Tanya Mendonsa’s mastery of poetics with each verse crystallised are transportive, leading and spiralling us into an infinite sense of lightness. Her latest work, The Fisher of Perch, comes on the heels of The Book of Joshua and All The Answer I Shall Ever Get, both critically acclaimed books. Tanya’s verse is an alchemy of her intense love for nature and her astonishing sensitivity for what it truly entails to live within nature. The Fisher of Perch is testimony to just that.
“It’s a fable for our times, how desperately we need the powers of solitude and water. It is a poem for everyone — it could be anywhere where there are hills and a river. The Fisher himself (the lead character), who discovers his soul in this landscape, has no name — he could be every man. The river is at the heart of the poem, which is in short verses, superbly illustrated by Design Foundry, which brings the whole vividly to life,” begins Tanya, who was educated at Loreto school and college in Kolkata. After spending 20 years in Paris, studying French literature at the Sorbonne, painting and running a language school, she returned to India, a story told in her memoir The Book of Joshua.
Her first collection of poetry, The Dreaming House, ranged effortlessly in theme, maintaining a startling clarity of vision and language. Her poems have been widely anthologised. The inspiration for her new work came quite naturally to Tanya, who now lives in the sublime hills of the Nilgiris.
“I wrote the poem over three years, in between finishing my second collection of poetry, All The Answer I Shall Ever Get, and collaborating on a book on old Calcutta with a French photographer, Laurence Toussaint. The Nilgiris is such a new landscape for me and I was changed by living by a river. We take so much for granted the spiritual potential and power of water – a great error, in my opinion. I think the next wars will be fought over water; we constantly abuse the planet to destroy the very thing we depend on. Man can live without food for a period of time, but not without water,” muses Tanya. Poetry is often a manifestation of one’s personal encounters. How much does the book draw from Tanya’s life?
“Poetry is simply a way of looking at the world which makes everything seem extraordinary. I can’t say I invented the Fisher — he simply walked into my life one day while I was walking down to the river in the valley below my house. He is very much a person to me — in fact, he showed me the way. I just followed him. Writing this poem energised and cleansed me and I approached my other work with new enthusiasm,” adds Tanya. While the writing process was quite organic, it was finding a publisher that was the biggest challenge.
“A single, long, illustrated poem is very difficult to push. I must say I had an easy time with my first three books, which Harper Collins accepted immediately and produced so beautifully. I was incredibly lucky finding Design Foundry, who had just started their new imprint, Paper Project. Of course, we had worked together for almost six years now, on many projects, I with articles on poetry and poetry, and them with graphic arts, so we knew each other well, which is vital in an unusual project like this one. It needed to be done with immense attention to detail, which would not have been possible, I think, with an ordinary publishing house which is naturally not focussed on design and art,” adds Tanya.
Coming back to writing poetry, the art could be a great emotional outlet even when you can’t articulate how you’re feeling. “The best part about writing poetry is the spark, and then the connection. My favourite poet, Mary Oliver, said, ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’. My answer is — you can save yourself from everything that clouds the spirit and pierce to the vitals of life — for me, I need to do this in solitude. I love people and exchanges, but only when I’ve done some good and honest work I can share! Living in solitude now, unfortunately, belongs only to the rich or the obstinately free. As poets are poor by definition, I’m one of the latter,” she explains.
As she signs off, she says, “I’m currently working on my third collection of poetry, as well as on a novel. If Alan Bennett, the playwright, said, ‘We read to know we’re not alone’, I guess a poet, with a really good piece of work, feels connected to the world — the joy or pain the poet is expressing has surely been felt by many, many others. We’re just lucky to be able to put it into words.”