Devanshi Khetarpal: National Poetry Month
First can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What do you do for fun? What things happen to annoy you? What are some things you absolutely love?
Right. I am a hobo, by nature. Some people call me a ‘Double-Chocolate Chip Cookie with Sprinkles.’ And I am starting to fall desperately in love with chocolate again. I used to do horse-riding. Plus, I own an eighteenth-century copy of the Old Testament in Ancient Greek.
Well, I write and read poems (duh!). And that’s the height of fun. Apart from that, I love dancing. I try to mimic Lady Gaga sometimes until it dawns on me that I am going absolutely nowhere!
And, oh, so many things annoy me! But, you know the kind of people who see you after ages but can’t stop running their hands through your hair? Yeah, they annoy me in a hellish way. I met such a person today, which is why it’s the first thing that came to my mind.
I absolutely love coffee and I love collecting stationery items as well. So, don’t hesitate to gift me some journals, pens, pencils, pen stands or take me out for coffee. (I turn seventeen on March 17, by the way. Just to drop a hint!)
Do you think that poetry is still relevant in today’s culture?
Poetry was never subject to any debate or discourse about its ‘relevance’ and never will be. It is an integral form of art. I fell in love with poetry because of the gravity it contained and gave me. Poetry is, but not completely, the exercise of being carefully unrestrained but also practicing a meditative restrain. I would say it’s the light that fills all space. No one could have said it better than the Hindi poet, Kamleshwar, “कविता ह्रदय में कंघी करती हैं।“ (“Poetry is that which combs the heart.”)
I think poetry is a crucial and all-encompassing fulcrum of human experience. No other art form has the reticence that poetry enjoys. Moreover, poems give us an arena for absolute submission. Poems grow and glide through the mind. It is extremely difficult to escape or grow out of them. They hold us ever so beautifully within them.
How did you come up with the title Co:ma,to’se’?
Quite honestly, it’s the feeling I get when I write or read poetry. I usually stay up from midnight till five in the morning and work strictly on editing, or reading, or writing. There’s no one to disturb me, the streets are empty. It’s a state of perfect isolation. Whenever I sit down even to think about poetry, I usually feel like I am disappearing to the wind, or my body is escaping me. The perfect word to describe that feeling would be ‘comatose.’
I was strangely attracted to the word when I heard it in one of Lorde’s songs, Team. I just felt a connection with the word and I knew I had to ‘own’ it.
I loved the title, ‘Co:ma,to’se,’ but I was reluctant to have the book titled as such. Initially, the title was supposed to be ‘ Tea:sp-oo-n,ful.’ I had met the illustrator, Ashwin Pandya, several times to improvise the sketch of a gold-rimmed teacup that was supposed to be the cover. And when I finally decided to title the collection, ‘ Co:ma,to’se,’ I was thinking about how much trouble I was going to cause Ashwin ( yet, again). Since I hardly care about others, I muttered, “F**k,” and moved on. I was being me.
So where were you when you started writing it? And where were you when you finished it?
I started writing this book in 2013. I was doing a Creative Writing course at the University of Oxford. Co:ma,to’se is basically a collection of poems I wrote in Oxford or shortly after. Actually, I finished it a month later, when I was back in Bhopal.
What was the thought process and/or the feelings behind the poems in Co:ma,to’se’?
Like I mentioned, Co:ma,to’se was, for the most part, written in Oxford. My Creative Writing teacher there, Mr. David Benedictus, was incredible. I owe everything to him, but I have never been able to thank him enough, I guess. In his own way, he was able to tell me that I have a voice. And it was in his class that I started reading and writing poems. Co:ma,to’se was a dive into that voice I had recently discovered. Poetry was a form that hypnotised me and consumed me. It gave me my being, in every possible sense.
In fact, poems gave meaning to my life. While the poems in that collection speak of different things, they are representative of that dimension I entered once I started to write. The thoughts behind those poems, strangely enough, were all related to my surroundings. I didn’t feel as estranged back then as I do now. I liked working in crowded places or those places where I saw ‘life’ around me. It’s quite a personal collection although I find it somewhat distant from myself now. I have changed so much, I believe.
What is the worst and best parts of your books being published?
