Poet, journalist, and dancer Tishani Doshi has a knack for detecting remarkable stories. In her latest poetry collection, A God at the Door, which came out in November, she writes, among other things, about seven Indian men who quarantined in a tree and a Russian photographer who waited eleven months to capture a rare photo of an Amur tiger. But her stories of wonder often dwell within tragedy. The seven men belonged to millions of workers who walked hundreds of kilometers to their home villages when India imposed a COVID-19 lockdown with four hours notice; hundreds of these migrants died on the road. And Amur tigers are so rare because they’re a critically endangered species due to habitat loss and poaching. Doshi spoke with me about how she uses poetry to reveal how often wonder and tragedy coexist and how stories—religious, spiritual, and political—impact our actions.
A God at the Door references many religions, often in a single poem. “Pilgrimage,” for example, contains images of circumambulation, the self-help industry, relics, the devil, altars, and crucifixion, to name a few. How do you see different religions interacting in your poems, in this book, and in your life? My father comes from a Jain Gujarati family, and my mother a Welsh Protestant one. I grew up in India, where you breathe every kind of religion, not just your own. We celebrated Christmas and Diwali at home, but they were less faith-based and revolved more around ritual and family. My best friend in school was Ismaili, [a Shia Muslim community], and there were pictures of the Aga Khan in her house. I remember being so intrigued. I went home and asked my mother, “Why don’t we worship a god who wears a suit?”
Most of my childhood was spent being acutely aware that other people had a god or gods. Because my parents come from such different backgrounds and were making a life together, the notion of God was there, but wispy, and they wanted to give my siblings and me the freedom to choose our own paths. So I became a kind of pan-spiritual seeker as a teenager. As a writer I’m concerned with all those old ideas that religions have tried to speak to: love, fear, death, what comes after.
Many of your poems take unique shapes on the page—one takes the shape of a tree; others oscillate between left justification and right justification. How do you decide which poems will take less conventional shapes? How does shape affect how a reader experiences a poem? I don’t know that I choose which poems will take a special shape. It’s more that some poems demand a certain form. Form is how you guide the reader into the poem. It can involve play, mystery, humor, geometry. There’s also a great tradition of “picture poetry” in India, and many traditions where the sonic and ionic join together to generate effect—like yantras and mantras, and I suppose I liked the idea of working into these old traditions in my own way.
In “Tree of Life,” you write about seven Bengali men who returned from cities to their villages when India imposed a countrywide lockdown. The men self-quarantined in a tree outside their village to prevent spreading COVID-19. How did you hear about this story? What is the balance of noting that we can often find some romance in tragedy without ignoring the true horrors of tragedies? I read about them in the news. India’s first lockdown was announced so suddenly that there was no time to prepare. Millions of daily wage laborers left the big cities on foot and walked home to their villages, journeys of days and weeks. It was an astonishing, heartbreaking sight. People walking with their children on their shoulders, their few belongings, sometimes, even a pet duck or dog. There were many deaths, and amongst all this was this story of seven men who had to quarantine in a tree outside their village, because their homes did not have enough space for them to be separate from their families. It reminded me of Satyajit Ray’s film Pather Panchali, which was accused of being too romantic but was a tragedy nevertheless. The forest and the trees in it are almost magical, and even in the most desperate situations people still find ways to laugh and love.
It’s such a powerful concept—the idea of creating time. I think all writers are obsessed with time and are having conversations with the dead and living.
Do you sit down with the intention of writing about politics and social issues, or do those topics appear in your poems simply because they’re part of life? It’s hard to know how poems begin. It’s still a mystery, and no matter how many poems you write you don’t necessarily know how to begin the next one. The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva has a beautiful essay called “The Poet and Time” where she writes, “To be contemporary is to create one’s time, not to reflect it. Or, to reflect it, only not like a mirror, but like a shield.” It’s such a powerful concept—the idea of creating time. I think all writers are obsessed with time and are having conversations with the dead and living. Partly what a poem does is allow you to transcend time, to arc toward the universal using wisps of newspeak and ginkgo leaf and whatever else you can fit in your grist.
Your poem “Instructions on Surviving Genocide” reveals tension between the reality of war/genocide and the narratives of history—the difference between reading words on a page about smallpox blankets and actually being given one or handing one out. How do you think poetry communicates these tragedies differently than, say, a history book or a news article? To a large degree, history is interpretation. We look back at a certain period and define it a certain way, and then a hundred years later we change the way we look at it. So it’s always shifting, it’s not a fixed thing. It’s about power as well, as [Nigerian novelist] Chinua Achebe put it: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” We might collectively hope that the biggest genocides are behind us, but we know that’s not true. When you investigate the history of one genocide, you enter a galaxy of genocides. It’s terrifying. Extermination is a human tendency, it seems. And so the poem sits with the difficulty of this for a while before suggesting that survival may involve striking out alone. Poetry is about sitting with these confrontations, not passing judgment, not explaining.
A God at the Door also includes images of tragedy caused by climate change. Referring to the previous question, does the same apply if you replace “war/genocide” with climate change? Does poetry communicate climate change differently than a history book or news article? I’m really interested in how the language of natural disasters (which are often exacerbated by climate change) has been co-opted to describe tragedies that humans have created. During the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, we were told that the virus was a typhoon, a tsunami, a cyclone, that was tearing through us indiscriminately. This use of language obfuscates on two levels. One: the notion that nature is fierce and there’s nothing one can do to prevent these events. Two: that blame cannot be assigned because there were no warnings and it was out of the realm of control.
In fact, if governments had made different decisions, many lives could have been saved during this pandemic. If we cared about deforestation and soil erosion more than we cared about coal plants, perhaps we could be more prepared for some natural disasters. A poem can work as a kind of intervention. Not to wag a finger, but to create an alternate space where these things can be considered.
The speaker of “In a Dream I Give Birth to a Sumo Wrestler” is reminded by witnessing her brother’s physical deterioration that “all we have are these bodies.” Can you elaborate on how witnessing a failing body, one heading toward death, reminds us that death will happen to us, too? In your view, how has the pandemic affected the general acknowledgment of that fact? I’ve worked as a dancer for many years, so the body is my central preoccupation. It’s a glorious but flawed entity, a source of great power and beauty, but also of limitation. I’m interested in how we experience estrangement with our bodies, how sometimes we undergo an out-of-body experience because we are ecstatic and sometimes because we are lost.
During the pandemic, we were reduced to this disembodied state. We had to stay still, other people’s bodies were suspicious, we could not touch the ones we loved, we could not gather in rooms or gardens and feel the heat of other bodies. We got flattened behind computer screens, and this is how we attended funerals, weddings, and everything else. The reminder of mortality shapes our life, and this surely deepens as we grow older. But in truth, I’ve always been acutely aware of this fact. How, as you put it, death will happen to us. It feels like the one constant we have.
How did it feel to write about the pandemic with it still going on? Although, does that question also apply to climate change? This past year and a half I’ve heard people say that we are living in such extraordinary times. I keep hearing it, and it’s true—the pandemic has been and continues to be a potent time, something the globe is experiencing together. But doesn’t everybody believe at some point in their lives that they are living in extraordinary times? Doesn’t it always feel as though the sky may be falling upon us? Part of writing is to write into the ongoingness of ordinary life, of wonder, of disbelief. If you wait for a feeling of resolution, then maybe the poem doesn’t need to be written.