How Sydney’s lockdown became Kavita Nandan’s poetry

By Indira Laisram
Kavita Nandan // Pic supplied

The pandemic did different things to different people. For Sydney-based Kavita Nandan, it was veering from prose and turning to poetry for its sublime yet ‘subliminal’ appeal.

Nandan is no stranger to writing. She has written a novel and poems but the pandemic, she explains, helped her articulate many of her feelings in few words. The feelings of anxiety, loneliness and frustration, born out of Sydney’s over 100 days lockdown, are penned down in her recently released book of poems Return to what Remains, published in Australia by Ginninderra Press.

‘Return to what remains’ book cover // Pic supplied

“If there is resonance for the reader, it may emerge from the layering in the poems—the awareness of worlds beyond the local one and life’s experience in different times and spaces. What I have seen, felt and realised have gone into these 35 poems,” Nandan tells The Indian Sun.

Born in New Delhi, Nandan grew up in Suva, Fiji, and migrated to Australia in 1987 after Fijian military coups. Interestingly, her first novel Home after Dark is a story about the search for home in the aftermath of a military coup. Set in three worlds—Fiji, India and Australia, it was published by the University of the South Pacific Press in 2014.

Currently, a sessional teacher of Creative Writing at Macquarie University, Nandan is much published in LiteLitOne, Not Very Quiet, Mindfood, Mascara Literary Magazine, Transnational Literature, Landfall, The Island Review and Asiatic. In conversation with Kavita Nandan on her new book of poems published this September, and more.

Tell us more about Return to what Remains.

It is a collection of poetry that emerged from the COVID pandemic. Although written over a period of two years, many of the poems were composed during Sydney’s 107-day lockdown. The poems attempt to capture the loneliness, frustration, and anxiety and even the disbelief of being plunged into this world of COVID. There was a strong sense of helplessness during this time.

While there is a palpable sorrow in the poems, there is also hope that springs from the realisation during this time of the things we value the most such a family, friendships, nature and kindness. I attempt to communicate these themes with some humour and wit.

Kavita Nandan // Pic supplied
Could you also talk about the process of writing this collection of poems?

Being stuck in lockdown had the dual effect of making some things more intense, such as home schooling your child and working from home oneself. On the other hand, because one could not do the things that normally make up the day such as going to work or dropping your child to school, there were hours in the day when I could write.

I mostly begin a poem with a single image—something I have observed while walking around the streets, parks and beaches of my neighbourhood during lockdown. Of the hundreds of images that flash past the mind, one image—an empty beach at noon, the light from the stained glass of a church at twilight, a young woman sitting alone on a park bench with her newborn—remains with me through the day. Ordinary, everyday images connect with feelings that exist within me and develop as the day progresses.

When a gap appears in the day, the image pops up demanding attention. If I am not near my computer, I use the ‘Notes’ function on my phone and quickly jot down the image, ideas and lines from half thoughts that are beginning to form around the image. It’s amazing how quickly one forgets these first thoughts which can turn out to be fine material for developing at a later stage. It also feels reassuring to have some ideas, words or lines to come to when you begin to write the poem with more serious intent.

I try to finish a draft of the entire poem on the same day, working late into the night to do so or within two days because a poem has a certain momentum that I like to work with. Most of these poems were completed in this short time frame. Inevitably, my mind reverts to the embryonic poem that is impatient to live. The image connects with feelings and thoughts subconsciously at first and falls into a natural rhythm to some degree. Afterwards, when I bring the image to my conscious mind, that’s when I start making decisions about word choice, figures of speech, line placement, form, rhyme and beat. I revise and edit my poem several times, cutting out prosy conjunctions between lines and extra words.

There are two poems that were not written during this period but I have included them because they are dedicated to my father and grandmother—both symbols of resilience for me. Ironically, there is no poem written specifically for my mother, although she is the person who has the most resilience. I suppose that’s when life exceeds art!

Kavita Nandan // Pic supplied
Have you discovered what is true about the art of poetry?

In my teaching life, I have come across many students who are reluctant to read and write poetry at first but then discover that they are capable of doing both. They experience the delight that engaging with a condensed form of writing and a very fine craft can bring.

Poetry is for more people than just the learned scholar. It is especially beneficial for the community if we share them. Poetry has an aesthetic and an intellectual appeal but also a social and healing one. This becomes especially relevant during times such as Covid.

Did you always want to be a poet?

I always wanted to be a teacher and a writer. I started teaching in literature at university and then moved to creative writing, which probably goes hand in hand. To be a good writer you need to be a reader to understand not only what you are reading but how it is written.

However, it is in the field of creative writing that I found my truest hand. My writing journey began with prose, creative non-fiction, memoir style pieces, then I moved to fiction, short stories mostly, even though I wrote a novel in between. I dabbled with poetry previously, but this collection is really my first serious attempt to write poetry.

My dad is a poet and I take a lot of inspiration from his writing. The beauty of writing and, especially poetry, is that when you don’t have a full time job, your partner has gone to work, your son to school and you are trying to work out what to do next and who you are apart from the roles that you fulfil, you can turn to this vocation. Writing has also been that place of identity for me and a source of healing. I always had that pressure in the back of my mind that I was named ‘Kavita’ by my parents for a reason. Perhaps, this journey has now begun!


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