Interview of Saniya Rohida by Richa Gupta
Hi Saniya! Before we begin, could you tell us your favorite quote and why you love it?
“I don’t feel guilt at being unsociable, though I may sometimes regret it because my loneliness is painful. But when I move into the world, it feels like a moral fall—like seeking love in a whorehouse. Even more, I somewhere take my unsociability as evidence of my “seriousness,” a quality which I take as necessary to my existence as a moral being.”
~Susan Sontag, from As Consciousness Is Harnessed To Flesh: Journals & Notebooks, 1964-1980
After struggling for years with loneliness, I have finally embraced it as a part of my being. I often find comfort in the words of Dostoyevsky and Plath about the burdens of suffering one must endure throughout their life, and how an artful existence is also a painful one. This quote by Sontag encapsulates all that I have extracted from a lonely existence – a passion to read and the grist to write.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I just graduated from college with a liberal arts degree, and have been knocking doors since trying to put it to good use. Literature and language have been my passions forever, but I’ve betrayed them by studying things like psychology and media. In the last few years, I’ve let literary theory consume me. I’ve found more respite in it than in anything or anyone else. I appreciate a good cup of coffee and a great cup even more. My guilty pleasures are Douglas Adams and Stephen King. My recent explorations have been in postmodern literature, and I wrote a dissertation in college exploring postmodern ways of interpreting literature.
What do you enjoy most about being a slam poet?
I think spoken word poetry for me was a prolonged love affair. I started because of two lovely humans who were there at the right time. My spoken word poetry is always a conglomeration of my experiences with the nuances and absurdities of daily life. And even that is quite relative. I started writing at a young age. Even though I refuse to call what I did back then poetry, now that I look back upon it, it seems quite insightful. I’ve realised that we are all a diverse breed of unhappy – lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent. And sometimes, when I write poetry, it feels like I’m cashing in the sorrows of my life, or my muse, or my friends. A friend once told me that you can claim all the sadness you want in poetry, but you can never claim happiness. All art is born out of a bittersweet emotion. What makes spoken word poetry different is that it is written to perform and convey the wistful bittersweetness of art. And yet, it is a struggle I want to undergo every day for the rest of my life – because here I am baring my soul to strangers who may or may not like, understand, or relate to my words; but my intent is not to move you but, as the famous modernist poet T.S Eliot said, ‘poetry is but one talking to another’
I really enjoyed listening to your poem ‘Conveyor Belt’. Could you tell us more about the themes that it explores?
‘Conveyor Belt’ was my first attempt at defining love. It was inspired by a conversation I was having with my flat-mate a few nights before the performance (which is also when I wrote it). We were asking each other about love, the eternal search for it, and its myriad definitions. The poem talks about a fragile soul in an intoxicating first love. Like morphine, the love calmed her down – but also excited her. Summoning and shunning all senses at once. It was also an unhealthy, codependent love. It was about a love without friendship, a love that was born out of a lonely childhood. A love that was needed more than wanted.
What was your first experience speaking before an audience? What was your most recent performance?
My first solo experience as a spoken word poet was in December 2014, when I performed ‘My lover is not a poet’ (all thanks to the wonderful Nandini and Shantanu from the Airplane Poetry Movement). They organised a weeklong workshop in my college, and at the end of it all participants performed at a café in Pune. I was shaky and nervous – but above all, I was honest. Since then, I have performed before bigger audiences and on wider stages; but I’ve always tried to carry that honesty with me. That doesn’t mean one can’t make up things in poems or play make-believe with words. It is the gumption with which one does it that matters.
My last performance was in Nagpur, my hometown. It was also Nagpur’s first-ever spoken word poetry performance. I was invited to the Indian Youth Conclave by ‘The Climber’ (a educational student-led startup founded by a senior from my school). The poem was about the absurdities of existence, the spike in the monitor of this life. I think I was at my most confident when I was up on the home stage, with familiar faces in the audience smiling up at me, hanging onto every word I vocalised. I’ve performed for audiences which consist of seasoned performers and poetry experts; but the comfort I felt with an audience that had probably not experienced a performance like this before, was unparalleled.
You’re the founder and managing editor of the webzine ‘The Ellipsis’ (wow!). Why did you decide to start this magazine? Could you tell us more about its aim?
The Ellipsis was born out of an informal conversation between two acquaintances with similar ideas faintly brewing in the back of their heads. A couple of months after that interaction, they were a team of fifteen. And since that day, it has grown to explore and create together, to conduct an exploration of the words left out.
The Ellipsis hopes to be a free space for the ellipses in conversation, art, music, cinema, literature. For unfettered expression, to manifest and embody the lost reveries. The Ellipsis hopes to carve its name as a medium of liberated discourse, to be a playground where imagination and expression are uninhibited.
Are there any other projects or endeavors that you’re currently working on?
I’m currently working on the creation of a new, independent webzine. The details have not been fine-tuned yet, but the ideology of The Ellipsis carries over. We are expecting to launch this summer, actually. I would tell and reveal more about it, but I’d really prefer if everyone saw for themselves!
Let’s face it – Indian society can be full of taboos. Are there any taboos that you try to tackle through poetry?
I am lucky enough to be friends with a few brilliant poets who are constantly and consistently addressing issues in their poetry that would be considered taboo in the Indian society. I have almost always written exclusively for myself, as a way of communicating with my mind, to have a conversation with myself. My prose and poetry have addressed issues regarding mental health (which is considered taboo) – but with personal experiences. I speak about the difficulties of anxiety, and how it is different from just having nerves before a big performance. I have had to come face-to-face with my deep-seated fears rooted in social interaction when I have been on stage. I use my lens to look at mental health and create poetry around it.
What do you believe are the elements that make a slam poem powerful and memorable?
The widely known definition of poetry was given by Wordsworth – “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: (it takes its origin from emotion) recollected in tranquility.” Interpreting this in the context of performance poetry, I think a solid performance piece should be like a short story with its classical elements. A beginning, middle, and an end. A plot, a theme, an inciting incident, a resolution. The order can be played around with and used as per the creator’s wishes and whims. But having these basic elements play out gives the poem direction; and the rest is emotion. Let yourself be led astray by emotion when creating and performing poetry. Your words can be a smooth tango or a choppy rap verse (rap artists are now considered urban poets) – but always remember to enjoy yourself while performing.
Which poem are you most proud of? How does it relate to who you are as a person?
I don’t think a single work of mine is complete enough for me to be proud of. But I think my latest work is something I am happy with (for the time being). It was in collaboration with two visual artists from The Ellipsis. They created a playful mixed media project depicting the power of imagination. I assisted with the poetry accompaniment. I am happy with this piece – because for the first time in my life, I have actively and voluntarily interacted with visual stimuli to create poetry. I hold it close to my heart – because I desire the momentary release having an innocent imagination can offer you.
You can take a look at the entire piece on the website, but here is an excerpt –
Picture a birth.
A confluence of imaginations –
from worlds that meet only at dawn and dusk.
When the melody is but faint light…
… gliding on the wrinkles of waves, with careless abandon.
Here, where the nature of desire seeks refuge in the underbelly of the unknown world with endless possibilities. A world where she chooses to shed her form to dance with eager shadows in forbidden spaces.
Hello, she says to herself.
Baring her palms the only color she needs to paint