To Build a House For Your Poems With Your Own Hands: An Interview with Prem Sylvester​

Shivani Lalan

Prem Sylvester is an MA student in the School of Communication and researcher at the Digital Democracies Institute at Simon Fraser University, Canada. He is a writer from India who turns the ephemera he catches whiff of into words. His words have appeared in After The Pause, The Selkie, Homology Lit, Lammergier, The Shore, Kissing Dynamite Poetry, and more homes. His work has also been nominated for the Orison anthology. 


Congratulations on (finally) putting Reliving out in the world! How does it feel to build a house for your poems with your own hands? 

Thank you, and thank you for calling it a house. It’s an odd thing, for a text to be a house, for it to be filled but somehow still ring hollow. To not quite be a home. This isn’t to say that I don’t, in some sense, love the poems that are in Reliving, but I needed them to have shelter away me, from where I wrote them. I think I couldn’t be around them much longer, I hadn’t lived (with) them for a while. That’s part of the reason I put them out myself, outside conventional routes of publication. I didn’t want them collecting dust, and I felt these poems had to be out in the world in some form for me to write more poetry.


So the writing was done a while ago. The building, as you say, though, was recent and it was quite fulfilling. I’ll honestly say that I know nothing about layout, form(at), and other aesthetics onto which the text is layered, so I went by pure feeling. All its bits and pieces – the font, the pictures – fit with an unnamed affect. And I did enjoy that. I haven’t thought too much about the text since I put it out, but I can say I am happy with it, with what I did with it. I’m happy my poems are in the digital flux, whether or not they accrue any value.


How does poetry or the will to write react to any change work or figure in your life?  What makes it better, what makes it worse?

Poetry is always there as a potential in my life – potential for what could become poetry. But I don’t want to say something ridiculous like “my life is poetic” or something, but that doesn’t mean…

I’m rethinking what it means to write poetry. To rethink where poetry comes from for me. Again, I felt like I’ve written out what I needed to say so far, what I felt could only take the form of poetry. Right now, what’s in my life and is important or vital to me, hasn’t quite reached the point where it must become poetry. So I’m just happy to let it be what it is. 

I feel like that could take several forms now, because of the kind of writing I do now, which is me dabbling in fiction, I’m doing a lot of academic writing. Poetry always lingers in the way I do those forms of writing, and that’s never going to go away. I can never separate those things. But, I think the rigid ideas of what I thought were poetry or could be poetry are shifting, and that’s, I think, for the better.


The pandemic has been…chaotic to say the least. Did poetry ever feel like a safe shore to run to?

No, poetry’s never been a safe shore for me. It’s where I’ve spilled. It’s what I’ve chuckled over. It’s where I’ve gotten bleary-eyed. And it’s always been sand, shifting. But I have never been able to just sit with poetry. I think I have a very different relationship to poetry than most ‘poets’, in that I’ve never turned to poetry to fill my life, but to vacate the noxious parts of it. Poetry has cleansed me, but it is not cleansing by itself if that makes sense. It’s an expectorant, maybe even turpentine. And I’ve needed it often – I’m not sure how much I’ve wanted it. That’s been my experience with it during the pandemic, which has ripped phrases, broken bits of poems that may never be, from me, and I suspect it will continue to be.


Tell me about your attempts to sit down and write, did you decide to write something and it didn’t happen post lockdown, or was something else stopping you?

Pandemic time has been accelerated for me, so much has happened and even in stillness my mind is running away from me. That’s mostly what I’ve written about these past few years – time, movement, borders, home, locating and dislocating myself. I write about these because I don’t think about them, they make me. These days I sit down to write everything other than poetry. So – and this might seem like a regression – I’ve decided that I will let poetry come to me, I will make of it a gentle presence when it will let me. But I no longer try to write poetry. I think it’s one of the last things in my life I have the luxury of lethargy with, so I’m going to take it. This might mean I take a long, long time before I trust that I’ve written anything, but I also trust that when I do, it will hold so much more than what I know.


Does anything or anyone help when you’re feeling a little detached from the world of your own writing?

I’ve come to believe that giving up on a poem is underrated. I have many, many unfinished poems. There is more poetry to be found in stillness than in anything else of life, I think. Whether it’s of myself or of the words, I let stillness in, and come back to stir the well-rested thing.


Congratulations on your grad school, I know you’re doing some really fun and phenomenal work. And I also know that it takes up pretty much all the energy you have. How does poetry fit into that schedule today?

Thank you, it’s been…(he chuckles, more out of realization than mirth) it’s been interesting, it’s been exciting, it’s been fun. Poetry hasn’t fit in to my grad school schedule, per se. And that’s not to say that I’ve left poetry behind or given it up or it’s not in my active interest or anything of that sort. I think I have to think about poetry necessarily in different ways now. 


I have to spend time with it in ways that I’m not able to right now. I remember I used to read about poets spending years, months writing a poem, and I used to think that was ridiculous. I used to churn out poems every few days. I’d done the National Poetry Writing Month, where I wrote a poem a day. They’ve not particularly been good poems that have taken revisions and drafts, but in general, life gets in the way, I guess. 


I feel like I’ve exhausted the bank of experiences and life that allowed me to write the poetry I’ve written so far. I feel like I’m still accumulating the experiences and the time that I need to write more significant poetry that I really want to keep or build on. Right now, it’s just been fragments or bits and pieces of thoughts, not even poems that I think will build into poetry. These fragments are probably going to be buried underneath the surface of whatever poetry comes down the line. Grad school is also making me think differently about what I want my poetry to do or what I want my poetry to sound like, feel like, read like. My grad work is heavily theoretical in the way that it draws from poetry. But people like Fred Moten. Claudia Rankine, Dionne Brand, people whose work has been vital for the way I think about the world, and the way I approach what theory is or could be. Both their poetry and their theory has been vital for that. But, it’s not shaped up to anything, and I think that’s fine, that’s good. I think it’s good that I’m taking time for life to fill the pool from which I write my poetry.


What did you mean when you said that you “have to think about poetry in different ways now”? 

I think it’s mainly about the fact that I don’t really think about writing poetry anymore. I’ve come to a place where I’m accumulating what might become poetry. I ran through the resources of poetry that I already had – I’ve capitalized enough on its primitive accumulation (he laughs, he knows I hate the insertion of academic words out of context) over so many years that I don’t have poems in me anymore. I guess I’m just working on thinking, accumulating what could become poetry. I’m not thinking actively of what in my life is a poem, or what has the materials for a poem. I’m just getting the bits and pieces together for what I hope can become poems, one day, some day. 

Shivani Lalan works with weavers and hoards plants in Bangalore, India. She is an anthropologist by training and a nap evangelist by profession.