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Interview with Mamata Misra, Author of "Winter Blossoms"
Mamata Misra is a community volunteer and anti-violence activist living in Austin, Texas. She has been published in poetry collections, newsletters, journals, and contributed to the documentary film “Veil of Silence.” Formerly, the Programs Director of SAHELI, an organization in Austin, Texas that assists Asian families dealing with domestic abuse, Mamata Misra is a core member of a national team called ACT (Action + Community = Transformation) that is developing prevention and intervention strategies for child sexual abuse in South Asian communities in the US. Her community service has resulted in several awards, including the YWCA Woman of the Year award in 2005.
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Mamata, and congratulations on publishing your book. To begin, I understand “Winter Blossoms” has a theme that connects the poems. Will you tell us about that theme?
Mamata: Thank you, Tyler.
The poems were written at different times over a period of several years; so when I decided to put them together as a book, I expected to find multiple themes. I organized the poems under five broad themes as chapter titles: Mother and Child, War and Peace, Questions NOT Answers, Hope and Despair, and Sound and Silence. But many of the poems could have been placed under multiple themes and I had to choose. So there seems to be a deeper connection between the poems across the chapter themes, a thread that holds them together.
Probably the best way for me to answer your question is by answering a different question: Is there a phrase that would sum up what I was doing in all those years? If so, that would be the thread that connects the poems in this book. I think I was simply “seeking inner peace in our connected and isolated world.” For example, the first poem “A loving presence” is about the peaceful, joyful beginning of life and connection with one’s own mother. The last poem “On Enchanted Rock,” a haiku, is a stark truth about life and death, and our connection with elements of nature. All the poems are about some aspect of living or dying. They call to pause for a moment to examine how we lose peace and our connections with others, and to seek ways in which peace and connections may be retained.
Tyler: How would you describe the style of poetry you write?
Mamata: I use simple and clear language. I ask a lot of questions. I write in first person. I am intentional, the intention being, to capture in words the intensity of the thought or feeling that compels me to write, so that after the intensity of the feeling leaves me, the words would carry it and compel the reader to see what I am seeing, feel what I am feeling. Usually, the ending note is important in my poems. It is the point of satisfaction for me where the transformation of thought into words has been completed; but it is also that transition point where the poem may create an understanding or a lingering thought in the mind of the reader.
Tyler: Mamata, you mentioned an intensity of feeling-is it always a feeling, an emotion that inspires your work-how do you get the concept for a poem, and how do you then take that feeling or concept and get it down on paper?
Mamata: Many of the poems in Winter Blossoms were inspired by the feelings and struggles of survivors of abuse, when I was deeply moved by their stories. Then there was 911 and what followed. There was illness and death in the family. Emotions were not on shortage to energize a concept.
The concept for a poem may come from anywhere, something I saw, heard, read, felt, discovered, or understood. Sometimes the concept comes as a spontaneous image or thought that suddenly surfaces from the subconscious; I feel a tremendous urge to put it down on paper just as I see it, and it comes out easily and fast. At other times, it lingers in the mind vaguely for days until I can find a handle to hold it and look at it from different angles. Writing helps me to think and the idea becomes clearer. Sometimes I get stuck, or change my mind. Sometimes, I may have started out with prose in mind but it may jell in poetry. Poetry seems to have a mind of its own.
One of the poems in the book, “Writer’s Companion,” is about the process of getting it down on paper. Once I get something down, over the next few days, I try alternately to be the reader and writer, pointing out what isn’t working and trying to fix it. This can be a long never-ending process sometimes.
Tyler: Why did you choose the title of “Winter Blossoms”?
Mamata: “Winter Blossoms” is the title of one of the poems in the book that was triggered by seeing spring blossoms in winter. The poem came out in a spontaneous way; like a painless childbirth. I thought it would be a good title for the book because it implies something beautiful, bold, and rare.
Tyler: Mamata, will you tell us a little more about your background as an Asian American? How do you think that experience is different from that of other Americans, and to what extent do you think your being Asian American is the source of your poetry?
Mamata: I was born and raised in India in a middle class Hindu family. I lived the first twenty-two years of my life in India, and then migrated to the US to join my husband. I have lived in the US for 35 years. So I should be more American than Asian and probably am in some ways. But my upbringing, Indian mythology, and mysticism have influenced my attitude and thinking.
