Sanjana Saksena is a poet, a novelist and also a full-time employee in a reputed MNC juggling her tasks so well that she can manage writing a book of poems and a full-length novel with optimum effect on the readers. Her book of poems, Sisyphus is Happy and Selected Poems, is a collection of poems that discuss various themes and ideas – from the Greek myths to Indian general issues. An English literature graduate from the reputed LSR, Delhi, Sanjana is settled with her husband in Bangalore. In the interview below, She answers questions about her writing, her vision and her upcoming book. You will certainly enjoy reading the interview. Do share it with your friends who are interested in literature and Indian English writing in general.
Alok Mishra: Sanjana, before we get into the content of your book, let’s talk about poetry itself. You have written in your book that your grandfather introduced you to poetry. So, what is poetry to you? How do you perceive the art of verse?
Sanjana Sakesna: I began writing poems at the age of 9. These were, of course, the ramblings of a hyper-observant child. However, I chose poetry as a medium because even then, I found a certain simplicity and beauty in verse as opposed to prose. I grew up on a staple diet of literature and music, both of which my grandfather and father were very fond of. Poetry brings the two together and it was natural that I would be influenced by that. I think my love for poetry intensified when I went on to study English Literature in college. We were made to study the romantics, contemporary Asian and American poets and medieval poets like Dante and their style and imagery fascinated me. Today, though poetry in its traditional form is not widely read, it is prevalent in pop culture. Sloganeering, Songs and even Rap are all poetry in their own right and that is the brilliance of this genre. There are no rules and no limitations to what you can do with words.
When readers buy a book, they want a story, a beginning, middle and end. They want a character or a chronology of events but poetry doesn’t warrant the same expectations. As poets, what we present is our perception of something, our emotions, our thoughts and those might resonate with some and not so much with others. We try to evoke an emotion, any emotion in the reader.
Alok Mishra: You have the title that comes from Greek mythology. How did your interest in poetry lead to an interest in Greek poetry and mythology?
Sanjana Sakesna: I get asked this question a lot and again it has a lot to do with the stories I heard growing up. Storytelling was an intrinsic part of my childhood and my grandfather would tell me and my cousins different stories every day, most of which were mythological in nature. As a child, I was fascinated with mythology because of the elements of fantasy and only later did I see it in a religious context. We have made gods of our epic characters as having the Greeks and Romans but at the end of the day, for me as a reader, they are human and they had very real human problems but with supernatural abilities to help solve them. If you read mythology as a story, which it really is, it becomes more palpable and that is what I did. In college, I picked a course in Classical Literature and there was a huge amount of Greek literature from epics like the Illiad to plays and Greek tragedies and since I was already a history/mythology buff, it was natural that I would be drawn to them. While there are several references to Mythological characters in my book, they are all used to bring attention to more pertinent themes like Existentialism, and oppression of women and that is the beauty of mythology, it is timeless and always relevant.
Alok Mishra: How do you choose themes for your poems? Does it come spontaneously as you sit to write or you think about the theme before you begin writing?
Sanjana Sakesna: In my case, especially with poetry, it is more spontaneous. An idea suddenly comes to me and I might scribble it on a writing pad or make some notes on my phone and then flesh it out later. I never sit down and say that okay today I have to write 2 poems. With poetry, it doesn’t work like that for me. If you read Sisyphus is Happy, you’ll see that there is no connection between that and other poems in the book. They are all based on largely different themes because they came to me at different times in life. Some were triggered by something I heard or saw, some are simply my thoughts so there isn’t any real rule I follow. Having said that, I am currently working on my first novel and that requires a lot more discipline and planning. I have to take out dedicated time to write and plan the plot and sub-plots and make character sketches. You need a lot more structure when you’re writing a book.
Alok Mishra: Who are the poets you have read the most? You have mentioned Bachchan and Wordsworth in your book. Who are poets other than these two that you have read and admire?
Sanjana Sakesna: Among Indian poets, Harivansh Rai Bachchan is an all-time favourite. My grandfather introduced me to Madhushala when I was still in school and it continues to have a profound impact on me. I also admire Jeet Thayil. His poems are very sensory. I can visualize the scene he is painting as I read and that is truly amazing. Among the international poets, and I’m not even going to refer to the classics, I have followed the works of Charles Bukowski and I think he’s brilliant in both poetry and prose. The simplicity with which he captures the social and cultural ambience of his times is remarkable.
Alok Mishra: Generally, reading your poems give out the impression that you are a believer in the betterment of society. You are also interested in history and lessons we can learn from it. You are equally interested in the world that we have created around us with screens as imprisonment. How do you react to these things, Sanjana?
Sanjana Sakesna: I do believe that as a society we need to introspect and look at our beliefs from a more individualistic lens and that may reflect in the themes I choose to write about. But it would be unfair of me to say that I write to change or challenge society. My poetry, as I’ve said before, is more a result of observation. I write what I see, hear, read, think and all I want to do is make my readers think as well. I look to history and to society and to the world for inspiration and they never disappoint.
Alok Mishra: Coming back to the idea of poetry itself, what do you think is more important for a poet – the emotional awareness or an intellectual approach? Or do you have other ideas about the conflict between the head and the heart?
Sanjana Sakesna: Poetry comes from neither the head nor the heart, it comes from the soul. We’ve often heard the phrase ‘his performance lacked soul’ or ‘there was no soul in her work’ and I think what it truly means is that for poems to strike a chord, they need to have a soul which is actually an amalgamation of the head, heart, mind, and character.
Poetry for me is very personal, it’s a reflection of how I think or perceive a certain theme and so I need to invest in it more emotionally than intellectually. If I were to follow my head I wouldn’t be writing poetry at all, I’d be spending my time on a racy fiction that is likely to sell more and is more mainstream.
Alok Mishra: In the world that we live in, I think we have left meaningful literature behind us, if not that far, a few hundred steps behind. The literature that this generation is reading is purely for leisure and not for mental and emotional well-being. What do you have to say about it as a poet, Sanjana?
Sanjana Sakesna: Cliched as it may sound, art really is a reflection of society, so what is being widely read is also what is more often written. Having said that, I am glad that people are reading, even if it’s purely for leisure and not the most intellectual or highbrow literature. Reading anything gives you a new world, widens your horizon and no matter how good or bad or average the book may be, it does leave you with something you didn’t have earlier. Writers today don’t just compete with other writers, they have OTT platforms, Television, Digital content all vying for the same dwindling attention spans of the audience and if they need to accommodate for that when they write they do. Poetry though is still very niche and only people who are genuinely interested in the art will invest, both money and time, in a book of poems.
Alok Mishra: Is there any theme or idea that you would like to write a long poem about? Every poet has a vision and a dream-poem to write – what is that for you?
Sanjana Sakesna: I haven’t really thought about this. Poetry is something that comes to me unplanned and organically but I would love to someday write a ballad. I mentioned earlier that poets don’t necessarily have to weave a story and that gives them a lot more creative licence. With a ballad, you do need to craft a story and that makes it challenging and exciting.
Alok Mishra: And the last but very tricky question for you, how do you balance your creative urges and your daily chores in the household and workplace? Do you try to take some timeout deliberately to write or it just happens by itself?
Sanjana Sakesna: I am working full time in an MNC and yes it does get difficult given both professional and personal commitments but I ensure that my writing doesn’t suffer. I had mentioned earlier that I am working on a novel which requires both research and a lot of dedicated time which I give it in the evenings and on weekends. I have a long commute to work and some of my recent poems have fleshed out while I was travelling even if the idea came earlier. It’s important to prioritize your writing and not treat it as something that is flexible and I try doing that every day.