A conversation with poet and activist, Jhilmil Breckenridge
By Poornima Laxmeshwar
Jhilmil Breckenridge is a poet, writer, and activist. She is the founder of Bhor Foundation, a mental health charity. Her areas of work are mental health, domestic violence, and trauma. Jhilimil is currently working on a PhD in the UK, and Reclamation Song is her first book of poetry. Here is a conversation with her.
Poornima Laxmeshwar: The first two poems of your book are very hard to deal with. They talk of a loss for a mother, which is tough to imagine. How did you manage to find words for the void which is otherwise so difficult to express?
Jhilmil Breckenridge: One, time and distance. The events described in the first two poems happened six years ago and although I am forever altered, the intensity of that pain has shifted. Two, poetry itself gives you a lens to view everything, good or bad, through the shape of metaphor – so one day, watching trees with bare arms through my window in England where I live these days, I thought the tree is mourning loss just like me. And that was how the first poem of the book came about, simple, short, and to the point.
PL: I was drawn towards the title of the poem, “You Are Gone At First Light”. Again, here it talks of an absence but also hints that you have accepted this absence and are ready for what lies ahead. Is there a variety to absence?
Jhilmil: Absence is not simply the opposite of presence. Absence is also joy and acceptance in solitude, absence is complete surrender to whatever is, without mourning the loss of a person, place or thing, and absence also is like a perfect ‘shunya’, a zero, a vacuum, perfect in itself. For me, yoga and years of meditation have allowed me the grace to live in bliss, accepting each moment with perfect equanimity, allowing friends, lovers, and acquaintances into my life with open arms but equally accepting their departure with no demur.
PL: Delhi and Kabul are two places that have influenced you and they have imposed it through your poems. Memory is very important for poets. What do you think?
Jhilmil: Memory creates a way to be relative as we sift through current experiences. If we have never felt a certain joy, can we feel happiness now? If we have smelt a certain scent, and it was a particularly important time in one’s life, each time we smell that scent, the brain transports us back to that time as well, so we can gauge the current situation. Poets have used memory as a tool from the earliest of times, and some of the best loved poems are memory poems. Poetry also allows us a tool to write about what could be a maudlin subject, for example, the memory of a lover or a place, but do it with humour, wit and intelligence, or so I like to imagine!
PL: The section ‘Chorus’ impacts the reader with restlessness. There is a disturbance, a violence faced but captivated within for a long time. Was that how it was? Was poetry a shield that you used to tackle the hurt caused to you by people and circumstances? If yes, has it changed now?
Jhilmil: The middle section of the book, ‘Chorus’ is derived from personal experience. It also tries to build solidarity with marginalised persons, not just women, in a world inherently patriarchal, because there is a universality in the themes of domestic violence, or abandonment, or suppression, and then a joy as one reclaims, leading to the last poem in that section, “Reclamation Song”, which is also the title poem. At the time I was going through the violence, and I’d say that was pretty much all my life, because isn’t a neglected child just another form of violence, I did not have the refuge and sanctuary of poetry. At that time, I used other shields or balms – cooking, knitting, reading, advocacy, helping others who I thought were less fortunate than me, little realising that I was the one being abused, and I needed help as well! Poetry came to me late in life, just three years ago, and it has transformed me because I no longer need a shield, I celebrate the pain, and then can write about it! But in all honesty, this celebrating of all experiences also comes from the path of mindfulness and meditation, and the combination of that and poetry is simply mind-blowing!
PL: The poems “Button” and “Redefining Care” talk about mental health and experiences that affected you very personally. How powerful has poetry been as a therapy in coping with such experiences? You’re also an artist and like to paint. Do you think art can make us better as individuals when it comes to handling mental health issues?
Jhilmil: Yes, “Button” and “Redefining Care” both come from a place of intense pain and lived experience. Poetry has been instrumental in allowing me to cope, it’s almost as if I was struggling to breathe and poetry turned into my gills. It has allowed me the space and the shared experiences of other poets and marginalised persons who write about war, trauma, mental health and domestic violence, to know that I am not alone, that there is a solidarity in connection, and that it will be ok.
Art and colours are therapeutic. For me, as a self-taught artist – mocked in Indian schools for not colouring within the lines or being able to draw, and how damaging is our Indian school system, really, but that is a whole other discussion! – I paint for myself and when I am hurting, tired, or angry. And when you paint, you channel that pain into the colours and shapes you are creating, your breath alters and suddenly you feel better. Painting and art are also some of the most useful tools used to bring people to a place of mindfulness and is the closest to meditation a lot of people will come to. Art can help us to cope with life, because pain is not optional, and that can only be a good thing!
