A Conversation on Ecological Urgency between Mererid Hopwood and Sampurna Chattarji
Siân Melangell Dafydd began the conversation by asking Mererid Hopwood and Sampurna Chattarji to respond to the idea that there might be an inevitable tension when we write about an ecological urgency while our practice involves reaching out and connecting to other writers and accepting that international travel is also inevitable. Indeed, this conversation and connection would not have been possible without travel.
Sampurna: It’s inevitable that over the last two and a half years, we were all forced to literally inhabit our very specific and circumscribed worlds – it made us yearn for that travel in a sort of metaphysical way – it wasn’t necessarily that we ever wanted to be on that 22-hour flight to Atlanta or wherever – but there was a metaphysical yearning to have that freedom back.
I kept coming back to a line from Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Questions of Travel’ which is an old favourite of mine – should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be? Because how does one decide where home is? Perhaps that’s the reason why I’m constantly looking elsewhere. One of the two collaborative books that I’ve written with a Welsh writer [Eurig Salisbury] is titled Elsewhere, Where Else? So, I think there’s an ‘elsewhereness’ to this question as well. We are all grappling with the other, the strangeness. It’s only because we want to overcome that strangeness that we are constantly reaching towards each other, so there is both the necessity for that metaphysical travel and the acknowledgement that in terms of carbon footprint, it is, in a sense, morally wrong.
But I think the pandemic really alerted me to how much is possible, how much you can do by sitting in one place quietly and watching what is happening around you rather than yearning perpetually to be in movement. Because, for me, movement seems very important to my practice. Somehow, I need to move to get a sense of momentum in my work. The pandemic proved to me that I can move without that physical dislocation. And I think it did something very positive because I then had to go inward in a way that I haven’t had to for a very long time. I’m not sure what kind of tensions they produced, but I suppose those can be seen in the work that resulted from that period: some of which features in my new book Unmappable Moves – the title of which, in the light of your question also makes me realise, retrospectively, that in a sense travelling inwards is an unmappable move!
Mererid: I live in a smaller country; I can get around spending fewer miles, and, somehow, I’ve become a reluctant traveller. As a young person, things were different. They used to say at home that I only needed to see the door ajar, and I’d be through it. I would sign up for every possible course as a schoolgirl. All the trips – I was on them. Later, I studied languages which meant I could spend time abroad and I managed to sort out two years instead of one. But I think I can say that when I became a mother, I became far less keen to leave, and that reluctance has carried on, even though my children are now adults – two of them parents themselves. Mind you, a stroke of luck came my way a couple of years ago, when Peter Florence and the Hay Festival asked me to be their International Fellow during the pandemic! I did it all online which suited me in many ways.
That apart, there can be no doubt that the opportunity to go somewhere very different is a rich experience. It was one such opportunity that took me to Jaipur, where we met, Sampurna. I’ve also been to South America on a similar sort of writing trip. The memories, the experiences, the feelings, the way of seeing, the understanding, all of this does change you.
One poem comes to mind, one I wrote after that Jaipur journey. We were staying in Neemrana in a beautiful building that was a must-see study-site for young architects. I was sitting there all alone one morning and hadn’t noticed a group of students who had just arrived from Delhi. When I looked up, I found myself in a strange Catherine Zeta Jones moment. They were taking photographs of me. I thought, how odd, before I realised, that I was the oddity, the very different, the strange. Perhaps you need to be completely alone to understand foreign-ness. Up until that point on the tour, in the company of others from ‘back home’, I had been thinking, subconsciously almost: ‘Isn’t this different? Isn’t this strange?’ Alone, I grasped the very obvious point that I was the stranger, everything else was ordinary. And it changed my way of seeing. I needed to be in a place like that to … put me in my place if you like.
But clearly, this matter of international travel is a worry. I live in Carmarthen now and I work in Aberystwyth – I’ve managed to get one of those electric cars to ease my conscience as I make the regular trip, but then you worry about how the minerals for the car battery were obtained, and bit by bit you realise that the only way to solve the ecological problem is to solve the social problem. Society and the state, how we organise ourselves, how we govern, how we exploit natural resources and exploit people … this is what we need to change. And until we get that right, I think we’re working on the hems, the seams of the problem, not the stuff of it.
