As the government seemingly reduces the importance of poetry on the national curriculum, by making its study optional at the GCSE level, Finito World is introducing this regular series aimed at illustrating the utility of poetry, and examining the relationship between literature and the workplace. Poets are asked to produce a poem which speaks to what our first featured poet, Tishani Doshi, calls ‘ideas of work, leisure, community, labour, decoration, and poetry and the space we create for it all. ‘ After we produce the poem, we then give the reader a Q & A touching on the life of the poet and their relationship with work.
Tishani Doshi is a poet and novelist born in what was then Madras in 1975. She has built an international reputation on the back of her poetry and novels – for which she has won many awards, including the Eric Gregory Award and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her novels have also been critically acclaimed. Her most recent Small Days and Nights has been shortlisted for the Tata Best Fiction Award 2019 and the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2020.
In ‘Postcard from Work’ lockdown-bound readers will immediately be relieved by the exotic colours – ‘the yellow trumpet flowers’ and the ‘sunbirds…diving in and out of this den of gold.’ It is a poem which begins in a blaze of light. It is a piece ostensibly about work, but where little work is done – except the perhaps more vital work of paying tribute to the natural world, and mulling our place in it. Sometimes the best we have to offer our masters is to take a mental holiday from the tasks they have set us to do.
Doshi knows that we were not born only to consider ‘the price of milk’ but to find ways of being which let death know we mean to ‘hold on.’ Work has to be done – and someone has to do it, and that will mean taking a break from dreaming. Doshi zooms out to show us what tasks lie unfinished around the narrator: we might be in a seamstress’ (‘someone else will tend the hem’) or even at a vet (‘someone else will pry open the dog’s jaw’). All our leisure, the moments we snatch, must be supported by drudgery elsewhere. Doshi also makes her living as a dancer, and her poems always have something of dance about them – they are miracles of rhythm and movement, and full of a joy which does what poetry should do: her poems are the antidote we didn’t know we needed until they came our way.
Postcard from Work
Forgive me, I have been busy
with the yellow trumpet flowers.
They dance uselessly, slivers
of rapture. I know the dishes
need washing but the sunbirds
are diving in and out of this den
of gold. Their dark purple wings
are soft nets, intimate with the leaves.
Beaks poised to receive nectar. There are
days I neglect my beard. I grow tired
of digging. I imagine someone else
will tend the hem, the torn sleeve.
Someone else will pry open
the dog’s jaw for his evening pill.
Our throats are in constant need
I’ve sublet a room
to a poet who does not know
the price of milk but is ready
to lay down her spear and surgical
instruments, to worship the roots
of this labyrinth. If there is rain
and soil, onions will grow. After
a day in the field, the poet and I
sit around a fire to sing. It is a way
of letting death know we mean to hold
on. The threshold stays warm. We flick
at night with a fly-brush, cheat insects
of their audience with a chorus
resurrected from silence. Think
of the performance of this lament
as our hunger, of the armchair
in the corner, our repose.
Underneath, is a footstool
What is the interplay in your life between dance and poetry? Is it an entirely fruitful one or can it be said to be in any way antagonistic?
Poetry came first, but in a way, poetry only came into being once I had dance. They’ve never been antagonistic, unless you count yearning for one, while you’re engaged in the other? But that feels such a natural way of being in the world. Both require a kind of vulnerability and strength – the making of your own vocabulary. When I’m in a lazy mode, which is my most natural way of being, I wonder at both the worlds of poetry and dance, the capabilities we don’t imagine for ourselves.
How do you find the business side of your writing life? Many writers I know struggle with invoices/tax/the admin of it all? But then I think that can also be a cliché and many writers be surprisingly scrappy and hard-headed?
I studied business administration and communications before ditching it for poetry, so I can get around economics and accountancy alright, but that’s not to say I thrill in it. I move in waves. Sometimes I’m terribly productive about everything – to-do lists and all. Other times I want to be left alone to watch the flowers.
The UK government has recently said that poetry should be optional at the GCSE level – a significant demotion in its importance on the curriculum. What is your view on that and what do you feel the impact will be?
One of my first jobs was to teach an introduction to poetry and fiction class to students at Johns Hopkins University. It was a required class, most of my students were pre-med or engineering. I like to think as a result that in future dentist waiting rooms, there may be a volume of Elizabeth Bishop lying around, or that someone designing a bridge might dip into the poems of Imtiaz Dharker for inspiration. I don’t know what the UK government’s motivations for demoting poetry are, but I hope usefulness was not a factor. Everything is connected. I can’t imagine any kind of life that doesn’t need the intuition and imagination of poetry.
What sort of role does poetry have in India – does the government encourage it sufficiently or is there tension in your country also on that score?
Well, our current prime minister unfortunately published a volume of poems, called A Journey. Historically, tyrants have had a thing for poetry (see Mao, Nero, Stalin, Mussolini Bin Laden), which gives poetry a bad rep. Poetry as I remember it in school was rather fossilized and distant. I think at the college level, there have been serious efforts to rejuvenate and decolonize the syllabus. In schools, I fear they may still be standing up in front of classrooms with hands clasped, reciting “charge of the light brigade.”
Was there a particular teacher when you were younger who turned you onto poetry?
Yes. Her name was Cathy Smith Bowers. I took one of her classes as an undergraduate in college, and it changed my life.
What’s your favourite poem about the workplace?
I read this as a work poem, because I love my work, and my work is poetry.
Love is a Place by EE Cummings
love is a place
& through this place of
(with brightness of peace)
yes is a world
& in this world of