Nisha Ramayya is a poet and lecturer in Creative Writing at Queen Mary, University of London. Her recent book, States of the Body Produced by Love was published by Ignota in 2019. She has kindly allowed Decorating Dissidence to feature a ‘ritual selection’ of her poetry, which resonates with the rituals of craft, creation and this month’s theme of witchery. Jade French speaks to Nisha here about her process of crafting poetics, the ritualistic elements of language, play, and creation.
What do craft and the decorative mean to you?
I’ve never fully shaken off my teenage/emo dreams, and the first thing that springs to mind about ‘craft’ is – embarrassingly – The Craft and all those midnight experiments alone and with friends, candles, dried herbs, and heavy-breathing ghosts. The second thing is craft in the context of poetry and literary tradition, and the ways in which it is turned against poets who emphasise sound and performance (‘not enough refinement’), or who experiment with traditions that do not emerge from Europe (‘not enough relatability’), or who tend towards conceptual and procedural writing practices (‘not enough natural talent’). Will Harris has a great thread on Twitter about this.
How you approach the craft of poetry?
I like thinking about writing poetry as creating and entering into a ritualistic space – an early poem ‘Ritual Steps for a Tantric Poetics’ outlines different practices, methodologies, and feelings about writing poetry that I still find helpful. There are so many contradictory impulses/drives and so many internalised obstacles/enemies that can prevent you from getting anywhere in writing, and so lots of the process seems to be about ‘writing through’ until you find yourself somewhere else, maybe outside yourself or in a make believe space. Tantra refers to mythical and ritual traditions as well as the act of weaving, which is something I explore – over-indulging in the metaphorical possibilities – in Threads (a creative-critical pamphlet co-authored with Sandeep Parmar and Bhanu Kapil) and in States of the Body Produced by Love.
Can you speak to the way ritual informs your work and the ways in which you work with language?
Approaching poetic practices as ritual practices can be really generative and fun. For example, setting up particular rules or rites (such as time of day, or finding your voice via quotations from others, or listening to a piece of music on repeat); meditating on a symbol or image (in my book, it’s yantras/mandalas and goddess iconography all the way); or focussing on something you want to transform (like an emotion or a relationship or a social/political situation). Also, ritual can provide a safe space in which to dwell on, respond to, and even perform violence, fury, revenge. Not that I think those things should be defanged in language according to some distinction between art here and life there, but that poetry can be a place to try on and sharpen those fangs! For example, writing my antinationalist poem that’s really a diatribe against right-wing Hindu ideology and rule really helped me to identify and articulate my feelings and my political position, and then to channel it outside myself into the world.
Tell us a bit more about ‘States of the Body Produced By Love’ and working with Ignota Books…
Ignota first published Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry and have gone on to publish an amazing catalogue, including the Ignota Diary, which is intended as ‘a tool for discovery in the practice of everyday life’. Sarah Shin, one of the editors, has been – quite literally – a dream come true. She has encouraged and supported me and my writing, read my work more closely than anyone and helped me to say what I’m trying to say, organised events and done the sort of promotional work that is anathema to many poets, and helped me to reach so many different people and readers for which I am endlessly grateful. It was important to me to work with a woman of colour (somewhat uncommon in poetry publishing) and with someone who understood and shared my twofold approach to spirituality and politics. I didn’t actually think I’d meet that very person and am so glad that I waited as long as I did to publish my first book – in that way, it’s been pretty romantic!
Could you tell us a bit more about your work in creating a ‘rackety bridge’ between Tantric poetics and black studies?
This bridge – oscillating between safe crossing and descent into the depths, set to the music of Alice Coltrane – is how I am trying to get across the many holes in my research interests and poetic practices; there are many bridges crossing back and forth, like weaving, like suturing wounds. I’m currently thinking about performance as sacrifice, the poetry reading as ritual space and as bloody offering, which will hopefully lead into a research project on Fred Moten’s discussions of blackness and non-performance, the correspondences between legal language and spellcasting, and the fascistic shadowlands of Tantra…
Check our Nisha’s ritual poetry here
I don’t want to sweep the floor any more
I don’t want to sweep the floor anymore
I must have swept it 10 times today
I don’t want to sweep the floor anymore.
It’s dull, monotonous, dreary, drab
irksome, humdrum, nut-dummin’ banal.
