By Santosh Bakaya
Dr. Ampat Koshy is a Pushcart nominee, poet, literary critic, editor, fiction writer-cum-anthologist, and an assistant professor teaching English in Jazan, Saudi Arabia. He has contributed to various anthologies and also published one collection of short stories, two poetry collections, one book on poetry, and two books of co-written essays. He has also edited or put together, and contributed to one critical anthology, three mixed anthologies, three poetry anthologies, and two short story anthologies. Recently, he was given the Ambassador of the Word title by a Spanish organization. Besides this, he runs three very popular Facebook writers’ groups: ‘The Significant League’, ‘Rejected Stuff’, and ‘Literary Criticism and Theory’. Besides being a mentor to many aspiring poets, he also runs an NGO, ‘Autism for Help Village Project’, with his wife. Right now, he is penning an autobiographical novel, compiling his next book of poems, and giving finishing touches to a book on Bob Dylan.
This interview was conducted on 11 August 2017, when I met Dr. Koshy during Litexperia, a mega book launch event in Delhi organized by Authorspress, Delhi, where the two of us happened to be the chief guests. After the book launch and before the dinner, I snatched a few moments with him.
Santosh Bakaya: Good evening Dr. Koshy, it is an honour to have met you. I would love to use this opportunity to ask you a few questions, may I?
Ampat Koshy: Yes, why not?
SB: So, here goes. ‘Through poetry, a man more quickly reaches the cutting edge that the philosopher and the mathematician silently turn away from,’ says the Spanish poet, Lorca.
Well, I have noticed that cutting edge in your poetry. What accounts for that?
AK: A lot of it may be this awareness that just as some people who are colour-blind wish they were not so, so someone who knows he can never enjoy the beauty of Maths the way an Einstein does, or even the way his own daughter does, tries to make up for it by being extraordinarily sharp in the only thing he can do or the things he can. I feel a kind of helplessness at just how little I am unable to do compared to others and try to make up for it by being uncannily sharp at poetry which accounts for this edge.
The edge is also the fact that there is a kind of danger associated with all art that I am not afraid to court, not the physical, but the mental kind, a radicalism or extremism or subversiveness in having the courage to write poetry or fiction as it ought to be written, a no-holds-barred approach of putting things together, but others will not, as they do not want to be thought of as half- insane, maybe. But it is not insanity, it is their holding back aesthetically, and the same art some call crazy, others would find this ability to not compromise and edgy. Art that crosses boundaries or transgresses into spaces where they say it should not be found, in other words.
SB: Yes, you are uncannily sharp, one has to admit; and no, definitely not insane. This brings me to my next question. In your poetry, there is an interplay between light and darkness, which I feel borders on the photographic. Do you make a conscious effort to do it, or does it come in a scintillating burst of inspiration on its own?
AK: All art is studied, for a real artist, which means that although, I now appear to do things in bursts of inspiration that scintillate, it is the result of having steeped myself consciously in the best art can offer. It becomes natural to indulge in such contrasts that form teasing wholes or their absence as light and darkness or any other such duality such as man and woman which also forms a large part in my poetry and fiction, though perhaps not in my criticism. You could call this photographic, as it describes and does not settle to black and white, though it needs both.
SB: Well, that is a very intriguing answer. In your recent poems, you appear to be turning more towards Jesus, inter-religious faith, and spirituality. Come to think of it, I feel this faith in Jesus was there all along, as reflected in one of my favorite stories, “The Stained Glass” [autobiographical, I believe], from your bestselling short story collection, Scream and Other Urbane Legends, where a tiny boy is fascinated by the interplay of colors in the church. I remember you from your earlier writings as a self-professed atheist, or an agnostic. What accounts for this evolution?
AK: There has been no evolution, actually, as the positions of atheism and theism or agnosticism come naturally to me [and all] and my art only reconciles these opposites and explores others. The truth is, I have always been fascinated by all the manifest and multifaceted ways humans end up expressing their wrestle with the mystery they cannot explain about life. The most fascinating aspect of this is how they try to explain it in ways that go far beyond even the terms I am using, to deism, pantheism, animism, xenotheism, metempsychosis, etc.