Experiences of immigrants are different from those of the natives in any country. First generation South Asian Americans in the US like myself, who migrated in the 70s and 80s, missed their culture: language, religious and social practices, holidays, food, music, dance, and their way of life in general. In addition, we had no family in the US to laugh or cry with. So first, we built communities that addressed these cultural, social, and religious needs. Being the educated lot, we were, by and large, successful in our careers and became known as a model minority group in the US. While we related to other Americans through our professions, our social interactions often stayed within our own ethnic communities. Then we gave birth to a second generation of kids who didn’t speak our language or understand our culture. How to raise children in two different cultures became the worry of South Asian parents and how to handle conflicting pressures from parents and peers became the worry of the kids. Thus the culture gap didn’t exist only outside, it had penetrated our homes too.
As we rolled into the 90s, some of us noticed that even in our educated model minority community, some women were facing difficult living conditions, such as family violence, and had no recourse. The mainstream services were neither adequate nor accessible for Asian women due to linguistic, cultural, legal, or financial barriers. Therefore, some women took leadership to engage their communities to help the victims of family violence. In many cities, volunteer-run, South Asian women-led organizations formed with confidential help lines. SAHELI is one such organization that started in Austin in 1992, the first of its kind in Texas, which reached out not just to South Asians but all Asian Americans. I became a part of it as an advocate.
Thus, my life was touched not only by my own experience as an Asian American immigrant but also by the collective experiences of women I came in contact with through my advocacy work. My poetry draws from Indian mysticism that is part of my culture, my own experience as a first generation Asian immigrant, and my experience as an advocate for Asian women survivors of family violence.
Tyler: Will you give us an example of how you have used Indian mysticism and your Indian background specifically as a source for your poetry?
Mamata: For example, a concept that comes from ancient India is that of ‘maya’ which is a creative and illusive power that makes things look different from the truth. I have a poem titled “Maya,” where a mother is wondering how to explain this difficult concept to her American born son.
I have also used lines from Vedic peace prayers, the concept of the witnessing consciousness present in each of us, characters from Indian epics, and symbols of Hindu goddesses in my poems.
Tyler: You also mentioned you have done a lot of community service work, especially for South Asian communities in the U.S. How has that work influenced your poetry?
Mamata: My advocacy work provided a window to look closely at gender bias, human indignity, and injustice that I probably would not have seen otherwise. It moved me to action in many ways and writing about it both in prose and poetry was one of them. My work was challenging and lonely. Poetry was an effective way for me to take care of myself by taking the nagging thoughts out but not losing them. It was also useful in my community outreach work. Appearing in SAHELI newsletters, it touched readers.
Tyler: When did you first decide or realize you were a poet?
Mamata: I wrote poems in my first language Oriya as a child, around age 8 or 9. I was published in the children’s weekly of a local newspaper. I had pen friends with whom I was corresponding in verse. My brother and I had produced several issues of a family magazine that was handwritten and hand illustrated with contributions from kids in the extended family. All this was just childhood fun that stopped eventually. As I grew, my interests shifted. I studied science, not liberal arts, not literature, and settled with a career in computer science. Then I kept myself busy for many years juggling family and work with little time for anything else.
My old love for poetry returned when I was in my mid 40s. It got awakened in the shocking discovery that in our educated South Asian community in the US, some young women were getting beaten up by their husbands or tortured by their in-laws. I remembered how lonely I had felt when I migrated to the US. What would I have done if it had happened to me? Surprising myself, I responded to my own question in verse. I also learned that in the US, where women seemed to be ‘liberated’ compared to women in South Asia, domestic violence was prevalent. I took volunteer training at the Center for Battered Women (old name for SafePlace) and became a frequent customer in the library of the Texas Coalition on Family Violence. I started noticing and questioning sexism and other isms everywhere. I volunteered at SafePlace and SAHELI in every possible role. I also started writing poetry again after thirty years, this time in English, and with intensity and purpose. I felt that I had this potential, this gift, worth exploring, and the confirmation came from readers.
Tyler: Mamata, I assume you grew up being bi-lingual, speaking and writing both English and Oriya. What are the advantages and difficulties of each language for poetry? Do you write in Oriya at all now?
