Gavin Barrett

1. How did you conceive your first book?

Understan is my first book and, at the same time, not. Several poems come from a manuscript that was to be published by Nissim Ezekiel some 30 years ago. In a sense, that was my first book. But I lost that child in pregnancy — it was to be one of Rupa & Co’s Young Poets series, which folded after just three collections were published. Understan is the result — a reflective journey that adds those poems to the many later wanderings of an emigré poet, through time, what lies below the surface, and the external geographies in which I was lost. I still am. But now I hold a map to everywhere and everyone even if I refuse to use it. 

2. What writers (or artists in other forms/media) have been formative in shaping how you write? How?

I admire the Indian poets writing in English from the generation before mine — especially Nissim Ezekiel (who taught me and published me so often), Eunice De Souza (who also taught me) and Kolatkar, and Moraes; and my own talented contemporaries, in particular Ranjit Hoskoté for his long commitment to our craft and sullen art and his long support of my writing. My dear friend, the late Bob Flanagan, inspired me with the compressed beauty of his poetic oeuvre and kept exhorting me to write and submit more. 

3. What writing rituals or behavioural patterns do you follow in where, when, or how you write?

In the summer, I absolutely love writing in the blazing sun in my backyard. Otherwise, I am a creature of the night. My best writing time begins at about 5 pm—a time “normal people” work late or socialize or sit down to dinner with family. At about 11 pm, those who love me and those who depend on me (not always the same) release me, and I grab the final hours in a burst of end-time, end-game energy, on some days until 2 at night. As a result, my literary writing is conducted like an affair: stolen time, time pretending to be at work, text messages (fragments of poetry to myself), escapes into abstraction. This has been my pattern for at least 25 years. 

4. How is your writing practice informed by a sense of writing to or for others? Do you have an audience in mind when you write?

I write poetry for no one and rewrite it for everyone, starting with myself. In other words, I do not think of an audience or even myself when I am composing a poem. I am thinking of what I saw and what it meant or what I remember or feel—I don’t think at all in terms of writing to or for others, whether audience or not. I am wrestling with the angel, like Jacob. My questions are to do with truth and beauty and experience and of those others that appear within. There are exceptions of course—love poems, dedicated poems, occasional poems, requiems. Understan is full of these. Is that contradictory? I hope so. 

5. Have you ever collaborated on a writing project with another writer? Or maybe you’ve collaborated with an artist/dancer/musician/actor? Can you share your experience?

One of my closest friends, photographer Richard Picton, died early in our pandemic horror story. We were working on an ambitious project. Richard visited Mumbai to permanently record the incredible work and stories of humble folk in the small trades for a world that needs to understand these essential humans and their essential roles. My role was to write a series of ekphrastic poems on those photographs. When he died, I had written a measly four poems, but they had Sufi power gifted to them by my atheistic dervish friend in this, his last photographic dance. 

6. What emotions do you associate with writing? Or, differently put, how does writing impact your emotional state?

The creative trance is my creative stance when sitting down to write. When I write, I try to set myself in a state of grace. It seems profane to say that as so many of my poems are filled in different places with despair, rage or pure erotic energy and those states are probably the truest description of my emotional state at the moment of first writing. Writing poetry is a compact with the mystical. You must be ready to receive. You have to be empty to be filled. With the spirit. Sometimes that spirit has the peaty smokiness of Islay about it. 

7. What elements/aspects of writing give you pleasure?

Every single aspect of writing is pleasurable to me except for submission, which I loathe. So I find myself submitting primarily when I have been invited to submit; this feels tolerable. I am deeply grateful to the editors and publishers who find me and invite me to send my work. I take great pleasure in the primal poetic act, and the source of that pleasure is often undeniably cathartic, especially for the emotional state that may have preceded the poem. At the same time, there is the pleasure of creative flow, of efflorescence, a sense of weightlessness.  

8. Can you name a source of inspiration before the age of 12 that impacted your writing in some way?

I was a precocious reader and began reading very young, and it was the first springboard for the poetry I started writing at around eight or younger. But when I was about 11 or 12, something pivotal happened in my life — my mother returned to university to begin an MA in literature. I would help her transcribe notes and read her texts and the works themselves. It blew my mind in a kaleidoscopic way. A billion billion beauties fractalized in my prepubescent brain; Neruda, Paz, Eliot, Graves, Whitman, Shakespeare, Donne, Hughes, Plath, Spenser, Marlowe. Indian poets like Ezekiel, Kolatkar, Moraes, Das, Parthasarathy. I can honestly say that I have never recovered from that moment, and thank god for it. 

9. How do you know as a writer if a piece of work that you have been labouring on is finally completed?

Though his attitude describes my intent better than my commitment, I admire Tennyson’s insanity (as Browning described it), his obsession with editing and re-editing his work. I believe every encounter I have with a poem makes it better. Sometimes, because I rewrite it. Sometimes because I let it be. Writing poetry is like trying to hold running water. In the first act of writing, you struggle to seize it in your hand, to capture thought and the moment, to absent yourself to be present. The second act is a confrontation between art and muse, the challenge of completion. How do you complete the stream you touched but couldn’t hold? You can only complete your memory. But are memories complete?

Photo by Richard Picton

Bombay-born Gavin Barrett is the author of Understan, (Mawenzi House, 2020), a CBC Books recommendation. His poetry has been published in Ranjit Hoskote’s anthology of 14 contemporary Indian poets, Reasons for Belonging (Viking Penguin, India); Joao Roque Literary Journal; the journal of Pen India; The Folio; The Independent; The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad; and Poeisis — the journal of the Bombay Poetry Circle. He is series co-curator of the Tartan Turban Secret Readings, a reading series that centres BIPOC writers.

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