Poet Urvashi Bahuguna On Her Debut ‘Terrarium’ and Its Inspirations

‘Terrarium’ is a microcosm of my life, says Bahuguna.

Urvashi Bahuguna’s debut poetry collection, Terrarium, is the poetry of our planet. While deeply rooted in the Indian imagery of mangoes, mud and monsoons, it is by no means insular. Bahuguna, whose concerns lie beyond physical boundaries, also points her poetic compass to other, more global coordinates—from gender relations to environmental disasters and mental health issues. And in the space of a single poem, the reader can travel miles when crossing a line break. Published by the not-for-profit press The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective and winner of the Emerging Poets Prize selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Terrarium is terrestrial, atmospheric, oceanic.

Over an email exchange, Bahuguna spoke to HuffPost India about this ‘microcosm’ of her life—and about foregrounding female (and familial) spaces and demystifying mental health through her writing. Edited excerpts:

Let’s start by giving your readers a sense of how this book was born: the title (and titular, opening poem) Terrarium; the selection and organisation of poems into five (untitled sections), some of which have been previously published; and the dedications. Why Terrarium? What have these portals and platforms meant for you—as professional support systems in encouraging (and publishing) your work as a young poet?

Terrarium started with the 30 poems in 30 days challenge that takes place worldwide in April each year – better known as NaPoWriMo or National Poetry Writing Month. I’d describe it as an informal support system for poets—one can write with a group, a partner, or by one’s self. I emailed my poems to a writer-friend on a daily basis that month – not because I required feedback (the poems were too new) but because our email thread was a way to clock in and out each day. Writing for 30 consecutive days meant that I discovered the true breadth of what preoccupied me as a person, what I was interested in writing about – the environment, past relationships, geography, family. It showed me a blueprint of what a debut collection might look like if I wrote it.

“'Terrarium' started with the 30 poems in 30 days challenge that takes place worldwide in April each year – better known as NaPoWriMo or National Poetry Writing Month.””

I named the collection Terrarium because a terrarium houses living things, but it’s also a place of incredible stillness. That’s how I see the images in the titular poem as well as the others in the collection – a memory frozen in time, and when I go back there, I can un-pause it and watch it over and over. It made sense to call this gathering Terrarium – a microcosm of my life.

Publishing in magazines and anthologies was a way to test the waters in terms of whether people connected with the work and to grow more comfortable with rejection and the need for editing. Those were really valuable experiences to have before I published a full-length collection – I learned to be receptive, grateful, and thoughtful in how I processed rejection and feedback. Creating in a vacuum can be isolating and challenging. Supportive literary magazines are an important part of the ecosystem that sustains Anglophone poetry – they encourage poets to keep writing, provide an audience for poetry, help one discover other poets. They aren’t perfect or uniformly supportive, but they are one of the rare sources of nourishment where more should exist.

On the personal front, you dedicate the collection to your family members—particularly female family members (your mother, sisters, grandmothers)—and gesture to a sense of lineage of storytelling and story sharing. Can you speak about this, at times complicated (as some of the poems show), gift of inheritance—of stories, histories, languages, bodies? At one point you write: “She [your mother] would not approve of this translation.” At another, you write: “He [your father] doesn’t understand whom or what I fear.” I’m also thinking of the closing poem Let Us Pray.

What’s been interesting about the transition into adulthood over the past few years is that inheritance isn’t something I can say I received and leave it at that – I have to take some responsibility for how I have imbibed it, learned from it. I have to own my mining of the good and recovery from the bad, and also how I’ve failed to do both those things. I am unpacking what I’ve already received while negotiating those relationships in present tense. I’m always caught between what has passed and what is occurring and that is precisely because inheritance is complicated, double-edged – filled with the contradictory impulses of love and resentment. It’s why so much of that makes it into the book, because there are so many shades to it, it’s dedicated to the good parts, and it testifies to the more difficult parts.

You point your poetic compass to specific landscapes, latitudes and longitudes (some poems have geo-tags of sorts such as Ennore, Tamil Nadu; Peter Harrison Planetarium, England), but there also exist these liminal spaces between locations. I have multiple questions here:

Some poems such as Spilt, The Pilot Whales Speak, and Urur Olcott Kuppam speak to specific (mostly man-made) disasters. In a world where climate change is not often taken seriously, and where the clock is clearly ticking, how pertinent and pressing are issues and dialogues around environmental conservation for you?

You write in Ms. Fatima[’s geography glass], she taught you “how to love this bruised and bumpy earth”? How can we still? These poems, which at once read like love letters and laments, are these odes to landscapes or eulogies for lost ones?

“The way I relate to the planet is personal – it brings me happiness.””

