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TALKING BOOKS

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Rachna Singh, Editor The Wise Owl talks to Kuhu Joshi about her book My Body Did'nt Come Before Me (Speaking Tiger 2023)

Talking Books

With Kuhu Joshi

Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl, talks to Kuhu Joshi, an upcoming young poet, about her recently released poetry collection ‘My Body Didn’t Come Before Me.’

 

Thank you Kuhu for talking with The Wise Owl about your brand-new poetry collection.

 

RS: Your book ‘My Body Didn’t Come Before Me’ has been released recently. Some critics have called it a ‘stunning debut.’ Tell us a little about the genesis of this book and the inspiration behind this book.

 

KJ: The body is the genesis of this book. Growing up with scoliosis, I became really good at hiding myself, both physically and emotionally. I wore loose outfits so my curves wouldn’t show, wore black instead of bright colours, isolated myself in my room, stayed silent when upset or angry. It was exhausting. I wanted to find my voice. That’s why I wrote the poems that became ‘My Body Didn’t Come Before Me.’ It was an act of reaching-out, reaching-towards, a reader. Of hoping that we could connect through our stories. I was inspired by other Indian poets who seemed to be breaking their own silences. Aditi Rao, Urvashi Bahuguna, Meena Kandasamy, and Tishani Doshi’s books greatly influenced mine.

 

 

RS: You have a masters in Economics and you worked as a research analyst for 3 years with the International Food Policy Research Institute. Our readers would be curious to know (as I am) what made you switch to literature & poetry?

 

KJ: Growing up, it was hard to choose between literature and science because I was good at both. I loved reading and writing, and I loved solving mathematical problems. I almost dropped out of B.Sc. Statistics my first year at Delhi University to enrol in B.A. English. I would have excelled at both, which made it harder to pick. When I was working as an economist at IFPRI, a big part of my job was writing research papers. Everyone praised me for how talented I was as a writer. The pull towards writing became too strong to ignore.

 

 

RS: Your first chapbook Private Maps is a long poem & your second book is a poetry collection. So clearly poetry is your first love. For the benefit of our readers, please tell us about your creative journey as a poet and what made you gravitate towards this literary genre?

 

KJ: Poetry is my first love. I think it started in school, reading poems in English textbooks. I remember being bowled over by Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn’. It felt like a secret language I wanted to speak. I wrote a lot of poems in school. It was fun. I was a good singer and I took music classes and wrote songs. I also sang prayers with both sets of my grandparents (who I was very close to) when they prayed in their puja rooms at home. Poetry was close to prayer and song, and as a child I recognised that. But it wasn’t until much later that I realised one could become a poet. I used to think poets were dead and male and British. I think I rediscovered poetry on the internet, especially Instagram. And then I found Aditi Rao’s first poetry collection ‘The Fingers Remember’ during a pottery retreat I was attending in the mountains, in Shilaroo. I was so excited I was shivering. I thought, that’s what I want to do! That’s the kind of book I want to write. I ordered it right away. After that, there was no looking back. I kept buying and reading poetry.

 

 

RS: Your book is titled ‘My Body didn’t come before me’. The title intrigues me. Do tell us the significance this title holds for you?

 

KJ: My Body Didn’t Come Before Me is a chant, a prayer, a quiet call for defiance. For as long as I can remember, I have felt defined and confined by my body and its limitations. In that sense my body always came before me, as an obstacle, a barrier. My relationship with my body was further complicated by being a girl in a conservative patriarchal society. The title reclaims the fullness of the person behind the body.

 

 

RS: Your poetry treads troubled waters. The poems in your book articulate the pain of a spinal deformity, the doctor sessions, the discomfort with a body not in your control etc. These themes, woven into the fabric of your poems, make your book a coming of age book. Apart from creative satisfaction, does your poetry also offer you ‘catharsis’ and a final acceptance of your ‘self’ with all its strengths as well as weaknesses?

 

KJ: Yes, writing these poems was definitely cathartic. I felt immense joy after writing each one, even the most difficult ones. Writing helps me regain a sense of internal agency and control, which I lacked ever since the diagnosis. I haven’t reached a final place of acceptance though. Perhaps because my condition is chronic. I am still writing about the same subject and themes. It is an ongoing journey.

