Right from its conception, Literature Studio has laid great emphasis on interactions amongst writers. There’s so much we can learn from each other, and when that “other” is poet, writer, and musician Jeet Thayil, whose debut novel Narcopolis was nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and the Man Asian Prize and won the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, then a brief conversation can uncover a treasure trove of rich insights. More so because even though Narcopolis, which has since been translated into five languages, is his first novel, Jeet has been writing poetry since adolescence. He has published four collections of poetry and is greatly admired for his attention to form. He is also a songwriter, a singer, and a guitarist and manages to keep himself very busy doing what he likes to do.
And one day, on a pleasant afternoon of March 2014, I found myself standing outside his home in South Delhi. I had managed to reach on time and was let in by a warm and welcoming Jeet. He offered me a cup of coffee and we were soon chatting about all things relevant to writers. While capturing our discussion in this post, I have tried to hold on to each and every word he said and be as accurate as possible. And now, without digressing too much, here is what we talked about:
Vibha: The world knows Jeet Thayil as a performance poet, a writer, and a musician. How would you introduce yourself to the readers of Literature Studio’s blog?
Jeet: I think of myself as a working man. I work every day. Some days I work on music, some days I work on poetry, and some days I work on prose. That’s really all there is to it. In my mind I don’t differentiate between the various genres. I just think of it as what I do. Work!
Vibha: And how do you decide that today you are going to work on music or on poetry or on prose. Is it mood-driven or deadline-driven?
Jeet: It’s very much deadline-driven. The only thing that’s mood-driven is a poem, or a song. If something occurs to me – a melody – and if I am doing something else, I record it right away. Later I’ll work on lyrics and shape. But everything else is deadline driven.
Vibha: That is true for a lot of us. I almost always end up doing things at the very last minute.
Jeet: I am a firm believer in the last minute.
Vibha: Your productivity is the highest at that time.
Jeet: And you don’t over-think it, and you are often very creative, because you have to be.
Vibha: You are pushed…
Jeet: You are pushed. Your back is against the wall.
Vibha: True! But in usual scenarios, what inspires you to write?
Jeet: I think what usually inspires me to write is anxiety. I just get worried that I am not doing anything, and when that builds up, I get down to work. I wish I could say that I am inspired by a sunset. But if I see a beautiful sunset, I just look at it. I like to enjoy it and not worry about translating it into deathless prose.
Vibha: Yes, and I feel that we are too busy capturing things. You see everyone trying to click pictures of everything they come across, but you hardly see anyone just sitting and enjoying the view.
Jeet: You are so busy trying to record it, that you miss it. You miss the experience.
Vibha: So true! But if you draw your inspiration only from anxiety, do some recurring themes still manage to creep into your writing?
Jeet: You know, whatever the genre, whatever the book, I don’t think your obsessions change. It’s really something out of your control. And sometimes even if you try to disguise it, it comes out. I think they are like wounds that you never really recovered from. And a way to work that out in your own mind, a kind of therapy, is to write about it. And that’s a way of healing yourself. And I have noticed that even in the most unlikely of settings, the same themes will come up, the same obsessions will come up.
Vibha: But does writing about it actually really help one heal?
Jeet: Not really. In fact, sometimes it does the opposite. It makes it worse.
Vibha: Yes, I have experienced this in my writing as well. I never seem to get over it. People have often pointed it out to me. But I can’t help it.
Jeet: You shouldn’t. Why should you? And I think that’s ok. If you accept that, it’s fine. There’s no need to feel bad about it. And also if you look at Dostoyevsky or any other writer, it is the same for everyone – the same obsession in every book. These obsessions are given to us in different forms. And it is nothing to feel embarrassed about.
Vibha: And you shouldn’t feel that there is something wrong with you when this happens, because it is a part of who you are.
Jeet: Absolutely, and it is a part of your art.
Vibha: And it is consistent across forms. This reminds me of another of your works I have read about – The Opera Babur in London. How different was this experience when compared to everything else you do?
Jeet: It was totally different because it was very collaborative. I was working with a director and a composer, and every draft would go to both of them, and it would change. There would be a rehearsal and a workshop and I would change the draft accordingly. I had never written a libretto before. I wrote it but it wasn’t until I heard people singing it that I realized that a lot of words that I had put into the libretto were extraneous and that I had to get them out. Especially in opera, less really is more. And you need to get rid of all the unimportant words. I had to rewrite it a few times after I heard it sung for the first time. And that changed everything for me. And also the director, he had ideas. So it kept having to be rewritten.