Mamata: Actually, I didn’t speak much English until I came to the US although I could read and write it well. There wasn’t a need to speak English. Oriya was the only language I knew in my early years. I attended schools where the medium of teaching was Oriya and we learned three other languages: Hindi starting in 4th grade, English in 6th, and Sanskrit in 8th grade. This four-language formula continued until the end of high school. In college, English was the medium of teaching, but most of the speaking outside the classroom continued in Oriya. With non-Oriya Indians, I spoke mostly in Hindi. I also picked up a little Bengali from neighbors because its sound had an attractive power.
For poetry, Oriya, a Sanskrit-based language, has a structural advantage of ease of sound and length manipulation: it is easier to produce rhyming sounds and rhythmic patterns; a whole phrase can be packed into a single word. English, on the other hand, has the advantage of ease of expression of modern thought.
I think it is difficult to write poetry in a language in which you don’t think. It would be a good translation at best. When I didn’t speak in English, I didn’t think in English, even though I could read and write it well. If I had written poetry during my early years in the US, I probably would have written in Oriya. But when I started writing poetry, I had lost my fluency in Oriya due to lack of use for almost 25 years. One of the poems in the book, “Woman,” I wrote in Oriya initially. When I started translating it into English a year later, I ended up rewriting it and the English version was stronger. Choice of language was clear at that point. I don’t write in Oriya now. Sometimes, I translate passages between the two languages for play and practice.
Tyler: Have you found a readership at all in India? If so, what has been the response by readers there?
Mamata: I have been published in India a couple of times in magazines. It will be possible to find a readership if I try. Until now, the readership for “Winter Blossoms” in India has been limited to my family and friends circle but the response has been positive and encouraging. One English teacher told me that she used the poem titled “Silence” in her class and asked for a copy of the book for the school library. Some people have expressed surprise seeing the Indian mysticism in the poems.
Tyler: Why have you chosen to tell the stories of the women in your book in the form of poems rather than short stories or as a group of characters in a novel? What does poetry add to the theme that prose cannot?
Mamata: I find poetry to be an effective medium to make a point. With poetry it is possible to convey a lot with a few words. It takes less time both to write and read a poem than a short story or an essay. I don’t have to write about all the details. I don’t have to tell the whole story, develop characters, build the plot, or do a lot of research. I can just focus on a moment, and spill what I see and feel at that moment. The advantage of poetry is its brevity, its intensity, its suddenness, its free form, its sound, and its power to touch the heart. This is appealing to me.
Having said that, I must point out that I didn’t write the poems for the book; I decided to create a book for the poems that were already there, like one creates an album for pictures. The book doesn’t tell a story or several related or unrelated stories, for which prose would have been a more effective medium. The book is about a journey; what I encountered during the journey; each poem is a picture.
Tyler: Mamata, would you share with us a favorite poem or a favorite passage from a poem and tell us why it is one of your favorites?
Mamata: You know, Tyler, a mother loves all her children equally although she knows the strengths and weaknesses of each. So I don’t want to say one poem is my favorite. But I shall share one, along with the corresponding mother’s brag form, if you like. Let me share the title poem “Winter Blossoms” since you had asked about it earlier.
The red bud tree in my back yard
is dressed in bright pink
fooled by the unusual mid-January warmth.
Surely it’s spring, it says.
The weatherman shakes his head.
The Alaskan front is days away
from stripping off that beautiful attire.
Malathi, when you say
Surely he is going to change
when he sees his baby kick and cry
and touches the tender skin!
After all, isn’t it his own flesh and blood!
When you try not to remember
how he left you
to bleed alone
if his baby in your womb
kicked or not,
I feel like the weatherman,
knowing that the battering front
is only days away
from turning your hope into despair.
I had mentioned earlier that writing this poem was like a painless childbirth. Here is how it happened as mentioned in the book.
“Early one morning, I pulled the blinds on the kitchen window and saw the red bud tree in our back yard full of blossoms overnight. I remembered the weather forecast from the night before and at the same time saw the face of a woman I had been helping superimposed on the tree branches. It was one of those moments when I have to surrender myself to the writing urge that takes control of me. I found myself typing away at the computer instead of pouring myself some coffee.”
