Shash is a Tamil from Sri Lanka who draws on her personal experiences of civil war in her work. She was also one of two Apprentice Poets in Residence.
For this role, she performed at an ILF event, On the Rise: New Yorkshire Poets, and performed some of her work. Check out her performance by listening to the track below and keep reading to hear about her experience as Apprentice Poet in Residence!
Can you remember the first poem you wrote?
I was about 5 or 6 and it was about my pet dog. I cannot remember it exactly. All I know is that it was apparently better than my older brother’s effort: “I have a dog/ It has four legs/ and a tail”. The first ‘proper’ poem I wrote was when I was 19, and had just started university. It was about the war in Sri Lanka, and I have long lost it. It was probably very bad, but I still remember the wonder of creating it, watching the words flow across lines that seemed to open up new possibilities.
Who or what has influenced your work?
This list would be endless! I would say that every poet I read, whose work I admire, has influenced me. In my teenage years it was the First World War Poets, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Blake and Donne. Each year since then, the list has grown. I have been greatly influenced by women poets (Alice Oswald, U A Fanthorpe, Anne Sexton, Stevie Smith, Mary Oliver); by Tamil poets (Sivaramani, Pramil, Cheran, Ahilan, Kutti Revathi, Sukirtharani – a fantastic Dalit poet from India who writes about caste discrimination). I am drawn to poetry with a conscience. I’ve probably left out many great poets who have influenced me, but I will owe a great deal to the next new volume I read, followed by the one after that, and so on.
Which poem or poet do you never tire of reading?
This is ever changing and tends to be those poets I am reading at the moment. I have been re-reading Will Harris’s RENDANG and Rishi Dastidar’s Saffron Jack . Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise. I love the work of Sasha Dugdale and am looking forward to reading her new collection Deformations which has a long exploration of Eric Gill. Then There Were No Witnesses, a new collection from the Sri Lankan Tamil poet Ahilan (translated by Geetha Sukumaran), is another volume I’ve enjoyed re-reading. His compact and exacting poetry holds so much meaning and weight – each reading reveals something new. I have some favourite anthologies which I often turn to: MPT’s Centres of Cataclysm, Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive series, and Lost Evenings, Lost Lives edited and translated by Lakshmi Holmström & Sascha Ebeling, which is a collection of Tamil poetry from the Sri Lankan civil war.
Can you describe your process of writing and translating poetry?
I wouldn’t say it’s easy writing poetry but I certainly love doing it. I write using various methods, some mechanical some more organic. The poems that have meant most to me have been ones where I have heard either the first or the last line, and have let those lines lead me onto writing the rest of the poem. These are the poems that I ‘complete’ relatively quickly. I do use prompts occasionally, but these poems take a lot longer to craft. While I am writing a poem I carry it around with me constantly in my head. I know a poem is finished when I cannot hear it anymore in my mind.
I do research my poems – not all – but many. Often I will have an idea which I will research, while watching a poem take shape. Sometimes the poem takes shape and then I will do some research to add to it. I did a lot of research for my Ilkley commission on the language of flowers. I know nothing about horticulture, so it was good fun learning about flowers from across the world.
Translation is a different process altogether. You have to keep your mind open to the music and cadence of another’s voice, never second guessing, but letting the words lead you to where the poet wants you to be. I consider it the most privileged of work: to be able to peek behind the door of another’s mind, to enter a world they have created, let it subsume you, so that when you transplant it into English, you have extracted the essence of their intent. Translation can be intellectually exhausting. You first discover the joy of words and their meaning, notice the choices of the poet, wonder at it while moving onto the next line and the next meaning. After you have translated a poem, you have to re-craft it into a similarly beautiful and meaningful poem in English. As I translate between Tamil and English, I find the tussle between the mechanics of word orders and choices and the process of rendering something from an unfamiliar culture into something that would chime with an English audience, particularly exhilarating.
