Interview with Mihir Vatsa

Our Blog Editors interviewed Mihir Vatsa, an Indian poet and the editor of Vayavya, for this week’s blog. In this interview, we ask him about the practice of writing and the habits that pertain to it in some way or another. We also ask Mihir about not only staying committed to writing, but also staying committed to writing about Hazaribagh.

Blog Editors: Ernest Hemingway wrote first thing in the morning. Maya Angelou reserved hotel rooms just to write. Stephen King forced himself to write six pages every day. Susan Sontag instructed people when not to call. Have you developed any specific methods for writing?

Mihir Vatsa: I wish I could reserve hotel rooms to write. Someday, perhaps, I will. I usually write at night– the darkness sorts relevance from distraction. When I am writing to meet a deadline, I set a target. With prose, it is thousand words. Poetry is more malleable that way– just three lines could be a poem too, as long as they are good three lines. I am more relaxed with poetry, less so with prose. The latter demands some discipline, I have learned recently.  

BE: Do you journal? And how well do you work with or meet deadlines?

MV: Unfortunately, no, I don’t maintain a journal. I do have some romantic affinity towards the process though, and I like to hear stories that involve journal writing. I have tried it before, but have stopped midway. Trivial things begin to annoy me– is the notebook cover journalish enough, what if I wrote something and someone read it, if I am doing it on my PC then what should be the password, do I really want it personal or do I secretly want it read? I think of these clearly pressing thoughts and defer it.

I think I can work with deadlines, though I procrastinate a lot. So if the deadline is tomorrow, I would get working today, not sleeping, not eating, a bit possessed. It’s not a healthy practice for a writer, but then writers are not really known for their exemplary health.

BE:Do you outline ideas before or do you let the form teach you what kind of story you are writing?

MV: I do outline, but mostly in mind. I prefer having some ideas, some thoughts about what I should write once I start the computer. Often a poem is left hanging for a few days: one stanza emerges, then there is the wait, then another line comes up. When I am not writing, I am working with collages– cut here, paste there. When I think I have enough to go with, I start typing. With longer poems, I take it slow, filling in the blanks first, then tying the content up as the form suggests. With prose, and especially essays, I have found that it’s helpful to have some pointers beforehand, a road map, on how to progress from one thought to the other without jarring the flow.  

BE: What do you do when you become stuck while writing?

MV: If the deadline is far, I give in to the block. I switch to Netflix or Youtube, or take up a book which I had been meaning to read. You can only watch something for so long. When saturation hits, writing becomes a needed retreat. Sometimes I get stuck because I don’t want to put an idea into a form that I have already done before. Then, reading helps. I go to the internet and read whatever poetry I can find, preferably by poets who are alive. That way, I get to see what other poets in the world are doing, how they are managing language, how they are working with form, and so on. The last time I got stuck, the deadline was close. So I ordered a book and told myself not to touch it before I finished writing. It kind of worked.

BE: How do you stay committed to Hazaribagh? Is there a different lens or observation you require in order to practice the writing of something so close when you want it to reach far?

MV: This is a really good question, actually. My upcoming book A Highland in the East (Speaking Tiger Books 2019) is a memoir about living and travelling in the Hazaribagh plateau, and though I had a great time writing it, I was also often conflicted about my loyalty to Hazaribagh. I am not talking about the town per se– Hazaribagh is like any other small Indian town. It has its half-finished buildings with exposed brickwork, it has its temples and mosques and narrow streets. Somehow these things haven’t appealed to me yet. I am more attached to Hazaribagh’s landscape. Therefore, the hills, the trees, the rivers, etc are my points of affect. I remember, this one time, my friend Raza Kazmi and I were staying for a few days at Palamu Tiger Reserve in Latehar. The place is about a six-hour drive from Hazaribagh. There, I was surrounded by taller hills, denser forests, reliable waterfalls, and it made me sad. What if I outgrow Hazaribagh? “You can be committed to Hazaribagh and still enjoy Palamu,” Raza said something along this line, and though I understood him, I was still uncertain. What I fear is that one day there will be nothing wonderful about Hazaribagh for me. No waterfall will excite me. Been there, done that– that kind of boredom, you know, and so I try to modify perspectives. There is a lot in Hazaribagh, things that I still don’t know, so maybe one day I will enjoy the roads, or the history, or engage with the place in a more direct, participatory way. At the moment, I am gripped by the plateau; later, it might be some other aspect of the town.

Perception is universal– the way I perceive Hazaribagh may be similar or different to people who perceive other places, but the act is not uniquely mine. As writers, we work in and with shared cultures, so I think while Hazaribagh may be a little-known, “niche” place to write about, the things I feel when I am in Hazaribagh do resonate with people outside. When I post a photo of a hill range and see the reactions on it, I know I am doing something right. I try to understand the relevance of Hazaribagh for other people, and this is a conjecture at best, but I think that in Hazaribagh, I work through a dual-gaze. I am both an insider and the outsider, insider to the town, outsider to the plateau. When I look for information on, say, how the lake came about, or how the hill was fashioned earlier to appear the way it does now, I am being a hopeless local historian; on the other hand, when I venture into the forest, trailing a stream and not knowing where it would take me, I feel more like a tourist. Perhaps this duality works, though I am not sure yet.

BE: Do you think your editorial practice, or editorial ethics, have impacted your practice as a writer?

MV: Maybe? I don’t really know. Earlier I used to get irritated at the long wait to get a response, but as someone who has also been on the other side of things, I realise now that such delays happen, especially if you are working as a small, un- or underpaid team. One thing that I loved doing as an editor was to really edit– and not just select– a poem for publication, you know, the old-fashioned way. I would chance upon a poem which was almost ready, except that it didn’t work in some parts and patches. Whenever it was the case, I offered detailed feedback, putting the ball in the poet’s court. Here is what I think. If you agree, we can go ahead with the publication. With my own writing too, I am not averse to feedback or revision. I appreciate it if someone devotes a chunk of their time to offer comments on my work. This is something that I cherish with respect to writing, mine or someone else’s.

155727205559673739MIHIR VATSA is the author of the poetry collections Painting That Red Circle White (Authors Press 2014) and Wingman (Aainanagar & Vayavya 2017). A former Charles Wallace Fellow of Writing at University of Stirling, UK, Mihir is the winner of Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize and a Toto Funds the Arts Award in Writing. Mihir lives in the plateau-town of Hazaribagh, India, where he works across the disciplines of literature, writing and human geography.