Sampurna: Mererid, when you said that you suddenly realised that you were the stranger – that’s funny because I’ve been to Aberystwyth so many times, it’s become very familiar. But I remember the poem where I wrote ‘Being in a cafe with a poet from elsewhere sounds perfectly normal until I realise that the poet from elsewhere is me.’ That feeling of being a stranger in a café, which is possibly the most generic (and therefore familiar) place in today’s globalised world, linking a set of ‘strangenesses’ into a homogeneity that we are always trying to resist. And it was very interesting to feel that thud, that it was me who was out of place.
It’s not just a physical out-of-placeness. Actions are sometimes out of place, when you don’t do what you think or say you should be doing. As you say, it’s a question of self-governance. Sometimes your protest might be out of place because you could be going somewhere on a mission but what you’re doing at home is completely counter to what you’re saying. I think poets are trying to narrow the gap between doing one thing and saying another. Or maybe it’s something we just hope we’re doing.
Mererid: That’s right, but that word ‘hope’ is key, if we understand hope to be something other than the crossing of fingers. When we understand it as a force that can let us imagine two things, first the better outcome, and second the way to get there, I think we will be able to figure out how to narrow that gap you mention. The force of hope can let us see the connections between our lack of respect for all things living and the climate crisis. And, I would argue, that ‘all things living’ includes languages – a subject very close to my heart. I can’t separate these elements from one other. It’s this lack of respect that leads us to war. And then we’re back with the climate crisis. On the back of my diary notebook, I have a postcard that says, ‘War causes climate change and climate change causes war’. And on the front cover, in a French cartoon, I have the famous Max Weinrich quotation: ‘C’est quoi la différence entre une langue et un dialecte? Une langue, elle a une armée et unu marine.’ (What is the difference between a language and a dialect? A language has an army and a navy.) It baffles me, how we can somehow accept that it’s perfectly okay to be living in societies where the balance of power is held by the fact that we have an army, which is, essentially, a violent power.
In Wales, like elsewhere, we’ve had a law against teachers hitting children for a very long time. We’ve also banned the smacking of children by parents too, this is now a criminal offence. And yet the Prime Minister in London can threaten another country with armed force. I don’t get it. Let’s leave aside the climate consequence of an army that measures its energy consumption not in miles per gallon but in gallons per mile, and the ecological harm of exploding a bomb, what we need to change is the system that thinks it needs an army in the first place. The narrative of defence in turn feeds ‘fear’ and ‘suspicion’. We need to break this vicious circle for we’re all losers in it – apart from the arms dealers, of course. As Shakespeare has it in Henry V: ‘Now thrive the armourers.’ They’re ultimately the only people who win in times of war. It’s good for profit.
Siân: perhaps this is the cue for a poem or two, Mererid?
Mererid: First, perhaps I could read a sonnet, and I need to explain that ‘Storm Shadow’ is the name of an RAF missile, and that the name used for the distance-killing by such a missile is ‘Fire and Forget’ … strangely poetic names for weapons and war-making.
LINK TO POEM ‘War’ HERE,
I was reading Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars when I wrote this next poem. He describes a scene from the First World War which reminded me of a line written by Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr, a twelfth century Welsh poet: ‘ac wedi cad, coludd ar ddrain’, (after battle, I saw entrails on thorns). Eight centuries later, we’re still in the sa me mess. In the same book, Charlotte Despard is quoted as having said ‘I should like the words ‘alien’ and ‘foreign’ to be banished from the language; we are all members of the same family.’ I love that, so this is my second poem.
Link to Poem ‘Wedi Cad Coludd ar Ddrain’ here.
I think this is what we really need to tackle: respect towards one another at every level, towards one another’s languages, and one another’s environment.