I have to say that at the end of it I thought I am never going to do it again. Because it took two years, and I could have been writing a book in that time. But it was thrilling to hear it sung. That is very satisfying – to write words and then to listen to a trained soprano, with a great voice, singing them – it’s thrilling. And I think that’s why people do it. But at the end of it, there’s no book. There’s no CD. The opera ran in Europe and UK, and it was supposed to run in India but the sponsors pulled out fearing controversy. But it isn’t running anymore and I feel that there is really nothing to show for two years of work.
Vibha: And the libretto isn’t going to be published anywhere?
Jeet: Well someone wanted to publish it but the price they were offering was ridiculously low. And it would mean giving them complete rights over the work, which meant that they could publish it anywhere, any number of times. This didn’t make sense to me, so I refused.
Vibha: And, usually, are librettos published? Is there a market out there or is it a niche thing?
Jeet: It is a very niche thing. And usually librettos are only published when they are written by someone famous. There is a libretto by Ian Mcewan and there is one by Auden, you can find those, but little people like me? Not really.
Vibha: I can imagine. It is a completely different creative process. Another unique thing about creative fields is that it takes a lot of courage to pursue these as a profession. Considering your father’s literary background, have you always known that you wanted to be an artist, or was there an epiphany? Have you ever wanted to be anything else?
Jeet: Yes, I wanted to be rich and happy…
Vibha: he he…sure
Jeet: You know instead of a poet – poor and depressed – because that is what poets are.
Vibha: he he…no seriously. Did you ever want to take up any other profession?
Jeet: For 20 years I was a journalist. But I hated it. Every day of those 20 years, I hated my job. I wanted to be writing other things. But I needed money, so I worked as a journalist all over the world. But I always thought I was a terrible journalist, because to be a good journalist, you should not worry too much about the writing. You make your phone calls, you get your material together, and you write your story quickly, and send it off. I would take days writing the story, weighing commas against semicolons, and I couldn’t stop myself from doing that. And it’s really a kind of waste of effort because at the end, it’s going to be in a newspaper or a magazine for a day or a week. And then it’s gone. Why waste so much effort trying to write this perfect piece of prose. And anyway it’s never perfect. Even when it’s fiction, it’s never perfect. Journalism is a very topical, a very moment-driven thing, and as I said I just never thought I was good enough. And I come from a family of good journalists. My father is a good one, my sister is a really good one. They know how to do it right. They just get on with it. They don’t torture themselves.
Vibha: I think it takes two very different kinds of people to excel in writing and journalism.
Jeet: I think so. Yes. I don’t think there are any poets in journalism. I can’t think of any. If there are, I feel sorry for them.
Vibha: How would you describe your journey as an artist? What are the challenges that you faced, or still face, on the course?
Jeet: I would describe it as a journey through several stages of hell…
Vibha: he he! Really?
Jeet: Yes, through several circles of hell, but luckily the journey is outward from the centre of the hell and is getting slightly better I think. But definitely when I started it felt like it was right in the middle of hell. It was the most tortuous circle of all. When you start out writing poetry in your 20s or as a teenager, you have such ambitions, but you don’t know what you are doing. You haven’t learnt your craft. It takes a while for you to figure out what you are doing in terms of a sentence. And for me it took 20 years. I don’t think I felt as if I was doing something worthwhile until I got to my 40s. I look at some of the early poems now, and I am, you know, not completely ashamed of all of it, but I am certainly ashamed of some of it. Poetry is such a difficult discipline, it is so strict, so severe.
Vibha: And you have to practice a lot.
Jeet: You have to practice a lot. You have to read a lot. And at the end of it, even after all of that, when you finally do figure it out, what is the reward?
Vibha: That’s sad actually.
Jeet: It’s nothing. For poets, there is no reward. All they get is appreciation from other poets. That’s it. There’s no money, there’s no fame. There’s nothing. It’s really the most difficult and thankless life. And I am always astonished when young people want to be poets. It always blows my mind. But they do, and they will, and it will continue, you know. And I think maybe the difficulty is part of the romance of it. It’s part of the reason we start writing poems: because of the difficulty of it, because of the obscurity of it, because of the failure of it. You fail so often. You have an idea in your head for a poem. You work on it and work on it, sometimes for months over 50 drafts, and at the end of it you have something you’re happy with, but it’s nothing close to the feeling you had at the start. Writing poetry is an exercise in befriending failure.
Vibha: Though I think when you have to be a poet, you have to be a poet, and you cannot be anything else.
