Back in March, the Indie Lit Award Winners were announced. I was a judge for the poetry panel, and I had the pleasure of reading five fabulous books. You can read about all the nominees here.
One of the authors is Sweta Srivastava Vikram, whose collection Beyond the Scent of Sorrow was nominated for the blogger-run prize. Reading Beyond the Scent of Sorrow was a thought-provoking experience and I’m happy to say that I had the opportunity to interview Sweta.
1) I’m always fascinated by what inspires poets. What do you think your greatest inspirations are? What makes you want to write a poem?
Poetry, to me, is magical and therapeutic—in that, it is a stabilizing factor for me. I am a direct communicator but not aggressive or confrontational. While experiencing emotional outbursts or disagreements with people or situations, I find writing poetry calms me down. It allows me to dig deeper into the issues and analyze the situation with fewer biases.
Frankly, writing is how I make sense of my world. It also helps me discover myself as a woman, human being, and writer. I aspire to give a voice to the underdogs. I would say women and children’s issues, women’s identity, hybridization of culture and essence of heritage, role of relationships, displacement, and abandonment of homeland are few of the topics that inspire me to pick up my pen and write a poem.
As a poet, it’s incumbent upon me to be aware of my physical and emotional surroundings and connect the two. I won’t say that I intentionally use natural imagery in all of my books. But it just so happens that some of my best poems are born when I am close to nature. To be able to listen to my inside voice, I need to turn out the outside noise. And that only happens when I embrace bucolic living. I feel my mind, body, and spirit are better connected when I am close to the natural world. The plants, the animals, the hills, the breeze, they all become influencers and emerge as playful, sad, deep, humorous metaphors in my poems.
The replacement of olive trees by oak trees in southwestern region of Portugal, I write about it in “Beyond the Scent of Sorrow,” nudged me to dig into the issues affecting women and draw a comparison between the two situations: eco-feminism. Life is full of parallels. And it is up to the poet to create the right connective tissue.
3) Who are your poetry icons?
For me to enjoy a poem, the work has to break barriers of race, geography, religion, ethnicity, and language. It has to be a “people’s poem.” It should be savored slowly, over and over again. Pablo Neruda said, “Poetry is like bread. It should be shared by all, by scholars and peasants, by all our vast, incredible, extraordinary family of humanity.” Many of the poets whom I like to re-read embody Neruda’s philosophy. Either their work is accessible or relatable or timeless or fearless. They write about heritage, culture, displacement, identity, nature, philosophy, and the world-at-large using fresh language. Robert Frost, William Wordsworth, Naomi Shihab Nye, Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda, and Billy Collins are some of the poets whose work I admire and discuss with my students.
The world is getting desensitized and unnecessarily politicized where the focus is often on the individual. Poetry is written from the heart and reflective of the poet’s state of mind. I hope “Beyond the Scent of Sorrow” pushes the readers out of complacency and urges them to make a change. At least encourage critical thinking and empower the readers to shake off inaction. That’s the only way for the human race to prosper. One doesn’t have to be a victim to feel empathy or raise the voice or do the right thing.
5) One of my favorite poems from your collection is “Eucalyptus Tree.” I am especially drawn to that single “obrigada” and the way it evokes a sense of place, while functioning on another level as well. It is also the first poem in your collection. Was it the first poem you write or the culmination? Or somewhere between?
Thank you. I believe it was one of the first few poems I wrote in this collection. The day I reached my writing residency in southwestern region of Portugal, my residency director drove a bunch of us to see the eucalyptus forest, which was being replaced with oak trees. The reason: eucalyptus trees were considered unsafe, caused forest fires.
On a separate note, the Portuguese are committed to exchanging pleasantries and greeting people. They are also appreciative of foreigners trying to speak in their local language even if the accent isn’t authentic. “Obrigada,” meaning thank you, was one of those words I picked up during my stay. It’s said in a singsong way, which would make me feel really pleasant. Every time that I would utter it, I would sense genuine appreciation from the locals. But, for a country that smiled and thanked customers in their grocery store, I wondered about how thanklessly they murdered the protector of the forests: eucalyptus trees.
Before leaving NYC, I’d read a report published by the United Nations that reflected upon the challenges faced by women globally. Despite everything they do, women too are associated with many “thankless-jobs” and their use is considered diminished after a certain point.
When I meshed the two scenarios mentioned above, compared the situation and sacrifices of women and eucalyptus forests, I felt they were speaking about each other’s conditions. Using nature as metaphor, the connection allowed me to highlight human apathy and selfishness. Just the visual of being in Portugal and witnessing depletion of eucalyptus forests, listening to accusatory stories about those trees, and relating it to conditions of women, I was inspired to write this collection.
Thank you so much Sweta for answering my questions! You can read more about Sweta Srivastava Vikram and her poetry at her website.