R K Singh: In Conversation with Abnish Singh Chauhan
“A poem rests
on brain signals imaged
in words and silence
one decodes with dog sense
smelling twists and turns in rhythm
that turn it prophetic.” (A Poem)
The journey of poetic composition, as the poet says himself, begins with the poet and ends with the reader for which requires verbal competency, intelligence and constructive environment in order to code and decode the ‘signals’ of creative beauty in a forceful and effective manner. Since the poet is the first reader and critic of his poetic piece, he should have the capacity to articulate and interpret his own words in prose in order to judge the suitability, profundity and authenticity of his ‘signals’ in the form of emotions, ideas and images for inter-personal and intra-personal communications. T S Eliot also emphasized this in The Music of Poetry; however, in the coercive manner: “No poet can write a poem of amplitude unless he is a master of the prosaic.” Therefore, Eliot’s statement may or may not be true in the making of a poetic piece; but it is certain that command over prose is an additional advantage to the poet, particularly in conversation with himself as well as with the lovers of literature on a public platform; and it is indispensable when the poet also performs as critic for efficient and captivating criticism. Here is such an Indian poet of communicative sensibilities and critic of glittering language— Ram Krishna Singh (1950). Prof Singh, who is the contemporary of Niranjan Mohanty, Hoshang Merchant, R. C. Shukla, Gopi Krishnan Kattoor, D. C. Chambial, I. K. Sharma, Gopal Honnalgere, I. H. Rizvi, D. H. Kabadi, P. C. K. Prem, etc., knows how to raise and answer the questions about the world and its problems and how to incorporate information along with emotion in poetry and criticism in order to disseminate love and light to all the human and non-human entities of the Mother Earth through purity, charity, sacrifice and suffering: “I gave you my love/ what more do you seek/ to lighten the night/ my beloved/ let the fire burn /and consume the moth.”
Recently retired as Professor (HAG) from Indian School of Mines (now IIT), Dhanbad, Jharkhand, India, R. K. Singh has authored more than 160 research articles, 175 book reviews and 40 books, including his latest poetry collection You Can’t Scent Me and Other Selected Poems (2016) from Authorspress along with his e-book Writing Editing Publishing A Memoir (2016). He has been conferred with many awards and honours across the world. He resides at J/4 (W), Rd. No.1/Block B, Vastu Vihar Colony, N H 2, Govindpur- 828109 (Dhanbad), Jharkhand and can also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
N.B: The profile of R K Singh is separately published in author’s corner. It may be clicked and viewed HERE.
ASC: Sir, you were born, brought up and educated in Varanasi— the seat of light and learning from the ancient times. How did it play its role in the formation of a silver tongue poet and rational critic in you?
RKS: A silver tongue poet? Hm… Thanks for the compliment Abnish. Varanasi is a complex city, a city of contradictions, even if it has ceased to be what it used to be in my formative years in the 1950s and 60s.The city did influence my mental habits unconsciously, since I was born and raised in the lanes and by-lanes of its interior, with values such as freedom to think and pursue ones interests, tolerance for differences, broadness and openness of the mind, uninhibited sexpression, etc. The conscious creative influences must be the result of meeting many people, visiting various places, and experiencing life differently at different points of time. Also, reading and observing led to serious critical thinking, writing, debating, and corresponding. I had opportunities to work part-time and be independent to do whatever I liked. Besides writing poetry in Hindi, I had opportunities to reflect on contemporary issues and express myself in a couple of Hindi dailies and weeklies long before my graduation, just as I would actively participate in youth activities, debate and speech competitions, attend musical concerts, art exhibitions, poets’ meet etc and publish reports/reviews.
The city engaged me better than the irrelevant routines of the high school, intermediate and degree colleges. The teachers disappointed me most, from childhood to boyhood to adulthood.
I must also admit that I was not uninfluenced by the chaos and crisis of the 1960s. As a youth I had no hope, no faith, no trust in the system, nor did I know the direction of life. It was living in constant tension about the future. In fact it was a lonely struggle vis-à-vis the glaring waste of time in college and university. Given my anti-establishment attitude, I was not confident that I could ever get a job or have a career. Failure and frustration loomed large. Poetry was the only solace.
