Paul: Your book ‘Lotus Gatherers’ is described as being ‘marked by a sense of being on a threshold between worlds’. Besides the obvious geographical logic, I wondered what other thresholds inform your writing?
Amali: Another threshold is time (the graffiti poems are medieval, but in its content are surprisingly ‘contemporary’ to Sri Lankan culture). The other logic is more intangible. It is the sense of different (sometimes conflicting) realities, often approached through the surreal. There is also a ‘spiritual’ sense that we discuss below; the embodied and…I hesitate to say eternal, but about what’s beyond our lived reality.
Paul: What does the lotus flower mean to you?
Amali: The received association from an early age is of the sacred, and the pure, and is very one dimensional. As I later began to understand its symbolic meaning, I see it as a metaphor of a way to navigate our ‘embodied’ existence here and now.
Paul: You preface the poems with a quote by Marmood Darwish and a book called ‘The Presence of Absence’. Could you tell us why you chose this and what it means to you?
Amali: ‘The Presence of Absence’ is a self-elegy (an established genre in classical Arabic verse) where “the living ‘I’ bids farewell to its imagined dying other”, and as such dwells on a threshold. Many of the poems in Lotus Gatherers can also be considered self-elegies, as a lyric I ‘enters life unprepared’; but a sort of elegy at birth. In the title poem “Lotus Gatherers”, and in others, there are repeated attempts throughout the collection to ‘slip from their myths’- the analogy is one of how Darwish’s lotus-eaters have slipped from another literary inheritance; the myth of the lotus-eaters in the Odyssey.
Paul: I like the suggestion in the quote that forgetfulness has a honey taste. What do you suggest remembering or rememberance taste of?
Amali: Sometimes a bitter fruit.
Paul: Your multi-voiced poem ‘Aftersongs’ explores the male gaze, religion and art. Where does this combination of interests come from, particularly, how men see?
Amali: ‘How men see’ and its link to religion comes from the awareness of having grown up in a patriarchal culture. I think in the West there is a sense that Buddhism is all about compassion and serenity! What is often overlooked is that the strict Buddhist mind-set in everyday life can also feed into a patriarchal culture through double standards, subjugation and ‘shaming’. Women out of habit, intimidation or inculcated shame are silent or dismissive of their experiences of these instances, hence are complicit in upholding these structures. I am not a polemical writer and aesthetically, prefer a lighter touch. The ekphrastic graffiti poems with its humour and variety of voices that sounded remarkably contemporary gave me the perfect vehicle to simply place the different viewpoints side by side, and allow the synergy to gesture towards meaning.
Paul: Could you tell me a little about the graffiti poems from the 8th and 10th centuries that inspired your own sequence?
Amali: Sigiriya is a 5th Century pleasure palace and fortress built by a patricidal king. The castle was built on the summit of a 200-meter sheer sided rock and one side of the rock face is believed to have been covered with frescos of about 500 beautiful ‘cloud maidens’ (possibly images of women in his harem). The king was killed by his brother in battle and the capital moved to a different city. Sigiriya was used as a monastery and later abandoned. However, for more than four centuries, people had hacked through the thick forest that had now taken over the water gardens to climb the rock and see the frescos. They etched epigrammatic poems (in metre!) on a ‘mirror wall’ just beneath the frescos and signed their names and where they were from. Historians have been able to decipher about a thousand complete poems and fragments- I translated about 600 of them.
Paul: It is said that you write in parts about a ‘deeply spiritual world’ and I wondered if you considered yourself a spiritual person?
Amali: Yes, I guess so. I mentioned Goethe before, in relation to illness… and I’ve always had a sharp sense that my life was a tiny parenthesis in a vast unknown. I’ve never been able to live that ‘parenthesis’ as if it was the predominant truth. So, I am interested in questioning our experience of the phenomenal world as well as the Kantian things-in-themselves. I also grew up in a strict Theravada Buddhist background. Rather than the religiosity, I think what left a deeper impression is the philosophy, and the idea that ‘reality’ is all to do with perception.
Paul: Could you tell me a little about the painting on the cover? Why did you choose it?
Amali: I am glad you asked! It’s by an Italian digital artist called Daria Petrilli. She’s hugely talented. I instantly knew this was the perfect image. I loved its elusiveness; it conveyed the atmosphere of the book I think. Besides, literally, there’s a lot of fish and water in it too. I was thrilled when Neil Astley said it was possible, and that she had agreed.