Jeet: Well it’s been said that poetry chooses you, you don’t choose poetry.
Vibha: That is beautiful! I don’t know whether you have read Harry Potter…
Jeet: Of course I have!
Vibha: It’s like the wand. The wand chooses you, you don’t choose the wand.
Jeet: That’s a good one! And the wand is poetry.
Vibha: And it’s magic, isn’t it?
Jeet: When it works, it is magic… Do you write poetry?
Vibha: I do a bit, but still have a long way to go…I don’t read as much though. You were talking about reading, and how important it is for a poet to read. What kind of reading are you talking about?
Jeet: Reading great poetry. Other poets. That’s how you learn form, by reading great poets. I am always reading poetry. I find it very calming in many ways.
Vibha: You need to push yourself I guess! But I struggle with procrastination and self-doubt. I guess all writers do. Have you ever struggled with these? How do you get past them?
Jeet: I am struggling with it right now with the book I am working on at the moment. It’s funny how these two things go together. Self-doubt creates procrastination, which creates self-doubt. It’s a circle. It’s terrible, it’s like a progressive disease. But I think, or at least I hope, that it is a phase in the creation of a book.
Vibha: Yes, but I am sure you would know. You have gone past this. You have produced one great book and are working on another one.
Jeet: Yeah, but you know it doesn’t help. Every time you are working on a book it feels like it’s the first time. And it feels as desperate, as lonely, and as desolate.
Vibha: And mostly there’s no one to assert that you are doing well, that you have done a good job.
Jeet: There’s absolutely no one.
Vibha: It is lonely.
Jeet: And you don’t know until years later whether it is any good.
Vibha: So true! But if you do get stuck in a phase where self-doubt and procrastination are holding you back, what do you do to get past this phase?
Jeet: Well at the moment I am really just channeling it into something else. I’ve been writing songs and I just did a performance with a new band called “Still Dirty” in Delhi. We did our first show at TLR in Hauz Khas Village.
Vibha: That sounds like a good solution. But how important do you think it is to write every day?
Jeet: I think it is crucial to write every day. Or even if you aren’t able to write on one thing every day, at least to think about it every day. If you are working on one project, it’s important to always kind of just be going around it, even if you don’t actually do any work. You know sometimes especially because I have been travelling for two years now, promoting Narcopolis, I really haven’t had time to work on my new book every day, but I have been thinking about it. It’s always in my head, and I often take notes. If something occurs to me, I put it down. I think that’s very important. Otherwise when you come back to it a few months later, it is like starting all over again.
Vibha: That’s true! But if you are not working on a long project, then as a writer, do you think it helps to just keep writing anything?
Vibha: It doesn’t?
Jeet: No. I wouldn’t do that. I mean there are days when I don’t think of myself as a writer. I am just a normal human being going to the beach, or cooking a meal, or going out with friends, or hanging out and dancing. I don’t think you need to be that stressed about it. What’s the point of just writing anything for the sake of writing?
Vibha: But would you recommend it for people who are struggling with Writer’s Block? In fact that brings me to another important discussion – what do you think of Writer’s Block?
Jeet: I think it is tremendously overrated. I’ve never been quite convinced about the idea of Writer’s Block actually. I’ve certainly known poets who’ve been blocked, who haven’t written poems. But even they have written other stuff. So it isn’t really writer’s block, it may mean that one channel may be blocked, but then just open up the other one. I always think of Anne Carson in this context – she has three desks at her house. On one desk, she writes poetry, on the second one she writes prose, and on the third one, she makes art. And I am guessing whenever one of those desks is not working, she moves to the other one.
Vibha: That’s a nice idea!
Jeet: I think it’s a great way to do it.
Vibha: But you always need to have a goal?
Jeet: Yes, you must. You should have a project, and it is important to finish it.
Vibha: So do you always finish everything you start?
Jeet: Not always. I have many unfinished projects. And thinking about them drives me crazy.
Vibha: I know. They keep on piling on in your brain somewhere. It’s like clutter in your house.
Jeet: That’s a good one. There’s a poem in there somewhere.
Vibha: And what would you like to tell the many youngsters who dream of making a living as a writer or an artist? Assuming that one has talent, how easy or difficult is it to fulfil this dream in India?
Jeet: I think right now there’s a very unrealistic expectation about a writer’s life in India. A lot of people seem to think that it is the sure shot route to success and stardom. That’s really not the case. Yes, sure, there are a few writers who are extremely successful, but they are exceptions. And I think it is very unrealistic to expect fame and fortune from writing, of all things on earth. Yes, it’s possible that it might happen, but it is a very low possibility. It’s also possible that nothing will happen. But I also believe that if you do write a good book, things will happen. It may be a very idealistic notion, but I do believe it. I believe that even today, if you write a good book, whoever you are, whichever no-name town you might have sprung up from, it will be published and people will read it.