PL: “Refrains: Half-truths and Histories” sort of deals with death as a theme. Death that is not natural, if I may point out. Death that is political and unconventional. How much of what happens in the world affects you? To ask you the clichéd question: As a woman poet, how politically aware must you be as a citizen and is it necessary that it must translate into what you write?
Jhilmil: Feminist and writer, Carol Hanisch, coined the slogan ‘the personal is political’, which appeared in her 1970 anthology Notes From the Second Year: Women’s Liberation in 1970. I believe that poets are sensitive people and we cannot simply toughen up and why on earth should we do that? So to answer your question, the current state of the world affects me deeply – so much is wrong, the Rohingya crisis, the Kashmir situation, refugees everywhere, rapes and brutality commonplace as chai, and, of course, the environment – we are simply killing Mother Earth. When something bothers me deeply enough and I can’t just carry on with my day, I write. I write to make sense of it and I write to just breathe again. The second part of your question, whether all poets must translate politics into their poems – I believe in choice and who am I to enforce my opinion on younger or more romantic poets who may like to write on love, or nature, being queer or gay, or anything else?! It would be nice, because I do think we have a responsibility, as poets, to make the world a better place, and our voice does reach people and places where change is needed, but to say all poets, especially women, because we have a greater responsibility must be politically aware, to exercise their citizenry is too dictator like… I think poets should, on the converse, create spaces for lightness, fun, pleasure, time wasting, and art. Because ultimately poetry takes you into that space, where you realise that the only thing that matters is joy, attention to the moment, in the words of my favourite Mary Oliver “attention is prayer”, and a sense of fearlessness.
PL: Do you think that all your personal betrayals, hardships have sharpened your perspective and made you a better poet?
Jhilmil: In one word, yes! Pain transforms a person and some people just wilt or go under, but some shine. In my case, I used pain as sandpaper on my soul – perhaps a curiosity to see what was under all the layers of pain, betrayal, abandonment, emotional and physical. But I would not wish these personal betrayals and hardships on anyone else just to become a better poet. There must be easier ways! And in my own case also, I sometimes yearn to be weak, to be looked after, but then laugh it off because I do not have an option but to be the way I am.
PL: For a long time you were associated as the Fiction Editor for Open Road Review. How different is it to be an editor? Has that role helped you as being a better poet or a writer?
Jhilmil: Open Road Review and its founder, Kulpreet Yadav, were very good to me right after I completed my MA in Creative Writing. Editing is a hard task. You learn to hone your reading skills to another level. It is also incredibly tedious. Editors are not celebrated, writers and authors are – so even if a piece shines because the editor has wielded a magic pen, removed clutter, and made the prose better, the editor barely ever gets the credit. For certain, editing has helped me be a better writer and poet, because you can see the extra and superfluous words in your own writing. And to come to poetry, the magic and beauty of a poem are only revealed after hours and days and months of editing. The poets who write a poem in ten minutes and think they are done have much to learn, because yes, the initial idea for a poem may come and be written in a flash, but to truly make it into a poem, ready to share with the world, you need to spend time crafting it, and most of that is editing.
PL: Do you do some Urdu poetry?
Jhilmil: Yes! In addition, I do translations. Three of my poems, some in this book, “Staring”, “Treatment”, and “It Is Not OK” have been translated by me into Hindi, which for me is loosely Hindustani, a mix of Urdu and Hindi. These poems have also been performed in a powerful play, written and directed by Juhi Jha, Irada Kuch Aur Tha. This play has been performed all over the country, including Chandigarh prison; I am told my translations work and are powerful! I plan to do more translations and interestingly, I am now learning the Urdu script, trying to reclaim what my Muslim grandmother, to whom I have dedicated this book, taught me when I was five years old! So perhaps everything needs ‘reclamation’!
PL: Have you attempted prose? How different do you think prose is from free verse?
Jhilmil: Oh yes, of course. I write prose a lot; I have had some short stories published and am currently working on a memoir, which is part of my PhD thesis. Once you are a poet and lost in the magical world of poetry, prose seems so hard, because of having to write so many words!!! A poem can say the same thing in say 180 words and a short story would take at least 4000 words. So for one, prose is more time and more labour. But I do think that prose is slightly easier to write than poetry, takes less out of a person writing it. Poetry extracts its pound of flesh. For prose, you can give slightly less of yourself. But that is my experience. It may be different for other writers and artists.
Poornima Laxmeshwar resides in the garden city, Bangalore, and works as a content writer for a living. Her poems have appeared in Cold Noon, Vayavya, Muse India, Writers Asylum, The Aerogram, Stockholm Literary Review, Northeast Review, and Brown Critique, amongst many others. Her haikus have found space in several magazines.
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