Voicing Rebirth with Nisha Ramayya.
An interview with
Poet and Academic Nisha Ramayya
by Caitlin Gillespie
Caitlin met Nisha at the 2016 Tears in the fence literary festival and was instantly struck by her both personally and as a trail blazing performer. In particular her passion for language, beauty, unique style were luminous.
Her reading at the festival was electrified by her vocal delivery and ability to articulate what poetry means to her as a woman, and in relation to her Indian cultural heritage.
Nisha has authored two pamphlets published by the incredible Oyster Catcher Press and is currently involved in several academic and creative projects along side lecturing English at Royal Holloway University.
What first drew you to poetry as an art form?
Not what, but who! I am very lucky to have a mother who loves poetry, and who has always encouraged my brother and me to read and write poetry. We used to go on weekly trips to Aberdeen Central Library, where she noticed a poetry competition for young children. My brother and I (aged 4 and 7 respectively) were joint winners for our poems ‘When I Get a Dog’ and ‘My Mummy’, which marked the end of my brother’s poetry career, and the zenith of mine.
Why did you decide to pursue creative writing/poetry at PhD level?
In the third year of my BA at Royal Holloway, University of London, I took Redell Olsen’s module on Poetic Practice. Dell introduced us to ways of thinking and discussing, making and doing poetry that transformed my experiences and understandings of poetry, art, theory, and criticism. Furthermore, for the first time I felt able to share poetry with other people, the pleasures, the difficulties, the fears… After doing the MA in Poetic Practice, I spent two wonderful years working at Glasgow Women’s Library, during which time I began to research Sanskrit, Hindu mythology and ritual, and relationships between British/Indian language, culture, and identity. I missed the experience of poetry as something shared between friends – indeed, now I understand that my love of poetry depends absolutely on sharing! Dell encouraged me to return to academia – and, critically, supported my funding application – which is where I remain.
Who are you favourite women poets?
In the critical component of my PhD, I researched experimental feminist poetics. Writers who became very important to me include Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Emily Dickinson, H.D., Bhanu Kapil, Harryette Mullen, and Gertrude Stein.
What advice would you give to women poets looking to find their voice?
I used to feel anxious, ashamed, and frustrated at not being able to find my voice as a writer, which is why the BA module and MA course on Poetic Practice were so transformative! We were encouraged to question, challenge, and transgress ideas about voice, authenticity, and truth by means of writing experiments (see, for example, Oulipo and Bernadette Mayer), performance, and visual, sound, and digital poetics.
Sometimes I feel myself to have many voices, according to different identities, experiences, ideas, and moods; sometimes I feel as if I don’t have any voice at all; sometimes I feel that it’s imperative to lose my voice or to destroy the voices of others. Recently, I’ve been trying to stay with and to write anxiety, shame, and frustration, which has been difficult but meaningful and generative. Rather than focussing on finding a voice, I’d suggest writers ask questions such as: what are you saying, to whom are you speaking, whom do you hope is listening, how do you sound?
How does your Hindu heritage/background impact on your writing?
In Scotland, my parents did not raise us with Hindu beliefs or practices. However, we visited family in India very frequently, and I associate my love and attachment to certain Hindu beliefs and practices with my love and attachment to my grandmother. She would take my brother, cousins, and I to local temples; we would sit with her as she performed rituals at home. Later, I developed an interest in Indian, Hindu, Sanskrit, and Tantric cultures, and started to read and research a mishmash of anthropological, philological, mythopoetic, and sacred texts. For me, the personal and the academic, the creative and the critical, are interminably tangled!
What are you listening to at the moment?
Betty Carter, Christeene, Diane Cluck, Jenny Hval, Janet Jackson, Loretta Lynn, Arnold Schoenberg, Labi Siffre, Nirvana, Sons of Kemet. I discover so much of my favourite music through poetry!
What are your favourite contemporary films?
I can never remember what I’ve seen! Films that I’ve watched or re-watched this year that come to mind include George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940), Wong Kar-Wei’s In the Mood for Love (2000), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), Kim Longinotto’s Dreamcatcher (2015), and Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961).
What are you reading at the moment?
This list includes texts that I’m reading for teaching, research, and pleasurable purposes – of course, there are overlaps! Edward Kamau Brathwaite, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy: Rights of Passage, Islands, Masks (1973); Peter Gizzi, The Outernationale (2007); Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013); Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folks (1934); Zora Neale Hurston, The Complete Stories (1995); Linton Kwesi Johnson, Selected Poems (2006); Bhanu Kapil, Schizophrene (2011) and Ban En Banlieue (2015); Edmund Hardy, Danny Hayward, slmendoza, Samuel Solomon, VierSome # 0 (2012).
Tell us a bit about each of your pamphlets..?
Both of my pamphlets, Notes on Sanskrit (2015) and Correspondences (2016), are published by Oystercatcher Press. The former begins with the British history of the study of Sanskrit and the Indo-European language family; with the Sanskrit-English dictionary and relationships between lexicography and poetics; with translations of the goddess of voice, speech, language, and sound. The latter begins with imagined connections and make believe lovers; with Tantric-Hindu beliefs and practices; with anxieties about race, politics, and poetics. Whereas the former pamphlet is fixed on translation, and the latter on correlation, they are two aspects of a greater project.
Where in the world (that you have travelled to) has most influenced your creative process/writing?
India – the family home in Hyderabad, visits to local temples, travels to goddess temples in West Bengal… I love the feeling of being physically, mentally, spiritually subsumed in other people’s worship. In the heart of the temple, you can feel wet petals and rinds of fruits under your feet, you can slip between multi-coloured clouds of powder and smoke and hard edges of darkness, you cannot hear yourself think for the sound of bells and chant and cry. I like to think about this dissipation in relation to poetry, in terms of reading, writing, performing, and sharing.
What does the concept of rebirth mean to you?
Currently, it makes me think of beginning with death; moving bodies attached to and detached from the possibilities of arrival and return; the multiple, simultaneous positions enabled by circularity, the exhausting causes and effects of circulation; the contractions and constrictions of investiture in skin, what it means to struggle to breath…
In The Feel Trio (2014), Fred Moten writes:
something on the floor should call itself when they break it down to
put it back up again. when it comes back again it should be gone till
it’s all done again and ready to return. it should pose and turn at the
easy intersection till it can’t come back again. repeat till it’s all gone.
In the section ‘Abiogenesis’ in Schizophrene (2011), Bhanu Kapil writes:
To flux, to squat: a conjunction of living and non-living matter. In a book without purpose/with a dead start.
Nisha Ramayya is a poet and academic based in London. In 2015, she completed a practice-based research PhD in experimental feminist poetics, at Royal Holloway, University of London. Working across various practices and forms – translation, performance, mythology and ritual – she tests the possibilities of a Tantric poetics. Nisha is a member of the interdisciplinary practice-based research committee Generative Constraints, and currently works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at Royal Holloway and the University of Kent.