Inky Interview Exclusive for National Poetry Day 2020: Nepali Poet and Translator Chandra Gurung with Neil Leadbeater

Chandra Gurung, who comes from the Himalayan country of Nepal, but is currently based in Bahrain, writes poetry in the Nepali language and translates poems from Arabic, Hindi and English into Nepali. His first poetry collection was published in 2007. A second collection is now due from Rubric Publishing, New Delhi. He recently participated in the First Dhaka Translation Festival in Bangladesh. In this interview he speaks about his passion for poetry and translation and of the things that have motivated him to become a writer.

Chandra, let’s start at the beginning. Please tell me something about your background and how you first became inspired to write poetry.

I come from a small village that is nestled in the hills in the Gorkha district of Nepal. The world-famous Gurkha soldiers, who are well-known for their gallantry and warfare and now serve with bravery in many different parts of the world, were named after this very place. The king of Gorkha defeated the rulers of the various small states and, with the help of the Gorkha people, shaped modern-day Nepal.

As a youngster, I derived a lot of enjoyment from reading books. My first poem was a rhyming poem about a kite. I remember reciting it at the school’s farewell day. Sadly, there was a yawning gap after that. Despite a deep desire to write poetry, I failed to make time for writing because I was a college student cum full-time teacher in a private school during the heyday of my campus life.

My dormant passion for poetry was well and truly revived after moving to Saudi Arabia in 2003. A kind of home sickness haunted me which fuelled my emotions and helped me to start writing again.

What do you see as being the role of a poet and what does poetry mean to you?

To engage in poetry, whether reading it or writing it, is to practice an enriching attentiveness. To practice poetry is to pluck details from the surrounding world- to see things more clearly, to recognize the beauty inherent in our lives, to experience pain and happiness and to connect with others around us. Poetry operates on so many different levels of consciousness. Poetry gives meaning to our lives. As Marie Howe has said, poetry can help to remind us all that we are alive.

Poets observe closely the world around them. They offer insight and entertainment and help us to measure our lives at a deeper and more meaningful level. Through their writing, poets add a new dimension to our existence. The role of the poet is to master language in ways that inspire us to experience something transcendent, useful and meaningful in our lives.

What would you say are the main influences on your poetry and how do they manifest themselves in your work?

I was away from my mother and my motherland from an early age. My poems explore exile and family, the pain of separation and the joy of reconciliation. They reflect the changing scenario of the society that I belong to. Poetry can be utilized as a means to build empathy and to bridge gaps of understanding between people. Poetry is meant to be our companion throughout every stage of societal awareness.

In my poems, I narrate stories drawn from my own life experiences. My poems reflect upon the social, political and moral issues of our time. Choosing the subject matter is central to my writing. I first decide what my poem will be about. The vivid metaphors come later. In all my poems, I strive to leave the reader with a sense of fulfilled expectation.

What type / genre of poetry are you interested in the most and why does it appeal to you?

Since I became fascinated with poetry, I have been writing in free verse. This form of writing gives me a certain sense of freedom and allows me some headroom for experimentation.

Please tell me a little bit about your translation work and how you became interested in translation in the first place.

In the present context, translation has become essential for the support and perpetuation of poetry or any other form of literature. Reading poetry in translation helps to foster a wider understanding between cultures.

During 2012, a number of Indian poets / writers joined me on Facebook. Through their suggestion, I began to translate some Nepali poems into Hindi. Later on, I started to translate some Hindi poems into Nepali. Running in parallel with this development, I have been translating several poems from Arabic into other languages.

Are there other areas of writing that you are interested in pursuing apart from poetry?

Without doubt, poetry is my first love! However, one cannot make a living out of poetry, let alone earn any royalties. Aside from poetry, I have been writing a series of essays on the lives of migrant workers in the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) countries*. Their pain and their sorrow has acted as a catalyst for my work.

Do you have a preferred place in which to write? If so, where is it?

Location matters a lot to me. The neighborhood and its environment affect my feelings, actions and thoughts and ultimately my writing process.

Generally, I prefer to write in a quiet place, somewhere that is well away from any kind of distraction or disturbance. Most of my ideas come to me when I am travelling or sitting alone.

What is the poetry scene like in Nepal? Are you optimistic about the future of poetry in Nepal?

The poetry scene in Nepal is flourishing. A lot of young people in Nepal are writing poetry. We need to channel their energy down the right paths in order to bring out the best in them. The editors of daily papers are receptive to poems and poetry reviews. Literary organizations are spreading their wings far and wide. New books are released regularly. Organisations that promote poetry competitions are also thriving. For all of these reasons I remain optimistic about the future of poetry in Nepal.

What is the poetry scene like in Bahrain? Are there any noticeable differences between the way poetry is received in Bahrain as opposed to Nepal?

Foreigners make up fifty-five per cent of the total population of Bahrain. Among them many like-minded writers have joined forces to form various literary groups. They have also organised a number of workshops and they network with each other on a regular basis. Regular annual literary symposiums take place. Local Bahraini writers also participate in a range of literary activities. Poets, writers and artists from different Arabic countries are frequently invited to participate in these events.

Literary circles in Bahrain are full of writers from diverse nations. Exchange of knowledge and experience occurs on regular basis. Arabic readers are irresistibly drawn towards poetry. Accomplished poets from the Arab countries have greatly enriched the world of poetry and much of their work has been translated into other languages. Translations and interactions are much less of a feature when it comes to Nepali poetry.

What collections have you had published to date and what are you working on at present?

As I mentioned earlier, I first started to write poetry seriously when I was in Saudi Arabia. Nostalgia for my homeland fuelled my emotions and acted as a spur for me to write. Thirty three of the poems that I wrote during this period were published in book form by Sathi Publications, (Kathmandu), after my return to Nepal in 2007.

A second volume, My Father’s Face, is about to be published by Rubric Publishing, (New Delhi). This volume consists of English translations of 47 poems originally written in Nepali.

What lessons have you learnt from writing poetry? Do you have any pieces of advice to pass on to other aspiring poets?

If I have learnt anything it is that writing poetry is the best way for me to remain in touch with my emotions. It helps me to think creatively —to look at the things from a different perspective or through a different lens. Poetry helps me to navigate the world in a different way to the extent that, at times, it feels as if I am approaching it from a different dimension. Ultimately it widens my understanding of myself and of others and changes things for the better. Poetry has its uses in every aspect of our living. We must keep our hearts and minds open to its possibilities so that we can become receptive to it.

My advice to emerging poets would be to persevere and to be patient. The journey that poetry will take you on is a long one. A regular diet of reading and writing is essential. The sky is the limit for young, aspiring poets.

*Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

You can find Chandra here on Twitter.

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Editura Pim, Iaşi, Romania, 2016) Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages including Dutch, French, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

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