ASC: Sir, you started your career as a journalist. The job of a journalist always requires honesty, hard work, quality writing and the courage to tell the truth. But, just after a year or two you changed your job and adopted the teaching profession, which also demands proper understanding of the subject matter, wide interest, helpful attitude, love for learning, skills of classroom management and a desire to make a difference in the lives of the taughts. How much are these experiences constructive in communicating your vision and mission in your literary works and academic writings?
RKS: As I said, as a student I had very poor opinion of my teachers. I had no interest in teaching as a career, but Professor S M Pandeya, who supervised my M A thesis, insisted that I should not be drawn to the glitters of journalism, and rather take up teaching as a profession. He even helped me get the first job as a lecturer in a college in Pulgaon by writing to O P Bhatnagar, who later became a life-long friend. I was 21 years old, wanted to do Ph D in American literature from Nagpur or Bombay university, but the management won’t let me go to meet the faculty there. I resigned the job in less than six months and came back home.
After a year (or more) of unemployment—a period I spent with Dr B Chakroverty, learning the finer nuances of literary criticism (he was writing a book on Tagore, the dramatist)—I joined the District Gazetteers Dept in Lucknow as Compilation Officer. The U.P. Government’s job entailed revising and updating the old gazetteers.
I ignored the offer of working in IIT, Kanpur as a junior lecturer. It came just around the time I had made up my mind to work in Lucknow.
In the mean time, I was also selected as a journalist trainee in The Press Trust of India, New Delhi, and was keen to join the position. However, my IAS bosses in the Gazetteers Dept (as also my parents) dissuaded me, but seeing my enthusiasm, they released me, with the kind option to return to the post if not satisfied at PTI within three months.
I was happy to join my dream profession, despite monetary loss and hardships of living in Delhi. But soon I discovered I was a misfit there. I couldn’t suffer the envious colleagues and their dubious designs and practices, and so, I finally decided to quit, as soon as I got an offer from the newly set-up Royal Bhutan Polytechnic, Deothang (E. Bhutan).
I was back to teaching, which now appeared more convenient, but very demanding. The direction of my career was clear: I would professionally practice ELT/ESP, but personally pursue literature, especially Indian English poetry, and promote new/less known poets and authors by reviewing their books, writing articles about their work, and editing books and journals. It was challenging but rewarding. Learning by doing, you know. It is this that made me known all over, from a small place like Dhanbad. Indeed, all this needs a lot of labour and commitment, as you rightly observed.
ASC: Sir, how do you summon your emotions and experiences for composing a poem or other work of art? Do you respond to urgency, stipulation or passion for creative writings, which seems as real, animated and impressive as the rest of the world?
RKS: To tell you the truth, most of the poems I wrote have simply happened. The poetic mood, short-lived as it is, would help create from anything, anywhere, anytime. I can’t write a poem deliberately on a theme on demand. Nor have I been interested in didactic or moralistic writing. My emotions and experiences are, therefore, genuine and sympathetic readers can relate to them.
Personally speaking, a poem’s composition helps me get a release from myself as much as from others or whatever agitates me. I feel free by unburdening myself in verses; I experience an inner relief, a freedom from the built-up pressure, tension, unease, or whatever, you know. If it turns out to be a good poem, it offers a pleasing sensation, rest to my disturbed nerves, and peace to my inner being.
ASC: Sir, you have been regularly writing poetry with social, cultural, spiritual, ethical, mythical, erotic and aesthetic perceptions for the international audiences with the universal lessons of truth, love, compassion, pity, peace and harmony. How do you secure and evolve selfhood along with worldhood in your poetry amidst the fast changing societies and their value-systems?
