An interview with Lily Swarn
Thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule to chat to THE POET Lily. Do you remember writing your very first words of poetry?
Yes, I distinctly remember writing my earliest poem in a scrawling, cursive writing on the last pages of my English notebook in the 6th grade in school. Must have been about 11. A highly imaginative, “Johnny head in air “ kind of pig tailed girl I was! The poem was a perfectly rhyming, grown up sounding paean or ode to my favourite teacher. Apparently I had a massive crush on the lady. I remember crawling under the staircase in my home and writing it laboriously.
Aside from the crush you had on your teacher, did you have any early influences or inspirations?
My earliest influence was the musical poetic renditions of the holy scriptures of the Sikh faith that I am born to. The divine sounds set to Indian raagas made me want to learn them by rote, and soon I was doodling out my own versions. The other major inspiration were the folk songs of the robust people from the fertile land of Punjab. The tingling beats and the rustic words moved me to write. As I grew older, the romantic and profound Urdu poetry learnt at my father’s feet made me itch to compose as delicately as the masters of “shaayari.“ Sights, sounds and smells made me stop mid-stride and gaze enraptured. Unfurling petals and the gigantic silver salver of a full moon all prodded me to scribble away anywhere and everywhere – paper napkins, old dog-eared diaries, centre pages of arithmetic notebooks and even the margins of magazines.
How did you then develop as a poet?
Participating regularly in elocution contests and Dramatics in high school made me memorise much exquisite poetry. I could rattle off speeches and soliloquies from Shakespeare at the drop of a hat. Macbeth and Julius Caesar were my favourites. In college I was selected to go and recite self-composed poetry in inter-college youth festivals all across the state. I started writing with a passion as I was also the editor of the college magazine. In the university we had a regular wall magazine in our prestigious English department. My contributions started featuring in the magazines, both in college and university. The joyous part for me was that I wrote in four languages right from the beginning – English, Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. Literature in Punjabi with its Sufi leanings enthused me. I liked hearing Qawwali, a genre of singing where I could hear sublime Urdu poetry. Subtle nuances of Hindi poetry intrigued me.
When you let your burnished shoulders
Show from beneath your golden robe
The universe gasps in admiration
Holding its hands on its gaping mouth
The strip tease is not on the dramatic stage under the arc lights
It is a hushed affair
Clothes falling softly to the floor
In a feathery heap of gold
The autumnal hued garden applauds
The sensuous notes of this symphony.”
Does your background and heritage influence your writing?
Oh yes! Definitely. My imagery and metaphors reflect the diverse, rich and ancient culture and fascinating traditions of my wondrous country India. With a wealth of festivals, rituals and attire, besides vastly different terrain and customs, my heritage surreptitiously creeps into the nooks and crannies of my phrases and sentences until it is woven intricately into the warp and weft of my verses. Whether it is the mighty Himalayas or the fragrant jasmine blossoms, they find their way into my writings. The positivity in my verses comes from the tenements of my spiritual teachings . Acceptance is a major undercurrent in my work.
What subjects mostly inspires you to write?
Nature, its awe inspiring hues and creations, is a steady constant in my poetry. I have at times been likened to the Romantic poets, and to John Donne due to my choice of visual images and similes that catch one off guard. Metaphysical conceits beckoned my sensuous self! I dwell a lot on life and death, more so after the sudden passing away of my 23 year old son after a battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The emphasis on materialism bothers me due to the ephemeral nature of existence.
The other thing I hear said about my work is that I can write about any insignificant thing. I personally believe that nothing is truly ordinary. The whole universe is a magical, mystical thing. The shiny mane of a horse is as intriguing to my inquisitive eyes as is the skill displayed by a cobbler. The kitchen could be my palette as effectively as the tears of a child bride. I get incensed and traumatised by atrocities like child abuse, child marriage and rape. War and its mindless ravages move me immensely. Peace as a subject rears up its head repeatedly in my poetic meanderings, as I am also an ambassador of peace for institutions in Morocco and Ghana.
“Iceberg of Death
in frantic waters
Serenading Arctic ice
Blue with cold
My jellied veins
Twigs of thorny acacia
Whisked away on floats
Sucking out oxygen puffs
Dragging me by my chattering teeth
It’s time up ! Yama calls with urgent hyena barks!
