FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
TISHANI DOSHI: I remember publishing a poem in the school magazine when I was nine or ten. It was about the house my family and I lived in. A house in Madras with orange and black gates, which I still dream about. I guess I came to writing poetry seriously as an undergraduate in North Carolina. I was reading a lot of contemporary American poetry at the time and there was an immediacy to the language that unlocked something in me. All inclinations towards a degree in Business Administration fell away. Poetry seemed limitless, powerful, an ultimate freedom. Why would I not want to be a part of that?
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
TD: I wrote for many years before I got published. I think the real understanding happened when I became a dancer accidentally at twenty-six. The daily practice of mornings in the dance theatre trained me as a poet. I learned about breath, stamina, rhythm, time, flexion, control, discipline, and I also received the subject that would become the centrepiece of all my explorations – the body.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
TD: It fills me with pure delight after a year that has been muddied with all kinds of anxieties and collective grief.
FP: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
TD: Many of the poems in A God at the Door consider boundaries between inside and outside, microcosm and macrocosm. When I first started out as a poet, I found the direction was always from the inside out, from the personal into the world. Now I find the triggers or beginnings of poems begin outside and move in, so it’s a different kind of reconciliation. Because a lot of this collection was written during the COVID pandemic and various stages of lockdown, I was thinking about ideas of connection, loneliness, non-duality, togetherness, survival, extinction and migration. As a poet I was trying to hold all that was breaking around me, but also looking for areas of restoration, transformation and hope. I found two touchstones, which were the old ones: body and language. Something I learned from dance, which I tried to bring to this collection was the concept of militancy with grace (lasya-tandava), the forces of creation and destruction that necessarily coexist in the world — how poems can act as bridges, allow us to connect personal losses to public grief, how a poem can be a radical act of solidarity and joy, and bring us closer to ourselves.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
TD: I have a cult of mother-goddess-poets who give me sustenance. Wisława Szymborska for being witty, subversive, and unafraid to play with scale. Kamala Das for reminding me that there is no such thing as taboo in poetry. Lal Ded, who speaks to us from 700 years ago, and who collapses the you and I like no other. Marina Tsvetaeva and Audre Lorde for their fire. Mary Ruefle who makes me laugh and believe in wonder. The Welsh part of me loves that Denise Levertov was also half Welsh, and that she believed poems could be pilgrimages and were necessarily revelatory. I adore RS Thomas for his seriousness and his dedication to the holy. Wole Soyinka for his politics and mentorship. This list is potentially never-ending, but I’ll just add three singer-poets who are always close – Abida Parveen, Sheila Dhar and Nina Simone, whose voices always bring me home.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
TD: More poems, I hope!
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
TD: Be tender, magnanimous & hardworking. Believe in music. Make your own rituals and poetic lineages. Memorise your poems and the poems you love. Words should live inside you. Don’t be impatient.