Vinita Agrawal is a writer soon destined to bask in the limelight. A Mumbai native, and author of several poetry books of her own (such as Words Not Spoken, or The Silk of Hunger), Agrawal has decided to take a backseat on the act of writing poetry in order to curate. Agrawal indeed reaches the heights of the stars and comets in Open Your Eyes, an anthology of poetry centered on responses to climate change. Given the subject matter, it was inevitable that each of the poems, ranging from personal cries of anguish to reflections on rising oceans and desertifying landscapes, hits the heart hard. We are starting to face the end of a certain human era, and Agrawal, aware at how hard climate change hits her home country of India, has chosen to act in a work of literature that is both lofty yet urgent, evocative yet brutal, timeless and timely.
Kiran Bhat: So, first of all, why are you working on this project as an editor, rather than as a writer? Was there something about the nature of the project that made better sense as a compilation than stand-alone project?
Vinita Agrawal: All aspects of Eco-poetry are important — the writing, the compilation, the publishing, everything. While I have been writing something on climate change for a while, I felt an insurmountable need to have a consolidated work dedicated to planet earth and the havoc that’s being wrought on it. A stand-alone poem on the environment is far less noticeable than an anthology that amplifies many voices on the subject. Open Your Eyes was the answer to that inner call.
KB: That’s very true. And as someone who has travelled all over the world, I absolutely see that. I haven’t directly witnessed the shrinking waters as one sees in the Marshall Islands, or the desertification that’s going on in the Sahel, but I do know people who have lost their jobs due to environmental threats, or I’ve lived in countries like Australia where there are bushfires that are only intensifying in flame. We absolutely need to focus on this problem more, which is why literature like Open Your Eyes is so important.
VA: Absolutely. You see the most amazing thing about any literature on climate change is that it is non-polarising (pun not intended). When a glacier melts in the Arctic, the equator is just as affected as the Arctic itself. The planet is one, the earth is one and we are all inhabitants of this one earth. When you divide perspectives, then you’re actually narrowing your vision and the interdependence of geography and weather. Every poet or writer will definitely write from his or her own unique cultural lens. However Eco-poetry or eco-writing is not divisible in terms of boundaries. Rather it is a collective voice that is even more amplified because it is collective.
KB: What was the process of creating Open Your Eyes like. How did you find the poets? How did you find the poems that spoke most to you?
VA: I enjoyed the process enormously mainly because the theme was close to my heart. Submissions were through solicitation only. As an editor, one scouts one’s own radar for the poets who will do justice to the central trope of the book. An anthology is as good or as bad as the editor compiling it. So I solicited work from poets and writers whose skills were in my opinion unquestionable. I wasn’t disappointed. The submissions I received were on myriad dimensions of environmental degradation. The anthology covers many aspects of climate change ranging from deforestation to whaling, water shortage to mass fishing, loss of habitat to human greed and so on and so forth. So I was happy to have most important aspects of saving the earth covered by one poet or the other.
KB: So, as someone who was trained first and foremost as a poet, how was it to cede control of your own instincts as an artist to lend space to people who would have very different voices, styles, and ideas of aesthetic?
VA: That’s what compiling an anthology is all about, right? The idea is to put aside one’s own instincts as a poet and open the mind to diverse aesthetics, varied interpretations of the theme, distinctive exegesis of the core theme. To welcome tangents, embrace different viewpoints et all. I was quite stoked by the palpitating passion in the voice and words of my contributors. Their work gave me the urgency to have the book out at the soonest although I have to confess that I did take over a year to put all of it together.
KB: Yes, but it’s something easier said than done. I’m currently a commissioning editor at Grattan Street Press, and it’s hard, because my vision of what constitutes good writing is so different from what my fellow editors see. But that’s also because I’m an Indian-American, and most of the other editors are Australian, and we were just trained in very different ideas of what makes good writing. So, to cede control of that, and to truly encourage another voice … it’s quite difficult, I feel.
VA: Well, I choose sentiments over phrases, and feelings over words. What makes creativity work is when it is fueled by sincerity and compassion.
KB: Yes, frankness on the page is a very important tool that we can use to discern whether writing speaks to us or not. How much that writer really speaks with the full confidence of themselves, how much their vision is not only actualised, but speaks to their consciousness …
So, what are some of your favorite poems in the collection?
VA: Every poem in the book is special. That being said, let me take this opportunity to share the following poems:
— Ruth Padel
Do you know where you are in the Milky Way?
Look for the spun bud of the whirlpool,
the last struggle of the water butterfly
in toxic red mud: all that is left
of your river when they extract
which will connect
your SIM card with the world.
— Ranjit Hoskote
Plucking sunsets from the water
the horned sovereign
half stamps half slides across
to dig claw rake
What washes up
is drilled shale lost static parsed from gulf to strait
plastic whorls in whose wake gagged dolphins trail
scarred humpback whales whose shadows
will drift unmoored up thawing glaciers
What washes up
is news of the cracked ice
across which a shivering fox is making her way
from Svalbard to Nunavut
leaving her pawprints on frozen currents
to a shore stippled with burst nebulae
that on a compass dizzy with wind-scattered directions
she can and can’t call home
“Apology to Mom”
— Peter H. Fogtdal
We failed you with our acid breath, Mom,
and the carbon footprints
we left in the pork.