I havna nothing ‘gainst sweeping per se
I quite like it actually;
but to do it quite as much as I do
steals my intellect, vibrancy, my derring-do –
I wager it would steal yours too.
the tedium of R e p e t i t i on
day in day in again,
shall I say it again?
R e p e t i t i o n
day in day in again.
R E P E T I T I O N
tition Re Tit ion ion Re Tit Tit ion
shall I say it again?
Annoying isn’t it?
That’s what I feel like about the floor.
O the dishes too AND the shopping,
O! Everest o’ Washing
A summit o’ grime
No pristine peak
an’ pennin’ ma name in a HIStory Book
the peggin’ o’ clothes to dry again
foldin’ them makkin’ them neat
pairin’ the socks
seekin’ the space inby the drawers
squeezin’ an’ stuffin’, huffin, puffin’
clenchin’ gr’und teeth
takin’ a breath
overwhelmed wi’ mess
‘shit how to detox this LOT?’
an’ when I think I’ve done it aw
boo hoo No Luck,
it’s to do aw over when I look up.
The filin’ o’ plates in the machine
that washes them clean
until they’re dirty aw over again!
The Dinner Breakfast Snacks
the Lunches packt,
shoppin’ again, the sweeping, the SWEEPING
the guilt I’m chucking stuff oot we should be EATIN’!
Evidently I’m no employing The Brain
I should be using
to be choosing
to do things
Regurgitate an’ spew it oot!
Clean it up, aw that muck!
For do you know it’s what I do
‘lang wi billion other wummen too?
Day in day oot, shakin’ oor brains aboot,
sloosh oot, OOT our Ears!
BRAINS spill through drains
ratatat on pot an’ pans
splatter stairs, squirt the sink
plop plop in stew, the bin too, the cat food,
spew atop the grimy floor,
doon the grubby uncleaned Loo…
Oh Sisyphus I am not
heavin’ a rock
it tumbles in punishin’ cycle.
My liver is intact,
not ramshed, re-growed an’ ramshed once mair
by Eagle beak an’ hungry claw.
Not Tantalus I
nor Ixion spun in perpetuity
on flaming wheel …whit destiny!
Alas, Mythical status is not afforded Wummen’s Daily Chores.
No tale will be wrote o’ bakin’ a pie,
stitchin’ a rip, plumpin’ a pillow
sloppin’ wairm milk intil mashed potato –
though certes it’s mythical in its endlessness, ness, ness
indeed I empathise wi’ Sisyphus…
I do not suffer like them ancient souls above
For they are Men
An’ wumman are nowhere near the same
A Bloke’s sufferin’ is Monumental
Wummans’ only Temperamental
Downright screechingly Hysterical!
I do not suffer like them ancient souls above
I do not bleed or burn
I’m just fed up o’ sweepin’ the floor
I’ve done it so many times afore
I don’t want to do it anymore.
I don’t want to do it again.
Two Heads, Two Hearts, and the Mother Goddess
I’m a Fraud. I’m a sometime-artist. A sometime-performer. A sometime-writer. A sometimer. Sometimes I’m a non-artist, a non-performer, a non-writer. A non-body. A Nobody. In spite of this lack of entity and identity, an artist is what I am. It’s my safe space. Without my art I’m adrift in dark and deep choppy seas. Defeated. Inert. A Dead Soul.
I’m also a Mother. A full-time Mother. Sometimes, a sometime Mother. A non-Mother, too. A Fraud. NB I put Artist before Mother! Gasp! The Guilt! “What does that mean?” hisses the judging She-Critic in my head, “A BAD Mother? Certainly neither properly Artist nor properly Mother” the cruel critic adds, spitefully.
The truth is I’ve always felt a Fraud. I’ve heard a lot of women feel similarly. I feel especially tricky about myself because I’m a Jack of All Trades Artist – a Sculptor by training, inclination and spirit but a performer too – also a writer, or am I more of a poet? I draw and make installations; after making a short film some years back & continuing to make filmic sketches, I intend to make at least one feature in my life. Sculpture is my language even though I no longer traditionally sculpt. Everything I put my hand to is mapped in 3d form, at least in my own bonkers head; the words I write are dynamic and invisible 3d energy-bombs that shape at your ear & explode, only alive when they quit the flat page; my performances are vigorous, animated lines and planes that move through and beyond space. (Blimey, I’m thinking to myself, no wonder I feel like a Fraud). I don’t fit into a BOX. Once, on moaning to my flatmate about my Jack of all Trades-ness, a woman who was queuing in front of me for a coffee turned to me and with striking generosity of spirit she said, “Sounds to me like you’re a Renaissance Woman.” I was gobsmacked. And chuffed! It was easier to belittle myself than to consider I might be skilled at more than one thing. I never got to thank her but I’ve never forgotten her.
