Reviving Identity with Travel: A Conversation with Usha Akella

July 17, 2017

Usha Akella

Usha Akella’s poetry is known for an undertone of spirituality within a contemporary voice. Here she discusses the impact of travel on her work, poetry as a verb, and the distance between the social system she was born into and her own cherished ideals.           

Jhilam Chattaraj: How did The Rosary of Latitudes happen? Could you tell us how you mixed different genres in the book?

Usha Akella: The Rosary of Latitudes is specifically hinged on travel. The book was formulated gradually as I traveled; the first international poetry festival I attended was Struga Poetry Evenings 2006 in Macedonia. It was exhilarating, and I felt like Alice in Wonderland. I needed to hold onto the awe-inspiring experience and thus began writing articles about the places and festivals I visited.  

The book got longer with more travel and bigger in its concerns gradually—identity, wonder, immigration, home, self, memory—and a bit experimental in form. The writing was a discovery of the interplay of inner and outer and the effect of each realm on the other; a place shapes my work, my poem shapes the place; a poem has a convex-concave rhythm. I needed both prose and poetry as mediums; poetry for a microscopic view and prose for a telescopic view. Above all, the book reflects the search for my self, for home, and I am constantly awed by the world, its splendor and the mystery of consciousness itself.

Chattaraj: The Rosary of Latitudes is a curated connection between the micro and the macro, local and global. How did you collate this chronologically varied long piece of ideas and memories?

Akella: I need aids like old photo albums, digital photographs, journal entries, festival brochures, the Internet, travel guides, and memorabilia from ticket stubs to a sprig of lavender to help to fill in and jog my thoughts and sensations. The rest is the writing process; the imagination makes leaps from point to point. It is the force that sweepingly coheres what it needs from the outside and within. The emotional memory is triggered by cues. I think Wordsworth was referring to this as recollection in tranquility.

Chattaraj: Do you have any specific writing routines? How long does it take to compose and edit any single piece?

Akella: I work hard, but I am incapable of routines. There is a chaos molecule in the genetic makeup for sure! Composing and editing vary from poem to poem. All poems begin in a moment of inspiration whether it is one line or an image or a crystal of thought or the essence of the poem. Suppose I am working on form poems. There is more diligence in the act of creation because you are adhering to syllabic guidelines and prescribed stanza length and form guidelines. So I toil line by line, word by word and am caught unaware by what might be manifested. Form is freeing and a mystery. You are gifted with something that you never thought you could or would write.

Chattaraj: How do you keep your writing so real? Poetry, beauty, and the reality of it all.

Akella: Poetry is the reflection of the centering-self. The journey of consciousness is beautiful whatever the sphere of experience it decides to stop and dip in. There is a kind of alchemy in that process—it shapes things on the outside and its own self. It takes in and pours out, creating a new third, which is an amalgamation or fusion obliterating the boundary of separateness. I don’t know if I am expressing this well enough. Poetry sees things with an inner eye—it unravels the essential beauty in things. But poetry is not a noun. It is a verb, it is the movement of unraveling the Real within the perceivable world . . . the movement of consciousness. So the process of creation is beautiful, and the outcome, which is the poem, is also beautiful, whatever the subject matter. I think haikus are a profound training to understand this truth.

Poetry sees things with an inner eye—it unravels the essential beauty in things. But poetry is not a noun. It is a verb.

Chattaraj: Are your poems written by a romantic flâneur figure or a traveler making notes with monastic devotion?

Akella: Both.

Chattaraj: Do you think women’s poetry is different from men’s?

Akella: What a brilliant question! I think we should post this question out there to scholars and poets and bring out a book of essays. I have been intrigued by this question for a long time since I had to shamefacedly admit to myself that the best love poems for me were the ones written by men—maybe because the subject is women!

I think it is about sensibility and where the poem originates and culminates; perhaps women’s poetry has a way of pulling the world inward and men’s poetry goes outward—not that it is superficial, but it culminates outside. Maybe this theory is too close to anatomy, too literal, and I can be slaughtered for it! For example:

T. S. Eliot’s landscape is an era; William Wordsworth’s is all of Nature.            

Neruda says: I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.”

Meera asks God to obliterate himself in her: “Baso more nainanmein / Nandlalanainmein.”

Margaret Atwood writes: “There are whole magazines with nothing much in them but the word love, you can rub it all over your body and you can cook with it too . . .”

I think the intellect is the prism though which the imagination is filtered, I suppose, in men’s poetry; emotion whether controlled, metered, or voluminous is the filter for the imagination in women. And it does not mean emotion is not aided by intellect or intellect is not aided by emotion, but there is a primary process, how it happens. So I think it is a question of process; men can write like women and vice versa.

Chattaraj: Who are the poets who have influenced your work? Agha Shahid Ali appears in your work, a poet who labored on poetic forms. Did you ever meet him?

Akella: My poetry influences are T. S. Eliot, the Romantics, and Rumi. Among women poets, I like Anne Sexton, Kamala Das, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver. My absolute favorites would be Yehuda Amichai and Rumi. Poets who fuel me are Walt Whitman, Octavio Paz, Wisława Szymborska, Nâzim Hikmet, Keki Daruwalla, Ram Prasad, Mahmoud Darwish, Nguyen Thieu, Nikola Madzirov. And there are so many poets I like; I hope I will be forgiven, as I cannot name so many.

