Manipuri poet Yumlembam Ibomcha Singh talks to Robin Ngangom about his desire to write poems that blow a cool breeze when it’s muggy.
Robin Ngangom: What was that ‘spark’ that made you write poetry in the first place? You were also part of the Angry Young Poets group of the 1970s. How much has your poetry changed since then?
Yumlembam Ibomcha: Times when salt was put to wounds, subjects that emanated from ‘noise’, ‘silence’ too – all these made me write. Bastards fated to unending deprivation, the numerous who are perpetual victims of the powerful few that seek more power through despicable and evil means – their lives have turned me into someone who’s always licking wounds. I seem to hear the wail of a crowd always. I can’t tell how much my poetry has changed since the 70s. Not much, I think. I haven’t written much either. From 2000 onwards, I’ve felt this growing need to search for “true silence”.
RN: I notice a streak of anti-realism in your poems. Is this deliberate? What are the themes that you go back to often, and what is your present poetic strategy?
YI: It must have crept in somehow. Linear, realistic stuff seems terribly inadequate to depict the times. I’ve sometimes felt that a huge mad laugh would make people sit up. Human attitudes and subjects related to lives in radical circumstances must be the themes of my poetry. Since our lives are mixed up with politics, some political matter must have found their way into my poems. Needless to say, an oppressive storm of disquiet seems to be sweeping over every place on earth. “Ecological suicide” (as someone has called it), armed conflicts, new diseases, have made us apprehensive. I’d like to write poems which can blow a cool breeze when it’s muggy.
RN: Aside from Thangjam Ibopishak Singh and yourself, I haven’t come across any outstanding Manipuri poet. Why, in your opinion, has Manipuri poetry not progressed despite the fact that poetry books are published every year?
YI: In Manipur, especially in Imphal, books are published almost every day, and poetry books outnumber the rest. I can’t read all that poetry, but among the collections I read I have found good ones. True, considering the sheer number of poetry volumes, commendable ones are few and far between. One of the reasons why Manipuri poetry cannot progress qualitatively is that many poet-aspirants seem to be suffering from the “publish or perish” syndrome. Further, in this “open world” that we live in now, the people of Manipur, writers and poets included, suffer from a poverty of opportunity and exposure to world literature. It shows in their works.
RN: You won the Sahitya Akademi for your collection of short stories. There are very few writers who are equally adept in two genres. Can fiction and poetry complement each other or do you have to give up one to concentrate on the other?
YI: Poetry and fiction do complement each other – happily, I’d claim. Outstanding fiction, dramas are imbued with poetry. In almost every page of the Old Man and the Sea you’d smell poetry; for me this book is a book of poetry. I haven’t written fiction for a long time. Even so, there’s fiction in my poetry.
RN: In the agonising political situation of Manipur, do you think that poetry has any role to play?
YI: I believe, a masterpiece can stimulate or provoke people in a specific situation or time and beyond that time perhaps. In the excruciating state of affairs in Manipur, violence (perpetrated by both state and non-state powers) which seems to be the visible reality has appropriated the political and the social arenas. It is perfectly possible that poetry occasioned by what one has endured or experienced firsthand can indeed show the way to a better life. On the other hand, if one writes with the conviction that poetry must play a role, the effort will not only fail to become poetry but also end up as unappetising propaganda. A poem is a piece of art in the first place and then is found to be inextricably related to life.
Muse India: Robin Ngangom gives an overview of contemporary Manipuri Poetry
SARAI: ‘Poetry in a Time for Terror’, an article by Robin S. Ngangom
Thangjam Ibopishak Singh's poems and interview on Poetry International Web