 

 

RS: Our readers, who are upcoming poets, would love to know a little about the creative process that goes into your poetry writing.

 

KJ: I’m glad for this question as I teach creative writing and can talk for hours about the creative process! I’ll try to keep it brief. I read a lot, all the time, every day, and I invest in poetry books by contemporary American and Indian poets. Studying other writers’ craft keeps me in touch with my own and also gives me a sense of what’s possible. I also keep journals and notebooks where I collect memories, lines, photographs, images, and sensory stimuli. Poems are created by collaging together lines and details from notebooks, or by chipping down longer written material. I work like a sculptor, with words instead of clay. The visual aspect of a poem is exciting for me. I also pay a lot of attention to sound and silence while arranging my lines on the page. I read out loud when I am revising, over and over, until the lines sound right. Other activities outside of writing also inform my creative process. For example, I do yoga (for scoliosis and back pain) and it keeps me grounded and humble when I sit down to write.

 

 

RS: Your poetry is brave in that it does not hesitate to articulate your thoughts and feelings honestly and without concealment. What gave you the strength to do that? Did you have any creative mentors who encouraged you to do that?

 

KJ: Thank you. It was hard for sure. I am able to be more open and honest when I write. I grew up in a culture where much was hushed up and brushed under the carpet. I didn’t hear anyone talking frankly about what they were going through. It created so much isolation amongst us, at home and among friends. I couldn’t really share my difficulties openly and had to pretend to be perfect. I was drawn to writers and artists who were brave and spoke their truth. Audre Lorde, Amrita Pritam, Kamala Das, and Frida Kahlo come to mind. They made me feel less alone.

 

 

RS: If I was to ask you to define yourself as a poet in 3 adjectives, what would those be and why?

 

KJ: Obsessive, perceptive, resilient.

I obsess over the smallest details when I’m working on a poem, down to the placement of punctuation. It’s my way of loving. A dance between me and the poem.

Perceptive and resilient because without those qualities I wouldn’t be a poet.

 

 

Thank you for taking time out to speak with us Kuhu. We wish you the very best in all your literary pursuits and hope you write more poetry ‘with as little concealment as possible.’

About Kuhu Joshi
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Kuhu Joshi is the author of My Body Didn't Come Before Me (Speaking Tiger, 2023), a collection of poems exploring disability, girlhood, love, lust, and belonging. She traces her lineage to the mountains of Kumaon in Uttarakhand, India, and has lived in New Delhi most of her life before migrating to New York. She received her MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College where she was a Jane Cooper Poetry Fellow and studied with Marie Howe, Vijay Seshadri, Dennis Nurkse, and other brilliant colleagues and professors. Her work has been published in Poetry, Four Way Review, Best New Poets, Rattle, and other prominent literary magazines. She has received support from the Academy of American Poets, Napa Valley Writers Conference, Teaching Artist Project, and Vermont Studio Center. She currently teaches creative writing and English composition as an adjunct professor at Pace University, Fordham University, and at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She has a Masters in Economics from The Graduate Institute, Geneva, and used to be a researcher specializing in gender and development economics. She worked at the International Food Policy Research Institute in New Delhi where she conducted field-work and wrote for academic journals. Her second poetry manuscript, Mother Tongue, was a finalist for the Black Lawrence Press Immigrant Writing Series. She is also a plant mom, abstract artist, and yogi. She has been practicing Iyengar Yoga since she was diagnosed with severe scoliosis at age 12. She is currently working on a memoir on living with scoliosis. For more, visit kuhujoshi.com

About Rachna Singh
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A doctorate in English literature and a former bureaucrat, Rachna Singh has authored Penny Panache (2016) Myriad Musings (2016) Financial Felicity (2017) & The Bitcoin Saga: A Mixed Montage (2019). She has authored Phoenix in Flames, a book about eight ordinary women from different walks of life who become extraordinary on account of their fortitude & grit. She writes regularly for National Dailies and has also been reviewing books for the The Tribune for more than a decade. She runs a YouTube Channel, Kuch Tum Kaho Kuch Hum Kahein, which brings to the viewers poetry of established poets of Hindi & Urdu. She loves music and is learning to play the piano. Nurturing literature & art is her passion and to make that happen she has founded The Wise Owl, a literary & art magazine that provides a free platform for upcoming poets, writers & artists. 

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