Karishma Sangtani

Karishma Sangtani in conversation with Kayleigh Jayshree

Kayleigh: Do you incorporate any influences from your hometown into your practice?

Karishma: I guess this question begs another, more complicated question: what even is my hometown? When I was 4, my family moved to Ilford in the London Borough of Redbridge. Then, when I was 14, we moved to Shenfield, a commuter suburb in Essex, as my siblings and I were attending secondary schools in Chelmsford. For a few years after moving to Essex, I had recurring dreams of our old home. I think this nostalgia definitely played a role in some of my earlier writing. In particular, I remember trying to capture the colours of rooms — the kitchen’s pale green (or ‘Nordic Spa’ according to the Dulux website), the living room’s blush pink, my bedroom’s intense yellow. I think holding onto these details was important to me whilst I grappled with a sense of loss, not only in regards to our home itself, but the area we lived in, which unlike Shenfield at the time, was full of South Asian people, not to mention most of my friends! 

Though I missed Ilford, I also knew how fortunate my siblings and I were that my parents could afford to move closer to our schools and so I tried to connect with our new area. Unfortunately, as I didn’t have many friends in Shenfield and there wasn’t much for young people to do, I didn’t feel attached to the place at all as a teenager and it didn’t play a role in my early writing. However, in the last couple of years, since spending lockdowns with my parents, I’ve started to appreciate Essex a little more. I guess, in a way, I was pushed to find joy in it; as there wasn’t much to do apart from go on walks, I grew a huge appreciation for the parks and nature reserves that were only a short drive away from Shenfield. One small nature reserve in particular, Warley Place, has started to appear in some of my poems — specifically its swathes of wild garlic and an old walnut tree I’ve taken about a hundred photos of. I’m not sure of the extent to which Essex will continue to play a role in my practice as a writer, but I’m glad that I finally feel some kind of attachment to it!

Karishma: How have the places you’ve lived in influenced your poetry?

Kayleigh: I’ve never thought about this before! It’s an interesting one. I was born in Barnet, and moved around several times before settling in the East Midlands. I never really had a strong or solid concept of home, or knowing where I belong, or where I am a part of. I know people who have lived in the same place their entire life and I’ve always envied that.

Consciously, my sense of place and location is shown most in my short stories. Unconsciously (which is always more hard to answer) I guess where I position myself is shown in my poetry. Like in my poem DNA, it’s a concrete poem based on the first time I left hospital after I was discharged. I was raised in a small town near Nottingham and I personally don’t think it’s impacted my work. 

To be honest, I tend to write whatever is on my mind, or whatever is bugging me, or I’ll work with an image, sound, or texture, figuring out the meaning or the process later. When I’m editing other people’s work, I say this thing about the ‘crux’ of a poem. I love the dual meaning of crux, as a point where the poem has the most meaning, but the point where it’s the most difficult. As writers, there is no point in shying away from complication or difficulty, but it definitely makes discussing poetry more difficult! Apart from discovering and connecting to a writing tradition close to Nottingham (I really love D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers) I think I spent a lot of years trying to run away from where I came from. 

Karishma: What was your experience of being taught poetry at school? 

Kayleigh: A mixed bag, really. My English teacher at my secondary school was brilliant, very clever, and wanted us to engage with poetry. He gave us a writing exercise and my first poem was crap, about beans on toast or something, but because of the freedom and fluidity of how we were taught, our grades shot up. 

I loved reading Romeo & Juliet and other Shakespeare plays, and when we learned from The Moon on the Tides anthology I was exposed to poetry for the first time. I watched Dead Poets’ Society at the same time, and really liked Robert Browning and Walt Whitman. The first ever poem I loved was Simon Armitage’s I Say I Say I Say. I’d never seen a poet write about self harm before and I thought it was excellent. It took a long time, several years, to find my voice and a unique approach to writing, and I’d still say I’m not 100% there yet, it’s still a process, maybe a lifelong one.

When I did my English A Level, we didn’t get taught lots of poetry. There’s a misconception that poetry is ‘harder’ than fiction, but I’ve never studied anything more difficult than Renaissance plays. In my opinion, the only way to understand poetry is to have a response to it. If you think it’s crap, that’s a response. The more you trust your gut, the more likely you are to find poetry that you don’t think is rubbish. 

Kayleigh: Did you grow up around any poets, or know what poetry was from a young age?

Karishma: No, I didn’t grow up around any poets and only knew what poetry was through school. I developed a liking for it relatively early though. I remember being introduced to The Boneyard Rap by Wes Magee in primary school and becoming obsessed with it. I went home and immediately showed my siblings (who also became obsessed with it). I think it was something about its musicality and absurdity that drew me to it as a child. Annoyingly, I can’t remember the teacher that introduced me to the poem, but I feel indebted to them. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have also discovered the Children’s Poetry Archive, which I used to scroll through on our gigantic desktop.

As a result of absorbing so much poetry, I eventually started writing for fun. I remember writing about clocks and roses and other random things, and trying to make everything rhyme. Apparently, according to friends of my parents, I used to stick my poems up around the house with blu-tac so everyone could read them when they came round. Man, what I’d do to possess confidence like that again!

Karishma: I know you are also a short fiction writer so I was wondering if you could talk about the differences in your processes of writing short fiction and poetry. Specifically, are there themes or experiences that you explore more through either form? Why/why not? 

