Interview With Brian Mendonca, A Popular Goa Poet

Manjushree talks with the poet and discusses various issues.

Dr Brian Mark Mendonça has emerged as one of the major poetic voices of Goa. Popularly described as a “Traveller Poet”, Brian is known for blending travels with poetry. Currently working as Assistant Professor, Department of English at Carmel College of Arts, Commerce and Science for Women, Nuvem, Goa, Brian has 2 collections of poetry to his credit, ‘Last Bus to Vasco’ and ‘A Peace of India: Poems in Transit’. Thirteen of his poems are published by the Sahitya Akademi while seven of his poems feature in Ensemble, A Canadian Quarterly of Literature, Arts and Culture. His poems are widely appreciated for having sketched “multicultural and multilingual India,” (Journal of Common Wealth Literature) that “resonates with the cadence of India” (Tribune). In his poems, that “reflect his love for exploring and new places, and examining them in the socio historical context,” (Times of India) even “common places …..acquire significant meanings” ( Muse India).

An academician, editor and a poet, a blogger, musician and a columnist, Brian speaks about his poems and passions, interests and involvements in this interview with Manjushree M.

August 2016, Goa, India

Manjushree (MS): Can you describe the evolution of Brian as a poet?

Brian: I think the answer can be divided into two parts. Brian is the name that my parents have given and poet is the name that I struggle for. Very often, I could have just remained Brian like so many Brians. They are in oblivion. If you Google search, you can get million Brians. But you might get only one Brian the poet. So if you have a dream, if you have something that is within you, despite many objections you must realize that dream. So my evolution as a poet, as you want to put it, has been a journey of struggle because right from my first poem ‘Last Bus to Vasco’ in 1998, I realized that not everybody can give you the support that you are looking for. The support is what you find within yourself. So, after I self-published Last Bus to Vasco: Poems from Goa in 2006, I got the confidence that I needed. Along with it I also produced an audio CD of a recording of the poems in my voice layered over with special sound effects suggested by the universe of the poem. After that, I again self-published A Peace of India: Poems in Transit in 2011. The second volume enlarged my canvas from Goa to India and that is how I established myself.

Since I come from a publishing background, I published the book myself. Today everybody thinks that you are a great person if you publish. So publishing is the magic mantra. But it has a flip side to it. If you don’t publish you are nothing. So we have to negotiate this dichotomy. So I decided to self-publish — it depends on the reader whether he or she likes it. So I have taken very important decisions in my life to realize that dream. I do not sit down writing and say you recognise me as a poet. I worked to make it happen. I worked with the grammar of publication. In both my volumes of poems I travelled, composed, edited, published and sold my poems. Can you imagine one person doing all these activities and still living a ‘normal’ life?

MS: Which poet or poem is close to your heart?

Brian: I was really influenced by T S Eliot. I like the romanticism of Wordsworth. But I cannot use romanticism in contemporary thought. You have to use something which can reach back even to Greek thinking. So I have a word like praxis which comes from the Greek. It means sense of becoming. This was published in the Sahitya Akademi volume in 2004. I am so happy for that moment because it is the same year that my mother passed away and that was like a tribute to her. It looks like she was waiting for that. When I search for a poem of mine to quote it is ‘A Peace of India’ (1999). It goes like this: My heart is roaming in the wild blue yonder / But where I lie will always be Goa / Between the black soil of the plains / and the red mud of the coast / There for me is India’s peace. This poem is my signature.

MS: You fuse poetry and travel together. Ordinary places look elevated and gain important in your poetry. What makes you write poems about places?

Brian: I would like to draw your attention to one word you used i.e. “elevated”. I disagree with that. My intention is not to elevate a place. My intention is to show a place in all its carnivalesque variety and pluralism. If you think it’s elevating it, it is your perception. I have a poem which is called ‘Londa Station’ (1999). It was in Delhi when this happened. A visiting person from Karnataka had come and I told her that I had written a poem on Karnataka. I expected that she would be happy. But at once she glanced at the page and her face became severe and small. She said it is about urination. Everybody urinates so why do you talk about Karnataka? So this kind of framework is what I leave open to the dialogic imagination. You take what you want. Some body may take it as about urination. Some body may say that the poet is trying to write that humans should not behave like animals. So the decoding of a wisp of poetry is infinitely complex. So whether is elevation or criticism, it is there. You take it in whatever way you want because ultimately the text belongs to the reader. The only criterion for me is that it has to be my truth.

