Arundhathi Subramaniam (2002-03)
Time at Stirling
When I applied for a Charles Wallace writing residency at the University of Stirling, I was looking primarily for a little quiet time to spend with poetry. Those three months in the spring of 2003 proved to be much more than that. It was a quiet time all right. But it was also a period that was significantly transitional, initiating changes on levels much deeper than i had anticipated.
My initial impression of the place – with its misty loch and mountain and lush swathe of green campus -- was one of serenity and beauty. That impression persisted and deepened. But that serenity also proved to be a terrifying one. It meant coming to terms with solitude, with silence, with the troughs and gaps in one’s inner life in a way that I had never imagined.
The warmth of several members of the faculty – Michelle Keown (who has stayed a good friend), Angela Smith and John Drakakis in particular – helped enormously. (I still remember a trek up Ben Lomond that I agreed to in a weak moment; Michelle and John were part of that expedition, and I remember them as doughty allies on a daunting but exhilarating journey.) The library offered its consolations (I recall reading the medieval women mystics of Europe, for some reason, with a deep fascination) and the great natural beauty of the place worked its own deep magic. But the challenges of being away from the triggers and irritants of a familiar cultural context remained.
The period was, however, was one of self-discovery in many ways. For one, the actual physical silence of the place permeated my poetry in a way that i had never expected. The poetry grew not just quieter, but subtler, stiller. I realized I could write from an inner space that was expansive, non-reactive, less fraught, that i did not have to be in a besieged metropolis in order to make poems. The subconscious belief that I needed to live in a perpetual state of reactive discontent -- in short, that I had to suffer in order to write -- was challenged. I began to realize that one could grow subtle without losing voltage, that one could allow one's work to grow quiet without giving up vitality, that intensity was a kind of octane that did not have to mean rage.
An entire collection of poems entitled Where I Live emerged from this experience. The book was published in India by Allied Publishers in 2005, and it became the title of a New and Selected volume by Bloodaxe Books in the UK in 2009.
It was also in Stirling that I first encountered the work of John Burnside, the Scottish poet who is, to my mind, to be the finest poet writing in the UK at present. He was invited to Stirling do a reading from his book, The Light Trap, and that evening proved to be one of the most memorable poetry readings of my life. It was yet another affirmation of the fact that the finest poetry can murmur and still make its point, that it does not have to emanate from an embattled space in order to have value.
Perhaps it would be fitting to conclude with two poems from Where I Live that I associate in different but very distinct ways with my Stirling experience.
Creative writing extracts
Driving through the Trossachs I see
the picture I drew as a five-year-old
in Bombay - a rectangle
with two square windows,
isosceles roof, smoking chimney,
and girl with yellow hair
standing in the driveway,
flanked by two flower pots.
And there is comfort in knowing
what we are so often told,
that fancy has wings
and dreams come true,
even if it takes years
for them to take root
in some corner
of a foreign land
that is forever India.
is about learning
things are as they appear,
that every day has no
that every flicker of air against neck
does not spell a spectral presence,
about learning not to ask for more
than those long afternoons
gliding through rooms
of vacant mind,
recovered after years of subletting.