In Search of a Muse: On Writing Poetry


Anne Waldman, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Ishion Hutchinson, Kate Tempest, Tishani Doshi and Vladimir Lucien in conversation with Ruth Padel

By Arjun Bhatia, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


‘Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads.’

~ Marianne Moore

Where does poetry come from? How do poets find their words? What does the process of creating a great and memorable poem involve? In a session that explored these frequently asked but seldom answered questions, the Jaipur Literature Festival hosted seven poets from around the world, as they discussed their work and their muses.

Royal Society of Literature Fellow Ruth Padel observed that with President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration looming, ‘these are difficult times’. Amongst the many available forms of expression, poetry comes into its own in a special way in such moments. ‘Poetry is a portable, cheap, and economic art, unlike some others.’

Vladimir Lucien from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia read out his poem Corbeau, about the vulture-like bird that is connected to the ‘deep archives’ of St. Lucian culture. ‘It inhabits proverbs,’ Lucien explained, saying the bird had flown to ‘symbolic heights’ in the island’s psyche .

Poet and dancer Tishani Doshi, who hails from Chennai, recited a poem that she wrote as an ode to American actor and songwriter Patrick  Swayze. I was trying to remember what it felt like to be 14,’ she related., while reflecting on She revealed that for her, poetry was an act of transformation, rooted in her experience as a dancer: ‘It comes to me in the form of movement. It begins with the body and comes out in words.’

In a performance that saw her live up to her surname, British poet and playwright, Kate Tempest, set fire to the stage with her passionate recital of the opening track of her album Let Them Eat Chaos. Her performance, and the roaring cheers it evoked, turned the session into something closer to a music concert than a poetry reading. The audience was treated to a similar, and yet distinct, moment when award-winning American poet and cultural activist Anne Waldman broke into a song during her fiery recital of Problem Not Solving, which she wrote at Ghetto Vecchio in Venice.

‘I write in a language that no one but 330,000 people in the world understands,’ Icelandic novelist and poet Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir explained. Even though the audience had ‘maybe three people’ who could understand Icelandic, everyone listened with rapt attention to the original version of her poem that preceded its English translation, because Ólafsdóttir’s presence and the hypnotic sounds of her verse transcended the need for meaning.

With the conversation shifting to the origin of ideas, Tempest remarked that one must facilitate the capturing of ideas: ‘I haven’t been able to figure out where ideas come from. You just have to seize them when they do.’ Jamaican poet and essayist Ishion Hutchinson described the process with poetic succinctness: ‘painful.’ He elaborated that the act of writing poetry is ‘a sort of exorcism … you want to get rid of this pressure but there is no way out. It is now a part of you and you have to live through it.’

In a moving conclusion to the session, Ólafsdóttir shared her motivation to become a writer, ‘I wanted to become a speaker for people who didn’t have a voice. To show the strength of those who are considered to be weak.’


Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor



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