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Behind the Scenes: An Interview with Dhwani Yagnaraman

Hi Dhwani! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I love reading and talking about books. I spend my time thinking about climate change, conducting research, trying to keep up with my Spanish, and wondering where I’m going to travel next.

Next question: a challenge. Summarise (without writing a whole essay!), why do you write poetry?

I write poetry to make sense of things, whether that’s my own mind or the world around me. Sometimes, it’s to preserve moments or experiences. I also just get these phrases or stories that I want to keep as company for a while and poetry is often the best way to do that and allow them to unfold. Not to mention, I’ve been writing poetry for a long time now. I think it’s probably just a part of my fabric at this point.

What writers are you most inspired by? Give us a short reading list of some writers that we should know about, and why?

There’s so many! I think the writers that inspire my own writing are very different from the ones that inspire me more generally. I like anyone who plays with form (that’s funny, given this issue’s theme!). T.S. Eliot is probably high on that list. When I read ‘The Wasteland’ at university, it changed my entire understanding of what poetry or even writing could do. I’m also very inspired by Fatima Asghar, who wields words with such power and ferocity and A.K. Ramanujan, for how beautifully he captures simple images and moments. I find that their poems have stayed with me long after I read them.

As for novels, I think everyone should read The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh and Possession by A. S. Byatt. I’ve been reading and rereading The Hungry Tide for a while now: it’s a remarkable story that has some of the most stunning descriptions of characters and the natural world I’ve ever read. It’s my favorite book! And, Possession is more than just a novel: it’s two very distinctive poetry collections. I also think everyone should read Vikram Seth, Michael Ondaatje and Jia Tolentino: I think about their work a lot too.

What is place or time when you are a speck in the sky? (Masai Mara, Kenya)

Let’s talk about your poem ‘Gifts’.

You present how the body is perceived by others in this poem. You highlight a contradiction: the body as a ‘gift’ - something to be cherished - but also the perception that the body can fall short of expectations.

Can you talk more about the extended metaphor of the body as a ‘gift’?

I had a very specific relationship between the speaker and the subject of the poem. But since I’ve sent it out into the world, people have had different interpretations of the poem, which has been really interesting to listen to. Like you said, I was thinking of the dissonance between how we view people when they come into our lives and how we start to police them when they fail to live up to our ideal standards. One of the avenues of policing is the appearance of the body, especially what’s visible or invisible.

‘Gifts’ is a response to a really quite pressing subject about how we feel about our bodies, and it will strike a personal note in a lot of our readers. Despite this, I sense a lot of empowerment in your words.

Can you talk about how your writing may or may not be a tool for empowerment?

Well before I answer this question, I just wanted to say thank you for reading my work so carefully and thoughtfully! I’m really enjoying these questions--they’re pushing me to think more deeply about my writing. My writing definitely empowers me because it gives me a voice and allows me to retell my own experiences and stories. When I sit down to write something, I’m not normally thinking about empowerment, but sometimes I find it along the way. This poem was very liberating to write because it felt like a giant exhale when I finished.

Sometimes, I think nature has already created all the beauty there is in the world and we can only cast a light on it. (Lake Naivasha, Kenya)

In your second poem ‘7 a.m’ you evoke intimacy very effectively in your words. Can you share why you chose to evoke an intimate and peaceful tone in this poem? Perhaps, sometimes we forget to take a breath, a moment, just to appreciate the full spectrum of how our body can feel?

I wanted to capture the beauty and intimacy of the everyday actions of someone you know very well. I think there is an inherent peace and calmness that comes from being so comfortable with another person. That's what I was trying to capture through this poem.

Do you think we have a responsibility to speak out about events and issues in the world around us, to use our writing as a form of activism? Or can we just write for the sake of writing?

This is such a hard question because there's no right answer. I think all good writing is a form of speaking out about something. What you speak out about is very personal to you. We would lose out on a lot if we prescribed a single way of writing so I’m of the opinion that we do both. We can write for the sake of writing and also use it as a tool for activism.

Graffiti and street art are some of my favorite forms of art. I try to go on Street Art tours whenever I visit a new place. They're like the new age cave paintings and teach me so much about what lies behind the doors and in the minds in a place. (Bogotá, Colombia)

In your third poem, ‘No Space’, there is a sense of dissociation of the body from the outside world. I absolutely love the last three lines, “My arms struggling / through the confining bars of windows / grabbing birds out of the sky.” Is this a commentary of what it was like to be a creator in the last year or so of the pandemic?

I think it's a commentary on just being a person during the last year of the pandemic. There was a point in time where everyone felt a bit trapped, and normal things started to feel strange. Things like time and place that define our lives very much lost their meaning. This poem was just my way of trying to bring all those feelings together and capture how I and others felt in that moment. As a writer, I like to push my images further and see what they become. In this poem I had a lot of fun playing with the limits of sanity which is where some of my favorite images in this poem came from, including the one you mentioned.

Can you talk about your writing routine? Is there a routine? Or do you subscribe to writing when inspiration hits?

I wish I had a writing routine! I used to but I don’t anymore. Now, I write when inspiration hits, which can be anytime and anywhere. I even note down my dreams from time to time because they’re so strange and surreal.

I photograph what I cannot capture through words. The mountains have always been a source of peace, humility, and happiness to me. (View of the Himalayas from Landour, India)

And lastly, let us leave on a high note! What would we find you eating to fuel your creative mind? Do you listen to music or podcasts while you write? Any recommendations?

That’s a good question! Probably fruit or whatever’s at hand honestly. I really like silence when I’m working on something so I try not to have anything playing. There are times when I’ll put on an album for inspiration and free-write what comes to my mind as I’m listening. I’ve done that most recently to Johnny Flynn’s work. He’s a poet in his own right, definitely check him out. I also like listening to the Poetry Unbound podcast for inspiration.


Enjoyed reading about Dhwani's inspirations and thoughts? Dhwani's poems 'No Space', 'Gifts' and '7 a.m.' will be featured in Portmanteau Issue 2 - available for pre-order now.

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