When I write about the environment, it’s with admiration and with regret that time is running out. I am not someone who works in conservation. The way I relate to the planet is personal – it brings me happiness. I try to share that with people – I don’t think that act of sharing will change the path the planet is on, but I do see that some people are happier when they’re closer to the natural world and that that realisation breeds a protectiveness. We live in a moment where both odes and eulogies are warranted – it’s all precious, and it’s all potentially fleeting.

You asked how we can still love a world in trouble. I can only speak for my very specific circumstances. I learned to love it by slowing down and paying attention. I read Arati Kumar-Rao’s reporting, follow Nitoo Das’ bird photography, read what conservation biologists and others in the field are saying and writing, read poets like Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay. I’ve recently started keeping a commonplace book – a kind of journal where one documents what one comes across in nature. There’s so much excellent conservation work being done in the city [Delhi], excellent reporting and activism to pay attention to.

A selection of five poems, all of which engage with health (physical, but mostly mental health), were recently published on Scroll.in. You have “headaches the size of Crete”. “Lying down in a dark room with a headache is a kind of female history,” you write. “He thinks of my mind as a hurricane in a landlocked country,” you write elsewhere. Penguin India will publish your memoir/essays on mental health later this year. What kinds of conversations do you hope to spark around this still-stigmatised issue?

I hope it goes some way in demystifing invisible illness, that it shines a light on how little we know about the people around us because there is so much that we don’t talk about, that it is frowned upon to talk about, and that it reinforces the need to be better to people around us. I hope people can see how illness permeates each facet of one’s life. I hope it pushes people to read more on these illnesses, to educate themselves. But, mostly, I hope more people speak and write about their experiences – there’s a whole world of different experiences with mental illness in India that we need to hear about.

“There’s a whole world of different experiences with mental illness in India that we need to hear about.””

Your poems also explore gender and power dynamics and imbalances in romantic relationships. Sometimes, it’s a sentence: “forgive me / I am in the habit / of asking what you think” (Meanwhile In Cyprus). At others, it’s a poem’s title like I Don’t Read Men. But, at every turn, in every corner, deep in the crevices of this collection are mothers, sisters, grandmothers—and literary mothers such as Flannery O’Connor. Are these more than heartbreak poems? Were you trying to foreground female (and familial) spaces?

I owe women a lot more than I owe men. The conversations I have with my female friends are both more nonsensical and more meaningful – it’s something to share a language. Sometimes, I’ll observe my aunt and I navigate a delicate situation at a family gathering and realise that the men around us don’t have those skills, those coordinated strategies for survival. I think of the heartbreak poems as healing poems, and it was women who held me up during that time. Female relationships are the foreground of my life, and I wanted to celebrate what they’ve given me, what women give each other all the time. I’m sure there are equivalent poems about what men bring to one another, but my story has been one buoyed by women.

“I owe women a lot more than I owe men. The conversations I have with my female friends are both more nonsensical and more meaningful – it’s something to share a language.””

Who are some of your poetic influences and heroes?

This changes all the time. Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Donika Kelly, Sharon Olds, Ellen Bass, and Ada Limón are some of the poets who’ve informed my poetry most recently. Limón and Nezhukumatathil show me how to be accessible in my poems, and Kelly, Bass and Olds demonstrate the different ways in which one can write about the terrifyingly personal.

In your acknowledgements you thank Sharanya Manivannan and Anindita Sengupta, “for Witchcraft and City of Water, respectively: those two collections changed how I saw South Asian poetry.” How did you see South Asian (and Indian) poetry previously? And how do you see it now that your own debut collection has been published by the non-profit press The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective?

As a teenager, I knew South Asian poetry in English only very, very slightly. I’d read only what was in the school syllabus. I hadn’t encountered it in the bookstores and libraries where I grew up. It wasn’t a burgeoning field – at least not in terms of distribution and publicity. Eight or nine years ago, when I first heard of these poets, it was still really difficult to access these books. City of Water was only available in the Sahitya Akademi bookstore, and Witchcraft was even harder to track down. I realised that there was something incredibly special about these writers and what they were creating.

I started reading each year’s winner of the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize and the TOTO Award for Creative Writing in order to discover more contemporary poets. Terrarium has barely stepped into the world, and I don’t yet know how that has shaped my view of this landscape. But I know that I owe the community of poets – for their words, their time, for the ways in which they work to support the field. They’ve ensured there are several existing and upcoming anthologies where there were once only a handful, there are frequent poetry curations online, poetry receives a great deal more media attention than it used to – and that’s only to name a few of the strides Indian poetry has made recently. The press that published Terrarium follows a mentorship model, and my two poet-editors, Subhashini Kaligotla and Shikha Malaviya, worked with me to strength my writing. There wasn’t a profit to be reaped from that process, but they did it. I bring that up to reiterate how hard the space works to nurture strong writing.