Brian mendonca interview

MS: Goa is not just a place for you. It is a passion to you. As a poet how do you see Goa   over these years?

Brian: I think this is a clichéd question. Today we travel, in the morning we are in Mumbai, in the evening you are in Bangalore and tomorrow you will be in Goa. How will you see a unified entity of Goa? What is Goa? Goa is changing every minute. Goa of today is not the Goa of yesterday and won’t be the Goa of tomorrow.  Goa is a construct, a construct that is maintained by lobbies. What is Goa Tourist Development Corporation saying? It is saying that Goa is a land of leisure and fun. It is saying that Goa is a land where people are relaxing 365 days. Do you believe that? See the projection there. When you see the packaging of Goa, you realize what is meant by living in Goa as a Goan is like a pawn in this great drama of cultural capital. Goa is a cultural capital. Many bad things are happening. Nobody talks about it because nobody wants to know. There is this blind spot. So this is a very problematic question. If you ask me what I feel about Goa, perhaps I will be able to reply only in tears.

I do not look at Goa per se as a Goan. I look at Goa from multiple perspectives. Writing is effective when you write from the third space and this third space reminds me of Shiva’s third eye. When it opens, it is vinash. Are you ready to criticize your Goans? If you are ready, then take up the pen and write. That is the decision that I made early in my life and told myself that there is hard journey for you because you will be stepping on many people’s toes. If you want to write the truth, you will be unpopular but people will read you.

MS: Indian Poetry in English has remained elite. What do you say about it? Why do you think it has not reached many?

Brian: There are several questions here. When you say reached, we assume that someone is doing the ‘reaching’. Who does this reaching? The publishers have an agenda to publish only well known and classic poets. Then how are the new poets going to come into circulation? There is a strong bias against new poets. So this is why one has no recourse except to publish your own poems. I can spend Rs. 25,000 to publish 500 copies of an 80 page volume of my poems. One may be good poet but does he have capital? So the reaching part is very problematic because we are confined within systems of power. Since I have spent ten years in publishing, I can reverse the matrix and for me it is the empire strikes back.

poet brian mendoncaMS: You have titled your poetry collections as ‘Last Bus to Vasco’ and ‘A Peace of India: Poems in Transit’. Why this titles?

Brian: Last Bus to Vasco signifies the fact that we are losing our heritage. The culture of Goa is under erasure. Unless we wake up and get on the last bus and do something, we will lose our heritage. In A Peace of India, the spelling peace signifies that India is opposed to violence which permits a kind of peace. If we do not work together, we may end up in violence and confusion. So these poems try to unify India.

MS: Say something about Goan poetry in English or Goan poetry in general.

Brain: I think Goan poetry per se needs to be encouraged more than it is. People who are writing  poetry today do not really have that kind of a conviction until they have some kind of published work behind them. I can think of Ethil D Costa who is writing poetry. Lot of people are witting poems in Konkani. I gave a talk on Goan poetry at Rosary College, Navelim where I tried to tap the poetic diaspora of Goa and mediated poems written by people who are not living in Goa right now. A friend of mine called Mary has very fine poems on Goa. She works with the United Nations and at the moment she is somewhere at Iraq border. But that does not make her any less Goan. This is the internationality of Goan culture and Goan society. I think it is appropriate to mention here that I was invited to edit a special volume on Goan literature for an online journal Muse India. I am the guest editor for Volume 50.

I have always argued that writing in English cannot happen in isolation. If you are writing in Goa English is not the local language. The local language is Konkani. So when you speak in Konkani, it is mirror to the society. It is a salute to the earth from which it is born. One should be multilingual as a poet also. I wrote a poem in Portuguese called ‘Fugitivo’ / Fugitive. I have always been fascinated by this term because the fugitive is always on the run, always looking around if someone is chasing him. He is on run towards his destination. (Brian recites the poem in Portuguese and then translates it into English). It is just 4 lines poem- On the run / from the city, to the sea. In the next two lines, I reversed the trajectory. And I said From the sea / to the city.

When I left Goa to spend ten years in Delhi, I used to miss Goa. I sacrificed so many things. I sacrificed my time with my mother. When I was in Delhi my mother passed away in Goa. Now when I come here life sometimes appears meaningless because my mother is not there. There are memories which even now are fading. So this oscillation from sea to the city and city to the sea is actually the litany of my life.

