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Q&A with Meher Manda, author of Busted Models

Writer Meher Manda's work was featured in issue #12 of Newtown Literary. Meher is a poet, short story writer, culture critic, and educator from Mumbai, India, based in New York City. She earned her MFA from the College of New Rochelle where she founded The Canopy Review. She is the co-founder and co-host of An Angry Reading Series in Harlem and the author of Busted Models, a chapbook of poems from No, Dear Magazine. Here, she speaks in-depth with us about Busted Models and her creative process.

How did you choose the title for this collection?

I have to admit, I cheated my way into titling the chapbook. The poems in this chapbook are an essential limb of a larger collection in progress, titled Some of Many Women. When I chose a few poems to cull a chapbook from the manuscript, I went on a process of revisiting older works for some inspiration. Busted Models was the title of the first ever short story I worked on after moving to the US, and the moment I saw that on the page, I realised that there was no better title for the disobedient voice in these poems. So basically, I stole from me.

There’s an active, physical quality to the poems in this book—the reader is consistently reminded of the body of the speaker and others. Can you talk a bit about this?

I’m sure this holds true for many women and marginalised folk, but my sense of physical memory is very distinct and incisive. All of my experiences are alive and ticking because of how clearly I remember the positioning of my body, of the tremors it felt, the sensations it responded to, of how it was looked at and held and how it felt smothered. At the same time, as a young girl growing up in Indian culture, you’re constantly made aware of your body, and the bodies of others. In the way you are to hold your head, assume a submissive posture when speaking to the elders, the way you are to cover up, sit, how far apart your legs can go (not far at all).

There is a Kamala Das poem called “Relationship” where she says, “My body's wisdom tells and tells again / That I shall find my rest, my sleep, my peace.” And I trust my body’s wisdom to inform me of the tension, the disquietude, the discomfort that comes wedged in our lives. So to write about my life or the lives of women within that context can never be divorced from an almost liturgical servicing of the body.

While the poems here sweep through geographical locations, periods in time, and points of view, many of them deal with pressure from the confines of what builds or seeks to contain us—whether it’s a home, family, religion, nation, or the course of one day. How did this come to be a theme of your work?

Thank you for this question: I think it perfectly captures the residing sentiment of the collection. I think the confinements of social regulations always exist, no matter the time, place, or point of view. I think there is always an active sociological structure that is informing your life, sometimes positively supporting it, sometimes actively critiquing and pushing back on it. And I think home, family, faith, country, laws, culture, tradition, become the placeholders, the proverbial shoulders from which the shots of proper behaviour are fired.

Personally, I’ve spent a great deal of my life straddling these social laws, hitting back, being punished for hitting back. And I think the sweeping travel between times and places only seeks to establish a solidarity, particularly with the women who came before me, and the ones who will come after, who have lived, or will have to live, and imagine the full breadth of their lives and the possibilities within fixed contours.

Many of the poems in Busted Models deal with feminine anger. Can you tell us about harnessing (or not) that anger?

I think anger has been the most potent, stand out emotion from my life. Which sounds a little sad as I say it because why not love? Why not generosity? But anger has been, for better or worse, the first trigger to discontentment, the first sign that not everything is conducive. My friend, writer Brian Birnbaum asked me on his podcast whether I do not think that anger, inherently, is a negative feeling, and it is. It can consume you, bleed you hollow.

Having grown up in a culture that policies anger selectively, that upholds male aggression as a sign of virility and is quick to accommodate their discontentment, while female anger is always dismissed and even worse, suppressed, that decrees who gets to be angry and who doesn’t, I’ve come to accept anger as a tool of dissent. And I think every person finds a way to take their anger and channel it into their life in a way that’s productive, I suppose, and for me that has always taken the shape of writing. To write about this moment in time, this culture, stories that are committed to gender politics of a country, is to recognise the anger that I feel, that many around me have felt, and continue to use to recognise where exactly we went wrong. And to feel this anger, to write about it, is also a revolutionary move. Like José Olivarez says in “Poem In Which I Become Wolverine,”

“i know my rage is a poison i know it kills me first /

& still i love it & feed it.”

“Soni” stands out as almost a hinge for the book. What went into crafting this piece?

“Soni” was a very tricky piece to write, because while it was written in complete reverence of Soni Sori, I needed to write that piece with an understanding of the power differential even within the women’s rights movement, that one that beckons for intersectionality. As a tribal activist, Soni Sori has not only been an exemplary voice for indigenous rights, but has also lived through the kind of institutional, brahmanical mistreatment and oppression that comes with being a part of the country. And as an upper caste woman, I had to write the piece with the reflection that I had no shared solidarity with Soni Sori’s experiences, but also with the truth that she is, and will remain a hero for social justice in the country.

So the poem could not exist in the glibness of poetic metaphor, and a hybrid prose poem, that married lineated verses with reportage seemed like the form that would best capture what I felt about Soni Sori, and how inspiring she has been to me, without reducing her life to footnotes.

Several of the poems in Busted Models have a signature look on the page, employing a text block and slashes (“Nenu Kuda Ante,” “Kali,” “Sita,” “Draupadi”). How did you make the decisions about the form of these pieces?