Kayleigh: It’s cool because the processes for me are really different. I do change form and swap between fiction and poetry a lot. In short fiction, there is usually a real-time event, scenario, image or person who inspires the work, and it takes between three to eight months to even get a draft, let alone finish one. I find it very challenging to write in one tense, and get across what I want. Poetry is more instant for me, I’ll write a complete poem and redraft it maybe seven times, and for longer or more complex pieces, the poem is redrafted probably at least ten times. 

Writing short fiction is more difficult and time consuming. Theme-wise, when I write short fiction I explore race, sexuality, and relationships. In my poetry, I usually explore violence, rage, and loss. If you can’t already guess, my poetry is a lot more depressing! Short stories are a place for me to map out joy, to find moments in life that make people happy, that give hope, present a way forward. Poetry is almost the opposite. I think there’s something to say about that: poetry, for me, is an immediate and intense emotional response to something, which is then cultivated over time to be a completed piece. Fiction is a narrativisation of events, honed down and pruned, to express a specific point of view, usually positive but still nuanced. My sense of humour definitely comes across more in my fiction, but it’s hard to write a funny poem!

There’s a good point to be made about why certain themes come up more in one form versus the other. I suppose if I’m inspired by certain poets who write about things, or certain short story writers who explore something else then it’ll come through in my work. 

I also think if there’s something more abstract I want to explore or discuss, it’s likely better in a poem. On the other hand, if there’s something more direct, or narrative-focused, it’s generally better in a story.

Kayleigh: What imagery do you resonate with the most as a poet?

Karishma: I think it’s always changing! Recently though, I’ve enjoyed writing imagery around food. As well as being central to how I organise my life, for me, food and cooking are often connectors to my heritage or a means of expressing care for others. When I think about my friends, I recall the last meal we shared together. When I think about my mum, I think not only of her cooking, but of how we’ve binged every single MasterChef: The Professionals series to date. Food is so deeply connected to the people I love that I find it impossible not to incorporate it into my poems.

As well as writing food imagery, I’ve been enjoying reading it. I’m currently devouring (forgive the pun) Su Cho’s collection The Symmetry of Fish. Cho uses food to explore a range of themes including familial love, loss, heritage and marriage. One of my favourite poems so far is ‘A Little Cheonyeo Gwishin Appears In My Kitchen’, in which a Cheonyeo Gwishin, the spirit of an unmarried woman in Korean folklore (according to Google), shows up and ‘snaps the heads / off dried anchovies’, ‘opens the tofu, smashes / the watery curd with her / foot’. I love how, contrary to a lot of my own writing, food is imbued with a sense of threat here. Just proves the range of emotion that food imagery can convey, and makes me want to write more of it!

Karishma: We’re both currently part of the Roundhouse Collective, through which we’ve been developing our writing both for the page and for performance. What roles have live performances (either your own or those of other poets) played in your development as a writer? 

Kayleigh: Isaiah Hull, an artist from Old Trafford, was one of the first poets in Manchester whose work I followed closely. I learned from his performance style that it’s okay to be yourself on stage, or even, to build a persona of yourself from characteristics that aren’t as celebrated. Not only is Hull a brilliant poet, but his stage presence adds an extra layer to his work. 

From 2016 to about 2018, I tried to be a performance poet and failed. Failure is a part of growth, obviously, but I consider it a failure because of my approach. I cared too much about getting high scores, I wanted to win, I wanted to excel in a form that really isn’t for me. 

I was only eighteen, I have terrible stage fright, and wasn’t challenging myself in a way that allowed me to grow. As much as I was inspired by poets and artists I was a fan of, like Bo Burnham and Kendrick Lamar, it stunted rather than propelled my work.

From 2019 to 2021, I didn’t really perform at all. My own live performances have contributed to my development because I rebelled against my initial approach to poetry and writing. During those three years that I didn’t perform, I swore to write solely for myself and not rely on external validation, and my writing flourished. I stopped being so insecure and reliant on others, and could advocate for myself in a way I had never done before. Even though it’s not entirely positive, I changed so much in that time.

To be fair to myself, I tried to experiment and work with the stage dynamics. This helped my development as I learned to take criticism and work in forms that I enjoy practising. 

Kayleigh: What informs your poetry most, loss or joy?

Karishma: I wish I could say joy! But unfortunately, loss features quite heavily in my poetry… although, now that I think about it, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing; for me, writing about grief is, in part, a means of processing it. If I didn’t write about it, all that sadness would just be swirling around in my head, which would probably prevent me from feeling joy in my day-to-day life. 

As well as being a vehicle for confronting loss, writing can offer me distance from the intensity of feeling that loss brings about. It seems counter-intuitive; surely writing about grief should be upsetting? It definitely is sometimes.

Other times, I get so caught up in the technicalities of the poem (does the rhythm work here? Which word should I end this line with?), that I end up slightly removed from the subject of the poem. Ultimately, I think this slight detachment can be a good thing because it makes grief more manageable — it encourages me to approach those feelings with curiosity rather than fear. And often, I find joy along the way, whether that be in the form of recounting a memory or of finally landing upon the right word. 

So, I take back my initial answer. I think joy and loss are intertwined in my writing, as they are in my life.

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