I met Ellen one day during one of her workshop sessions. I just had to talk with her at the blog. She walks, talks, and dreams poems and I was ecstatic when she agreed to talk about her workshop process and future projects.
Ellen creates the right atmosphere for her students- she stresses the importance of listening to others read. The first time you read out your poem in a group, you will only pay attention to your poem and your voice but after a while, you will listen harder and learn from the words of others. This is therapy in a way- sometimes when you write you learn little truths about yourself and when you read the words out, it changes something inside. By creating a space where people can open up to themselves and each other, Ellen teaches how words can be used not just to write poems but to heal as well.
Ellen Kombiyil is a poet, writer, and writing teacher. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Cider Press Review, Cordite Poetry Review, Hobble Creek Review, Poemeleon,Redactions, Revolution House, Silk Road Review, Spillway and Spry,among others. Honors include a nomination this year for the Pushcart Prize, and in 2012 she was nominated for Best of the Net. She is a Founding Poet of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, which publishes first and second books showcasing new poetic voices from India. Her first book of poetry, “Histories of the Future Perfect,” is forthcoming in 2014.
Originally from Syracuse, New York and a graduate of the University of Chicago, for the past 10 years she has lived in Bangalore, India, where she leads writing workshops and teaches yoga.
Tell us about your experience of running a workshop in India. How are workshops here different from those in the US?
My workshops have a very simple premise. They are meant to be a safe space where people can come and feel free to write about anything. We write in silence and then we read aloud. We don’t comment on each other’s work during this time. I see my role as keeper of the space. In this sense, running a workshop in India is no different than running it anywhere else.
How important is the idea of community building for an art form like poetry?
Writing can be — and sometimes must be — a solitary act. And yet, no one writes in a void. Sometimes we must get out of our own heads and be in the company of other writers and share our words and deeply listen to others. It keeps us pushing outward at the edges of our own boundaries. It keeps us connected to the human element of writing – not pen on page but reaching through and communicating to a person at the other end. Writing is communication, after all, and sharing our work is part of entering the larger conversation going on around us. So, to answer your question, community is tremendously important to the artist. It keeps us both grounded and striving.
In this time of MOOCs, how do you think online poetry workshops and real life workshops are different?
I love MOOCs. They are convenient. I do not have to leave my bedroom and fight the Bangalore traffic to show up to my class. They are multicultural and I get to interface with people from all over the world. There is a thrill to reading the same poem as 30,000 others, to knowing that ideas are passing around at the speed of light to a large, global community. But nothing compares with physically sitting across from another writer and hearing them share their work. And to witnessing the silence in the space afterwards. And the ripple that goes through the room.
What kind of preparation do you expect from your students before they attend a poetry workshop?
No experience necessary! Just a willingness to write and to listen. Listening to others is at least half the practice. Writing is the other half.
Natalie Goldberg is pivotal to your teaching method. Why?
I was first introduced to Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” by my poetry mentor in college. I immediately fell in love. Gone the rigidity that can sometimes occur around writing. Silenced the critic that lives inside my head, which could stop me cold. Instead, I keep the hand moving. I write about any image or idea that comes up, even it doesn’t make sense. It was a study of the mind. It taught me to trust myself.
I was so taken by her very simple writing rules and her way of inspiring you to cut through all resistance and just write, that I ended up studying with her twice: once at a three-week intensive in the New Mexico desert, and once for three days in New York City.
I have been practicing her method for so long, I trust it completely. I draw from this trust, standing on Natalie’s shoulders, when I teach my students.
Tell us about quantum poetry.
Quantum poetry is how I’ve come to describe the poetry manuscript I’m currently working on, titled “Histories of the Future Perfect,” which is due out in 2014.
When I was undergraduate, one of the requirements for my degree was to study Astrophysics for one year. There I was, a young poet, terrified by the large equations that could at times wrap around the classroom. It ended up being one of my favorite classes and the concepts I was introduced to: theory of relativity, quantum physics, black holes, the possible geometries of space and time, have influenced my work ever since.
As a writer, I am drawn to trying to express those things that seem impossible to express. How do I, in the language of poetry, find an image or a sound that will express the observer effect in quantum physics? Or, how do I grapple with the very beginnings of the universe, when gravity breaks down – what image and language can I come up with to describe this? My main concern, as I use these theories as inspiration, is that the work itself should not be abstract. It should be grounded in image and in human terms and relationships. In a way, I’m taking these mind bending ideas and giving them a form, an image, a tangible expression.
I would like to say, looping back to your question of community, that I am indebted to my two friends and colleagues, Shikha Malaviya and Minal Hajratwala. Having someone who believes in your work gives you incredible freedom as an artist to push your boundaries. I am certain that I would not have gotten this far in my explorations of quantum poetry without them.
In fact,Shikha, Minal and I are the co-founders of a brand new poetry press called The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, which publishes first and second books, showcasing new poetic voices from India. We just released our very first book this month, Shikha’s “Geography of Tongues.” Bringing a book out into the world is an act of community, and a testament to what community can bring to an artist.
How has being a yoga practitioner influenced your writing?
Yoga, like writing, is also a way to observe one’s mind. I find that when I’m deep in my yoga practice, ideas and images run right through me, just as they do when I’m writing. The practice is to be an open vessel, to let them run through me, and I am the observer. In yoga, I observe and let go. In writing I try to observe and record, that is the difference.
There is also the quantum element that, for me, connects the two: reading the yoga sutras, it is clear that we’re talking about quantum physics.
What are you reading right now?
“My Poets” by Maureen McLane. It’s amazing. She was actually one of my advisors in college, which is how I came to know about the book. It describes itself as experimental prose, and is categorized as poetry/literary criticism/memoir. It’s taken me a long time to get through the book because I keep getting inspired when I read it – I put it down and write!
Thanks so much Ellen! Pleasure learning from your process.
I do hope you hop in again next week. Ellen has a Poetry Workshop as part of my little initiative called Project Inspire- a workshop just for you! Watch this space for more…….