Paul: You open with a poem called ‘Kāma Sūtra’. The notes to the poem indicate the book is not just a sex manual as is commonly believed in the West but much more. Could you speak a little about that?
Amali: ‘Kāma’ relates to sensual pleasure (not merely sexual). ‘Sūtra’ is the thread that holds everything together, like in a tapestry, therefore the manual is about creating a harmonious and gracious way or tapestry of life.
Paul: I was also struck in the notes by the insight into the bamboo flower. I can’t quite take in the notion that entire flower forests flower and then self-destruct, and that the consequences cause such devastation for human life. This seems a metaphor for something? Have you seen evidence of this?
Amali: Yes, in the past famines have occurred in India and China as a result of the bamboo flowering. Metaphorically, I think the poem can go in many directions. For me the central question was: Which is worse: to be unheard// or live unable to speak? This seemed to echo the conundrum faced by the (suggested personification) of the bamboo; to flower and express its being (but unwittingly destroy the very world it inhabits), or to self-sensor.
Paul: There are monkeys, eagles and okapi in the third section of your book. I wondered how much contact you had had with the fauna of Sri Lanka and India?
Amali: I’ve spent a lot of time in national parks in Africa; in the south from Mozambique through South Africa, to the Kalahari and Namibia on the opposite coast, and up to Botswana in that region, and Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda in east Africa. Many of the parks in India too, especially where there are tigers. We once saw snow leopard prints on a trek in Zanskar in the Himalayas! Yes, and national parks in Sri Lanka too.
Paul: ‘How to Watch a Solar Eclipse in a Bowl of Water’ is a beautiful and atmospheric poem that mixes cosmology with botany and science. Could you tell me a little about the conceit of the poem and how you wrote it?
Amali: It recounts an actual experience. The central image embodies the fracture of everything familiar and losing a sense of our individual ‘demarcations’ as well as the lived reality of the world. The poem is very much on a ‘threshold’ as we discussed earlier. This Communist uprising was extremely brutal, the attempts to quell the uprising was equally so. Some 25,000, mostly in their teens or early twenties died. Kandy was one of the worst affected areas, and when Hartals were imposed we had to spend every evening in darkness, a throwback to a primeval state. I’ve noticed that nearly all the poems that deal with extreme violence tend to veer towards surrealism either in imagery or method.
Paul: I admire the exploration of peace in your prose poem, the notion of peace as ‘a river with time on its hand’. You also compare it to an elephant and to a water buffalo, and to women, ‘a fishwife brimful of toddy’ and ‘less a woman with bitten breasts’. How do you generate such similes and allusions?
Amali: Trying to remember the generative process, I think this was one that came out of gathering momentum. I mean I was putting in long hours, maybe 12 to 15 hours every day and occasionally a poem arrived fully formed. I was mainly preoccupied with the horrific human cost of ‘peace’. Can such peace ever be peaceful? Guilt-free? The images are possibly trying to question the notion from different vantage points. I was also questioning the possible psychological reasons for collective hysteria (the ‘Grease Devil’ I mention in the notes); ‘peace’ had finally arrived in a country that had long grown accustomed to war.
Paul: As a poet, how important is it for you to strive to ‘paint’ abstract nouns with rich images, precise languages?
Amali: Pivotal. But I do also like to work with abstractions.
Paul: You take us to places of order and calm, at least order and calm at surface level – Japan and the North Pole. Do you think you are attracted to these places as the antitheses of places you grew up? Do you search out peace?
Amali: That is such an insightful question. I hadn’t noticed that pattern in my choice of images. But you are right. I’ve not had long spells of peace one way or another in my life. That lack of peace has not always been about a place or war, but invisible traumas (some of emotional abuse; often not out of express ill-will, but more a fallout of personalities formed, and value systems instilled by patriarchy). In fact, physically faraway places might have been about escape too, a sort of a Band-Aid. So yes, I do try to stay away from friction, I do search out peace. For the PhD too, I’ve been studying the Mandala and its symbolism in psychology, notably Carl Jung’s work. That has all to do with balancing opposites and finding order from chaos.
Good Luck Goldfish
To generate the most luck, use nine fish:
eight red or golden and one black.