I like this richness of human thought, but lean more to Jesus or spirituality or interreligious thought, simply as it is more what I am steeped in, having been born and brought up in such an atmosphere at home and in India, so to speak. But finally, art goes beyond most of these, unless in the fortunate instance, you recall in “Stained Glass”, it comes to the junction, where it can intersect with these other worlds too, without looking forced or unnatural.
SB: In many of your poems, you talk of death; in one of your recent poems, you say:
“while death waltzes in the wings
of the sordid drama of your life
to hug you to make up for
all that you lost
to your violence.”
At times, it appears that you are fighting some demons and merely trying to loud-talk them into slinking away. Is it just that you are trying to shock the readers, or is there more to it than what meets the eye?
AK: Shock literature may have its own value, no doubt, or trauma literature, but I seldom make use of that as a technique. My borderline obsession with dark themes, like death, is from deep inside due to having its wings brush me, so often, both in the form of loved ones leaving me behind and in facing it. When one becomes aware of the tragic substratum of life, the humour one exhibits can only be the kind spoken of by Kierkegaard, where a clown tells the circus audience that the tent is burning, but they only laugh, as they think he, in his face paint, is lying. They comfort themselves in ruin, to make themselves look truthful, while sunk in abysmal ignorance. I try to stay away from Beckett’s darker version of it as spoken in his Watt, meaning, turning to a humour that laughs at the unhappy or at unhappiness, the kind you can call cruel which a character in his work calls the risus purus…
SB: Yes, yes. “But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout – Haw!-so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke…” I remember this so well.
AK: Oh, yes, you do. Hope you are not laughing the risus purus…ha ha. Jokes apart, I do not stay away from it as I feel it is a taboo, but just because I cannot bring myself to be that dark. That humour too does have a place in making fun of some deservedly meaningless characters that I come across today. Fascists, primarily.
SB: Many of your poems lean towards the esoteric, are nuanced, loaded with intertextuality, with a labyrinth of meanings, in which the layman tends to get lost. Can you provide the key to the layman to help him/her find himself/herself, in this labyrinth, which he/she knows, is indeed something monumental, but does not know where exactly to place it?
AK: I actually feel that while all this is true, my poems or writing do not really hinder themselves from communicating to those who know nothing of these references or allusions or intertextuality of mine, which comes naturally to me and which I have learned to use in such a way that it doesn’t hinder people from still finding my work approachable.
My work is simple, complex, and compound but never complicated. In other words, no good work can afford to be. The key, if you want to call it that, or the only real difficulty people may find in approaching my work, is not like what people are writing these days. It is very much influenced by writers like Beckett, Joyce, by the Bible and even Proust. My works are actually a continuum and even the false detours that lead to dead-ends for me as a writer were necessary to find out that is not the way forward.
So the key is probably reading me, all of my writing, both the best sides of it and the mediocre ones to see my purposefulness, which is one track, a search for expressing the labyrinths of one’s self, a never ending process that even death can’t win over probably.
SB: Well, I must say, this is getting curiouser and curiouser, and your thoughts are stoking my curiosity still further. I recently happened to read one of your untitled poems [come to think of it, all your poems are untitled], and found the entire poem very exquisite in its romantic sensibilities, but these lines had a lingering impact, haunting to be precise.
“and feel happy you are still
somewhere, sleeping, songbird, on some hill
or in a thicket of forest or glade in the day or
night unaware of all my wondering, dreaming…”
Most of your poems have this effect on the reader. How do you manage to do that?
AK: I grew up believing in the power of writing and of the word. Connected to this was my idea of the muse, of being inspired and the effect of Romantic poetry in writing what I feel when I feel intensely. The haunting nature, the lingering effect, and the sadness that readers come across, the melancholia if you will, in my works is clearly because of what I spoke of earlier. It is because my poetry and fiction are the expression of self in the deeper or deepest senses of the word, personal, confessional, autobiographical but at the same time, literary and hence abstract, therefore, more like Impressionism, Fauvism or Expressionism in its impact, if I turn to painting to look for parallels. I hope to touch the universal by going deep enough into my own self.