This short poem shows the extent of physical violence, the undying hope and denial frequently seen in battered women, the concern and frustration of the compassionate listener. The weather analogy brings it all out in a simple way that anyone can relate to.
Tyler: Thanks for sharing the poem, Mamata. I can definitely see the relation between the subject and the image. I also like that you include commentary about why you created the poems in the section titled “Poems and People.” What made you decide to include this section?
Mamata: I sometimes used concepts or characters from Indian spiritual or mythological books for an analogy. It would be difficult for non-Indians to understand fully such poems without some explanation. At other times, poems were my response to some incident and I felt that readers needed to know the context to be able to understand or appreciate the poem. I could have used footnotes for these details. But footnotes would have changed the look of the book, interrupted the flow. So I decided to include such information as notes at the end of the book, and named the chapter “Poems and People” following the naming style of other chapters.
Tyler: I can certainly understand that you want non-Indians to understand the Indian background of the poems. Do you have many non-Indian readers? Have you found that being Indian has been a benefit to you in promoting your poetry or has it worked against you?
Mamata: It is too early for me to answer that. The optimist in me thinks that the Indian elements in the book will be a benefit because they add something different. Also we now live in a smaller, flatter world and move across cultures more than before. Reason for people’s interest in other cultures is shifting from mild curiosity to usefulness. Being Indian has not worked against me in my past endeavors; it shouldn’t now.
TTyler: Which of your poems do you think has the most interesting origins?
Mamata: Several of the poems have interesting origins. For example, take the short poem called “Rights.” It reads:
Your rights are like Lakshm
knowing them is Saraswati
living them is Shakti, sister,
the goddesses are with you.
Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Shakti are Hindu goddesses symbolizing wealth, knowledge, and strength respectively.
Here is how the poem came about. I had participated in a workshop at the University of Texas called the Austin Project where poets, performing artists, and activists experimented with Image Theater to sculpt their ideas with human bodies and expressions and have participants interpret what they saw. The precursor to this poem was born at the workshop. Its theme was immigrant rights and I had written something describing the images I had made. It was the season when Hindu goddesses are publicly worshipped with grandeur and the central Texas Bengali community was getting ready for the celebration. Within a week, my scribbles from the workshop evolved into this poem, retaining only the title, got translated into Bengali and sent to their journal, where both the English and Bengali translation appeared side by side.
This origin is interesting in the way it stretches from a point to a line, connecting two very different events. The outcome is interesting in the way the poem connects two dissimilar themes. A human rights activist may not usually relate human rights to wealth, knowledge, and strength; and one who prays for wealth, knowledge, or strength may not see their connection with human rights.
Tyler: If you imagined yourself as the reader of the poems, what is the feeling you hope you would come away with after reading “Winter Blossoms”?
Mamata: I hope the reader would be able to feel the emotions of the subjects, connect what seems distant and unfamiliar with what is familiar. I also hope the reader comes away with a feeling of compassion, understanding, and hope, and some food for thought.
Tyler: I understand the book is illustrated. Who is your illustrator and why did you choose to have illustrations?
Mamata: Indira Chakravorty is the illustrator. She is also an anti-violence activist and is a co-founder of two Texas organizations that work against domestic violence: SAHELI in Austin and DAYA in Houston. I felt that line drawings would enhance the messages in the book, and give the book a unique look. I had worked with Indira for years, on various projects, and had seen her artistic talent. I thought that she would be perfect for this job. I have been happy with the result.
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Mamata. Before we go, will you let readers know where they can go to learn more about “Winter Blossoms” and where to purchase a copy of the book?
Mamata: Readers can browse the first few pages of the book at the iUniverse website (www.iuniverse.com). Reader reviews are available at the Amazon website. A copy may be purchased from either of these websites, from Barnes & Noble. The SAHELI website (www.saheli-austin.org) also showcases the book on their home page. In addition to being a tool for understanding domestic violence in the Asian context, the book helps SAHELI with royalties received from the sales of the book. I am available for reading at non-profit events, especially for similar causes. I will soon have my own website at http://mamatamisra.com with information about Winter Blossoms.
Tyler: Thank you, Mamata. I’ve enjoyed talking to you. It’s been a pleasure to meet both a poet and someone intent on improving the world. I wish you all the best.
Mamata: Thank you, Tyler. It is my pleasure.
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