Ruth Sharman gives 3 question interview to Interlitq.
Interlitq: You refer in some of your poems to your childhood in India. Do you feel you need to travel to exotic places to gain a sense of wonderment?
I do feel a sense of wonderment – largely second hand – through my father’s experience of remote regions like the Amazon Rainforest and the evergreen jungles of South India. What could be more wonderful than seeing a cloud of lime blues, several thousand strong, rising from the banks of a stream in the Nagalapuram Hills? But I was lucky enough to develop a real passion for nature while walking with my father as a child in the English countryside. From early on, the tiny worlds that took hold on a rotten tree stump – the forests of moss, the clumps of wood sorrel – were as much a source of wonder as the iridescent wings of a morpho butterfly.
I think you just have to be open and still. You don’t have to look as far as the stars: we’re surrounded by so much that is small but intricate and extraordinary. And ordinary things can be invested with great mystery – an empty chair in an artist’s studio, a bowl of flowers, the way the light strikes a distant hill top. I’m not religious in any conventional sense – and this is a big word to use – but I sometimes get this sense of the numinous hovering just beyond things, just out of reach.
In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennett says of her daughter Jane that she “couldn’t be so beautiful for nothing!” Of course Mrs B is being characteristically idiotic, but I think I’m getting at something a bit similar here. I may be wrong: perhaps the stars and the moss and the wood sorrel and my father’s butterflies can “be” for no purpose, totally arbitrary, signifying nothing beyond themselves, their in-this-moment existence. But I’m not convinced that everything is random – ultimately absurd and meaningless. Because we can never answer the fundamental how or why of existence, it seems to me there always has to be the possibility of purpose and meaning beyond anything we can decipher, and it’s worth living one’s life believing in that possibility, open and listening.
Interlitq: Time is obviously an important theme for many poets. How does one approach it in a fresh way?
“Fresh” would be good. I don’t know how one does that, really, other than to go as deeply as possible into one’s own experience. For me this links with what we’ve just been talking about – the sense of awe in the face of life’s extraordinariness. There’s a tension between wanting to celebrate this and being acutely aware of time passing – of things fading and dying, losing the people we love – and the poems attempt a balancing act between the two, between light and dark, both real and metaphorical.
I draw extensively on the natural world in my poems because that’s what I love. Butterflies and moths are a particular obsession, partly because they were my father’s obsession, and they form a means of communication between us which – in my imagination – bridges even death.
Perhaps because I left India at the age of not quite six and felt terribly uprooted, there’s a sense in which I am always searching for what might be our “real” home, since any feeling of being grounded in time and space is ultimately an illusion. This is a difficult thing to put into words, but it’s about trying to grasp a sense of some reality beyond what we know and experience. If the world as we know it had a beginning, then what existed before? Where are the limits of our universe? Even supposing Big Bang, where will we find the last Russian Doll?
Interlitq: Proper names recur frequently in your poems. The scarlet tiger moth of the title poem, for instance, keeps flitting in and out of your new collection. What is the importance of identification for you?
There are several aspects to naming things. In a way you’re honouring the thing, or place, by giving it a name. And in order to be authentic I think it’s also very important to be absolutely specific, to use the correct name, the correct technical term. But there’s also something much more fundamental going on here for me: names have a talismanic quality. They are a way of holding on to things, achieving a kind of anchorage in the face of chaos and flux. The same goes for the information that relates to the place or thing: it serves to build a storehouse of knowledge to set against oblivion and decay.
I know of course that what I’m talking about is completely illusory, but that doesn’t make the urge to do these things any less strong. And the deliberate echoes between poems – involving names but also certain words and phrases – are an attempt to weave together strands in order to create pattern and form and make something tangible out of life.
Ruth Sharman, UK poet, gives 3 question interview to Interlitq