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Ralph Nazareth , Usha Akella
Ralph Nazareth in Conversation with Usha Akella

Ralph Nazareth

Usha Akella : Ralph, let's begin with some personal history. When did you migrate to the US? Trace some of that journey.

Ralph Nazareth : Usha, I left India in 1968. Maybe you were still a dream on the dark side of the moon! Looking back on that first flight after forty-two years, everything is still fresh, every parting kiss, every backward glance. When the plane landed in Athens, the Soviets had just blitzed their bloody way into Prague. I asked a beautiful young Greek girl behind a glistening counter at the airport if she’d go with me to the ruins. She was taken aback and reminded me that it was after midnight. I’d lost my sense of time. I recall telling her that where I came from, the ruins were open at all times. In the meanwhile, as I resumed my westward flight, I was acutely aware that in that very same dark ether American boys no older than me were flying east on their lethal mission.

It was the height of Vietnam/Cambodia and the carnage was approaching its peak. I was instantly drawn into the charged politics on campus. All the major poets, from Lowell and Ginsberg to Duncan and Levertov, came through wailing out their war-haunted songs. Inspired by Gary Snyder, who had just returned from Japan via India, infused with the spirit of the east, of ecological temperance and love of nature, I stood in front of a bulldozer along with two other young wild-eyed idealists and stopped it from plowing down a grove of maples. That we didn’t stage a vigil under the stars and that the bulldozer returned later that night and finished its demolition anyway may be seen in retrospect as symptomatic of the peace movement of the time.

An Indian Catholic, a product of rigorous Jesuit and by and large western education in Mangalore and Bombay, I discovered my Indian identity, such as it is, away from home. Exile, as you know, is often the best teacher. Thrown into the company of other Indian boys also suffering the sting and confusion of being in a foreign land—and in 1968 there were very few of us here—I joined them in a seemingly desperate immersion in the Indic tradition, especially the depth and wealth of the Upanishads. Sad but true: I discovered my India in America! I’ve joked in the past about how I ran away from God, father and motherland in 1968. Perhaps it’s not funny. I’ve spent the last four decades discovering how much I love them.

A final word about what you call my “migration.” I should have turned into a pillar of salt many times over for all the backward glancing I’ve done since I left India. The epigraph to my book of poems Ferrying Secrets (Yugadi Publishers, Hyderabad) is taken from an inscription on one of the portals of Lal Kila in Old Delhi: “Traveler, you wish to go west, but you’re looking east. Take heed.”

Take heed, I do—even as India moves in me perpetually, at times gently as the spirit of my mother does, and sometimes with a force I resent and resist. She’s part of the ongoing work I must do as a poet. Drawn to or repelled by her, I strive to imagine and clarify her legacy of mixed blessings, her profound secrets, her inner music as well as her equally deep forgetfulness of who she is—that is, when I’m not tempted simply to bury my head in the blood-rich humus of this land of my adoption.

Usha : Why did you venture into publishing? Tell us about the inspiration for the name 'Yuganta.'

Ralph : Flower children that my wife and I were, we decided to experiment with our lives. I quit teaching at UT at Austin (I recall cooking a meal for Raja Rao while there!) and stayed home to raise my three kids while Linda worked to put bread on the table. Moving with her work, we finally ended up in Stamford in 1980 where I joined a group of poets led by a master mythographer and clay artist Dale Shaw. Their depth of talent inspired Linda and me to gather some of their work in a book. Who would publish it? The poster over Linda’s desk read: “Freedom of the Press Belongs to the One who Owns it!” That was the needed trigger. The idea of starting a press and publishing ourselves sprang out of the poster fully fleshed.

Those were the days of Reagan, of trickle-down economics, bloated defense budgets and reckless upping of the ante with the Soviets. We were in the streets calling for a nuclear freeze. It was an apocalyptic time. 

Coincidentally, Karve’s book Yuganta fell into my hands, thanks to my friend, scholar and sage Jayana Clerk. Many of us felt we were in the crucible of an ending, on the edge of the new millennium, filled with the intense feeling that there was no time for anything but the most serious commitment to justice and peace, activism and transformation. Yuganta Press was born within this political ferment, hoping to address, however marginally, the urgencies of the times.