After having my first child, I discovered to my horror that I wasn’t seen as a woman anymore or even an individual, certainly not an artist – only, Mother. Society defined me by Motherhood and little else, at least when my bairns were wee; it came as a huge shock even although deep down I’d known what to expect. When the blue-line had screamed ‘Pregnant’ I fixed my joyful partner’s gaze and hissed, “Don’t ever make me give up my Art.” I’d never been more serious about anything in my life. But I wasn’t really talking to him. I understood our patriarchal world too well. Motherhood should empower us; instead our sterile and soulless society degrades, diminishes and shackles us. Consequently approaching Motherhood filled me with anguish. I was in peril, in mortal danger, an existential force threatened to annihilate me. I was petrified I’d go mad. Making art keeps me Alive. Without it I couldn’t possibly survive – the life raft gone, what would I cling to? I would drown and take my innocent baby with me.
For a while I lived in the dark, choppy seas. After Babe was born, strapped about my heart or snuggled in (my nemesis) The Pram aka The Prison – I became the property of many. My mother, who’d once told me I’d never have children because I was too selfish (in reference to my being an artist I presume?) was either censorious or absent, my mother-in-law berated and undermined me, near everyone else felt they had the right to chastise and scrutinise. The interventions happened on the street, on the bus and tube, at the shops, on the beach even; places where I’d hitherto been joyously free to contemplate and cogitate became war-zones, “Your baby’s too warm!” or “Is your baby alive?’ or “Put a hat on your child! or “You’re an irresponsible and stupid Mother!” The scowls, tuts and sidelong glances were equally demoralising and draining. Not only was I in mortal combat with my own demon, I was assaulted everywhere I went by a She-Chorus of disapproving and cruel faultfinders! On one occasion an older woman attacked me with such vitriol that she stunned a whole shop into silence – to this day I’ve no idea what I’d done to offend her; as a wise hag now, I know it was always only ever her issue – point one finger at me, point three at yourself. My Inner Goddess, never fully formed alas, shrunk to a shrivelled cinder at my heart. My absent mother offered no help. My partner worked long hours and although he had the delightful and glamorous bonus of eating in Michelin starred restaurants at lunchtime, and although his career soared whilst mine evaporated (that’s hard to write) the burden of Breadwinner took its toll on him; the jealously, the fatigue, the anxiety, and the responsibility of motherhood took its toll on me. When I ventured out to parties, which I assumed would be safe, supporting spaces, I realised I was fair game there too! At my sister’s birthday do, a woman advised me that my ever-hungry son was only hungry because my breast-milk was inadequate. At two separate birthday gatherings, two different men unknown to each other and on hearing that I was writing a book asked if was I “doing a children’s one?” the implication being that from a male perspective at least (twice was surely too much of a coincidence) mothers were only capable of writing children’s books; these guys simultaneously and with ease managed to degrade both children’s literature and mothers in one fell swoop – two for one! At another party, a man who worked in publishing and who’d also assumed I was writing a children’s book, went on and on for ages about how easy it is to write children’s books and how he churned them out when required. At the same party a fellow whose wife is responsible for a huge London Art Fair, on asking me what I did (I dared to reply ‘Artist’) spat, “Was I a real artist? Did I know what it meant to be an artist? Had I suffered for my art? Really suffered? He had friends, you see, who had endured penury!” Can you imagine this man daring to say that to another man? It crushed me. WAS I AN ARTSIST? I wondered, befuddled by lack of sleep and dizzyingly out of body with my aching, leaking breasts. COULD I CLAIM TO BE AN ARTIST? The pasting got bloodier still when my old friend, a mother herself, piped in as if revelling in the attack, “You’re not an artist, Sarah! Not a visual artist! I mean what do you *do?” Suffice to say, she’s no longer my friend.
