A unique voice that combines passion and fire with utmost discipline, Kamal Chowdhury has been active in Bangladesh's poetry scene since the mid 1970s. For Chowdhury, who celebrates his sixtieth birth anniversary on January 28, the journey through poetry is both metaphoric and literal. So much so that his latest book Vromon Kahini (Travel Tales) published in 2015 and containing 23 sonnets narrates a person's literal journey from one place to the other as well as a poet's growth over time almost in a Wordsworthian way revealed in The Prelude, aptly sub-titled as “Growth of a Poet's Mind.” The motif of journey is central to the collection; a lone traveller treading paths, roads and intersections of life and poetry is the protagonist. As Chowdhury notes in his short introduction, the poems included in the book record the words and thoughts he gathered from his intense soul-searching voyage.
I interviewed Kamal Chowdhury recently in an elegant book shop in the capital. The poet talked about his idea of poetry and poets. The rather casual interview was punctuated by the chance visits by a couple of the leading poets and writers of the country. Here is an excerpt of the conversation.
How is poetry important? How does a poem take shape for you?
Poetry is important because it speaks of the inner soul. As the most powerful art form which blends rhythm with sound and which finds expression in what we call the language, poetry gives us the strength to be true humans. It is all about a journey, a soul-search necessary to making life meaningful. It depends on situations. Sometimes a line comes, sometimes an experience. Some other times an image. Then I compose the entire poem. It is finally the craftsmanship that shapes a poem. I try to transform spontaneously gathered experience into natural poetry.
When did you realise you were a poet? What was the defining moment for you as poet?
I did not realise it. I started to feel that I was living with poetry. Nothing in particular…however, I had a twin brother who was stillborn. Sometimes I feel like the brother of mine sets the whole thing in motion and I write.
Asked by Donald Hall for The Paris Review if he was expressing any 'intention' in The Waste Land, i.e., disillusionment of a generation or his own obsession with Christianity, Eliot retorted, 'One wants to get something off one's chest. One doesn't know quite what it is that one wants to get off the chest until one's got it off. But I couldn't apply the word “intention” positively to any of my poems. Or to any poems'.
Do you pursue any intentions in your poems?
Well, I am not a Keatsian nightingale. I am a part and parcel of a society which has its own joys and sorrows, successes and failures. I cannot remain unmoved by them. I would not say that I pursue an intention when I write a poem. I can say, however, I try to communicate my experience with my readers.
How will you respond to Eliot's provocative 'impersonal' theory of poetry? Can a poet be impersonal at all?
I think poetry is an expedition—poets experience different experiences as they walk the ways of the world. As a poet, I talk about my own journey in my poems—the roads I have taken, the roads I have not taken. I cannot avoid being personal. Nor can I escape from my own emotions. Of course, the poet's own experience is turned into music in poetry.
How will you define 'creativity'?
Creativity is important, for one cannot be a poet without creativity. It is creativity that helps the poet to see the future; that is why s/he is called a seer, a sage who possesses intuitive powers or a person who is reputed to have special powers of divination. It is with this special gift that the poet, like a piece of blotting paper, soaks his own time. It enables the poet's inner eye with which s/he can see into the future or create a brave new world.
As I have known, Dylan Thomas is on your list of the favourite poets. Seamus Heaney introduces 'a multi-channel set of associations' to describe Thomas: 'Thomas the Voice, Thomas the Booze, Thomas the Jokes, Thomas the Wales, Thomas the Sex, Thomas the Lies…'. What does Thomas mean for you?
A poet lives many lives. S/he is the Phoenix, s/he is the Sisyphus. Poets defy definitions, labels. S/he is a melting pot—of diverse experiences. Indeed, Heaney has aptly described Dylan Thomas. Then Heaney's multi-channel set of associations is applicable to any true poet.
What would you have become if you were not a poet?
Difficult for me to say. I have become what I thought to be. I think I would have been a life-long student of history and anthropology if I were not a poet.
What are you doing now?
I have finished a work of prose—Kannyake niye Lekha (Musings about Daughter) which will come out in the ensuing Ekushey Book Fair. Last year I went to the United States to admit my daughter into a university where Emily Dickinson had studied. In the back of my mind I had Yeats' famous poem “A Prayer for My Daughter” while writing the book. It is private and simultaneously public as I recorded the experience of my visit/journey in the book.
How do you write: Pen and paper, computer, notebooks?
When we had begun to write, it was only pen and paper. I then shifted to computer. I have reverted to pen and paper.
Tell us about an advice you received which you value the most. What will be your own advice to the youngsters?
Advice does not always work in writing poetry. The most important lesson I learned from my predecessors is that poetry is a craft and that one has to ceaselessly practice and experiment the craft. There are hardly any short cuts.
I do not have any particular advice for the youngsters. I rather have a suggestion for them: Do not consider anyone your rival. Instead, make yourself your rival, i.e., you better yourself. And read, read and read.
Jibanananda Das' “Aat Bochor Ager Ek Din” is one of my favourite poems. What do you think about it?
Obsession with death is an important feature of Jibanananda Das' poetry. Not only “Aat Bachar Ager Ek Din” (A Day Eight Years Ago) but also the most renowned and popular of his poems, “Banalata Sen” is preoccupied with death. The panchamir chad (the five-day old moon) of “Aat Bachar Ager Ek Din” instills the desire to die in the dramatis personae. In “Banalata Sen” there remain only darkness and silence.
Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman is professor of English and the Director (in-charge), Fine Arts Institute of Khulna University.