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‘The arrangement of a poem is a poem in itself’

Siliguri-based writer Sumana Roy recently did a poetry reading from her latest poetry collection ‘Out of Syllabus’ in Goa. She spoke to NT BUZZ about the struggles of getting published, why she chooses not to change people’s names in her work, and how her first ever novel is missing!

CHRISTINE MACHADO | NT BUZZ

When Sumana Roy first began writing poetry, a lot of people urged her to publish these works in a book, and she decided to do just that. It took her around six years to succeed.

“Getting a poetry collection out especially in the English language in India is difficult because publishers rarely want to take the risk. They think that poetry doesn’t sell. I don’t think this is always true as I buy a lot of poetry books myself,” she says.

Having previously authored ‘How I Became a Tree’, a work of non-fiction, and ‘Missing: A Novel’, her debut poetry collection ‘Out of Syllabus’ was finally released last month, published by Speaking Tree.

But this long struggle to get published did raise a few questions in the writer’s mind. The first and foremost one was wondering whether she was an outsider to the publishing world because she came from the small town of Siliguri in West Bengal, which is not all that known. Or, she admits, this feeling of being an outsider could also have to do with her natural temperament of being shy and reserved.

“The title for the poetry book came from that place. I thought, ‘oh I’m not getting published because I am out of syllabus’’,” reveals Roy.

At the same time when she was arranging the poems together, she knew that she didn’t want to arrange them chronologically. “The arrangement of poems is also a poem in itself,” says the former university lecturer who realised that it was possible to arrange the poems according to various subject headings that people usually study in schools like math, physics, chemistry, etc.

“I also realised that I had been writing about relationships which were ‘out of syllabus’, for instance about the third person in a relationship, unreciprocated love, silent love – relationships which fall outside the syllabus to the kind of love that society accepts,” she explains.

The writer recently read from the book at a poetry reading session at The Project Cafe, Assagao. “While I have been to events where I shared the panel with a few writers and read both my prose and poetry, this was the first time that I was alone and had to speak about myself, my work, and also read. It was a new experience but I am glad I  did it,” says Roy, who has previously been a part of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival in 2017 and 2018 and especially enjoyed the outreach programme which allowed her to interact with students from colleges. “In fact some of the people I met at these colleges came to Assagao for the session,” she shares.

And while the writer has had three works published so far, and is now working on her fourth work – a book of stories, getting into writing happened only in her early thirties.

“Coming from a small town, the choices that were open in terms of getting a job were limited, as were my parents’ imaginations or mine. Having always been good in education, becoming a lecturer seemed to me like a natural process,” she says. It was only while she was working on her PhD abroad that she began to spend time writing in the evenings. And this led to the birth of her first event novel ‘Love in the Chicken’s Neck’. This she went on to submit for a competition which she got longlisted for. Publishers and agents also began showing interest in the book. But she never went ahead with it. “I thought it would make a terrible book. Although it could be that I lacked the self confidence,” she admits.

And while she has been repeatedly asked about revisiting the manuscript now and perhaps polishing it up, Roy admits that this is not possible. “I don’t have the manuscript with me anymore!” she says. “The work was written on my first ever laptop and died along with it. Besides, that story was written at a different time in my life, a more innocent time. I don’t feel related to it anymore.”

Interestingly, Roy who tends to write about people she knows and prefers not to change their names. In fact, Roy says, the initial plan was to write the story and then substitute the names in the end. “But when I was editing the works I just couldn’t do it. It felt wrong. Changing the names would disturb something in it,” she confesses, adding that she has told the people that they are a part of the book. Most of them however are people who are not familiar with the English language and thus have not read the work.

The best response to her work, she believes, comes from non-professional reviewers who often post their opinions online or send it to her via text or email. “

They might not always have sophisticated vocabulary, but the emotional response is very precious and I value that a lot.”

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