Lustre of a Burning Corpse (Ukiyoto Publishing, 2022) is a debut collection of poetry by Delhi-based poet and filmmaker Anureet Watta. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that their observation shines in their craft and that, with their poems, they are trying to reconcile with unresolved conflicts and deep scars that are often intergenerational and remain invisible for years (if not lifetimes).
I interviewed Watta over an email to enquire about why and how they invoke memory, report incidents of violence, and write and perform their poetry.
Q. Any particular reason for excavating sites of violence and centring your work around it in this collection?
Before I began writing a book, I was simply writing poems, loosely strung together by what I knew about the world at 19. However, as I looked closely, I discovered that all that I wanted to say emerged from violence or rushed to stop it.
In the times we live in, violence is the ‘preferred answer’. It sits quietly in our institutions. It’s announced loudly when the police rushes to the streets. The idea of a nation state is to filter, screen and reproduce it [violence] in the names of development, order, and law. Further, it’s a comfortable definition of victory.
To win, must mean to bruise, and this definition follows us to our personal lives. There is an inherent violence of ‘being’ and it is inescapable. I also wanted to write a queer book, and violence is only second to grief when it comes to documenting the lived realities of queer people. Poems about queerness, even when not about violence, can’t help but admit the violence that accompanies queerness. And as I traversed on this journey to find more, I found works that pulled me deeper into this wondrous and dim little hole of understanding violence in actuality.
I was inspired by what Ocean Vuong calls the ‘lexicon of violence’ — the vocabulary of death and destruction we can’t do away with. There was also Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ that changed my worldview from viewing humanity as a story of pursuit and victory to a story of collective and community. As I wrote this book, in form, I was well aware I wanted it to follow the traditional three-act structure of a story. While the book begins in violence, it goes from the visible and undeniable forms of it, to the surreptitious, it ends in the antidote of violence — love. I wanted this book to not only explore violence but also make way for an alternate way of being, which is why much of it towards the end is hopeful and joyous.
Q. I really felt that I’m reading an anthology of works by multiple writers that represent themselves through Anureet Watta. There’s so much directness in the first two parts—you’re really not playing by the rules, and in the following sections, you take a jibe at the rule-setters of poetry, saying that you’re an ‘unserious’ poet. What sort of a poet are you? What or who has influenced you — literary or otherwise?
That is a question I ask myself to this day. I have never formally studied poetry or even literature, and I am not great at following rules either. I write first as a lover and then as poet, and each time I’ve dived deep into a poem it has been because of this wonder more than wanting to say what I know. I have never played by the rules, not as an act of rebellion or something smarter but simply because I don’t know the rules, and as of now I am delighted with this not knowing. As for form, I treat each poem as a singular unit, I do not care about the poems I’ve already written or the poems I am yet to write, each poem is on its own in the world, which is why their forms are so varied.
However, writing so recklessly gave me my share of troubles when it came to arranging all these poems in the form of a book. Talking about influence, I can’t name a single artist I’ve ever known who has not influenced me. I view art as a collective and I do not discriminate by art form. Sometimes a painting I see — the way a hand might bend, or a shadow might fall, will influence me to write a poem. Sometimes it’s the flute in the background score of a film. Talking about poets, Richard Siken’s works have filled me with much glee every time I’ve run into them. I’ve loved Audre Lorde for the longest time, and Sylvia Plath was one of the first people I’ve ever read in my life and have kept going back to. I’ve been greatly inspired by poets who have written in Hindi, Punjabi and Hindustani — Gulzar, Paash and Amrita Pritam to name a few.
Q. In particular, you’ve cows and buses fighting for their place in society’s priority, hierarchical matrix. What compelled you to mention that over and over again? Am I right in guessing that these poems are particularly a response to the state-apathy and violence that continues in the current dispensation?
Yes, these poems were very much in response to the state apathy and violence. The cow and bus have been my symbols of religion and institutions weaponized by the state today. The fascination with the bus started during the CAA-NRC protests, the time where all media houses and politicians announced all students and protests as disposable and irrelevant because a green DTC bus was found burnt near a protest site.
Sabika Abbas Naqvi’s poem, ‘Bus Nahi Jalni Chahiye’ is a poem that deeply inspired me to write about ‘the bus’. The bus is the institution and the public property that the government tries so hard to protect at the cost of the lives of those citizens whose lives are lost over it. It is the state’s mentality, of protecting pristine white walls in a burning city — to deny oppression has ever existed, to protect the status quo. And, as for the cow, the cow literally and figuratively represents religion, the hegemony of Hinduism, and how all else is disposable. It is also about hate, the genocidal calls made so often in the name of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and the violence against Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis that follows it.