RKS: Thanks for summarizing well the essential nature of my poems. I, too, think it is broad enough to appeal to audiences everywhere. Human nature is same, whatever culture, society or country, and I have tried to express what people experience universally. I don’t seek the sublime or great or ideal, you see. I am rooted in my basic nature, which has been evolving. When effective, one can physically feel it, I mean, the poet’s emotion or psychosexual sensation, and partake of his self.
There is poetry in the subtlety of awareness, as you will also agree. I feel myself in words that acquire their own existence in the process of making, in a form I may have no control over, given the pressure or urgency to express the momentness of a moment as lived, perceived, or experienced in the continuity of memory. My selfhood extends to worldhood in my expression in a timeless frame of a moment inhering the pressure of the struggle for survival, search for meaning or purpose in an otherwise very negative, frustrating, disappointing, painful existence, or social reality, if you so like.
ASC: Sir, when you talk about (even question) sense, silence, solitude, love and sex amidst the sound and serenity of pebbles, stones, rivers and the flora and fauna of the mother earth, you imbibe and inculcate man and Nature in your poetry, which is clearly recognized and understood by your readers. In spite of that, why do you rhetorically proclaim- ‘I Do Not Question’ (1994) and ‘You Can’t Scent me’ (2016)?
RKS: The answer lies in your question itself: it’s rhetorical. Philosophically, a straight forward observation of the Purush-Prakriti or Yin-Yang consciousness vis-à-vis the monotony of existence. I seek meaning of the mystery of life, its reality and pains through the eyes of Nature, metaphors of self-contradictions, intrinsic dissonance, or search for harmony and identity.
Having said this, let me also add a word of caution. I’m very poor at titling my poems. In fact I don’t believe in giving a title to my poem, nor do I give a title while composing it. Titles tell too much. In my volume of Collected Poems, you’ll find no title, unless extremely necessary for identification or other structural reasons (as in Haiku/Tanka sequences).
Without titles, the poems give readers more freedom to make their own meaning and relate to their own experiences, different from the poet’s.
ASC: In one of your interviews, you have exhorted— ‘As a poet, if I use human passion, including the sexual, I try to transmute and transmit memories of experience, possibly more with a sense of irony than erotic sexuality.’ Hence, do you think that your sexual passion expressed in your poetry is meant only for creating a sense of irony— a popular technique of poetic communication or it also stands for something else?
RKS: Sex is eternal, unchanging over time and culture. It is the basic principle of life and creation. It’s expression, therefore, calls for celebration. It is central to social harmony, emotional pleasure, and inner peace. It is not devoid of sensibility. The metaphors of sex reveal our social consciousness, our inner mind, our hidden reality. Our sexual passion is the mirror reflecting the spiritual passion; the body reveals the soul. One needs to appreciate it and relate to the pragmatics of my communication. While Jindagi Kumari’s ‘The Poetics of R.K. Singh’ is a helpful essay in this respect, Raghuvanshmani Tripathi’s ‘The Asexuality of Sex: A Study of Sex Expresion in R.K. Singh’s Poetry’ should enlighten a sympathetic reader further.
ASC: You wrote the paradox in your poem ‘Degeneration’— ‘I can’t change man or nature, nor the karmas/ now or tomorrow they all delude/ in the maze of expediency and curse/ stars, fate, destiny, or life before and after/ degenerating the mind, body, thought, and divine.’ Do they survive because they bring degeneration, and ultimately death? If so, no hope, no dream, no joy and no future?
RKS: As a poet I would prefer to refrain from interpreting my own poem for readers. I would rather leave it to them to make sense of it anyway they like. I don’t question unless it is deliberately personally offending…But, let me see it again. Firstly, the hang of the poem ‘Degeneration’ was added when I posted it online, or submitted it to some e-journal, I don’t remember now. Secondly, it was my own ‘degeneration’ – physical, mental, financial and spiritual—that afflicted my mood in June 2014 when I wrote it. Things were looking blue—the envious hostility of my junior colleagues who freely distorted facts and told outright lies, the deteriorating health condition, the bad time predicted by astrologers, and tall claims of prophet friends, tarot-card readers and fortune tellers on the net, seeking money to turn the wheel of time in my favour. Their expectation from me had in-built irony in that I couldn’t compromise my realization that best things in life come free. But people are as they are—out to grab wealth, favour, profit, promotion, whatever—by cheating, telling lies, weaving dreams, or stabbing in the back. They suffer. I can’t change my nature, and my adversaries can’t change their nature. Ultimately we are all subjected to our own karmas, our destiny, or the forces of Nature. No use cursing or abusing, if we delude ourselves. The plain truth is: if we are dishonest to ourselves, we suffer all round degeneration in the maze of our own making. The poem, however, preaches nothing, except showing a condition. The readers can draw their own conclusions.
