Soni Somarajan’s debut book of poems titled First Contact, published recently by Red River Press (single-handedly run by Indian English poet and translator Dibyajyoti Sharma), is a pertinent and unique addition to the literary oeuvre of a pantheon of Anglophone poets with Kerala roots such as Jeet Thayil, Kamala Das, Vijay Nambisan, CP Surendran, Karthika Nair, Anupama Raju and N Ravishankar (popularly known as Ra Sh).
This book builds a narrative of a “memoirs in verse” but the poems are primarily inward looking in their perspective; perceived to curve-fit the tradition of ‘akam’ poetry (the word akam in Malayalam/ Sanskrit meaning ‘inside’), the choice of diction and the control give the poems a universal appeal that transcends, both the, location of its writing and timeframe and the subjectivity of its author. It is indeed an uncanny skill to hold the dispositional eye of a discerning reader without incorporating themes that are either enriched through historicity or political underpinnings that may unravel the cultural critic in the poet.
The icing on the cake of this book of poems is when the poet engages us in a mission to defamiliarize the mother tongue as well as the Malayalam alphabet. This poet, I believe, gives everyone (more so if the reader is a Malayali), a truly delightful roller-coaster ride. The only other poet who has attempted something similar is the Anglophone poet Manohar Shetty. The two poems titled Dream-Selfie and The Wheel Chair offer us extraordinary insight into the human condition.
Excerpts from an interview with the poet:
Congratulations on the publication of your debut collection of poems. How long have you been writing poetry and would you consider yourself to be a latebloomer?
I started writing poetry in 1991 just after leaving my alma mater, Sainik School, Kazhakootam, in 1991. I’ve been writing off and on until this year when First Contact was published. Through the years, there were several long intervals marked by absences from writing. It wasn’t until 2009 that I started focusing more on writing poetry. In the sense of a book, First Contact has taken a long time by today’s standards. Like most poets, I was always prone to self-doubt, that feeling of ‘I’m not ready’.
I began reading poetry by Heaney, Hart Crane, Akhmatova, Baudelaire, Elizabeth Bishop, Gillian Clarke, Dom Moraes, Kolatkar among many others, what I consider an education in modern verse. I remember I wanted first to understand the possibilities of language and styles and interrogate them before settling to work on a first collection. I was inspired no less by the works and by my father’s childhood memories of Muthukulam Parvathi Amma, my great-grandaunt, a poet and one of Kerala’s earliest feminists. I began working on the manuscript in 2016 and, yes, it has taken its time which I felt acceptable.
Your poetry is distinct in the sense that you possess an elegant Indian English idiom in your poems and in addition to that you seem to be blessed with a unique perspective to de-familiarize the Malayalam language. Do you consider yourself a representative of a generation of Keralites with English as their first language?
Yes, I am a Malayali whose first language is English. My father was a serviceman in the Indian Air Force, which meant I had no early exposure to Malayalam, my mother tongue. It’s a predicament shared by children of the Malayali diaspora in the 70s and 80s, who eventually are what I call the ‘children of the twilight’. Neither there nor here. If you look at the larger picture, this is not a phenomenon limited to Malayalis alone. The modern migration of population to cities has birthed a generation with little idea of their roots while feeling estranged in their adopted culture.
I was fascinated by this fact while working on the manuscript and chose to explore the shallow relationship with my mother-tongue in the poem ‘Learning Malayalam’. I selected several alphabets from Malayalam and wrote poems based on their graphical shape, eventually connecting to several childhood memories. I first learnt Malayalam alphabets during a short vacation to Kerala when I was 9-years-old, writing with my index finger on a little patch of river-sand at a neighbour’s house.
Unlike 3-year-old seeing alphabets for the first time, my relatively older mind began relating their shapes to things I was already familiar with, e.g., reminded me of an elephant.
Your resume mentions exposure to creative writing courses — be it Iowa University’s IWP or the recent The Quarantine Train (TQT) based in India. How has it impacted your writing and perspective, if at all?
While Iowa University’s IWP is a writing course, The Quarantine Train (TQT) is an online collective of poets dedicated to writing, critiquing, and appreciating poetry. Both have played stellar roles as far as I can say. In 2013, the IWP course was an eyeopener of sorts, introducing a ‘method to the madness’. In so many ways, it forced me to question my writing, and realise that one should develop an absolute focus to explore the myriad possibilities for a poem — a certain doggedness when writing.
Editing was until then not my forte and learning the quality of patience helped me a great deal. Of course, I remember being unable to write for a year or two after that, which I believe was the time I took to process what I had just encountered. One learns how to bridge the unconscious state of inspiration with the very conscious act of editing. At TQT, what I experienced is an enriching fellowship, a privilege considering writing can be a lonely process, and poets often hunger for validation in so many ways.