Sharanya Manivannan was born in Madras, India in 1985, and grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Her first book of poems, Witchcraft (Bullfighter Books, 2008), was praised in The Straits Times as being ‘sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife’. She is currently working on a book of stories (The High Priestess Never Marries), a novel (Constellation of Scars), as well as two manuscripts of new poems (Bulletproof Offering and Cadaver Exquisito). She received the Lavanya Sankaran Fellowship for 2008-09 and was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. A journalist and columnist, she wrote a personal column, ‘The Venus Flytrap’, for The New Indian Express from 2008 to 2011. She lives in India and can be found online at sharanyamanivannan.com
SJF: In its sheer scope Poetry Parnassus offers a unique opportunity for you to interact with fellow poets from every corner of the globe. How do you think this collective experience will benefit those who attend, to be exposed to so many different traditions of poetry, to hear poetry in so many languages?
SM: It's always exciting to discover work in languages other than English that has been brought to the Anglophone world through translators, publishers and the patronage of events like Poetry Parnassus. It is equally exciting to discover work in many Englishes, so to speak. It helps to be reminded that even as our world gets smaller through technology and travel, it remains as wide and varied as ever.
SJF: Though such descriptions are reductive, and perhaps not possible, how would you explicate your poetry? What do you wish your poetry to achieve? What are your pre-occupations in your work?
SM: I'm an obsessive sort of person, and while there are a few particular motifs that have stayed with me throughout the years I've been writing, I am also taken by particular thematic focuses from time to time. For example, recurring motifs in my writing are coasts, trees, the body, longing, hungers of all kinds and the self in relation to the other and to the world. But I am currently in the midst of two thematic manuscripts of poems. One deals with grief, dismemberment and the city of Chennai. The other deals with Sita the earth-mother in exile, Lucifer fallen from grace, impossible love, banishment, the forest and astronomy. As for what I wish my poetry to achieve, while I have lost many of my conceits about my own work, this is what I know to be true: performances have the potential to move deeply, which is why ritual is such an integral part of religion. Literature – all art – continually both mirrors and moulds the world. I am fortunate to simply be able to dip my toes into a great river at all.
SJF: The cultures of Malaysia and Sri Lanka are ones of great flux and cultural change over the past century, how has this affected the poetry of these countries?
SM: Both Malaysia and Sri Lanka are fascinating nations, because both have suffered from significant ethnic-based discord in the past few decades. In both cases, it is also too soon to tell what will come of these complex backdrops in terms of literary output. I can think of novels that address Sri Lanka's civil war and Malaysia's racist constitutional polices, but poetry does not immediately spring to mind. Still, Michael Ondaatje, one of the world's greatest living writers, is Sri Lankan by birth and you can see that cultural influence in some of his work, including his last book of poems, Handwriting. In terms of the Sri Lankan diaspora, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Indran Amirthyanayagam and Yalini Dream are three poets for whom questions of identity certainly matter.
SJF: How is poetry received in Malaysia and Sri Lanka? Is it read widely?
SM: I can't really speak for either country on this count, but at the time I left Malaysia (late 2007), poetry was really starting to pick up steam. There were many people, across age groups, who participated in spoken word events. The publishing side of things did not catch up, however. But I am a believer in the Internet. It is a great leveller of sorts: how lucky we are to be able to read so much for free, and to send our work into the world so easily (and environmentally-friendly-ly!).
SJF: Poetry Parnassus is one of the largest poetry events to ever take place, over one whole week with over two hundred poets in attendance. The nature of its design means, to a certain extent, you are a representative of your nation and its poetic culture. How do you feel about that idea?
SM: My first response when I received the invitation to represent Malaysia at Poetry Parnassus was to say: but I am an Indian citizen and now live in India! I am most grateful that the organizers wanted me to attend despite already being aware of this. I lived in Malaysia for a decade and a half, and if I hadn't cut my teeth in the arts scene in KL as a teenager, I would probably be nowhere as a writer. So it is an honour for me to express my gratitude to the scene that first supported me this way.
SJF: You are well known for your live performances, how important are they to your work?
SM: I love doing readings. Ever since I moved to India, the publishing side of my writing has taken off – my first book came out in 2008, I had a semi-national newspaper column for about three years, and my poems and stories appear in journals reasonably frequently. But Chennai, where I live, does not have a vibrant artistic subculture, and so readings are few and far between. I find that it has had an effect on my writing in two ways: firstly, it has become more insular, because I no longer write knowing there is a performance around the corner (and there was always one around the corner in KL) and so my sense of an audience has changed. Secondly, as I said earlier, I publish more. These are not bad things in themselves, but I miss the charge and connection of a wonderful reading.
SJF: And what are your feelings about reading before an audience in London and visiting the city in general?
SM: I'm incredibly excited! I have never been to the UK and am really looking forward to getting the chance to enjoy it both as a travelling artist and as a tourist.
SJF: The parnassian ideal that really centres Poetry Parnassus reaches back to the Poetry International festival held in London in 1967 which sought to address notions of free speech, community and peace through the artform of poetry. Do you believe this tradition needs to be maintained in 2012?
SM: Absolutely. I don't think we can say that we can take free speech, a sense of community or peace for granted – not even in a personal sense and certainly not in a larger social or generational sense. It is important to keep assessing all of these things – do we censor ourselves, do we censor others, do we contribute and participate as well as take, do we foster understanding or behave in a divisive fashion? Individually, under the mantle of 'poet' and under the mantle of 'human being', how do we do these things? Collectively, how do we do these things? Who do we allow to speak on our behalf?
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.