That’s an intelligent question, actually. I’ve never had anyone ask me the ‘worst’ part of getting published. As a young writer, the thought of getting published is primary to most minds and certainly, it is inescapable. For quite a long time, I charted out a ‘graph’ as to how many publications I’d like to have in a year and so on. However, I found myself in a state of disappointment and regret after I published my books. They weren’t where I expected them to be and I hadn’t worked hard enough on them. They were a product of pure adrenaline. At the time of writing Welcome to Hilltop High , I had no one to tell me how crucial one’s own voice is. For me, those works were just an act of imitation for the sake of publication. Co:ma,to’se was more mature than Welcome to Hilltop High, a book I’d like to forget. But the former had its flaws. I didn’t spend too much time editing/revising it because I was in a hurry to publish my book in my sophomore year itself. On the whole, the worst part of those books is the carelessness and disregard and detachment towards creation. I realised it much later and got rid of my ‘publish-or-perish’ mindset almost immediately.
The best part is the reassurance and comfort, albeit short-lived, that you get. Becoming a published writer wasn’t a dream for me anymore. I was more confident and I could easily tell people that I had some idea about publishing. It taught me many a great lessons. Plus, I began to be known in a few literary circles. So, it helped me to become a part of the literary community at home and elsewhere. In retrospect, the best thing I learnt from my publications was the very futility in getting something you’re not proud of out there.
Who are some contemporary poets that you admire or want to collaborate with?
Oh, so many! Well, Jorie Graham, Rae Armantrout, Sharon Olds, Mary Ruefle and Anne Carson are a few poets I just can’t stop reading. They are vastly different, but their poems never fail to suprise me. Speaking of Indian poets, Manohar Shetty, Mihir Vatsa, Arundhati Subramaniam, Vinay Dharwadekar and Tishani Doshi are some of my favourites. Meena Kandasamy, I poet I met at Jaipur Literature Festival, is quite bold and vocal. Her poems have a different vibe altogether.
Dan Rosenberg is a brilliant poet, teacher and person. He taught me at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. He always spoke so passionately about poetry and his poems are remarkably mesmerizing. His chapbook, Thigh’s Hollow, is one of my favourites. He has a very unique voice and you can’t help but love his work. Also, Dan helped me develop the notion that wearing a cap is a proof of one’s poetic prowess. A heck of a lesson, I must say!
David Benedictus’ work is wonderful. He’s more well-known as a novelist but he sent me his poems some time back. His work is marked by its simplicity, but it never fails to impress me, at least. I might sound biased though it’s only for good reason.
Trivarna Hariharan, my Kindred Spirit, and I started writing at the same time. We met at Bookaroo Literature Festival in 2013 and have shared our journey ever since. We love to collaborate with one another. In fact, we uplift each other. Running Inklette wouldn’t be half as fun without her. Both of us are trying to un-condition ourselves and delve deeper. She’s definitely a poet I admire and look forward to collaborating with.
What are you working on now?
Besides sorting out my non-poetic life, you mean? Recently, India criminalised homosexuality. Now, being a conservative society, not many people talk about sexuality or their relationship with their bodies. I don’t exactly remember how I got interested in this particular theme but I notice that my poems are leaning towards a study of the body in what it means to me, as a person. The poems I am working on focus on being able to assert the body in a physical as well as abstract reality, on its fluidity, on its constant and intrinsic processes of transformation etc. I don’t know how they will turn out. Fingers crossed!
Another thing that has inspired my work is the Quran. I got interested in Islamic culture when I studied it in my World History class this year. I think it was four or five months ago. I usually wake up to the sound of the azhan that comes from the mosque nearby. Bhopal has several picturesque mosques scattered all over. It was definitely no surprise that reading the Quran gave my poems a different direction and meaning. I often find myself thinking about Arabic or Persian words, or simply using the elements mentioned in the Quran in my poems. Undoubtedly, I am in awe of it.
Devanshi Khetarpal is a high school junior from Bhopal, India. She is the author of Welcome To Hilltop High (Indra, 2012) and Co:ma,to’se (Partridge, 2014). An attendee of the 2015 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio at the University of Iowa, she works as a Poetry Editor for Phosphene Literary Journal and Moledro Magazine, a journalist for Redefy/Redefy India, and the Editor-in-chief cum Founder of Inklette Magazine. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Souvenir, The Corner Club Press, Alexandria Quarterly, The Cadaverine, Dirty Chai, and Eunoia Review among others. Khetarpal is the recipient of an Honorable Mention in Nancy Thorp Poetry Contest by Hollins University. Devanshi is usually spotted reading chapbooks in shady cafes while sipping Americano.