I grew isolated and resentful. Domestic chores became mind-numbingly imprisoning. Bejewelled wi’ posset and a belly that surely wasn’t mine I marvelled that the life I’d lived previous was but an imagining brim-full of theatre, cinema and art galleries; long nourishing walks about my city; wild cycles through Soho or along the canal; travel, exciting projects and exciting people; unlimited, uninterrupted stretches of meditative time. I no longer recognised myself, either in spirit or changed body. With no escape in sight, I disappeared. No one valued me as Mother. No one recognised me as Artist. I didn’t recognise myself. You’re only as visible as your last piece of work, mocked The She Critic. In spite of my deep love for my Boy, I felt few loved me back. Patronised and dismissed, I found myself drowning. I became Nothing.
As our Boy grew, I gleefully found snatched bits of time. I drew. I wrote greedily – when my son started nursery I became a writer obsessed. Sunlight shone through the dark. But when I discovered I was pregnant for a second time, and fearing I’d be unable to cope with two we’ans, I finally sought help. Near a year ago, I finished 14 years of invaluable therapy that changed my life. It was a tough ride but as I healed, my confidence grew. I performed again! Being a mother inspired my writing and my making, gifting both a profound new dimension and gravitas; without being a mother, my novel would have stuck stubbornly and 2 dimensionally to the flat page and would never have been published or made into a solo show. A host of brilliant women helped me back into work and into the world; my partner has given and gives tremendous encouragement and support too – though we still lock horns from time to time! Our kids are now 14 and 10. They’re great. It’s still a challenge; there are a few dark days here and there. I’m still frustrated by the imprisoning four walls, the cooking, the cleaning – the boredom. I ache for uninterrupted time so I can fully immerse myself in a long project. I rage at patriarchy and rail at misogyny – I discovered my inner Goddess was a fiery Feminist. My journey as a maker and a mother has been a hard one. It’s still a tough juggle. Working from home makes it tougher. Currently, I’m in a fallow field. Will I ever make again? I am A Fraud, you see – a non-artist, a some-timer, a dabbler as an ex once mocked after watching me dance at Sadler’s Wells. The truth is, being a mother taught me, inspired me, encouraged me, challenged me, allowed me to love myself and become a better human-being. Without children, I may have just destroyed myself. Motherhood gave me the kiss of life. Motherhood gave me the tools to survive. Motherhood empowered me.
words by Sarah Cameron
Sarah is an artist, performer, writer and mother. Born in Dundee, Sarah studied sculpture at Chelsea School of Art and theatre at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Sarah has worked extensively in theatre and has collaborated for many years with Clod Ensemble; with whom she created The Red Chair (published by Methuen) an award winning solo show.
You can follow her on twitter and instagram @sarahcam3ron
My interest in Marianne Moore began in 2011, when I was doing a Creative Writing MSc at the University of Edinburgh. I took a course called Poet Critics, and, on a list of nine modernist poets, Moore was, shamefully, the only woman. This, alongside the fact we share a first name, made me infinitely more attracted to her work than that of her much-lauded male compatriots. When I actually got stuck into her Collected Poems, I realised we also share a love of animals, the natural world and deep sense of irony about… pretty much everything.
I decided to pursue a PhD and placed Moore’s animal poetry the heart of the project. Initially I intended to investigate the role of talking animals in poetry (Moore’s ‘The Monkeys’ is a real favourite of mine), but as my research developed, I was drawn to the idea that poetry focussed on animal otherness can lead to a spiritual (not necessarily religious) connection with nature. By the end of my PhD, my work on Moore had shifted to concentrate on her poetic connections between visual art and art in nature as a means of reaching towards the sublime.
It took me three years to secure funding for my project, and while the waiting and the initial rejections were difficult to navigate, I found deep comfort in Moore’s poetry. Her work holds an infinite source of wisdom, humour and intrigue, and even now, almost a decade after my first encounter with her, I take away something new with every reading. ‘“A kind fretful of speech”’ (I hope) pays homage to her style of syllabic verse, her penchant for quotes (all of which come from her poems) and the motif of the sea that appears in some of her most striking works (‘The Fish’ and ‘A Grave’, for example). But really, I wrote this poem as a tribute to a woman who, from beyond the grave, has enriched my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined, for which I am eternally grateful.
Words by Marianne MacRae