"A poem begins with a lump in the throat." ~Robert Frost
1) Welcome, Sweta! Please tell us a bit about your background, and VONA.
SSV: I was born in a steel township in India (my Dad is a metallurgical engineer), but I grew up in India and North Africa. Given my dad's job, I changed schools a lot and spent my formative years in a boarding school in Mussoorie (British Indian author, Ruskin Bond lives in this hill station) India followed by hostels during my undergrad and post grad days. Despite all this mobility, my relationship with words strengthened at a young age. That was the one constant in my life. I would fill diaries with both poetry and sheer randomness. :-)
When I was a pre-teen, my dad had to pay tons of excess baggage for my used and unused diaries that travelled with me, twice a year, from Asia to Europe to Africa. Of course, my brother who is very popular with the ladies, owes his biceps to my luggage-handling. But I am sure he didn't see it that way.:-)
So, anyway, like most "good" Indian kids, I studied sciences (which I loathed) and wrote on the side. But as luck would have it, my first job was in the field of marketing with a multi-national company in Mumbai. Creating strategies, working on advertisement requirement with the ad agency, and promotions with the PR agency further unleashed the caged, creative animal inside of me.
Along with writing and marketing, collecting graduate school degrees is another passion of mine. Yup, I am one those people with three masters degrees. It was after I got my degree from Columbia (the debt hit me) that I realized that I couldn't earn a PhD by combining my three graduate school degrees, so I had to stop the madness.
Finally, after toying with the idea of becoming a full time writer for the longest time, at the beginning of 2010, I quit my marketing job to follow my lifelong dream. At first, I was apprehensive about giving up my stable paycheck, but my husband and a few close friends encouraged me to take the plunge. I saved up for artist residencies. And there has been no looking back!
In terms of writing, I write both prose and poetry though I was at VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) for a poetry workshop in June of 2010. VONA is a workshop dedicated to enhancing writing skills of people of color. When I got accepted, I wondered what it would be like because my work is not race-centric. But when I received a part scholarship for it, I took it as a good sign and wrapped up my apprehension! And boy, I have never been more sure of my decision!
VONA was an amazingly unique experience. It's this family from the make-believe world where people are happy and everyone looks out for everyone. The quality of peers and the support of the instructors made for an invaluable experience. It was a week-long, excruciating, intensive program, but I wouldn't want it any other way. It was an extremely nurturing community where we spent most of the time with each other reviewing work, writing, or drinking wine. My instructor was legendary poet Lorna Dee Cervantes. VONA is one of those workshops with a rare philosophy; they don't expect you to follow a boilerplate form of writing. So, you never lose your voice; just learn to trim the unnecessary fluff from your work.
2) Your poems are designed to help others through the grieving process, toward healing. Please tell us about the inspiration behind this collection of poems, the loss of your Dada and Mausi.
SSV: The idea for this book literally came to me when I was at Millay Colony of the Arts in upstate New York. There was no cell phone signal, only beautiful landscape, rabid raccoons, crisp air, and minimal distraction. I would play either KTU or Pandora on my laptop before going to bed because I couldn't sleep in all that quietness. But it was a place where I could hear my thoughts. And I am glad I paid attention to them.
My Dada (my father’s father) and my Mausi (my mother’s sister) died of cancer over two decades apart. I am bewildered by how much their passing away has impacted me. It's not like we lived together. I grew up across three continents. Yet, I felt a different bond with them. See, I grew up in a society where "good career" meant one that offered financial stability. Most of my peers studied medicine, engineering, or MBA. As we all know, the creative field doesn't always promise high remuneration. But my Dada and Mausi encouraged the artist in me to explore myself. Be it music, dance, or words, they listened to my internal voice and expressed interest in my aspirations.
3) One of my favorite poems is "Mommy, we need to have this chat", because it offers comfort to women who have had miscarriages (so many of us have!). Do you have a favorite poem?
SSV: I am a raging optimist. Maybe it’s the survival instinct. I don't know. But I believe however bad the situation, you have ways of dealing with it. Every scenario offers at least two perspectives. I am not saying it's easy to forget tragedy or any loss, but it's not impossible to move on either. At least for those who are still around you. For that reason, I have to say that my favorite poem in this collection is the last one, a Haiku, "Making the choice." It's the kind of poem that doesn't mince its words, kind of like my personality. It strongly reiterates that life goes on. How you see it or choose to live it, the option is in your hands.
4) I admire poets because poetry seems like such a difficult art form to master. How did you "learn" to write poetry? Did you take special classes, or is this something that came naturally to you, a talent?
SSV: You know, my dad is a poet by night and engineer by day, so I have to say I am blessed with his writing genes. I believe that you can't teach someone to write; you can guide them but the basic talent and discipline have to be there.
I consciously started writing poetry when I was a pre-teen. And since I did most of my schooling in India, I was used to a different style of writing compared to the US. It was mostly rhymes and somewhat formally structured poetry. We all read Yeats and Frost and subconsciously emulated the old-school style. It was only after I moved to NYC did I realize that there is an ocean of alternate forms of writing, especially contemporary poetry. I was intrigued by free verse and the ability to inscribe non-rhyming structured poems. So, I started reading and writing different forms, voices, and styles. I appreciated the freedom this new world of poetry brought me. I almost felt that I could tell a better story if I didn't limit myself to rhymes. It brought an unmatched openness in my ability to express. With rhymes, often times, the poet isn't left with many choices. The intent and the outcome of the final product aren't always in sync.
