Poet, essayist, and translator Indran Amirthanayagam talks with Hanging Loose Press about his past year. Amirthanayagam writes, translates, and publishes poetry/essays in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole, which means he is usually in the middle of a project, and quite possibly in another country or continent. HLP has published three poetry collections by Amirthanaygam, The Migrant States being the most recent. Amirthanayagam is also a publisher of Beltway Editions.
Hanging Loose Press: Can you speak about some of the notable parts of the past year for you?
Indran Amirthanayagam: 2022 has been a decidedly mixed year, full of leaps and falls, decisions and taking stock, of plumbing the heights and depths of love and stepping back to be able to go on. As a poet my accomplishments come in two books published, both of which wake up in me the most happiest feelings of a father renewed again. Ten Thousand Steps Against the Tyrant I wrote during the campaign against the orange-haired tyrant and at the height of the pandemic. So the mother of elections and the mother of pandemics as well as my mother, whom I care for at home—these are central themes/characters in the book.
The second book is Origami: Selected Poems of Manuel Ulacia. Manuel was my closest friend when I lived in Mexico City from 1999 to 2001. He encouraged and corrected my first poems written in Spanish and I translated his luminous, measured, delicate verse. Manuel spoke English well and he was able to opine on my versions. Together we almost finished the project which was to appear in the Fall of 2001. First, some of the poems appeared in Copper Canyon’s Reversible Monuments (an anthology of Mexican poetry). But then Manuel was caught by a riptide and drowned near Zihuatanejo, Mexico in September 2001.
The would-be publisher of his Selected Poems abandoned the book and the translations went into a drawer to peep out once in a while. Years later some appeared in the anthology Fafnir’s Heart and at Poetry at Sangam online. Now, they have been revised, and I have added two new translations, two tribute poems and an introduction by Alfred Corn who was also Manuel’s friend.
HLP: How did you manage to move past this seemingly big obstacle?
IA: I was at first depressed, shocked by his death by drowning. And he had arranged the first publisher. I was deeply disappointed that the publisher pulled out. On occasion I would enter the manuscript for review with a publisher, one of which said that my book came very close to selection. Time passed and I worked on my own poems. I then heard about Dialogos Books and its fine reputation for publishing translated works in English. I approached them with the book Blue Window, a translation by Jennifer Rathbun of my Spanish language book Ventana Azul. That book was well received. I then thought of sending Dialogos my Ulacia translations. Meanwhile I had got to know Alfred Corn and learned that Alfred was Manuel’s friend. I then invited Alfred to write an intro to the book. And Bill Lavender accepted my proposal quickly and has produced a very beautiful edition.
HLP: What a wonderful example of moving road blocks out of the way. It sounds as if you really embody what it means to harness momentum. And your 2022 sounds as if it were full of meaningful experiences.
IA: This year I traveled to Buenos Aires where I read in the first International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace (IFLAC) World Poetry Festival. Directed by the Haitian writer, musician and cultural entrepreneur Evans Okan, the festival brought together fine poets from throughout America. And I was thrilled to receive IFLAC’s first World Poet/Poeta Mundial award. The award recognized my community work in building bridges between poets throughout the world, writing and translating in various languages, raising money for democracy via zoom events with poets, and my own poems. Thank you IFLAC for the honor.
And I was invited as keynote speaker to a conference on Diplomacy and Poetry, at the United Nations in Geneva last April. I spoke in French before the general public and diplomats from various countries. It was a thrill to speak about poetry in the hall where peacemaking negotiations take place.
Excerpted from Amirthanayagam’s Poetry and Diplomacy When the Heart Wants to Cry speech:
I am here in Geneva to talk of my own attempts at making order and grace, of uniting the different, complex strands of personality and experience, of home and exile. I was born a Tamil, a minority in an island known as Ceylon. Ceylon no longer exists, renamed Sri Lanka when I was a boy of twelve in 1972. So much has happened since then. So much is happening today as we witness the disappearance of so many species, of islands covered with water. What is one more disappearance, namely that of Ceylon? For this individual mind it is fundamental, a guiding principle. So from early in my life, two years before I started to write poems, I was already on some deeply felt but unconscious level aware of my fundamental raison d’ȇtre, to write the poetry of disappearance.
HLP: Tell us about any books you’ve read recently that have made an impression.
IA: About books that have moved me, I want to mention Alberto Caeiro’s Keeper of Sheep. I taught a course on Fernando Pessoa at Politics and Prose this year, and Caeiro is my favorite of Pessoa’s heteronyms. Fernando Pessoa himself comes a close second. So my first recommendation is to read Pessoa…and if you have time the biography as well written by Richard Zenith.
My second recommendation is to read every Neruda translation of William O’Daly, and then read his first full length collection The New Gods (Beltway Editions, 2022).
I also recommend Sometimes the Bird, a dialog in poetry written by Anne Casey and Heather Bourbeau. I am biased yes, and deeply honored that we had the chance to publish this book in 2022 at Beltway Editions (www.beltwayeditions.com).
Other books that took me on a glorious ride include editing and publishing Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air, an anthology of poems by six Muslim women STEM students at MIT; Call Me Spes, Sara Cahill Marron’s unique exploration of the dark side of our new love, the I.O.S. device.
And then I loved Mark Pawlak’s Deniversity, a memoir that gave me insights into Denise Levertov, the 1960s and 1970s as well as Mark Pawlak’s poetic journey.
(Watch Indran Amirthanayagam’s interview with Mark Pawlak: https://youtu.be/gI4K-r7ecEM)
HLP: What upcoming projects do you have in motion so far?
IA: I am expecting to publish Vwa nan po la (The Voice of the Port), a bilingual Haitian Creole/English book with Madhat Press in early 2023. I also have a manuscript under consideration at the MotherShip, namely Hanging Loose. I am also working on various translations including work by poets from Mexico, Switzerland, France, Haiti, Spain and Chile.
I also have a couple of manuscripts (one in Spanish and one in Portuguese) under review at a Mexican publisher.
And for my new English work I am beavering away at a manuscript or two whose underlying stylistic element is what I call the free sonnet.
For more information about Indran Amirthanayagam, check out his website: http://indranamirthanayagam.blogspot.com.
And connect with him on @indranmx/@indran1960