ASC: Sir, what is your favorite technique (s) of protest against the anomalies/ grave issues of the world, party created by highly advanced machines and electronic devices and partly by man himself?
RKS: As I told you just now, portray the picture, or create the image of what obtains, and leave the rest to the readers’ imagination, or decision, if you like. No advice, no judgment. New technologies have thrown up new issues, new norms, new values. The important thing now is to communicate, to interact, to talk about whatever issues or values bother you as an individual. You can’t live by your prejudices or traditional ideas alone, if you hope to be relevant. The new age demands new language, new expression, new metaphors. You will discover the new technique to protest too. But, let’s come out of the shackles of our own making, first.
ASC: Sir, how do you characterize your Haiku and Tanka? Are they influential and beneficial to the masses to a large extent or only popular among and practiced by some selected people, especially the poets and a few others?
RKS: Let’s be clear about certain basics. Haiku is a difficult genre. It is miniature poetry, a sketch of a moment’s experience, to be filled out by the reader. It does not use sentences, nor the devices of Western poetry, nor shares its use of the sentimental and simile—preferring always contact with the real—the things of Nature and the spirit of Nature herself, the perception experience. It is down to earth; expression of what is—what you see and hear and touch; the thing itself, not a poetic or literary or philosophical view of it. In haiku we don’t elaborate or explain, only sketch our experience of the moment. ‘Haiku moment’ is the great secret.
It took me years of preparation and practice to be able to give expression to sudden or subtle moments of awareness into the nature of passing time. As H.F. Noyes commented, reading some of my haiku, simplicity and lightness should be the aim of all haiku, and detachment is desirable in our way of looking at things– detachment, selflessness, and a sense of our oneness with all life. It is achieving the union of our minds with nature, or being in league with the five elements. It is essentially spiritual. There is God’s abundance to feel in the three lines. The briefer you become, the nearer you are to silence.
I have tried to express sensuousness in haiku. After all, it’s not just seeing and hearing that offer us reality, but touch as well.
Another Japanese poetry form, Tanka is a typical lyric poem of feeling and ideas, often involving figurative language, not used in haiku. You can say it is like a ‘long haiku’ in five lines. It addresses varied aspects of contemporary living. It shares the basic qualities of all successful poems.
But if you’re a poet, writing haiku and tanka too much can suppress some of your true poetic instincts, even if their practice should improve the quality of expression of Indian English poets. It will ensure a sense of rhythm and prevent waste of words. Many of my poems have haiku and tanka structure as stanzas.
ASC: W H Auden said, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen. One is deluded if one believes that one can actually preserve the world in words, but one is just playing games if one doesn’t try.’ Do you agree with him? If yes, why; if no, why not?
RKS: I don’t know the context in which Auden said this, but I, too, doubt poetry can make anything happen. It can’t mould a society by itself. It has no utilitarian function. As I said elsewhere, it can at best create some awareness, hone some finer feelings, present some specialist perceptions, reflect one’s mind and soul, remain part of cultural activities and a form of literary communication. But it can’t make anything happen.
Personally, I don’t practice poetry with any idealistic notion. Nor do I share the view that poetry can teach one about ethics, morality, history, politics, or revolution. It is no means for social salvation either. It might assimilate, inhere or portray a degenerating situation, but it can’t change it. My poetry commits no such obligation. Nor can poetry or criticism become a basis for societal reform.
