How I Write
I shut my bedroom door, unplug the phone and the radio, sit cross-legged like a yogi in the center of my bed and write. I say:
Knowledge is what comes by osmosis in a bed
My poems are written in bed
They are meant for other’s heads
But this is just the final process. I write my poems on the streets, in buses, while shopping or teaching, in my head. As a medical student Zubin Mehta said a Brahms concerto was always running through his head as he cut up a dogfish.
Proust had his cork-lined room; Ana s Nin her fireproof bunker. It is a luxury to say poets write about nature. They do not. They write about culture. It was a luxury for Kim Novak, the ‘50's movie-star to bathe in a sea-facing bathroom at her Big Sur home with polar bears for company. But I bet her neighbor, Henry Miller, would bolt at the sight of a bear. In fact he writes Nin from Corfu that he longs to be at the Opera. The modernist poet is a citified being. As I wrote:
In a city where behemoths
Compete for space with buses
The absence of poetry is also a poetry.
Poetry is not about Nature. It is about Homer. The poet ransacks the traditions. If I’m in Iran I read Sufi poetry rather than the Avesta because I need to make sense of the Other, as a Parsi I need to know the Moslem.
Enemy, my enemy I name you friend. (Neruda)
Hart Carne tore around his New York city bachelor apartment crying: “I am Baudelaire, I am Rimbaud, I’m Christ.” So the French poetry of Symbolism comes naturally to anyone seeking to revolutionize sensibility. It did to Lorca, Crane, Nin, Ginsberg.
My first published poem, “Circles,” was based on the Soviet silent film Earth by Douzhenko. Lorca, to Crane, to Nin, to Ginsberg. . .
He died dancing
among harvest fruit
His widow tore her weeds in grief
And it rained
Till the melons rotted
And the landlord who shot him
for a piece of land
Was so joy-ridden
He stuck his head
in the mud
And danced in circles
till he died.
I was trained in the West. I was not brought up in the Shah Nameh which is the Persian epic nor on the Hindu Mahabharata. I read Homer and about the Greek wars at school. I saw my warring Parsi family as cursed as the House of Atreus. At college I found an echo of my condition in A Streetcar Named Desire or A Long Day’s Journey into Night, in Phaedra first and only later in the epic of the hapless Siavosh accused wrongfully by his stepmother.
It is when we make our lives into myths that we find our true meaning. This is, of course, a paraphrase of Nin who might be paraphrasing Jung.
So our writing is marked by hybridity and mirror-imaging: Echoes within echoes, box-within-box as in a Chinese box, mirrors mirroring mirrors in a fun-house. To parody Leonard Cohen:
Giving head in a hired bed
With the taxi throbbing in the street
How else do I make sense of the boys I bed? No, I do not write to beautify them; I write in order to go over to them, as Pasolini did. So there is this great democracy of sex and death Whitman knew and Lorca and poor Wilde and of course, Pasolini. And the boys we dream of come out of the Old City slums or from the recently bourgeoisified proletariat. They all imitate Shahrukh or Salman, Saif or Aamir, the four reigning Khans of Bollywood. And I teach Kubla Khan, I dream him and become him in my poems.
Just as my mother was the ‘40's tragediennes Meena Kumari or Nargis with her tears, I was the 1960's gamins Sadhana or Saira at 16 being wooed in Bombay’s overcrowded suburban trains. If this sounds camp, I’m conscious of it. Art does not imitate life as Arnold was silly enough to believe but it is life that imitates Art as Wilde saw it in The Decay of Lying.
What is the relation of a homosexual artist to his body? Poems are written on the body. Ask the English painter Francis Bacon or the Japanese gay Zen poet, Takahashi. My student Sivapriya writes about my work in the Deccan Chronicle in 1994:
“Hoshang Merchant has a beautiful body.”
(You can now, in 1999, change that “has” to “had.”) Nin was beautiful into her 60's. Ginsberg was photographed nude by Richard Avedon with his handsome lover placed behind him so that we see the hippie poet’s large belly and largish member delicately cut out of the frame. Or, take the gay Mapplethorpe’s photographs of the body. Once in a Greenwich Village gallery I saw I gay artist mount a cross in the nude to complete his real-life sculpture entitle, “The Crucifixion.” In a Japanese film on the relation between silence and the spoken mantra in Zen Buddhism, the entire sutra was tattooed on the live body of a monk to the beating of gongs, lighting of fires, loud chanting, and of course the monk’s screams. But there are extreme examples. Yet no one is surprised to read at school that Poe was found dead naked on the city’s busiest thoroughfare one morning, a bodily sacrifice to the bitchgoddess who devoured him for hymning the moon goddesses.
The gay Parsi poet’s body and language are colonized by Parsi culture first and then by the dominant culture he inhabits in India or Iran or the West; by heterosexist notions of sexuality, by colonial history. Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity all forbid homosexuality. The men we sleep with in childhood are married men who are heterosexual or bisexual.