Vibha: So India, in that sense, is no different from any other place in the world?
Jeet: No, not at all. Everywhere is the same. And in fact at times there’s a real advantage in being from some obscure little town in India or Africa or any other country because it makes it all the more exciting for a reader to come across a great novel or a short story that has been written in, say, Ghana, for example.
Vibha: It also acts like a window to a world we have never seen.
Jeet: Yes, and that makes it even more exciting for the reader than a book about, say, New York.
Vibha: One often hears discussions about how Narcotics can help open up one’s creative boundaries. You yourself have dabbled in these. What would you like to tell the young writers about this?
Jeet: I think if you are planning to dabble in narcotics, you better have the body for it, the physique for it, and the psychology for it, because it is very risky. And you should also be prepared for many wasted years. And finally, narcotics have nothing to do with creativity. In fact it is the opposite. It is a myth that to write poetry you have to take drugs or alcohol. It’s not true at all. In fact some of the greatest poets didn’t drink or do drugs. It’s really got nothing to do with that. And often drinking and doing drugs holds you back. They are obstacles to production and to writing a great book or a great poem. It is a hell of a thing to have to fight yourself every day. That’s a battle that can take 24 hours. It leaves you no time to think about a sentence, and to think about an image, and to tease it out, and to make it flesh, to make it a poem, or a story.
Vibha: About the time when you were an alcoholic and an addict, you have said, “I spent most of that time sitting in bars, getting very drunk, talking about writers and writing. And never writing. It was a colossal waste. I feel very fortunate that I got a second chance.” Artists are especially susceptible to this. Dealing with the realization that you have lost a lot of valuable time can be very depressing. Can you share your insights about how one can make sure one doesn’t lose out on the second chance?
Jeet: The thing is that it’s a real occasion for regret, this sense of loss. But what I tell myself is that if I hadn’t spent those decades being addicted and living a very unhealthy and limited life, may be my writing, when I eventually wrote a book, would have been different. I know that this may not be true. That it would have been possible to write that book. Why did it have to be 20 years? But it’s a way of staying sane by telling myself that. Because otherwise, it would simply be unbearable to think of all those wasted years. You can never really get that time back.
Vibha: And then if you keep thinking about it, you may end up losing more such years. Regret won’t take you anywhere.
Jeet: It doesn’t. But it is so human to fall into this trap.
Vibha: After years of experience writing poetry, who are some of your favourite writers / poets in India and abroad?
Jeet: My list of favourite writers is long, but if you want a list of poets, you can go through the anthologies. 60 Indian Poets by Penguin India. The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets has 72 poets.
Vibha: You have been compared to the likes of Keats and…
Jeet: Oh come on!
Vibha: and Baudelaire? Which poet or writer do you feel you can relate to the most in terms of your own work?
Jeet: For me it was always Baudelaire. I read him as a teenager, when I was 14. His poetry resonated with me and it still resonates with me. And I think the reason I started writing poems was because of Baudelaire, and Bob Dylan, actually. I was at that time also a great Bob Dylan fan. I started by imitating Bob Dylan and Baudelaire.
Vibha: And then you slowly developed your own style…
Jeet: Yes. And luckily I’ve destroyed most of those early imitations.
Vibha: And after Narcopolis, what is next? Are you working on another book?
Jeet: I’m working on a new novel, but I’m not going to say anything about it because the last time I described it, the novel came to a grinding halt. And I am very superstitious. So I think it will be best to talk about it when it is completed. But also, next month, I am in Shanghai, working on a non-fiction book about the city. It is a residency, and I am going to be living there for about 3 months.
Vibha: Sounds exciting!
Jeet: Let’s see. Not many people speak English in Shanghai And I don’t know many people.
Vibha: That may all work out in favour of your book though.
Jeet: Could be. I will end up having to work. What else can you do? I’ll have to work every day.
Vibha: Well, all the best for the residency and also for your book. We hope to speak to you again when you are through both these projects.
And before I knew it, the hour was over. I had run out of time but not out of questions. So may be soon, we will try to catch Jeet again some time and extract some more valuable insights from him. But in the meanwhile, if there’s something specific you would like to ask Jeet, please feel free to leave a comment and we will try to get the answers for you.
Till the next time…
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