Some felt that the name Yuganta, the end of an age, was a downer. But every ending or “anta,” I’d point out, was the beginning another “yuga.” Hope depended on what one did with the end times. 

Thank God for my friend David Ebin. I believe he’s divinely ordained to save me from my own seriousness. When he got the news that we had launched Yuganta Press, he said with a punning glint in his eyes, “I see, you’ve gone ta press!”

Usha : What is the publishing flavor of Yuganta. In other words, what do you look for when considering a manuscript?

Ralph : The bi-racial and bi-cultural nature of Linda’s and my marriage was part of the reason we decided to look for serious writing that made a “movement between worlds,” books that reflected inter-cultural sensibilities. Our list of publications on our website testifies to this leaning.

For instance, our very second book, Devi by Suzanne Ironbiter, is a westerner’s journey into deeply Indian themes, speculation and spirituality. Ann Yarmal’s The North Start & the Southern Cross is a melding of American and Caribbean experience. And you know Pramila Venkateswaran’s Thirtha—a Yuganta book par excellence! The books we’ve published of the Croatian poet Mario Susko pour the dark recent history of the Balkans into the American mind, that is, to the extent that it is open to such an import. Joao da Veiga Coutinho’s A Kind of Absence is a sustained meditation on the Indo-Lusitanian interface. The Slow of News of Need by Richard Duffee seemingly exhausts everything one might mean by a movement between worlds. Srinivasa Sastry’s Nightmare & Network, is a testament to the agony that results when such movement is arrested by arbitrary historical forces.

The fact that there’s no pure separation between east and west has become especially true since we started publishing on the cusp of wholesale globalization. It’s the creative transactions and movements between apparently disparate worlds that we were mostly drawn to and continue, in the main, to be interested in.

There was also a practical reason why we decided to define ourselves as a cross-cultural press. Even in our own small circle, there was so much talent, so many writers worthy of being published that with our limited resources of time and energy, we couldn’t have published them all. Our inter-cultural criterion helped us, at least initially, to reduce the number of manuscripts we would consider. We started small. And we wanted to stay selective and small. That this has served the cause of excellence is clear from what we have published so far.

But it should be noted that we have over the course of two decades also published books that do not fall into the category we’ve defined somewhat restrictively. It’s clear when you read them, however, that they too are involved with journeys of one kind or another. All serious writing is. Readers of Robert Roth’s Health Proxy, David Lieberman’s The Task, the Hoard & the Long Walk Home and Janet Krauss’ Borrowed Scenery will readily agree that these authors take them places through paths—inward, outward, imaginative, existential—that transcend a specifically multicultural angle on the world.

Usha : Could you share some of the highs of a small publishing house and some of the constraints?

Ralph : Publishing for me is a labor of love. Small publishers generally treat their books as they would their precious children.

I haven’t been very successful in selling our books. There’s much to say about it, but most of it is dreary—all about the set-up in the marketplace and economies of scale. But there are any number of small publishers who have done splendidly. I cannot and must not generalize.

The main reason for my relative lack of success in marketing our books is that publishing is something I do on the side. I don’t have the time to publicize our authors as much as they deserve. I should take this opportunity to apologize to them. But I assure them that their books will never go out of print. My house is choking with unsold books!

Jokes apart, publishing a first-time author is a wondrous, fulfilling experience. In our case, with one exception, every author was published by us for the first time. Many of them have gone on to publish other books and secure a position for themselves in the writing world. The book launches for all of them were nourishing community affairs.

Being small gives us the chance to be really attentive to our books, select them carefully and make sure they are excellent in every way. We have a close working relationship with our authors. They collaborate with us, give us their input regarding the appearance and presentation of the book. And once it’s out, they are directly involved in helping us sell the book. The whole cycle has a personal feel to it. This is the best part. The book is not just a commercial product to be remaindered if it doesn’t “move” rapidly. We do look for readers and buyers. But we don’t sell our souls in the process. Perhaps this sounds sanctimonious. But it’s true. You just have to go to the annual Small Press Book Festival in New York City where Yuganta Press has shown its books to know what I’m talking about. You instantly recognize the difference between a big commercial publisher for whom the book is a commodity and these small publishers who treat their books with loving care.