ASC: Sir, you have been associated with the editorial activities, evaluation work of research projects and book reviews throughout your academic/literary career. Most of the times, it is observed that the authors/ researchers manipulate (also copy, cut and paste) ideas and concepts and produce them in their works. How do you, as a critic, examine and respond to such works?
RKS: What you say is true. It is indeed very disappointing that there is so much ‘recycling’ of material going on in the name of research. Scholars tend to practice short-cuts, but it is the job of the guides/supervisors and seniors to help them improve their language and literary abilities, particularly research writing skills, and make them read, interpret and evaluate the original texts. If the seniors are badly trained, their scholars will depend on, what you call, manipulation of all sorts.
To minimize this, scholars are now expected to publish research papers in standard national/foreign/Thomson-Reuter listed journals before submitting their theses just as the teachers are considered eligible for promotion only when they have publications in standard journals. We need to be sympathetic but tough in this respect. Let’s hope things improve in the years ahead.
ASC: Sir, your poetry has been translated into Italian, Japanese, Chinese, German, French and a few other languages of the world. Translation (also other creative works) is not an easy task. It requires proper understanding of the language, its socio-cultural references, trends and tendencies along with the mind and motives of the author. How much is it effective and satisfactory when the readers are less engaged and little interested in the translated works?
RKS: My poems have been translated not only into Italian, Japanese, Chinese, German and French, but also into Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, Turkish, Romanian, Crimean Tatar, Bulgarian, Slovene, Croatian, Korean, Arabic, Farsi, Serbian, Esperanto, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Kannada, and Bangla. I hardly know any of the translators personally, but the availability of my poems online has helped me reach out to a larger audience. The translators must have negotiated the difficulties you mention—I can’t comment, for I do not know all these languages (except Hindi).
The problem with most of us is that we don’t read. We don’t care to appreciate others, except ourselves. We don’t bother to study and critique the fellow-travelers but expect from them to read and write about us. Additionally, because we write in English, some of us in the academia expect the native speakers of English to pat us; we value their comments/opinions, and down-rate the observations by the fellow Indians, young or old. Also, most of us don’t encourage serious academic research in writings of the new or less known Indian English authors, self-published or published by the small press. In such a situation, how do you expect translations to be undertaken or studied?
We as academics need to change our attitude if we want to be accepted within our own country, first. We can reach out to a larger audience via translation only if we accept the fact that people’s tastes in poetry differ widely, and most Indian poetry in English is generally considered naïve or oversweet. Not many literary magazines will publish translation, unless it is professionally done and it reads as good as the original (or better than the original). We need to handle several issues academically first… Frankly, I have more problems with the self-styled experts and dons than with the poets and writers who spend their own hard-earned money to publish their books and bear the cost of sharing these with them.
ASC: Sir, often it is observed that the publication and publicity (including critical appreciation) of literature are based on contact, relation, power and position. How far is it true and how can genuine authors rise and grow in such circumstances?
RKS: Internet has proved a great blessing. The age of all those few great names in Indian English writing that have been repeatedly studied and explored for academic degrees is over. Now is the time to discover new names; study new authors, new voices. We have to prove that Indian English writing is viable, potent and worth studying; that there is something different about it; that it exists and is growing. Your Creation and Criticism is doing that, isn’t it?
The institution I worked in Dhanbad is not a mainstream university, yet I could make worldwide publications from early 1980s almost regularly, without any personal contact, relation, or support. I had no short cuts except hard work, clear vision, and passion. You can see from my List of Publications how many new poets (who are now relatively better known) I talked about, not only from our country but also from outside.
When no computer or laptop was available, I would type out my manuscripts on my old typewriter and approach editors and publishers without any backing. Slowly I made my impact, despite apathy from the likes of Ezekiel, Mahapatra, Shiv K Kumar, and all those Bombay poets. I could ruthlessly challenge anyone because I never needed them for any personal favour, whatever my position. They didn’t know ESP and I didn’t care to know them (or their writings) till I started the MPhil/PhD programmes at ISM.
