Punjabi poet Ajmer Rode spoke with Sonnet Mondal about his inspiration, the influence of location on his work, and Indian poetry today. On Wednesday, September 12, at the Astoria Bookshop in New York, Words Without Borders will be hosting an evening with Ajmer Rode. The poet will be in conversation with journalist and literary critic Rafia Zakaria.
Sonnet Mondal (SM): You often relate philosophically to everday objects. Do you feel they have a language of their own or that their existence is best experienced though poetry?
Ajmer Rode (AR): When I am able to look at an ordinary object as a unique being—not merely a thing for human use—it becomes extraordinary. It begins to expand in space and time, to relate to the surrounding objects. Soon a web of hitherto unknown relationships emerge and transform it into a new entity, almost mythical and with its own language. It’s fascinating. Often I leave it there. But when I feel the urge to express it, it’s poetry that helps me venture beyond my anthropomorphic gaze and celebrate the existence of the object. I have written several poems on these so-called ordinary or daily objects—like a piece of rag, a spider, a tiny insect, a maple tree in the backyard . . .
SM: Your collections Surti and Leela, coauthored with Navtej Bharati, are considered to be landmarks in Punjabi poetry. What inspired you to pen these collections and what do you feel their relevance is in today’s world?
AR: When I started writing the Surti poems in the mid-seventies, I had just given up working on a science project I was deeply involved in. My creative urges found refuge in poetry, but the ghost of the unfinished project still lurked in the background. So a lot of exploration and experimentation snuck into my thinking and that made the poems somewhat different in Punjabi. Similarly, Navtej and I wanted to present something fresh in Leela. The length of the book (1054 pages) asserts that poetry matters. We foregrounded the poem rather than the poet and included samples of ancient scripts to show that a script has a poetry of its own that complements the main poem. Leela has remained in demand ever since its publication in 1999, so it is relevant today. Poetry is rarely irrelevant.
SM: Did immigrating from Punjab to Canada bring any changes to your poetry? How do you think changing location can affect one’s poetry?
AR: After moving to Canada, my poetry started absorbing mainstream culture—its literary expression, rhythms, poetry, music . . . I felt nostalgic but also excited in the new environment and I wrote surrealist and Dadaist poems for the first time in Punjabi. My interaction with people was mostly comfortable, despite problems of discrimination and racism in the new society. A change of place does influence your poetry. Place is something fluid, not static. My poetry has tried to respond to that fluidity.
SM: What are your thoughts on Indian-language poets and poetry?
AR: It is great—a whole lot of poetry is being written in the major languages of India. The grip of postcolonialism seems to have loosened and all types of poetry are being tried. I think Indian poetry is doing well and many of the poets, especially those of the younger generation, are actively contributing to enrich the world’s poetry, in addition to responding to their local ethos and changing cultures.
Read Ajmer Rode’s poetry in Words without Borders
Read Sonnet Mondal’s introduction to WWB’s July 2018 feature: “Standing on Ashes: Three Punjabi Poets on Aging”