A Conversation with Jayanta Mahapatra

At the age of almost 40, poet Jayanta Mahapatra conquered the world with his poetry. A combination of brevity and sharpness that he derived from physics (his subject) and the gift of a strong vocabulary took this poet to places and stages one can only imagine. However, his poems have been more than just emotions and words. They have been silent protests and an eye-opener for many.

Here, we share our conversation with the legendary poet’s life, lessons and poetry.

Lonesome days

I was a very lonely child. I always kept to myself, which is not a good thing. I had never thought of writing poetry. It just happened. I was a physics student and I was doing research on the same. I was a totally restless character. In due course, I found that I was polarized. I was in a certain direction, that of words, emotions and poetry. Rather, I was propelled in a certain direction. I was not disturbed but was taken up by the world around me.

Lessons from poetry

Poetry taught me not to be alone. It taught me to love. I would not have been here, sharing feelings, if I were not a poet. I think it is poetry that taught me how to get along well with people. Poetry takes us from a normal level to a slightly higher level because love is a difficult emotion. Loving unconditionally is the highest form of life.

What is poetry?

When a child walks outside for the first time, after a shower of rain, looks at the sky and finds a rainbow, there is a sense of wonder in his eye. If a poem manages to arouse that whisper of wonder, then it has done its job. That is important for a poet. Wonder can be something new, something different, something that can mystify you. A journalistic poem is not a poem. If you take a report and bring in something that pertains to the soul or the man’s mind, a revelation, then it brings a climax to the poem.

Conscience matters

jayanta_mahapatra

Jayanta Mahapatra | Born: 22 October 1928 (age 90 years), Cuttack | Alma Mater: Stewart School, Ravenshaw University, Patna University | Major Awards: Sahitya Akademi, Padma Shri

There is no black and white. The duality of ideas and things has always been in poetry. If you read a poem and remember one line or one word or you understand anything, the poem has done its work. There is some beauty or strength in poetry that you cannot discard. Conscious matters primarily while writing a poem.

Besides, one’s poem should reveal the reality of life. It should speak for the voices that are suffering. It should give a statement on society. A human cannot close his eyes and live. When you see a neighbour beating his wife, can you keep quiet? You will go to stop him. Won’t you? A poet is a poet by virtue of what he sees and what he feels. You cannot keep yourself aloof from society. Literature is not just about old myth but also the reality of today’s world.

Life: pain, lessons and more

I had never thought I would write poems. As a school student, I read very few poems. When I was older, many years later, I saw the world from a different perspective. Some incidents in my youth alienated me from the people I knew. Your classmates can be very cruel. I had a very unhappy childhood. My seniors would pick up on weakness, snigger and mock and insult and taunt. It drove me to a point of taking my own life but I could not. I was a coward. Only a coward can write poems.

But, yes. I feel empowered by writing. I can strengthen myself with words, the feelings. Feelings that are dictated by my conscious and it cannot be wrong. I am a ‘gunda‘ of words, of feelings. That strength has come from my poetry.

Why English?

When I started writing poems, I was almost 40. I had 30 years of studying literature behind me, so I had a perfect vocabulary. I never fell short of words and could use them in a way that most people were afraid to do. I turned to English language for poetry because I was adept in it or I would not have written in it. I have never thought of writing in Odia because I was never very good at it. I don’t know how I wrote most of it, though.

Changes

A lot of stories are coming these days and since publishing is easier now, a lot of publishers take up fiction and write. Travellers pick up a novel that is easy to read. There is a sort of craze for reading fiction. It is not very serious. Books coming out in the realm of fiction are not serious, very easy reading, from Chetan Bhagat and others.

Engage yourself

Books are the best way to keep yourself  happy. They can take you anywhere. I wish I had ten more lives, I would read more and more. I have been able to read all the books I buy and since I am more alone these days. I do not want to read my poems though.

Translation

The translation is definitely the best thing to have happened. Otherwise, I would have never been able to read the works of Spanish, Greek, Dutch, Italian or German writers. I am grateful to translators who have given me the poems that I read in English. Love plays an important role in this as well. If you don’t love the person or their work, you cannot translate his/her work.

A message to the millenials

I have no message to give except a smile, emotions or words. But, yes, I think you should keep doing something. Doing something stabilises you. Do something you like, for example, painting or music. Also, don’t be on your smartphones all the time. Spend some time outside with the world.

Opinion matters

I wanted to write stories but people gave bad comments. They didn’t like it so I stopped. You don’t write only for yourself. You share it and a friend says it is good, you feel good and validated. Only one percent of people love our poetry and that one percent matters. We need to believe in the poetry we write and we should be honest about our writing.

Words: Sweta Mishra

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