I spoke to Agha Shahid Ali once. He was welcoming and warm and that was our only exchange. I think I was stupid not to ask if I could send poems and get his opinion. I think I was intimidated. Humility is necessary at times.

Chattaraj: Now I am tempted to ask about your take on the English ghazals.

Akella: No one can do it like Agha Shahid Ali. I think it is treated poorly by most English writers. Because it is a question of sensibility—it needs to be soaked in the nuances of the form, history of image usage, deeper understanding of cultural metaphors, and the architecture of love or philosophical undertones specific to ethnic origin. One can imitate the form externally, but that creates a curiously delinked feeling. Agha compiled a collection of what he thought were the best ghazals written in English, and even in that book there is a sense of dissatisfaction with some of the ghazals.

I am not sure what the position of the ghazal is in America. But it is good that these exchanges happen. Poets get a chance to see how the world can be processed differently via form. It is like yoga transplanted here; there is some monkeying with tradition, and there are also more dedicated practitioners, but it is kept alive and evolving.

Chattaraj: You have shared your racial encounters in the US. Could you comment?

Akella: Like anything else that tries to defeat you from the outside, you resist and stop believing it. It is practice. And you keep to your work and path without giving up.

Chattaraj: The Rosary of Latitudes talks a lot about India—its places, cultures, religion through the eyes of a child, a young woman, and a mother. What kind of a relationship do you share with India now?

Akella: It begins with language. As a young girl, my first encounter with India was as an outsider returning to India from Australia. I did not know Telugu, and it played out profound emotional traumas, forever creating a feeling of being rejected and not belonging in my first cultural environment. My mother was atypical, and I was not brought up conventionally. I was essentially a free soul. I was bred on English literature, not Telugu, so even my literary lineage is not from my community. T. S. Eliot spoke to me viscerally, not any of the Telugu greats. I really don’t know any Indian language well, so you begin to get the picture—what do I anchor myself to in India?

As a young woman socially, things became frightful once I hit the “marriageable” age in the Niyogi Brahmin middle-class milieu. It was suffocating with norms of good-girl behavior and appearances. I became an asthmatic, literally, in a repressive and hypocritical culture. Bred on ideals of nirvana and the lofty Vedantic picture of humankind, with a certain amount of “westernization,” now I was being told I was no goddess but a kilo of meat to be bartered in the marriage market. The system did not create healthy or strong women but an assembly line of manufactured caricatures. The reality of the social system I was born into versus my cherished ideals has a very deep schism.

The reality of the social system I was born into versus my cherished ideals has a very deep schism.

From experience, I am uneasy with women perfected in Hindu tradition and womanhood. And I will also say, even though I yearn wistfully for the warmth inside that hive, my destiny is a different one.

Spiritually, the truth is that I am deeply grateful to be born in the land that gave the world the Upanishads. Walking in Chudi bazaar and General bazaar, the everyday life of hawkers, the smells on the streets, monsoons, the neighbor asking for cilantro or bringing a dish over, kites, Bollywood, temples, Vedic chants, traffic, gulmohar trees, childhood memories of cousins, grandmothers, the faces of the poor . . . all this has made me, this flesh and blood, it is India for me.

Chattaraj: Your writing completely dispels the feeling of exile and nostalgia associated with South Asian diaspora writing. You have an amazing sense of reviving your identity every time you travel. How?

Akella: Reviving identity with travel! Another gem from you! And I think I’d be fortunate if I can claim that. I think the reclaiming is of the larger self that is our larger identity beyond nation or gender or language. Experiencing universality as I do through travel obliterates smaller identities and the issues they bring, undoubtedly. So there is erasure and reclaiming simultaneously.

Experiencing universality as I do through travel obliterates smaller identities and the issues they bring.

Chattaraj: My last question: Do contemporary literary or cultural theory ever come between you and your poetry?

Akella: I can thankfully say no, still! God help me when I get to Cambridge. I am still an instinctive writer trusting myself, not theory. I am not sure if anyone can create like that. I strive to learn from poets more than critics. I think I am a very organic person, gravitating toward what I need when I need it, absorbing all with a fluidity. I trust my intuition enormously.

September 2016

Usha Akella has authored three books of poetry and scripted one musical drama. Her recent book, The Rosary of Latitudes (2016), is a compilation of poetry and prose writings on travel and poetic discovery. She was selected as a cultural ambassador for the city of Austin for 2015 and is the founder of Matwaala, the first South Asian Diaspora Poets Festival in the US. She is also the founder of the Poetry Caravan in New York and Austin, which takes poetry readings to the disadvantaged in women’s shelters, senior homes, and hospitals.

Jhilam Chattaraj is currently working as an Assistant Professor at R.B.V.R.R Women’s College, Department of English, Hyderabad. Her academic and creative writings have been published in journals like Muse India, Indian Book Chronicle, Langlit, Eastlit, Indialogue Foundation, Women’s Web, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. Her poems were exhibited at Elixir of Voices, Aillama Art Gallery, Hyderabad. She is the editor of the literary blog Quills: The World of Words.