The language we speak at home is a hybrid Parsi/Gujarati born out of the long love of the Parsi for his Gujarai neighbor. We took to English like ducks to water but we lost our language a second time and we stand accused of “chamchagiri” (toadyism) towards the British. The case of Kafka comes to mind. An Austrian Jew, he spoke Yiddish but wrote in German to his eternal shame and glory.
One way for me to rejoin India was translation. I came to Urdu through Hindi, Persian, Arabic: the languages I picked up on my travels.
Art is to be lived, not merely read. Now that is a dangerous proposition leading to the madhouse and to death.
Well, how does one write?
I write very quickly. And if it galls so much the better. If it doesn’t, tant pis. “First said, best said,” Ginsberg believed. I rewrite a trauma over many, many years until it crystallizes. This is how I could finally write about my parents’ divorce or a sister’s abortion. Nothing is labored, everything is spontaneous. “Poems come like leaves to trees.”
I’m 50 and my nation is 50 and we have to make sense of each other. What is a gay poet saying to a half-starved nation where rape occurs every 10 minutes and a child is born every minute? Perhaps that sex cuts across caste and class? How do you write gayness when there is no gay culture? How do you create a gay aesthetic for urban India?
I found my answer in Pound, a poets’ poet. Pound said that if you can rely on high art to be really high then the tenor of popular culture wouldn’t be so low. We wouldn’t be subject to a garish TV Ramayana which nonetheless funnels Hindu pride. Instead we would have our modern gay lives depicted with all the abandon that characterizes any true epic.
I’ve always spoken in rhymes. Still do I rely on my blood’s rhythm which is the rhythm of our spoken Indian English, the sea-rhythms of my birth, of the tides and the mood-phases. . . the rhythm I first hear in my mother’s belly.
“Do not forget the wisdom of our Mothers,” Mulk Raj Anand wrote a young Hoshan in Tehran. “Is Hoshang a gay poet or a Sufi poet?” people now ask.
Think of the gay Jesuit who wrote “Windhover,” think of the Divan-i-Shams-i-Tabrizi, think of mad Sarmad followed by his boy from Sind to Golconda to Delhi, think of Amir Khosro making the Moghul prince Dara Shilco so mad that Aurangzab has to kill Dara, think of St. John of the cross on that dark and lonely night when a stranger pursues him up the narrow steps of his house, think of Takahashi dying of hunger in opulent modern Japan, think of the last poems of Ginsberg gone over to Elizabethan love-lyrics and the sweet Lord Buddha. . . .
So the Urdu ghazal has crept into my Indian English poems.
At the end of his life, Ghalib writes:
Apart from Allah all is vague
and non-existent. There is no
poetry and no poet, no ode and
no ode writer. Nothing exists
It seems to me the only god in my books and books of poems is the poem, i.e., it is the poem itself.
Ghalib also writes: Whatever happens to the mystic is good for his soul.
A comment on this is that madness is but the last stage of longing, be it for justice (the rage for it turning into violence) or for love, as with the beloved and blessed Sufi, Majnun.
In Hindu Bhakti literature we have a term “Radha-bhava.” It assumes, like all mysticism, that the divine principle is male, all others are female souls yearing for dive union. The Radha-bhava suits the spiritually included modern gay writer. It is not an accident that Winston Leyland of the Gay Press, San Francisco, is interested in the Iranian mysticism of Jalal-ud-din Rumi who is currently very fashionable in America in Coleman Barks’ translation or mistranslations. This is not feminism: the story of Mirabai comes to mind. Tulsi Goswami refused to see her in Brindaban on the grounds that she was a woman. She sent word right back that she thought the only man in Brindaban was Lord Krishna and everyone else was only a woman. She was promptly granted an audience.
There is a well known thumri:
Tum Radha bano / Main banoo Shyam
(You be Radha / I Krishna)
When a man, Bimsen Joshi, sings this, it is all very well. But when women like Parveen Sultana or Begum Akhtar sing it we get a special thrill. The same thrill when we recognize the beauty and terror of the Picwai painting of Radhaji with Krishna’s crown and Krishnaji in Radha’s sari. It is the eunuch in my friend Bhupen Khakhar’s painting: always naked, always an outcast, but with a sky-blue sari sewn with tinsel stars! Krishna is not a “bhogi” (sensualist), he is India’s greatest yogi (ascetic).
At first poetry is transgressive, ultimately it is transcendent:
Bairam Khan was sent on a pilgrimage by Akbar
Then set upon / So was Shams by Rumi’s son
No wonder they never returned
But myths grow around madmen not kings
They’ve said to become one with god
Their blood waters the Martyr’s Tree
Its leaves turn books
Boys become poets / Lovers become ascetics
Yet people say: Love accomplishes nothing
Sacrifice accomplishes nothing
Politics is all / Ambition is all
A benediction does not stop a gun
But it shames the assassin for centuries
What arms accomplish is immediate
Ashes are for the whole world for aeons
The pelican feeds its young with its blood
Some call him Christ / Others, Mother
When Hindu killed Moslem I made love to a Moslem
Listen to me. Do not call me names
Now I’ve stopped speaking. There is nothing more to hear.
Why I Write | Next: Anaïs Nin and I
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