As a poetry translator do you find poems can become any more or less powerful after translation?
A good translation has a beauty all of its own. When we read a translated work and catch our breath at the lyricism of a particular phrase or use of words, we are noticing the skill of the translator. The beauty of the original thought is that of the creator; the ability to make a new audience appreciate this beauty anew is the skill of the translator.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to write and publish poetry?
I’m not sure I have anything important to say, so I will just pass on advice that I have received. That is to read, read and read some more. Write everyday, even if what you write today will end up in the bin tomorrow. Don’t feel pressured into following any one ‘path’ – if submitting to competitions doesn’t work for you, ignore competitions. Allow yourself time to enjoy your work and just keep writing!
What did your role as ILF Apprentice Poet in Residence entail?
I was lucky enough to be partnered with Genevieve Carver, someone who has a completely different style and emphasis to me. It was wonderful getting to know her and her work. As part of the Festival, we gave a joint reading with two other Yorkshire Poets: Jasmine Simms and Warda Yassin. It was lovely meeting Jasmine and Warda too, and sharing a stage with them and their fantastic work.
I was commissioned by the festival to write a 12 poem cycle, based loosely on the final section of David Jones’s In Parenthesis, using the language of flowers to write about extraordinary women survivors of warfare. I found creating these poems an absolute joy. Several of them have found new homes since the festival and I am very grateful to Ilkley for giving me the chance to bring these poems into being.
I also ran a translation workshop at the festival, translating the poems of the Singaporean Tamil poet Latha into English. The workshop was great fun – the participants having no knowledge of Tamil was not an impediment. By using an English bridge translation we set about making our own versions of Latha’s poems. The whole experience demonstrated the power of words to transcend barriers and differences.
I also had the pleasure of judging the 18-25 section of the Walter Swan Poetry Competition. It was a real privilege to read the work of so many talented young poets.
Finally, I had the chance to meet Colette Bryce, a poet I have long admired. She was incredibly generous with her time and supportive in her advice. Being able to meet with and learn from someone like Colette is an opportunity I would not have had without the help of the Festival.
What did you enjoy most about your Apprentice Poet in Residency at Ilkley Lit Fest?
(See above). I loved the friendly and intimate atmosphere of ILF. Everyone was so friendly, from Erica Morris, Alex Corwin and Becky Wholley to the various stewards at the events. I was looked after very well and any help I needed was given in a flash. It was lovely feeling that you were one small cog in this vast machine. It is a fantastically intimate festival, I will remember the warmth and support of it always.
How have you been getting creative during lockdown? Do you have any tips for people struggling to write at the moment?
Like so many other poets, I have not been writing as much as I should have during lockdown. With two children receiving remote lessons, and a husband delivering remote lessons, there wasn’t much quiet or any physical space in which to write during the day. I’ve spent a lot of time reading and working on my next project.
Have you released any new work since Ilkley Lit Fest 2019 and what is next for you?
I’ve been fortunate to place a few of the poems from my commission in journals, including The North (forthcoming).
A poetry publisher who heard me read at the Festival approached me about publishing my pamphlet. The pamphlet is now ready but is held up by the backlog caused by COVID-19. I am waiting for things to proceed in the autumn (hopefully). I am very excited about this and also extremely thankful: I would not have had this wonderful opportunity if it weren’t for the festival.
Further, Vidyan Ravindran invited me to join him in co-editing an anthology of poetry out of Sri Lanka, to be published by Bloodaxe. Along with Seni Seneviratne, we are collating Tamil and Sinhala poems in translation, along with poems in English written by poets who identify as Tamil or Sinhala Sri Lankans, however removed from the island by time or geography. I am responsible for the Tamil poetry section and it has been wonderful to spend lockdown reading volumes of Tamil poetry, making contact with fantastic poets from across the world, and putting together this anthology. Working with Vidyan and Seni has also been wonderful – they are such supportive and inspiring colleagues.