Sujata Bhatt (b. 1956) grew up in Pune but emigrated with her family to the United States in 1968. She studied in the States receiving an MFA from the University of Iowa and went on to be writer-in-residence at the University of Victoria, Canada. More recently she was visiting fellow at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania. She currently lives with her husband and daughter in Bremen, Germany. Her first collection, Brunizem, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia) and the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award. Subsequent collections have been awarded a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and in 1991 she received a Cholmondeley Award.
For Bhatt, language is synonymous with the tongue, the physical act of speaking. She has described Gujarati and the Indian childhood it connects her to as “the deepest layer of my identity”. However, English has become the language she speaks every day and which she, largely, chooses to write in. The repercussions of this divided heritage are explored in her work, most explicitly in ‘Search for My Tongue’ which alternates between the two languages.
The complex status of English – its beauties and colonial implications – are also conveyed in the moving ironies of ‘A Different History’ and ‘Nanabhai Bhatt in Prison’ about her grandfather who read Tennyson to comfort himself during his incarceration by the British authorities. Such division finds geographical expression in poems which explore ideas of home (‘The One Who Goes Away’) and question our mental mapping of the world (‘How Far East is it Still East?’). It’s present too in her voice, with its musical melding of Indian and American inflections.
However, it’s in the non-verbal world of animals and plants that Bhatt finds a source of unity denied to humans except for the very young, as in her poem ‘The Stare’ in which the ‘monkey child’ and the ‘human child’ experience a moment of tender connection. Perhaps it is this longing for unity which makes Bhatt’s writing so sensual; her poems are rich with the smell of garlic, the touch of bodies, the vibrant plumage of parrots. An intense colourist like the women artists who inspire some of these poems, Bhatt acknowledges that language splits us from experience but through the physical intensity of her writing brings us closer to it so that “the word/is the thing itself”.
Her recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 1 September 2005 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.