Usha : What are your observations of publishing trends in the last decade? Especially for poetry? What is your opinion on self publishing?

Ralph : Oyvey! How does that sound on Indian lips? But the subject is huge. How much time do you have? Can you wait until I extricate myself from the tangle of cyber circuitry?!

I say Yay to the electronic media for saving trees! But then again, perhaps I’m being naive.

As you know, with print-on-demand and online publishing there’s been an explosion of new work. Writers feel empowered to put their stuff out. More and more of them are self-publishing and although few of them have the makings of a Whitman, they are no longer waiting around for some big publisher or age-old, high-quality press, self-appointed arbiters of culture and value, to elevate them to the ranks of the elect. This is a good thing. It signals a liberation from controlling hierarchical structures and the founding of a new anarchic democracy. Given this trend, the precious little squirts of poetry we see, for instance, in The New Yorker, are proving to be quite irrelevant in terms of what stirs and sways the big heart of the beast we call the People.

I’m astonished at the amount of wonderful stuff that is pouring out at all sorts of venues and outlets, electronic as well as print-based. You are more familiar with the international scene than I am. But this is clearly the age of the poet, worldwide. It’s a veritable outpouring of the spirit, it seems. I don’t read much of it and, as you know, I’m a poetry lover, possibly even a poetry addict. But I just can’t read it. It’s like trying to steal a sip of water under a waterfall. It’s a mind-numbing, jaw-breaking experience. A cause for celebration. And also mourning, perhaps.

In this uncontrollable cacophony of proliferating voices is there anyone really listening? Isn’t that the bottom line—that the writer have someone who will listen to her? I’ve read to audiences of three people, sometimes two. Wouldn’t I like an entire stadium full of people to listen to my words as they did Neruda? Isn’t communication the ultimate goal of all writing? But then again I see small groups of poets multiplying here, there and everywhere. There are readings galore. So what’s to complain? The more modest the goals, the saner the world. We seek a community of listeners. A small attentive community will do. Maybe the hat will be passed around, but money is not the issue. One doesn’t make a living writing poetry. Maybe this is our saving grace. We sing our songs, short or long, we touch a heart here, a mind there. The world moves inward. A shiver of a change, almost imperceptible. Must one aim for big-time transformation? And for what? To be better prepared for the onset of perpetual winter? Where’s the guarantee? Who cares? But I do, I do….

Usha : Do you think eventually print publishing will become passe? What are your views on various alternative formats as ezines, ejournals, blogs, Kindle etc.?

Ralph : Print publishing might very well become a thing of the past. Perhaps this would be, ecologically-speaking, desirable. The electronic publishing, all the stuff I see flooding the web, is remarkable in its volume. It seems to have unleashed people’s dormant creativity. Understandably, it seems to have something to do with our desire to be free, to be unconstrained. But the question always is, free to think what, to do what, to be what? And knowing my own struggles to dam up my torrent of words long enough to shape a thought worth preserving or sharing, I cannot imagine that much of what’s spewing out into the electronic stream is of great value. But, ah, that word again—value. What is it? Who defines it? That’s the beginning of another long and complex discussion. Which is what we should really have, Usha, if we are to come up with something of value (ach!) in response to your question!

Usha : You are a poet and a teacher as well. Share with your readers some insights into your teaching life.

Ralph : I like to say that I learn from my students. I cannot tell you exactly how. But I do. This is at the core of my life as a teacher, this mystery. I have a hunch that it has something to do with love. Naturally, life being what it is, there are always a few rough spots, but in general I love my students. I feel free to love them. I let myself love them. And, as the psychologists will point out, this makes me vulnerable. I cannot be too casual about this, since vulnerability is never a comfortable feeling. But it gives my relationship with my students an edge which, on rare occasions, I experience as a heightening of my being.

Perhaps I don’t make complete sense. But let me continue. I guess that this love I speak of reorders the hierarchical relationship between teacher and student that the system depends on. This is where the situation I’m describing becomes political in the way like to think of politics. It challenges and messes with given power structures and plays. I welcome this. When a few students begin to see what’s going on, I’m greatly pleased. Because here is the beginning of change and possibly a new life.