I have to be honest, my journey from "I like wine because the beverage is fine" (Hear the rhyme?) to "I like wine because it quenches my poetic thirst," didn't just happen overnight. As the wise ones say--"Old habits die hard." I enrolled in poetry workshops, primarily at Gotham's. And I was fortunate to take a class taught by Erica Wright. That changed my world, literally. At Gotham's, I made some wonderful poet friends. Five of us started our post-Gotham workshop where we decided to meet once every 3-4 weeks and critique each other's work over pie. Yes, food is integral to poetry. :-)
5) I grew up in NYC, and hope you enjoy the city. How does NYC compare to the large cities in India? In what ways does living in NY affect your poetry?
SSV: Wow! What a small world! Did I say I like you?
I love NYC! Pune, India (I went to college there) and NYC are my absolute favorite cities in the world!
From day one (which was over a decade ago), I felt at home in NYC. Maybe it was because I'd moved from Mumbai, India. And Mumbai, like NYC, is populated with high-strung, ambitious, hardworking dream-chasers with a go-getter and no-nonsense attitude. If you can't already tell, I am a classic prototype. :-)
I would have to say that NYC is most comparable to Mumbai (yup, the city from "Slumdog Millionaire."). Like NYC, people come to Mumbai from all over India to pursue their dreams. Both the cities are cultural melting pots and never sleep. Life is hard; most residents take public transport to their destination and the concept of space finds a home under angry-poetry. But it's the same dirt, distance, and defiance that make Mumbai and NYC special.
It could be my bias (my husband and a lot of people close to me are hardcore Mumbaites), but I don't think there is any other city in India quite like Mumbai. I think the same holds true for NYC and America.
But, for me, NYC isn't the most conducive place for creating poetry. Concrete skyscrapers pour cement on my brain (I believe that's a line from one of my poems). The noise and distractions swallow all metaphors and symbolism gets stuck in the cavities of my poetic voice. That's the reason I go away on artist residencies to secluded places close to nature. That is where I find my inspiration.
NYC is great for writing fiction and nonfiction. The subway ride is a pond of creative material. People on the streets make for interesting nonfiction and fiction characters.
6) What advice can you offer aspiring authors, especially women?
SSV: Oh, Susan, you just opened a can of didactic worms! I can write a thesis on this question. :-)
First: Believe in yourself. If you don't, nobody will.
Second: Always remember, not everybody will like your work. And that is absolutely fine. Every writer has his or her own audience, so learn to make peace with hate emails and certain reviews early on in your career.
Third: Persistence and discipline are the keys to success! Waiting for the muse to show up and help you write is all a myth. Like Pavlov trained the dog with a bell, get your brain and creativity to function everyday at the same time of the day with the tick of an alarm clock. It takes practice, but believe me, it works.
Fourth: Be selective in who you show your work to when it comes to receiving feedback. Too many opinions ruin projects. I have seen that happen to a very dear friend's manuscript. I am not saying everyone intentionally wants to jeopardize your work, but it is inevitable when a bunch of people share their viewpoints.
Fifth: I cannot emphasize enough how important (I understand it's difficult) it is to not take every rejection personally. Sometimes things don't work out. It stinks, but you can choose to deal with it by either mourning the loss or putting the same energy into something positive. You be the judge of how you'd like to utilize your time.
Sixth: Don't let success ever un-ground you. Remember, nothing is permanent in this world. I have met writers who completely lost any semblance of reality after their first book came out. Writing might be a big part of your life, but it's not above humanity or your friends and family. The people who believed in your dreams when you were nothing are the real deal.
Seventh: Most importantly, write, write, and write every day. Everywhere you turn your head, data shows that there are a lot more male writers than female writers. Let's believe that we can change that equation.
7) This is advice to take to heart, Sweta! What's your next writing project?
SSV: I signed a contract for my first fiction novel just last week (yay!), so at this time, I am actually working on my second fiction novel and a full-length book of poems. Aside from that, just making sure all is taken care of, at my end, with my two upcoming poetry collections: "Kaleidoscope: An Asian Journey of Colors" and "Whispering Woes of Ganges & Zambezi" (collaborative work with a poet from Zimbabwe). Please get yourself a copy when it's out.
8) Because I like to include a lighter question or two, what are some of your favorite ways of "wasting time"?
SSV: Day dreaming. Oh My God, if Dr. John Dorian from the TV show Scrubs ever needed a protege to carry on his "reverie-legacy," I would send in my application. I wish I were kidding!
9) Sweta came up this next and final question--a really good one--because I asked her to think of a question she wanted to answer.
Do you write differently knowing it will be published versus writing in your journal?
SSV: Yes and no. I originally started writing for myself and not with the intention of “selling books.” But even as a child I knew that some day I’d like to see my name on the cover of a book.
When it comes to poetry and personal essays, I write about issues or topics that possess me at a given time. But I am rather pragmatic, so if a publication (that I respect and would like to see my work published in) wants something on a specific theme, I will create a piece that works. What can I say, an artist too has bills to pay!
I think that women should be paid for their hard work (whether or not it's art). Thank you very much, Sweta, for sharing a bit of yourself in this interview. Your work is exciting, and I look forward to reading more of your work.