Sampurna: You’ve been talking about language. I was thinking, when I was translating Joy Goswami’s work from Bangla, to what extent he was speaking to this thematic introduced by you, Mererid, that has to do with violence and affliction. We started by saying that crossing borders is essential for writers but when powers possess lands and cross borders that were never meant to be crossed, and erect barbed wire fences, what happens then? I feel that the act of translation enables me to bring into the English language – the language I write my poems and prose in – registers of expression which I’d maybe never be able to otherwise. I’d like to share two of those translated poems. One is from the dedication to a long poem called ‘Solo for the Deer’:
Link to ‘Dedication’ by Joy Goswami translated by Sampurna Chattarji.
While translating it, I realised: here is this poet who is constantly looking at power and the rapacity of man and setting it against the peace of ‘morning comes’ – despite everything. It’s so shocking that those weapons in Mererid’s poem have such peaceful, powerful names. And so moving that nature will come back to claim us. As in this tiny prose poem, also by Joy Goswami:
Mererid: The earth will serve the dinner if we respect the earth. That’s the thing.
Siân: Can you speak about your role as translator and writer, Sampurna, when it comes to finding the right voice or words to approach climate change in particular?
Sampurna: I’ve a feeling that for me, in one sense, it’s easier when I’m translating. When I write, even though it’s always in English, I still have to find the language for myself. It becomes a formal quest. If I can find the right form, I will know what kind of language to put into it.
Mererid: For me, the language is always Welsh, that second ‘War’ poem composed in English is an exception. But in terms of the form of the poem, the ‘inner’ language of the poem, I’m not entirely sure how that comes about. I don’t think I go looking for a certain ‘measure’ or ‘shape’ or ‘form’. I think it may be a case of finding a line, and then letting that line, the one you’ve been looking for, tell you where it belongs. It often seems to create the beginning of a pattern that leads to a form. I don’t know if you read the interview between Rowan Williams and Nick Cave recently, where they talk about how a line will ‘shimmer’. I like that idea very much. It’s the ‘shimmering’ line that often leads to the ‘language’ of the poem.
Sampurna: I think that’s absolutely right. It’s intuitively going to be right. This also comes back to our first question. I have a poem called ‘2 sunken islands. 3 kinds of rock’, based on something I learned when I was in Perth. (Of course, Australia and India share an ocean, the Indian Ocean.) These two large sunken islands were discovered in November 2011 off the west coast of Perth, about 1.6 kms underwater in the Indian Ocean, and were believed to be micro continents that were part of Gondwanaland before they began separating 130 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. Now, I don’t write concrete poems. But I found myself writing a piece which would in some way mirror that discovery.
It was all about sedimentation and layers, things that had vanished. Perhaps this whole idea that I needed to go layer by layer, excavating the interlocked rock of my world(s), is what led me to this form. I’d found a shape that suited what I wanted to say, which is that what we are not seeing (or refusing to look at) today are the sunken islands. So the form had to be drastically different because of the demands being made of me by the material.
Mererid: That’s fascinating. Recently I’ve been working with Ayessha Quraishi, an artist from Karachi through a project run by Mission Gallery called ‘Llif’ (‘Flow’). Ayessha had this idea about the ‘memory of water’. Of course, water is political. Especially or equally so in Wales. In terms of form – well this is a cheat’s poem really – I was trying to work out how to explain to Ayessha the many layers water carries in Wales. So, we started with the Welsh word for water, ‘dŵr’. (by the way, that’s the same word as ‘dwfr’ which we find in Dover … and there’s a lot of water in Dover!) So, I turned to Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (the University of Wales’ Dictionary) which must be one of my favourite books and was struck by how many different ‘waters’ there are in Welsh. In the poem – the language, the form I found was therefore a repetition of the word ‘dŵr’. It’s essentially just a list … though I hope the political end lifts it a little: ‘the water of the stolen wave’.
LINK TO ‘Cerddi Cof y Dŵr‘ BY MERERID HOPWOOD HERE.
