British poet W H Auden once said: “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” This is true of Dublin-based poet Fiona Bolger. Her poetry is a reflection of her love for languages.
Irish-born Bolger has spent a good amount of her adult life in various parts of India, including Chennai. The languages she heard during her time in the country have greatly influenced her poetry. In her poem Words to a New Wife Entering Her Kitchen, Bolger uses Tamil words like manjal, jeera, and levang. In the same poem, she also uses the Hindi word ghusa. These foreign language words make Bolger’s poems richer, besides hinting at her fascination with the nuances of different languages.
Bolger believes language is the most precious gift we hand over to the future generations. In an exclusive interview with Soulveda, Bolger talks about her poetry, her love for languages, and how Chennai played an important role in her becoming a poet.
Could you tell us about your life in Chennai as a poet?
During my years in Chennai, I did write, but not consciously. However, on returning to Ireland, I realised that in many ways Chennai had made me a poet. I grew up to be an adult and a mother in India. Returning to Ireland in my 30s and starting to write seriously, I found a way to chart my life and Chennai was—and is—a huge part of that. I describe myself as living between places. The project I am currently engaged in is an attempt to write poetry which grows from the experiences of those who live between places.
In your poem The Middle of April, you have used Tamil words karam and vellum. What is the motivation behind this usage?
As I was writing this poem, I was thinking of green mango and its sourness—that teeth sucking sourness. I had never had green mango in Ireland! It is something I know from the beach in Thiruvanmiyur. How else would you describe the piquant powder with which they dust the sour slice? I was also thinking of how I like to boil green mango with a red chilli and plenty of jaggery, later adding roasted mustard seeds. I use words less from motivation than from a sense that I am using the best word to describe the sensation, the sound, the experience or even the object.
You write in English and use Tamil and Hindi words in your poetry. Does this make you plurilingual?
My understanding of ‘plurilingual’ is that it does not require fluency in all the languages. But perhaps it does require a deep affection for language in general, and the ones you experience in particular. I love words and whether they are in a language I speak or a language I hardly know or something in between, some words just haunt me and echo in my brain. When I am writing a poem, they will appear.
“I find pleasure in immersing myself in a language in which I am fluent, but also in listening and sometimes trying to make sense in and of a language in which I am a beginner. The unique sounds, tones, and even gestures of a language fascinate me.”
Does being plurilingual make your work richer?
I am not sure that is for me to say. I know that audiences who recognise their language in my poems respond very positively and audiences who enjoy hearing new words and sounds enjoy this aspect too. I hope it makes my work richer, brings new people to poetry, and introduces new words and ideas to others.
Language can unite or divide people. According to you, how does language help in bringing people together?
If we regard language as a collective project in which a community of speakers, writers and readers engage over generations, it’s a source of wonder, pride, and aesthetic pleasure. I find pleasure in immersing myself in a language in which I am fluent, but also in listening and sometimes trying to make sense in and of a language in which I am a beginner. The unique sounds, tones, and even gestures of a language fascinate me.
You say language can be used to illustrate our shared heritage and humanity. How?
Languages are created and kept alive by communities. Different communities may have different languages, but often neighbouring communities will have borrowed words back and forth over the years. In some cases, pidgins and later creoles develop between neighbours. Languages also interact with each other through travel and trade, and of course colonisation. For instance, it is fascinating to trace a word like ‘aubergine’, or ‘baigan’ as it moved around India and entered Europe through different routes. In English, Spanish and French, the word came through Arabic and Catalan keeping the ‘the’ (al) and becoming aubergine and variants. However in Polish, there is no ‘al’ it is ‘bakłażan’ which suggests the word came from a different, more easterly route.
How is the aspect of shared heritage reflected in your poetry?
I am sure painters wax lyrical about their paints and in this way, language inspires me to write. Although I write in English, I often find the word I need is not there and I have to borrow from another language. Sometimes I like to use words for their meanings, and other times for their sounds, and generally there is a little of both. In one poem, ‘Blunt Knives’ I wanted to play with rhythm and sound and meaning, and I used the nattuvangam for a dance I had studied.
I’d like to think that by using words from many languages, my poetry introduces monolinguals to new words and ideas and, to those who know the words already, makes them feel a special belonging in the world of my poetry.