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Momentary, Immediate, and Urgent: Amarjit Chandan

Posted by Arc, 1st November 2012

Amarjit (left) with Razmik Davoyan at Lancaster Lit Fest
Amarjit (left) with Razmik Davoyan at Lancaster Lit Fest

Amarjit Chandan joins our Ventures Tour tomorrow, Fri 2 Nov, at Off The Shelf Festival in Sheffield (details here). We asked him some questions in anticipation of his readings in Sheffield, Wakefield, Hebden Bridge, Halifax and Nottingham over the next few days.

How would you describe your poetry?

I have been asked this question many times and each time I evade it saying: I write about any thing - from God to the tomato. I've written a poem about the latter and I rather like it.

I think contemporary poets and literary critics including readers are better in describing a poet's work.

When did you begin writing poetry?

I inherited poetry from my father who was a poet. My first poem was published in the prestigious Punjabi magazine Preet Lari when I was 20.

How have you developed and improved your poetry since you started? What is your writing process? Do you write alone or with the help of others?

One learns all the time. I write alone. It is revealed to me. It can happen any time, anywhere. I have written walking the streets scribbling on pieces of paper.

What encouraged you to take part in the Arc tour? What do you hope to achieve? What are you most looking forward to?

My publishers encouraged me! I'd like to reach more people who appreciate poetry. I'd talk about how the Punjabi listeners respond to poets reading in public. Unlike the English scene it is always lively. They respond to each word, image or a line they like by saying aloud like: Wow! Great! Marvelous! Mukarar - say it again! Bravo! The English tend to reach out to the poet after the reading, saying simply: that poem or line I really liked. A woman in Lancaster (34th Litfest 20th October) came to me telling how she was touched by my poem 'To Father' and could not control her tears.

How much does reading in new contexts change the way you think about your work?

Readers' and listeners' response is what really matters. I have read in all sorts of contexts - from large gatherings to intimate circles - amongst my own community and non-Punjabis. I feel rewarded even if there is a single person present who you know is touched by your words or a silent pause in your poem.

Sometimes I've a weird feeling while reading, which I have shared with my close friends, a parallel track runs in my thoughts that I shouldn't be doing this - making public my innermost thoughts like a love poem or poems written about my loved ones. It wasn't meant to be like this. My friends comfort me that it is sharing - that's what poetry is all about.

Reading while recording in a semi-dark studio is bizarre and overwhelming - the subjects of your poems appear before your eyes and you talk face-to-face with them.

What do you think is most important in a poetry translation? Is fidelity to the original the most important thing, for example?

The original is crucial. The translation has to be faithful to the original in its own way.

What place do you think poetry has in contemporary culture?

Poetry has certain contemporariness about it by its very nature - it's momentary, immediate, and urgent. It has the central place where our hearts are. It has always been the case and will ever be.

Are there any British poets you have been inspired by or you particularly admire?

I particularly admire John Berger. He is the master. As a man and a writer he is so inspiring. My writing is very much influenced by his work. Other English poets who are my favourite: Dannie Abse, Adrian Mitchell, Owen Sheers and Jackie Kay.

What are the difficulties facing poets in the Punjab?

Their main difficulty is to get published. There are no funding bodies like Arts Council etc. Most of the poets are into self-publishing or they have to pay the publishers and the readership is also shrinking. The poets in West Punjab Pakistan are in dire straits. It is the most populous province of Pakistan, with more than 55% of the country's total population. Unlike the Indian Punjab, Punjabi has no status there: it has no official recognition in the Constitution of Pakistan. It is not taught at the primary school level. Even Punjabi members of national assembly are not allowed to make speeches in their own mother tongue.

Amarjit Chandan
22 October 2012