When I do lapse into the role of the traditional teacher who has something to tell the students that they do not know, I try my best to assume the role of a midwife. The metaphor often amuses them. I try to help them deliver their own self. This is very difficult for who knows what that is?

Usha : I know that some of your most important work has been activism and striving to increase political and social awareness among youth. You were instrumental in awakening me from a long slumber! Give us an in depth insight into this aspect of your life.

Ralph : And how alert and attentive you’ve been Usha, since you awoke from your “slumber”! Your Poetry Caravan which seeks to heal division and dispel the loneliness so pervasive in this culture is an extraordinary act of the engaged imagination.

Thank you for giving me a chance to talk about something close to my heart.

For me 1968 is the key. That turbulent year challenged and destroyed many sacred cows and exposed the moral bankruptcy of the old dispensation. We who were entering the classroom knew that it had to be opened up to the world. So it began, a long and exciting blending of aesthetics and politics based on the understanding that literary pursuits had to be continuous with social and political transformation. I’ve brought this consciousness, no longer new, into all that I do on campus. Among other things, (that is, including issues that deal with forming a more inclusive faculty and curriculum,) I’ve been active in educating students on the issue of power and inequality, of the need for developing a planetary consciousness to ensure species survival.

The end-time flavor of Yuganta comes to mind. The underpinnings of this pedagogy are apocalyptic. I help students become more aware of what it means to be citizens of the sole superpower that makes an obscenely disproportionate use of global resources and controls the destinies of so many on this planet, that uses its more than eight hundred bases around the world to dominate it. I urge them to become conscious of what’s being done in their name and take a stand every time it violates the sacred trust and lives of other people.

In other words, the peace work I invite them to do is based on the simple but crucial idea that there is no peace without justice. I also encourage them to engage in a form of action that’s not entirely feverish and agitated. The belief here is that we cannot bring about peace in the world unless we work toward peace within ourselves. I point to them the example of Mahatma Gandhi, how he would spend hours every morning in meditation and song with his sanghikas before he undertook the difficult task of confronting the foreign oppressor. I especially talk about the Mahatma’s distinction between independence and freedom, that without the spiritual realization of the latter, the gains one may make on the level of history and politics would at best be ephemeral, if not ultimately unreal. Between the social gospel of Jesus on which I was raised and Gandhi’s inspiring example, I have ample help in achieving meaningful engagement with my students while leading them to critical inquiry and a state of wakefulness.

Of course, there’s much more to say about organizational details and the task of countering the impact and influence of skewed media on young minds. But in what I’ve said you have the essence of what keeps me going on campus with all its challenges and rewards.

Usha : www.museindia has featured your poetry in the past. What kindles your poetry?

Ralph : Anything and everything, Usha, and periodically, for long stretches, nothing!

My kindling—for the last fire…

A-bombs abyss accordions advent albinos Allah altar Ameena (sold as bride for Rs. 5000 in Hyderabad) asafoetida birds (of prey) brides brute beauty buckles corridors curtains coriander cumin children (upside down) devils daughters egrets fandangos ghosts goulash God hell heaven India inscriptions (on clay tablets) jugs jonquils kids kids kids killer whales Krishna love lust longing mountains molehills neti neti ovals oranges peacocks persimmons quicksand quail red ribbons rappers rain saris salwars sisters son silence thunder tomatoes unction Upanishads veils venom women water weapons webs wife wrinkles xenophobes yesses yesterdays zealots zoos

Ah, the things of this world….



Issue 35 (Jan-Feb 2011)

feature Indian Diasporic Writing
  • Conversations
    • Kazim Ali in Conversation with Nima Najafi-Kianfar
    • Ralph Nazareth in Conversation with Usha Akella
  • Poetry
    • From Yuganta Press - Ann Yarmal
    • From Yuganta Press - Pramila Venkateswaran
    • From Yuganta Press - Richard Duffee
    • From Yuganta Press - Suzanne Ironbiter
    • Kazim Ali
    • Ralph Nazareth
  • Article
    • Panchanan Dalai : Girmitya's Grandsons in Malaysia