Forgive us for killing the last rhino, Mom,
while she meditated in the shade,
but we needed her horn to pay for a nose job.
Forgive us for colonizing the Pleiades, Mom.
It’s a galactic Disneyworld now
and a tax haven for Russian loan sharks.
I guess we became immune to bird song,
I guess we ran out of bear hugs,
I guess we melted the North Pole,
but some cloudless day we’ll learn.
“The Last Goddess of Redwood Hill”
after Ghayath Almadhoun
— Devi Laskar
She was felled by a young man’s saw and I took
photographs. So I could remember one day,
with clarity, what I had already witnessed. So
I could escape the inevitable fog of forgetfulness,
even for a long, sad moment. So I could leave
you something, some measure of a dwindling life.
She had been balding for years, the last
of the Sequoia, and it was a murder of crows
that crowned her receding pate on that final
day. Somehow they knew the man and the saw
were coming. Somehow they sought to lay
their claws tenderly on the spindly arms
of the goddess one last time. Just before
the last horses forsake us and traipsed
through the meadow away from the rising sea,
I arrived. On the goddess was a mob of tar —
coloured feathers, the crows’ forms
like commas in an unfinished sentence.
Their oration repetitive and resentful. I
was not alone, others came and stayed
until she was a stack of logs for the taking,
until the salt water rushed in to drown
her giving stump. She was felled by a young
man’s saw and I saved a few of her leaves,
evidence of a life that began before mine —
a life that ended before ours, among the last days
of horses and crows, and sweet-green
KB: Wonderful poems! And this is my first time reading Ruth Padel’s work, so I’m grateful for the introduction. And it also gives me another thought, given that Padel is British … the rise of climate change, the limits of the Anthropocene; these are rising trends now in Western academia. Do you think there’s a space in Indian literature to write about ecology, in a way that would be separate from how it is written in the West? Do you see eco-literature becoming a tendency in Indian literature?
VA: I don’t like to use the word tendency in this context because honestly there is this great need to write about nature and ecology. The fact that India enjoys six distinct seasons (summer/winter/spring/monsoon/autumn and a pre-winter season known as Hemant) is a unique phenomena. The fact that many regions in our country experienced spring and autumn together is also unique. The way our festivals circle various seasons is also noteworthy. So yes, there’s a lot of inspiration that India offers. I think it has an important voice in the space of eco-literature. In fact there is a poem in Open Your Eyes by Smita Agarwal which invokes the folk literature of seasons and and also a poem by Sivakami Velliangiri who speaks about the loss of culture as a result of climate change because when that slice of environment around your home disappears, the way of life also disappears. And that can bring about a sharp sense of nostalgia.
So yes of course there is space in Indian literature to write about ecology and environment and in fact I think there is an urgent need to do so. To not respond to the challenges that the earth is facing, challenges wrought about by the greed of man, I think would be be unjustified. Poets and writers must rise to the occasion.
KB: You call Bombay home. Have you travelled much? Have you ever lived outside of India? If so, how has that influenced your writing? If not, how has that influenced your writing too?
VA: I’ve traveled a fair bit — to the States and to Mexico, to our neighboing countries of Sri Lanka and Nepal and to South-East Asia including Bali and to almost every corner of India. But it’s always been for a conference or for pleasure. That said every experience shapes us. Travel in particular moulds our thoughts and broadens our horizons — you know the saying, “people don’t take trips, trips take people.” That I think is particularly true of me I seem to be I seem to become more aware of my surroundings of my own self when I travel and when I come back from my travels. It’s not so much as writing about the places that you been to and decides you seen but the assimilation of other cultures and environments that sort of provoke you into thinking differently and more broadly and I think that is the biggest plus that travel gives you. My journeys to the Himalayas have always been life changing I come back a renewed person every time I visit the mountain ranges and the mountains speak to me in a way that no other form of nature does.
KB: Finally, if you could see your book making a change in the world, what would it be, and why?
VA: Bringing this book together has been an act of belief . I say that also in the introduction to the book — the belief that awareness can bring about a change in attitude. If there is a change in attitude then they may be also be a change in action. It takes a very slight change in the way you think to bring about huge revolution. So if all of us learn to think in the right direction then hopefully we will act in the right direction and that action just might culminate into something beneficial for the environment. Of course one book on the theme of climate change cannot bring about a revolution, it cannot heal the earth. Climate change is a far bigger issue than the book that represents it but at least it’s an effort to make a beginning somewhere. The ecologists are doing their thing, the activists are doing theirs. At least the writers can open the eyes of citizens by writing about it.
KB: Thank you so much for your time, Vinita. It’s been great getting to know you, and learning about what makes your work so unique. I look forward to reading Open Your Eyes.