Where there is water there is a memory
of a river, of a chalice, of a thirst
unslaked. Here, among amulets
and totems, inside a display case, the Koi
run frantic in their small silver cell
as if the force of desire could recover
the river, red flecking water, water turning
to wine. How shall I drink such blunt ardour,
such clockwork blessing. A vagrant gene
turned gold. Yet the source is here
too, a barely visible gravity we keep
arriving at, wanting happiness, exacting
its due. Finding how every paradise is walled,
we make our own way home, hearing the river near.
Paul: What has the reception to the book been like?
Amali: I’m very happy with the critical reception and am encouraged by the reviews (in Poetry Review, Poetry London, among others). Personally, what has meant more I think are some individual comments I’ve had from readers; once a stranger came up to me at a poetry event (I wasn’t reading) and said they found great solace in the poem Kinsugi after a personal loss. I think I was most touched by a passing comment made by a friend; they said each poem was like a ‘deep oasis of thought’.
Paul: Have readers seen things in your poems, brought together as a collection, which you had not seen?
Amali: Joey Connelly has done the most remarkable analysis of one of the shortest poems in the book; and personally, one of my favourites. I was quite nervous including it in the manuscript because I thought it there was a danger of it being taken at face value, although I had put a lot of energy into each choice. Joey is spot on, but he also saw a few things I hadn’t: https://joeyconnolly.wordpress.com/2016/06/09/on-eagle-eating-a-flamingo-by-amali-rodrigo/. I was also struck by Sandeep Parmar’s insightful reading of the overall conceit in Lotus Gatherers in her review in The Wolf (Autumn 2017). She sees it as an extended meditation on human desire. This is especially resonant because I feel there is a hint of elegy (I mentioned before) running through it too; the inevitability of failure and loss.
PART THREE: POETRY LIFE
Paul: What have you been doing since the book was released?
Amali: Trying to survive the PhD! And I was also going through a difficult time personally, so basically it was also about putting my life back together…
Paul: I understand you are currently doing a PhD. What was your thesis proposal and research topic?
Amali: The working title of my thesis is: “Exploring the Locale of Negative Capability in Creative Practice and Pedagogy Through Wilfred Bion‘s Grid and Carl Jung’s use of the Mandala”. It might change slightly but not too much in terms of content.
Paul: Where has the research taken you so far?
Amali: Into Psychology mostly.
Paul: Has it taken you down avenues you didn’t expect?
Amali: Yes definitely, this is the third reformulation of the project. It’s completely different from the first proposal with which I entered the PhD programme. The theoretical basis for that was mostly translation theory.
Paul: Are you also teaching?
Amali: Yes, at Lancaster University.
Paul: Would you like to become a poetry academic?
Paul: What are you reading at present? What would you recommend?
Amali: I’ve a few books on the go at the moment and would recommend Yves Bonnefoy’s The Curved Planks, Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time, which is a compilation of Nabokov’s dreams and The Vale of Soulmaking: The Post Kleinian Model of the Mind that looks at Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Homer and Sophocles as ‘symbol-makers’.
Paul: What are you doing when not reading, writing or listening to poetry?
Amali: I have the wanderer in me. I used to go walking in the Himalayas and in Africa. These days in Wales and Cornwall. Two things in my current bucket list are Machu Picchu and to walk the Camino. Music is also very important. Sometimes I think I began to write because I can’t sing! I love Soul, especially from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Musical Theatre (but for writing I often like Gregorian chants or choral music in the background). Spinning and tennis. And I sew…I like making things.
Paul: Any poetry plans for 2018?
Amali: No specific plans-just focus on writing more, writing deeply. I didn’t write for more than a year. Then I was preoccupied with the critical thesis for the PhD, so now I can put all that aside for a while to work on the poetry.
Paul: What poems are you working on now? What approach are you taking with a view to a second collection?
Amali: Yes, I am working on my second collection, but it’s hard to articulate an ‘approach’ as my writing keeps changing, taking me by surprise. A tutor once said to me that I have two distinct voices, that stylistically and texturally the poems appear to be written by two different poets! This is possibly visible in the first book, although the poems link thematically. I think in the second, I’ll let one or the other take over- they’ll have to tussle it out for themselves, but I hope in the meantime they play nice together!
Paul: Where does the poem begin?
Amali: Anywhere. An image, phrase, rhythm, idea, title, the final line.
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