Vidhu Aggarwal: National Poetry Month
Author: Vidhu Aggarwal
We would like to learn a bit more about you. What do you most appreciate in life? What bad and good writing habits do you have? What are some of your pet peeves? What things make you feel content and/or happy?
I tend to write in compulsive spurts—it’s a bad habit I have tried without success to rid myself of by telling myself: write regularly (two hours in the morning) and then move on to other important tasks, as handbooks on time management and better living suggest.
But poetry for me is never about “time management,” but time disarray, deep time, crumpled time, spacetime. As you can guess, one of my pet peeves is the corporate lingo of productivity with infects me, too, despite my best, most valiant efforts.
I’m curious about other forms and disciplines. As an approach to writing, I tend to experiment (with an amateur’s abandon) with photography, collage, video and sound, areas in which I have little to no expertise and in which I’m under no pressure to master. I try to transfer that sense of experience to writing—a medium with which I have a much more vexed relationship.
Did you always believe in your work, even at an early stage?
Let’s just say I believe in the act of doing or making the work— even if it seems to be going nowhere. And I don’t think of that time as as wasted. And perhaps it’s in the early stages that I most believe in the work: at the height of potential energy when anything is possible.
How often do you feel you generate poems?
That’s a tricky question. I work intermittently. I’m a bad example.
You have a book, The Trouble with Humpadori, published from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective earlier this year. What can you tell us about this book? Did you have a process for assembling poems for this collection?
I think of this book as a weird experiment in enacting the violence of identity formation. The book draws on various creation myths—whether myths of the nation, religious myths (Eve, Manu/Noah, Kali), or fairy tales. What if American myth of the melting pot was literalized as a hot ball of excreting otherness—a toxic meltdown? The shape-shifting abject assemblage Humpadori or “Hump” contaminates and reforms such mythologies into her/his/their body producing strange mutating affiliations. Is Hump a nation, a mob, a singular lyric voice, a porn star, a scrap of undifferentiated bio-matter, a hostile state, an empire? Who is Hump to you, the book (I hope) asks the reader. How is Humpadori simultaneously a racialized monster projecting the majority-minority future, a silly putty toy, and something more intimate?
Growing up in the U.S. South, I felt that the identity categories around race and gender available to me were somehow outsized and unreal—a tumor or outgrowth, rather than something integral. “Humpadori” is for me a way of thinking out dynamic psychic configurations in an attempt to resist oppressive narratives of self, family, and nation. But things keep going wrong, despite Hump’s fluid, post-identity machinations and prodigious oddball friend network! More often than not, Hump is compelled to painfully re-enact and exhilarate in the structural violence of persistent, damaging scripts. I imagine a kind of bumbling slapstick at work.
How did you come up with the title for your book?
The word for the monstrous star of my collection, “Humpadori” is a portmanteau taken from the English word “hump” and the Hindi word “hum” (we), combined with the Japanese word for idol (aidoru).
I was also thinking of the TV show Star Trek, which functions in many ways as an imperial romance—a thrilling galactic search for new territory. My title comes from a well-known episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles” in which the Starship Enterprise is docked on a space station where Tribbles—purring, muff-shaped sponge-like creatures—are for sale. The entire multicultural human crew is entranced! Tribbles are an adorable problem. They replicate like mad, and nobody, not even Spock (only half-human himself and the most skeptical about their charms), knows what they are or how they reproduce or what their gender is or where they come from. Humpadori are somewhat like Tribbles—replicating oddities who consume everything in sight, invaders camouflaged as pets.
When did you start writing The Trouble with Humpadori and when did you finish?
The idea for “Humpadori,” all started in 2008 with some doodles and drawings of this mutating creature or stem-cell consciousness. Along the way, there were many “finished,” versions of the manuscript (from 2010 on, the manuscript had been a finalist in a number of different contests). But the manuscript changed over the years as I experimented with other art forms—video, comics (with artist Bishakh Som), collage, and performance. Some very “unfunny” comedic sketches I wrote to frame live readings of Humpadori poems entered into the book. And when I sent the manuscript to U.S/Indian press The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective where it was selected (at last), the “collective” vision as articulated by founders Minal Hajratwala, Shikha Malaviya, and Ellen Kombiyil really moved me, and set in motion a more expanded imaginary or idea of relationality within the circulatory system of Humpadori—a stronger sense of a “we,” or “hum” in Hindi. Long story short, the book was “finished” in December 2015 when it went to the printers!
What is your best experience related to poetry?
Lately, it’s been my collaboration with comic book artist Bishakh Som, who just adapted a new comic out of a poem from The Trouble with Humpadori. We had already collaborated on an earlier comic, “Lady Humpadori,” published in the comics/poetry journal INK BRICK. With these wild, joyful images of erupting bloodcords and nodules, Bishakh’s gorgeous comics help me to think about work of The Trouble with Humpadori as somehow more open and active—a mobile text with multiple iterations—much like the concept of “Humpadori” itself, an evolving entity unable to be contained by any single form or book. There may be a comic book in the works.
You teach poetry, in addition to postcolonial and cultural studies. Could you share a couple of common areas in which many of your students need improvement?
I am often amazed at how much my students do—jobs, community service, multiple classes. An anxiety about assessment has been communicated to them throughout their entire education, a systemic problem from K-12 onward. I only wish students felt more empowered in the classroom to experiment, to try out new things, to do things badly — areas in which, frankly, I could also use improvement.
What are you working on now?
Speaking of toxic meltdowns, I’m beginning a type of nuclear fantasia. My father worked in nuclear power as a civil engineer. I once did a middle school project, “Nuclear Power: How it Affects Our Lives,” in which I conducted a door-to-door survey, asking our New Orleans neighbors about their perception of nuclear threat. I held up a tiny fake nuclear pellet and fed folks propaganda I’d absorbed about the great benefits of this astounding energy source. Yes, self-aggrandizement via nuclear pellet! I’m curious about how our presence as an immigrant family approximated a type of nuclear threat and combustible power.
Born in Ranchi, India, Vidhu Aggarwal grew up in the Southern U.S. Her multi-media works in poetry, video, and scholarship are oriented around Bollywood spectacle and science fiction. A Kundiman fellow, she is the founding editor of SPECS, a journal of monstrous forms. Her poems appear in the anthologies Language for a New Century (W.W. Norton) and The Electronic Gurlesque (Saturnalia). Her book of poems The Trouble with Humpdori (2016) received the Editor’s Choice Prize from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.