Thus on the one hand, I am a writer rooted in, and looking backwards to Romanticism, till Modernism, which is the world I know, and had mattered most to me and this impacts others too who were most influenced by the English literature of that time. On the other hand, this effect you speak of comes not only from such influences as that of classic rock but from the substratum of an art brewed ultimately in melancholy, ennui, disenchantment, not necessarily in a negative sense…
This sits uneasily among the attempts of an age that is always made up of people trying to prove that they matter, terrified by numbers, and suspicious of anything smacking of weakness and failure, but suits my purpose extremely well, the purpose of self -exploration and exploration of the self, which as I said, was the theme of writers I cared for earlier, over time, space, and place and all their works. But it gives rise to such affects as in affect theory or as in bhava-rasas theory in the reader, when done by someone who goes all out to write to strike a chord in the literate or sensitive reader’s breast and not just to write to teach someone.
SB: I have noticed a strong undercurrent of dissent in your writings, a rebellious streak. Was it always there?
AK: I think it has been there from early on, but not always. You start rebelling only when you are frustrated by something you come up against. In my case, it was the realization that life was not fair to all and death was invincible. I guess that started me off on the path of rebellion. I mean, this is what affected me as a writer, to start having this streak of rebellion and dissent. If you read one of the last texts of Beckett, Company, he talks of the death of a pet, when he was a child, and how that turned him into a rebel. You could say, mine is something similar; an angst I try to put out by writing against it. Beckett does not say, it caused him to rebel, but what I mean is, the darkness of his vision comes from such memories, including the death of the girl he loved, when she was very young.
SB: Okay. A couple more questions, before we call it a day. Your literary oeuvre is massive – short stories, critical essays, anthologies, and poems. What next?
AK: I wrote and wrote but am not satisfied. The next is a book on Bob Dylan and a book of poems and another on short stories, plus a novel and a drama and maybe a movie script plus more criticism. The idea of the novel and play and a movie script is what I want most now, as I feel restless, as if I have come too close to being like Eliot and Arnold and have to break out more into what he did – drama, as well as what he did not do, namely, movie scripts and a novel. Beckett, Eliot, Joyce again. And the usual group ventures that are an attempt to understand the working of how books like the Bible and the Vedas were compiled, maybe. The age of literature has gone by, but I go on pretending it has not. Hoping to fill the world with my books and writings. Managing so far to make a good pretense of it. The truth is, things turn out different from what one wants in life and so at the same time, I have no plans except to write each day and keep going at another level. I would also like to try writing an old-fashioned epic poem but do not have the time or energy for it.
SB: These days we find the cynics and the flibbertigibbets crinkling their noses at what they contemptuously label, Facebook Poetry. Despite their cynicism, we find that many online writers’ groups, and poets of myriad shades, making their presence felt in the literary world. I think, at least some of the poets need to be taken seriously. What is your take on this?
AK: I don’t think there is anything called Facebook Poetry. There is just good poetry and bad poetry. While some of these writers may write only on Facebook, ultimately, I think it is more about distinguishing between two kinds of writers, those who write well and those who don’t. Facebook offers everyone a readership, which means that anyone who writes gets readers and fans, but this is where discernment has to be brought in. Only those writers who have something more to offer should be given more attention by discerning readers. This is what I feel in this respect, that a difference between those who write here for attention and those who write for something more serious should be drawn.
SB: One last question, before we head towards the dining table. Which one book by one Indian writer has impacted you in the last five years?
AK: Mr Iyer Goes to War by Ryan Lobo – a retelling of Cervantes’ The Adventures of Don Quixote in an Indian Setting. Except for the use of the present tense it was a compelling read and made a lot of sense.
The guests were heading towards the dining table, so reining in my flow of more questions, we decided that we had had enough food for thought, and after exchanging mutual thanks, we decided to pay attention to food of a different variety.
Dr. Santosh Bakaya, winner of the International Reuel Award for literature, 2014, for her long poem, “Oh hark!”, is an academician, essayist, poet, novelist. She has won international acclaim for her poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi, Ballad of Bapu. Her other works which have won laurels are: Where are the lilacs?, Under the Apple Boughs, and Flights from my Terrace. Her poetry figures in many international anthologies, and she has participated in SAARC Sufi Festival, Jaipur, 2017, as one of the delegates from India, besides having been invited to many literary festivals. On 6 January 2018, she delivered a Tedx Talk on ‘The Myth of the Writers’ Block. Her novella, A Skyful of Balloons, will be published soon.
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