Sampurna: The incantatory feel is like a spell. Also, I can’t hear the word ‘dŵr’ without also hearing the Hindi दूर ‘dūr’– which means ‘far’. So, because I have these other languages in my head, whenever I hear ‘dŵr’, even though I know they don’t sound exactly alike, I also hear ‘far’, which then somehow comes closer!
Mererid: I think this is a ‘Da Iawn’ moment.*
Sampurna: Absolutely, this is a ‘Da Iawn’ moment.* And it’s so interesting that the poem I wrote was all about rock, I used words I’d never normally use: plutonic rock, metamorphic rock, granite, gneiss, sandstone. You did it with water and I did it with stone.
Mererid: We’re poets not preachers!
Sampurna: If I were to gather words, that might be an act of – not salvage – but perhaps reminders – that these lost things were once living things or beings in the world. I found myself doing this in my fiction (which is where I have addressed climate change more than in my poetry). So, whether it’s butterfly species, or even the taxonomical naming of species which might have vanished, I was looking at the immediate environment in which I found myself. There’s the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Yeoor Hills right behind the house where I live. I’ve walked there so often. But one could also walk blind, right? You’re walking, and you have no idea what that tree is and which bird just sang. So, bringing the names back to the place of their origin became a way for me to acknowledge that this world that is not human exists and it’s vanishing too fast. I think the pandemic time of being sequestered at home made me more acutely aware of my immediate surroundings (I wrote about Yeoor Hills for Gorwelion, as you know) and seemed to demand more delicate strokes, the kind that perhaps only a poem can make room for, like the one below:
LINK TO ‘ONCE BELONGED TO THE LEOPARDS’ BY SAMPURNA CHATTARJI HERE.
Mererid: I couldn’t agree more. A few years ago, I had the good fortune of translating a very popular book from the English called Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris. Jackie is a friend of mine, and, living in Wales herself, she wanted a Welsh language version. It was quite a challenge because the poems are acrostic. I’m not a great fan of acrostic poems – but when you consider that the impetus for this book was a fear that words for plants and animals were disappearing from dictionaries, then it’s the perfect form: the first letter in each line spells the threatened word and, in turn, the threatened species. The challenge arose from translating an acrostic poem about a ‘newt’ when the Welsh word for ‘newt’ is ‘madfall y dŵr’!
Thinking back, it wasn’t until the pandemic, when we were allowed to walk a small stretch of land for half an hour or an hour a day, that I understood that those many yellow flowers I lazily called ‘buttercups’ were not actually buttercups at all. From there, you realise the importance of the word ‘acknowledge’ you used, Sampurna. Once you can give something a name, once you acknowledge something, it somehow exists in a different way, now with an understanding, a respect. I suppose that’s what we were talking about at the beginning. Urging people to respect the climate is only one small part of the story. We’ve also got to urge people to respect one another, one another’s lives, ways of living, languages, stories. It’s only then will we live according to a different, fairer pattern.
Sampurna: Very often, we’re telling stories from a human perspective. I had this interesting experience where I spoke from the point of view of a Pondicherry shark. It was also scary. I did this for a project called Earth, Our Home. Four poets had to choose a species and each write two poems for a book for children. The brief was (loosely) Blake’s Innocence and Experience, so one poem would be brighter and the other, darker. I wanted to pick a marine species because I love fish and everything to do with water. As I began researching, I realised how many of them were endangered. I had such a long list that I wondered: where have I been all this time – why did I not know all this? Really, it was a wake-up call. The Pondicherry shark was the one that spoke to me the most – and it’s gone. The last sighting was in 1979. It’s probably gone for ever. To inhabit the Pondicherry shark – honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard at my own poetry. I kept asking myself, how do I speak for this species that’s gone – especially in these two voices. I wrote two poems: ‘The Pondicherry Shark Says Hello’ and ‘The Pondicherry Shark Says Goodbye’.
LINK TO ‘THE PONDICHERRY SHARK SAYS HELLO‘ AND ‘THE PONDICHERRY SHARK SAYS GOODBYE‘ HERE.