Q. There are also poems resulting from the amnesia of Partition. Could you share if you are documenting the lived realities of your grandparents, perhaps? And in what way does it help you to make sense of the incoherency of the times by converting them into poems? Are there still some unresolved conflicts?
Partition is a very central part of our family memory, three of my grandparents migrated from the other side of the border to India and the fourth one experienced her share of riots on this side. I wrote ‘Body without a Border’ to document my grandfather’s experience of partition that haunted him to his last days. No one can deny the violence that went into ripping a country into two. My grandfather had dementia, and to his last days he was worried about an impending partition — he believed it was yet to happen, the buses were yet to arrive, the blood was yet to be shed and he wanted to protect his family.
Sometimes he believed it would happen again — these are the kinds of scars that refuse to heal. Hence, to write a poem, after his death was to put this memory to rest. It’s ritualistic, like dispersing ashes in a river. I wrote a poem to close this unending battle he fought throughout his life, as well as to remember forever the wounds of migration. Poetry for me is a way of carrying grief, but also putting it down gently so our hands may be empty to also pick up joy.
Q. In the poem ‘A Body Worth Finding’, you write this part within parenthesis “When they aren’t it’s a personal matter/the nation has no business being outraged”. Was it purposefully added as a parenthetical note because the law still doesn’t recognise marital rapes are rapes? Or if I am missing something or have incorrectly read this, please elaborate.
Yes, the personal business is what the law sees as ‘happens inside a household’ which is marital rape as well as conversion therapy related rapes, that are hushed for the ‘good of the family’. It’s in parentheses because it’s an afterthought — left out of definition and documentation — whispered, but ever so slightly.
Q. There’s a constant presence of ‘sweaty palms’ and repetition of ‘wobbly knees’. Was it a coincidence? Or were you invested in sharing reflecting on our bodies in these poems, too?
No person in these poems is made of stone. For me, sweaty palms and wobbly knees are the fundamental state of existence — perhaps, add a restless foot as well. And each person I have mentioned is similar, in a different way — made of soft edges and imperfect smiles. There is also an underlying state of panic in most of these poems as most characters are queer — unafraid but ready to bruise, and where do you hide this invincibility? They are hopeful and powerful yes, but also afraid in the eye of god and hence the sweaty palms and the wobbly knees. I feel our bodies are made of poetry — the way a neck moves to say hello, the way an ankle is an open secret, thus most of my poems have intricate imagery about the body.
Q. Also, why are you asking for ‘forgiveness’ in the poem “they/them”? Or probably someone else, a personified version is. But again, why?
my arrival has disrupted your sentence
gender is such a hoax, isn’t it?]
In the eyes of the cis-heternormative world, queerness must be followed by asking for forgiveness. Queer people become vessels for guilt — always asking for forgiveness, for their names, their clothes, their actuality. And I have asked for forgiveness as it is customary. I’ve tried to speak the language cis heteronormative people might understand. What is more un-ironical than a queer person have to ask for forgiveness in a poem about pronouns and gender. This poem marks the last time I will ever ask for forgiveness from the cis-heteronormative world for existing as I want to.
Q. Were your sensibilities as a filmmaker crucial in making these poems come alive as short stories, full of imagery, space, smell, and sound?
As I mentioned before, all art forms are a cocktail in my head. When I am writing a poem, I am very much alive as a filmmaker and my love for images has greatly influenced my poetry. I do understand that art forms may be untranslatable with each other — a poem can only do what a poem can do, but I also think there is enough space to borrow and steal from each other. My instincts as a filmmaker helped me craft many images that I have tried to paint with my poems. However, a poem also creates a space a film never could — the air is tender and ready to break, the sofa is as huge as their love, the carpet is full of footprints of remorse — all these images that belong only to poems.
Q. How do you, if you do, see ‘writing’ poetry as different from ‘performing’ poetry? Given that you’re a performance artist yourself.
I don’t see it as any different. A poem is a living thing, I believe each poem deserves to be performed and each performance must be read. Of course there are some poems that are easier to perform, some poems that come alive with the format on paper, but I don’t think there are any boundaries they can’t cross. I see both writing and performing as complete exercises within themselves. Writing is solitary, it allows you time and space to map the poem as you want, and declare it only once ready. With performing, the audience is a part of the poem, and so are you. Each time I perform for an audience, for a moment I am the poem—my hands are the verses, my knees the metaphors, and the audience is well inside the poem—lazing on the carpet, watching the skies with me. It’s sort of a responsibility, to unravel the poem as you speak—you have full control over what is heard and what is looked past and it is a fulfilling experience in itself.