Icebergs break away from the glacier
With a purposeful stride
No Growler this
No Bite berg
Terrorising hapless groups of penguins
Mega Bergs unleashing from
Alaskan ice shelfs
Fragmenting with musical murmurs
Look! How Death gloats
Vicious lashes of zooming winds
Bitterly jealous fuming fists
The spirit darts out furtively
Floating above the foggy waters
I watch the body sprawled
On blocks of agonising ice
Wooing Death seductively
With spasmodic bouts of chills
Gentle Thanatos tossing the coin
With the mighty Hades
Mannia waiting in the wings
I felt their surreal touch
Thee was so much more under
The tip of this iceberg
A revelation wishing to embrace my
Tired wizened soul
The kiss of death lubricating my parched lips
A garden full of glow worms to light my way home!
Yes, I have floated on the iceberg of death!
On icy waters of strife”
Describe your writing process?
I own up to being a completely instinctive and rather impulsive writer. I just let the words flow out in an incessant downpour, like the famous Indian monsoon that falls in sheets. I abhor editing and giving an artificial form to my poetry. Structure doesn’t allure me with its artifice and affectation. Words that form their own intrinsic pattern at the bidding of my heart are those that are dearest to me. Love poems that I write for an unknown unseen beloved are the stuff of my poetic dreams.
Do you remember your first ever published work?
My college magazine Abha was a stunning glossy. As my name jumped up in bold print, I was smitten for ever. A poem I remember vividly went something like this:
“Temple of Learning
Bleary eye balls
Under puffy lids
Gaping tired souls
Ensheathed in soft flesh
How curiously you eye your
Engraved dusty desk which
Proclaims with a hurrah
That a scratching can immortalise
My love affair with the written word had begun in earnest. There was no looking back. I wrote columns and middles for national newspapers until my first anthology of poetry, A Trellis of Ecstasy was launched in New Delhi to a thumping review by India Today magazine and numerous 5-Star reviews. Highly appreciated by the Chief Minister as well, its success was like an adrenaline shot, but I have been on a constant serotonin high since that day.
What publication are you most proud to have your work published in?
I feel good to have my columns published in The Tribune and The Hindustan Times as they are national newspapers with huge readership. Atunis Poetry.com from Albania, Mind Creative, Australia and Our Poetry Archive are some of the finest sites with readers and poets from all over the world. They feature my work regularly, and even run special editions with my poetry. Anthologies from Chile, Argentina, Peru, Palestine, Venezuela also publish my poetry. I am proud of these as I get to write about peace, refugees, child suffering, women’s issues… all things that move and incense me.
Do you have a favourite genre of poetry?
I don’t have a favourite genre since poetry is for me a powerful form of self-expression just as it is for most poets . I enjoy writing lyrical and narrative poetry though. A reviewer captured the essence of my poetry thus: “Lily Swarn’s poems are the streams where maelstrom, eddies and whirlpools occur simultaneously.“
Do you have a favourite writing space?
I could write standing and cooking near a stove, riding in a vehicle, or waiting for an appointment. I admit to writing a lot while I’m tucked up in bed though. Sometimes I wonder how a little woman like me, sitting in a city in North India, was blessed with awards and honours for my outpourings. I am eternally grateful for the umpteen books I read with dim torch lights under thick cotton quilts in freezing nights.
Lastly Lily, what are your future plans as a writer and poet?
I am currently working on two projects -a new anthology of my poetry and a novel; I write poetry rather prolifically, almost like one possessed. It’s a gurgling stream that gushes out merrily.
Thank you for chatting to THE POET, and we look forward to reading much more of your work in the future.
Lily is an internationally acclaimed, multilingual poet, author, columnist, peace ambassador and radio show host. She is a gold medallist from Chandigarh, with two University Colours for Dramatics and Histrionics, and has as four books in different genres to her credit. She has been published internationally including in the Arabic network, Serbia and the USA, and has 46 international awards including: Reuel International Prize for Poetry, Frang Bardhi Prize, Woman of Substance Award (Albania), Global Icon of Peace, Sarojini Naidu Award, Elizabeth Barrett Browning Award, Amrita Pritam Award, Diploma de Honour (Venezuela), Ambassador of Peace and Humanity (Morocco and Ghana), and the International Volunteerism Award for humanitarian contribution towards the fight against Covid-19, awarded by Gujarat Sahitya Akademi and Motivational Strips on Independence Day 2020.