I associate the text block with slashes format with a stream of conscious speak that is a little fragmented, a little less coherent, a bit scattered, but stems from a sense of urgency. It’s the format that comes most naturally to me when I’m working with poems in dialogue, poems that originate from me toward another person. I see those poems as an opportunity to speak to someone I wouldn’t get to, to speak of subjects I haven’t been able to address. Imagine a pent up feeling, a growing frustration that is bubbling under the surface, and you get to puke it out all at once, and to find form, coherence, grammar, and fulfilled sentences is not your prerogative. That’s what I imagine these poems to be. In “Kali,” “Sita,” and “Draupadi,” I am literally addressing the poems to goddesses, sizing them down to establish a sisterhood between them and I, and tasking them for having been figures that have misled me and countless others in our childhood. In “Nenu Kuda Ante,” I speak to a mother, and tell her that I too have chosen silence like she has asked me to. I think there is pain in these poems, anger, but also disappointment, and all of that needed to be spoken in a formless manner, if that makes any sense. Let’s just say, the format comes to me when it does.

What role does imagination—for example in “Sisters on Gravel”—play in this book?

I like that you chose imagination as a focal lead for “Sisters in Gravel,” because so much of the poem hinges on imagining a wildness for two young girls, an almost primal existence that eschews the social codes of gendered behaviour that we learn growing up, that decree how young girls must behave. The two girls’ behaviour, or abject unruliness, contrasted against a set of mothers who never leave the kitchen, who persist with serving their families, is again to reaffirm what happens to femininity when it is moulded, that eventually any rebellion is flattened to deliver women in stock figurines. But there is also the imagination of an underlying question. A what if. What if femininity is passed unchecked, and behaviour, play, work, and love, can grow in innate form without a model of conduct guiding it?

What about memory, such as in “Every Memory Is A Dying Song”?

That poem in particular came from my near-obsession with death (thank you, Emily Dickinson, for nothing), and a continued fascination with women’s stories, especially with how they play out in folklore and family rumours. I think generally, whenever someone has recounted the story of a woman in my family, it’s been a flattened story, one that is generous with the woman’s virtues and sacrificial nature, but never quite delving into their complexities, their questioning, their rebellion. I just made up my mind, many years ago, to refuse the story of a simple woman—one who exists without contradictions, doubt, and soft outrage. I think it’s impossible to be a woman, especially in a controlled, patriarchal environment, and not seek your own vices in implicit or explicit ways to regain some semblance of control over your narrative. Which is why the public eulogy that lives on of supposedly chaste women, the kinds whose art and stories were lived out in service, are so bland and read out like a brochure.

The particular picture of Carnatic singer M. S. Subbulakshmi that is referenced in “Every Memory Is A Dying Song” is one that made me so happy, because this singer, who sang hymns in praise of Gods, whose voice marks incorruptible, moralist piety, actually played dress-up, a whole joke in an image that would shock the most puritan of her followers. I want to remember her with the memory of this photograph. And as I write that poem, I hope that my life too can be preserved with the loquaciousness of its lived experience.

As in the poem just referenced, throughout the book, the speaker reminds the reader that we are reading a poem. The idea of a poem is referenced, as is the writing of the poem itself and the actual piece of paper the poem lives on. How does it feel to employ these “metapoetic” moments in your writing?

Because lived testimony is so integral to my storytelling, the act of storytelling also becomes essential to life, as a way of documentation, seeing, and noting down. I want my poetry to act as witness, and thus in that role, be recalled within the act of witnessing. It’s only fair that the poem knows what role it is meant to serve. I feel like this response is getting too convoluted, but what I mean to say is this: the piece on paper is never divorced from the process that led to its production. Unless I’m writing a thorough fiction piece, the act of writing is as important as what is being written. So I’m trying to be metapoetic, as I am trying to be transparent, with the poem, with myself, and with the reader.

What did your writing process/routine look like for this chapbook, and/or how does it look in general?

It’s very disoriented and painful, if I’m being honest. I only write prose, especially fiction with fierce discipline and ambition, but poetry happens to me, in that a complete, if not good, poem can only manifest through some experience, or after a lot of inspired reading. But lately, I’ve been employing prompts and oulipo methods to be more persistent with my work, to sit down in front of a notebook and not leave until I have a poem hashed out.

The poems in the chapbook particularly, came out of a larger collection that is complete, which I’m currently editing.

How does Queens influence your writing?

I lived in Queens for a year after I moved to the US, and Flushing was the buffer I needed to truly feel settled in this country, and be comfortable in what I had to offer. I seek the multiculturalism, the linguistic diversity, the comfort of Queens in every writing and art space I go to, and that doesn’t pan out as well as it should. I’m so grateful for Queens’ literary diversity, the writers I’ve known and read, and the way the borough finds itself into literature for being an inviting home, as it was to me.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?

In addition to editing my poetry manuscript, I’m working on a collection of short stories. Am I also tinkering with the first few chapters of a novel? Who knows.

Thanks, Meher!

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