Writers on Reading. Part Six, Tishani Doshi

Illustration by Harshita Borah

Illustration by Harshita Borah

In ‘Contract’, the opening poem of ‘Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods’, Tishani makes an agreement with the reader. She writes, ‘Dear Reader, I agree to turn my skin inside out, to reinvent every lost word, to burnish, to steal, to do what I must in order to singe your lungs, to turn my skin inside out, to reinvent every lost word, to burnish, to steal, to do what I must in order to singe your lungs….’

It is a contract which Tishani unwaveringly fulfils. From the anthemic ‘Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods’ to the whimsical ‘To my first white hairs’ Tishani bares her heart to the reader, and does so with with exceptional craft.

In this conversation, I spoke to her about her reading and writing inspirations, about poetry and prose, about family and Instagram. So, without further ado, the interview.

Most poems we read as children were either jokes or sermons.
One such masterpiece by Ogden Nash was:
‘God in his wisdom made the fly

And then forgot to tell us why.’
What’s your earliest memory of reading poetry? Are there any poems from your childhood which have stuck with you?

I remember nursery rhymes. The morbid ones like Ring a ring of roses, Rock-a-bye baby & Humpty Dumpty. Something about melody and horror twinned together stuck early on.

Don Marquis once said, ‘Publishing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’
What has your experience of getting published been like? How much should poets worry about recognition and acclaim?

My entire relationship with poetry has been one of optimism. From the writing of a poem, to finding it/them a home, to any recognition they may receive. The idea that anyone cares, that the poem will find a place, all of it works from optimism. I think poets worry more about bank balances than acclaim, and that’s rightly so, because it’s the day to day that can destroy.

Your brother is a peripheral, and at times a central figure in your poems. Your father, mother, grandmother and husband, too, make appearances. What was, and is, the role of your family in your literary journey? Can you share with us some works of literature centred around family which have made an impression on you?

In an early lesson in graduate school, the uncle in my poem got transmuted to husband, which gave the poem a completely different kind of weight and sadness. I learned that it was okay to lie in poetry in order to achieve a different kind of truth. Autobiography and family are huge bedrock for me but how it works in the poem is never straightforward. There will be an image - my brother, who is autistic, flipping a sock or hanky or comb back and forth, back and forth, this will come through in several poems, but it is less about reporting this than transforming that image or act into something else. Ultimately, family for me is the central narrative that I both desire and challenge…. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War & Peace, all of Austen, and more recently, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life.  

How are your poems born? Do they arrive suddenly like thunder and lightning on a summer day, or are they marinated and cooked slowly for days and weeks?

My poems sometimes arrive holding welcome sign-boards, reminding me of the exact moment and context of their conception. Others need to be dragged out with forceps on their soft fontanelles. Still others are bastards, and I have no idea where they’ve come from.  

Tishani’s writing desk.

Tishani’s writing desk.


Instagram is not a major source of poetry for me. I like buying collections of poetry and spending time with a writer, the way you might listen to a record or CD obsessively. Books have cohesiveness, which I rate. The way a poet decides to order poems, the sections, the epigraphs. I’m interested in that. Instagram has a ghoulish quality about it. The way the poems are all forced to stay within boundaries. I think of them as orphaned angels, lost in a sphere of kitty pics and the Kardashian sisters. Still, I enjoy following poets on Instagram to see how they use the medium. It also affirms that people have a need for poetry, and that despite all the obituaries continually being written for poetry, poetry is far from dead.

Throughout ‘Girls are Coming Out of the Woods’ you have unflinchingly brought to life the abuse and violence women have to deal with every day. The poem ‘Girls are Coming Out of the Woods’ is a clarion call, an anthem, a warning. But there’s another poem which deals with the same subject in a slightly more mysterious manner. Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of ‘Everyone Loves a Dead Girl’? Does it target a particular section of the society, if so, why?

Any journalism class will teach you that if it bleeds, it leads. Add a woman (naked, young, violated, old, clothed, beautiful, ugly, important, unimportant) to the mix and you have a blazing forest fire. How do you talk about violence without perpetuating it? That’s the question I have. Everyone Loves a Dead Girl examines the human attraction to the violent and the lurid. By repeating a story of violence that happens to a woman, you condemn that woman to perpetually being the dead girl who was found naked tied to a bed, or the dead girl who was found slashed on the subway, or the dead girl whose body was found in the woods. Her entire life before her extinguishing is negated. She will be remembered for the way she was killed. Your horror is also a kind of relief, because your pulse still beats, you are still alive. The circle of violence rings close. We are all complicit in this. What I think and hope poetry can do is reclaim and restore those extinguished voices.

The author and her pet.

The author and her pet.

The funniest book you have ever read?

Pastoralia, by George Saunders.

A writer of prose who doesn’t write poetry, but according to you should.

Anuradha Roy.

Dogs are recurring presence in Tishani’s poetry, this is a photograph of one of the many dogs she’s adopted in her home by the sea.

Dogs are recurring presence in Tishani’s poetry, this is a photograph of one of the many dogs she’s adopted in her home by the sea.

Now, a Karan Joharesque twist to this interview:
Slay, Bae, and Play (in a literary sense), the following:
A. Rimbaud

B. Eunice De Souza

C. Wisława Szymborska

I had to google what Bae meant. FYI

So, let’s say:

Rimbaud - Bae

Eunice - Slay

Szymborska - Play

Graham Greene was a stickler for 500 words a day. How many words per day do you manage while working on a novel?

I aim for 1,000 but I don’t insist on them being good .

Five female poets we should read right now.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Pascale Petit

Ellen Bass

Mona Arshi

Zeina Hashem Beck

Interviewed by Karan Mujoo

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