In fact, I won’t have time, motivation, or leave from the institution, to attend conferences, or visit other universities and develop personal relationship, except through letters. Yet, I achieved what I wanted to, and reached the highest in the academic rung, without any personal contact. Believe me, a good work will speak for itself, if one is honest and working hard. Unfortunately, in most cases today, the quality is lacking, just as friends don’t want to see beyond themselves.
ASC: Sir, what is the role of social media, especially Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp, in promoting and presenting literature online when a few followers and fellow-travelers (online friends) just ‘like’ (though most of the times ignore the post), remark- ‘congratulation/ best wishes/ wow/ thanks/ excellent/ amazing and so on’ or rarely make some serious comment (s) on the post?
RKS: I view social media as a positive development for poets and writers to be noted, even if the members’ ‘viewing’ does not necessarily mean a post’s ‘reading’, or their ‘likes’ hardly imply something serious, except a confirmation that they saw it. If no comments are offered, it does not mean the post has ceased to exist. One’s presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, Youtube, Tumblr etc helps in reaching out internationally. You can develop contacts here. The search engines record what you do on these sites. It’s a matter of time, opportunity, and a little bit of luck when your work is searched or discovered by interested readers, scholars, editors, or publishers.
ASC: Sir, now-a-days, prizes, awards, honors are more lucrative and valuable than before as per the mind-set of the public. If an author is conferred with them, he is accepted and appreciated not only in the literary arena but also out of it. How do you perceive the politics of prize and placement of the author in the present scenario?
RKS: It is no doubt motivating to be honored with some prize or recognition. Better keep from it, if it comes with politics. It is also wasteful if it comes after paying money, for whatever reasons.
However, if the mainstream media – TV, newspapers, learned societies, government bodies, or publishing houses—and academia ignore me or you, it doesn’t mean we don’t exist. It’s a matter of time till we are discovered by interested readers, researchers, scholars, editors, or publishers at home or abroad. We need to keep patience and continue to do what we are doing. This is what is the biggest reward in itself in the IT-dominated present time.
ASC: Sir, do you have any desire left to be fulfilled in the coming years or fully satisfied with your karmas of an author?
RKS: Though I have minimized my academic activities and stopped teaching after retirement last December, I continue to be active as a poet and wish to be recognized as such by the mainstream media and academia. As it is, I am afraid I continue to write from the margin, and I hope, in the days ahead more scholars and critics would study and explore my poetry to strengthen creation and criticism.
ASC: Sir, would you please share your opinions about Creation and Criticism— the literary e-journal of English Language and Literature?
RKS: The e-journal is a happy development in the annals of literary publications, both creative and critical, from India. Both you and Sudhir Arora have been doing very well as editors just as your claim to be friendly to researchers and scholars is justified. The site is indeed very friendly. Kudos. You have already broken away from the past and hopefully both of you will reach much higher.
Let the journal promote studies on native Indian English poets and authors who have been active for decades from the periphery and suffering colonialist treatment in a post-colonialist environment, even after the maturity of Indian English. Let them not find themselves deprived despite merits; let them not rot in anonymity or degenerate in the politics of belonging. Let us discover (or re-discover) the neglected and promising good poets and writers and contribute to the development of art and criticism from the perspectives of the 21st century scholarship. God bless.
ASC: Thank you very much for your interesting and enlightening conversation.
RKS: It’s my pleasure.
Dr Abnish Singh Chauhan (1979) is a bilingual poet, critic, translator and editor (Hindi and English). His significant books include Swami Vivekananda: Select Speeches, Speeches of Swami Vivekananda and Subhash Chandra Bose: A Comparative Study, King Lear: A Critical Study, Functional Skills in Language and Literature, Functional English, The Fictional World of Arun Joshi: Paradigm Shift in Values and Tukda Kagaz Ka (Hindi Lyrics). His deep interest in translation prompted him to translate thirty poems of B S Gautam Anurag under the title Burns Within from Hindi into English and some poems of Paddy Martin from English into Hindi. He can be contacted at email@example.com.