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Wednesday June 29, 2022

Of Writing Poetry and Making Nooks : Conversing With Riya Roy

I met Riya Roy as one of the most regular poets of the Airplane Poetry Movement a couple of years back when a bunch of us wrote poems every week. Riya’s poems were one of the most ethereal ones. We connected over words. There was a poetry reading session in Kolkata and I invited her over, though she was in Bhutan! She quickly – and surprisingly – said ‘yes’, and I am sure it was only because of the poetry, and not her boyfriend who was travelling into the city at that time! Regardless, it was lovely meeting her and having her recite her pieces with such sensitivity. It was not long before she had her first book of poems out in the world, and then brought out an outstanding newsletter called ‘the nook’ (tinyletter.com/thenook), which probably broke all records on circulation and popularity! 

A United Nations volunteer, Riya has led a global team of writers for iuventum’s media newsletter. In the past, her articles have appeared in The Swaddle, Arré, LiveWire, BeBadass, Noble Missions for Change Initiative, and Feminism In India.

Her poems have appeared on Airplane Poetry Movement, The Alipore Post, Verse of Silence, On Fire Cultural Movement, Narrow Road Journal and other loved poetry and art spaces. Her debut poetry chapbook, Syllables in Exile, which also features her photographs, has already had more than 1000 reads on Issuu!

Currently, she creates and executes content for Wakefit, and is part of the media team for WeUnlearn. And she was as pellucid in her answers to my questions, as the air in ethereal Bhutan, where she lives with her family!

Q. When did your journey as a poet start?

It started pretty early. My parents tell me that I was very good at memorizing nursery rhymes. Once, according to them, I sang non-stop for a few hours without repeating a single one! I would like to believe that is true. 

My first poem about something I deeply cared for, cartoons, got published in The Telekids when I was a child. And then I stopped writing because I thought my job here was done. I retraced my path to poetry in my late teens and have held onto it since then. 

Q. What is it about writing poetry that excites you? 

My relationship with poetry has evolved over the years as most relationships do. At one point of time, it was a way to impress those whose attention and approval I sought. Today, the process has reversed, and poetry nudges me to pay attention. Just as the colours guide us into the narrative and help us feel more emotionally connected to the characters in a film, similarly poetry inspires me to become interested in the emotion palette of life. The passion of red, the innocence of pink, the naivete of yellow, the warmth of green, the regality of purple and the melancholy of blue, nothing goes unnoticed, making the experience of being alive even richer. And as Mary Oliver says, to pay attention is our endless and proper work. 

Q. Who are your favorite poets?

The poets who have influenced me most and whose words call to me include Gulzar, Mary Oliver, David Whyte and Vikram Seth. Also, I have some particular poems that are carefully placed in my emotional first aid kit, such as Danusha Laméris’ Small Kindnesses, Lucille Clifton’s Sorrows, Naomi Shihab Nye’s Kindness, and Sunil Bhandari’s Home. I have memorized them and I repeat them to myself whenever things don’t go according to me (which is often)!

Q. Tell us about your first book.

Syllables in Exile is a compilation of 30 poems that were written under quarantine as part of National Poetry Writing Month’s prompts shared by The Alipore Post. The poems can be placed on a spectrum with fear and hope on its two ends, emotions that I have mostly and strongly felt for a major part of this year owing to the pandemic. Every poem has a photograph to go with it. These photographs were taken by me way before the world around changed, for better or for worse that time will tell, as it always does. 

Q. What’s your day job – and how do you reconcile it with your journey as an artiste? 

I work as a Content Executive for Wakefit, a home solutions brand. It involves writing of a different kind which I thoroughly enjoy. It also allows me to not put any pressure on my poetry. Because of my work, I don’t have to expect my poems to serve me in any way other than bringing me joy and hope, and that is a huge freedom which I recognise as a privilege. 

Q. Do tell us about what is now making massive waves – your little nook!! where did the idea for the newsletter ‘the nook’ come from? What do you want to achieve from it?

The nook is a little nook of my heart! The idea behind the newsletter was to carve out a tiny corner where one can walk into mysteries. The current situation in the world is such that we are all feeling pinned to the here and now, which is causing a lot of anxiety. And though we acknowledge our privileges, it does not really help when you are feeling that way. The nook is an effort to look at this as an invitation rather than a punishment, an invitation to be with questions that we’ve been running away from all this while. At the nook, we don’t try to answer these questions either, but be with them and let them reveal their true nature to us hoping that we might, as Rainer Maria Rilke would put it, one day live into the answers. 

Q. You are an incredibly generous soul. You share with a full heart. All followers of yours on social media attest to that.  What is your philosophy of life here?

That is very kind of you to say. Thank you. 

I love sharing whatever piques my curiosity and might be enjoyable for someone else too. In essence, it is my way of showing gratitude to the creator. I am reminded of what David Steindl-Rast says about gratitude. He writes that it has two phases, gratefulness and thanksgiving. If you look at the bowl of a fountain, then you will notice that when the bowl is filling up it is quiet and still, but when it begins to overflow, it makes noise, it sparkles and ripples down. He asks us to think of joy filling up the vessel and the vessel accepting it as gratefulness. The vessel overflowing, he says, is thankfulness. When you are grateful your joy is inarticulate, but when you are thankful you have found the right words to say. I share because now my joy has gathered the right words.

Q. You stay in Bhutan. How much of your life and art is influenced by that?

I am sure that the mountains I gape at all day while working from my desk, have influenced me greatly. This is a quiet country, one where people like me can get a lot of writing done. Apart from that, now when I think of it, maybe my Do For Joy series is influenced in some way by Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness concept. Do For Joy is a series of quick interviews with artists who I think are living their best creative lives by simply following their curiosity. It emphasizes the sheer delight one feels when engaged in a creative pursuit. It hopes to bring back the hobby culture. 

Simple Grace
Riya Roy

the dwindling flowers in the vase,
the ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts
and wrappers of chocolates devoured yesterday.
the books gathering in the shelves,
and the newspapers piling up in the corner
closest to the old squeaky armchair.
the bedsheet peeled off the bed,
and thrown like a shawl
around the shoulders of the sofa.
the photoframes holding memories prisoner,
a feeble attempt to get back
at the past which does the same to us.
the pages of the calendar
with oil stains at the edges,
the chargers guarding plugpoints as their own
while pens lie naked on the mat
and their caps hide
in the most unreachable of gaps…
grace doesn’t always look grand
and hence we miss it often.
but look closely, and there it sits
under the doormat with the keys to this house
that has never failed
to resemble your heart.

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