Sampurna: You were asking how my voice changes. One, through form like I said. Here, it was through point of view. For this to be believable to a child – the most sceptical reader – I had to become that Pondicherry shark. I identified with the shark because it was short and stocky and it had this toothy grin! So, you know, I became that shark. And it was dead. And I thought, can I transfer this identification to the kids rather than any moral ‘save the planet’ kind of message.
Mererid: which comes back to the fact that whatever we think we want to say, we can’t preach it. I love ‘I say hello with my last breath’ because ‘Hello’ has to be a beginning.
Sampurna: Yes, and that circle is closed forever.
* Referring to the email conversation, which was had in preparation for this discussion, in which Sampurna closed one email with the words, ‘Da iawn, indeed.’ And Mererid responded, reminding us that this is ‘of course an expression in Cynghanedd, Sampurna!’
Sampurna Chattarji is a poet, fiction writer, editor, translator and teacher with twenty-one publications to her credit. These include Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien (HarperCollins 2015, 2020), which she wrote while on residency at the University of Kent, Canterbury; and Dirty Love (Penguin 2013), her short story collection about Bombay/Mumbai. Her translation of Joy Goswami’s prose poems After Death Comes Water (Harper Perennial, 2021) has been lauded as a recreation of the Bangla originals in ‘a living voice, as inventive and vivid as the English of Joyce’. Sampurna’s work as an editor includes Future Library, an anthology of Contemporary Indian Writing released in the US in 2022. The most recent of her eleven poetry titles is Unmappable Moves, just out from the Mumbai-based indie-press Poetrywala.
Mae Sampurna Chattarji yn fardd, awdur ffuglen, golygydd, cyfieithydd ac athrawes wedi cyhoeddi un ar hugain o gyhoeddiadau. Mae’r rhain yn cynnwys Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien (HarperCollins 2015, 2020), a ysgrifennodd tra ar breswyliad ym Mhrifysgol Caint, Caergaint; a Dirty Love (Penguin 2013), ei chasgliad o straeon byrion am Bombay/Mumbai. Mae ei chyfieithiad o gerddi rhyddiaith Joy Goswami After Death Comes Water (Harper Perennial, 2021) wedi ei ganmol am ail-greu’r Bangla gwreiddiol mewn ‘llais byw, mor ddyfeisgar a byw â Saesneg Joyce’. Mae gwaith Sampurna fel golygydd yn cynnwys Future Library, blodeugerdd o ysgrifennu cyfoes o India a ryddhawyd yn yr Unol Daleithiau yn 2022. Y mwyaf diweddar o’i 11 teitl barddoniaeth yw Unmappable Moves, sydd newydd ei gyhoeddi gan wasg indie Poetrywala o Mumbai.
Mererid Hopwood is Professor of Welsh and Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth and secretary of Academi Heddwch Cymru. She has spent her career studying and teaching languages and literature. She won the Chair and Crown for poetry and the Prose Medal at the National Eisteddfod, as well as the Welsh Book of the Year Prize in the poetry category for her collection Nes Draw. She has been Children’s Laureate for Wales and takes great pleasure in writing books for children. She has worked with many musicians and composers in Wales and abroad. This year she will receive the Hay Festival Medal for Poetry.
Mae Mererid Hopwood yn Athro’r Gymraeg ac Astudiaethau Celtaidd yn Aberystwyth ac yn ysgrifennydd Academi Heddwch Cymru. Treuliodd ei gyrfa yn astudio a dysgu ieithoedd a llenyddiaeth. Enillodd Gadair, Coron a Medal Ryddiaith yr Eisteddfod Genedlaethol a Gwobr Llyfr y Flwyddyn, categori barddoniaeth, am ei chyfrol Nes Draw. Bu’n fardd plant Cymru ac mae wrth ei bodd yn llunio llyfrau plant. Mae wedi gweithio gyda nifer o gerddorion a chyfansoddwyr yng Nghymru a thramor. Eleni bydd hi’n derbyn Medal Gŵyl y Gelli am Farddoniaeth.