I have interspersed Konkani phrases in Last Bus to Vasco. In some way it tries to encapture the polyphony of discourse in Goa because people speak all languages here. When I read poems in English and put in a Goan word, people love it. English I for me is a very superficial language. I have to go below the depth which is not provided by the English language because it is the language of colonizers.  You need a language that you are grown up with, which has seen blood tears and sadness. That’s why I incorporate more Goan language in my poetry. If you don’t live with languages I think we just decay.

Speaking about other people writing in English, I cannot really say much about it because poetry today is not seen as a form that is worthy of being cultivated. Teenagers and youth are not really interested in writing poetry because it is not worthy of their time. It takes lot of effort. You need to be committed. If you are committed to poetry, people will come to you. General expectation of society is that you must talk a lot and someone who does not do that is on the fringes. It unsettles them. But I have always been on margin and I like that.

MS: What do you think of poetry as a genre?

Brian: The length or span of the work of art does not determine its intrinsic value. You can make a statement in four lines. The fact that poetry perpetually defers the meaning means that it is available to multiple interpretations. You can see that meaning if you want. You can see poetry as changing the society, if you wanted. So poetry for me is very demanding.

I have put poetry on ‘pause’ because I have been devoting lot of time to prose. For four years, I have been contributing an article a week to a Sunday Weekender here in Goa. I am reminded of a friend of mine who had said that if you love somebody you cannot love someone else with same love. But at that time I could not understand. But later I realized this. I think the same analogy can be applied to poetry and prose. Right now, if my attention is shifted to creative nonfiction, poetry is still in the shadow. I can still write a poem but the kind of immediacy is not there. I cannot force it.

I think poetry dried up in me when I returned to Goa. When I was away, I was pining for Goa, I was incomplete. I was searching for fulfillment. But when I returned to Goa, I was fulfilled. There was marriage, child, family and job and I was contented. This contentment destroyed poetry in some ways. When I was away, pining for my mother, homeland, sea etc, and poetry found its voice in the angst and through the rivulets of inspiration. But when you come back and when everything is there, you don’t have to try to write poetry. Poetry comes out of pain. But this phase in my poetic life may be temporary phase. It might be a sense of rejuvenation or waiting for the voice because as Nissim Ezekiel says, ‘To force the pace and never to be still / Is not the way one studies birds or women. / The best poets wait for words.” So this waiting disciplines you. I would like to write poetry that satisfies me and not to impress anyone. Wherever I have travelled in India, I have fallen in love with the place. A poet is not recognised in his own land. It is in the Bible, prophet is not recognized in his own land. Jesus tells his disciples if nobody accepts you, you rise up and you shake the dust from your feet and proceed because thinkers are never really accepted. You are challenging the status quo.

MS: Where would you like to position your poetry?

Brian: (smiles) I have a very piquant answer to this I, e Brianism. Calling it Goanism is like ascribing it with certain values which I may not find relevant. I am both an insider and outsider. So any attempt to categorize my work is like undermining its vitality. Why do you want to have markers? I continue to write. I may be understood in my life or later. But I am happy that I am contributing in my way. Particularly as a teacher I like to foster in my students the love for the word. Time is my friend.

MS: What made you choose poetry to express yourself?

Brian: There again I would like to invert the answer. I did not choose poetry.  Poetry chose me. Because when I sit down to write poetry, I don’t even know what I am going to write. I have two books that are already published. So there is a sense of achievement. There is a sense that since I have established myself as a poet, I can look at other forms also. But I don’t get that the same kind of pleasure. When I am trying other forms, I feel I am forcing myself. But when I am writing poetry I am at peace with myself.

MS: Tell something about your next endeavours…

Brian: There is a book waiting in the wings. I wrote a series of poems when I was in Delhi for ten years. I intend to bring that out and release it in Delhi. Those are the poems of my formative years. I would like to title it as ‘Jasmine City’ because at every nook and corner, in the evening you will find women in Delhi selling jasmine flowers. In the evening in Delhi if you smell the jasmine the beauty of India and beauty the capital really suffuses you with the hope for human kind. Right now I am hunting for the manuscript . . .


[The interviewer is indebted to Brain for his time and support in editing the interview and also for his permission to publish the Interview.]