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Interview: Malachi Edwin Vethamani on method and creative madness

Updated: May 13, 2023

Malayasian-born poet, academic, bibliographer and critic Malachi Edwin Vethamani's poems nudge, inform, and inspect the unconventional slants that emerge in the fragile business of loving and losing. An Emeritus Professor at the University of Nottingham, he actively ventured into poetry in the 1990s. His different collections since then have tapped into the condition of being human with an abundance of lyrical acuity and emotional honesty.

Picture Courtesy: Ahmad Bukhary

Visceral and poignant, the collections have rightly stationed him as one of the most important and sought-after modern Malaysian poets. A point well acknowledged when the Malaysian Publishers Association awarded Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems the National Book Award in 2020, for the English Language category. Some of his most pivotal compilations include Complicated Lives (2016), Life Happens (2017), Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems (2017), and Malaysian Millennial Voices (2021), which he edited. Love and Loss (2022), The Seven O’clock Tree (2022) and Rambutan Kisses (2022) are his most recent, where he is at his lyrical best.

In this interview, Edwin talks about his approach towards poetry and the poets that continually inspire him.

How do you begin writing a poem? What comes first?

There isn’t one set way I begin a poem. Often, there is a trigger. I don’t use the word inspiration as in my experience as a writer, I rarely wait or seek inspiration to write. I do a lot of watching, listening and reading. These are my sources for my writing. So something I see or read something and this could trigger me to start writing a poem.

What do you hope to achieve with your poems? Or, is this a capitalistic mindset that art needs to deliver some value, else it’s not worthy?

As a poet, I write for myself first. To help me make sense of my experiences of what I see happening around me or what is happening to people or things around me. However, it is not all about self. I do write with an audience in mind and also to give voice to the many silences I see in things that matter to me. As a poet, I hope my readers will connect with the poems and draw whatever they want from the poems.

As a poet, I write for myself first. To help me make sense of my experiences of what I see happening around me or what is happening to people or things around me.

What do you repeatedly interrogate in your poems? What questions plague you the most?

Negotiating relationships is something that recur in my poetry. And by relationships, I mean relationships with family, partners, people, nature and the environment. Contemporary life is filled with complex and complicated relationships between people, fellow creatures, nature and the environment I interrogate these concerns.

Who are the poets that inspire you?

The poets who have inspired me are very much from the English and American literary traditions and a couple from the Asian literary traditions. The British and American poets are Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, T. S. Eliot, Emerson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden. And among the Asian poets are Rumi and Hafiz.

Which poem of yours turned out the way you had exactly envisioned it?

I don’t think any poem has! But many poems come quite close to what I had initially hoped to achieve. However, one of my recent poems which was written during the COVID-19 pandemic comes to mind. I was in a rather melancholic state of mind and wanted to write about the ravages of the virus and about the resilient human spirit. I wrote a poem that made intertextual references to lines from Tennyson’s poems. Many of the lines are familiar to me as I have taught Tennyson many times. Still, matching the lines with the numbers that were linked the pandemic and my lines with Tennyson’s lines took a lot a work. The poem that emerged was Reading Tennyson on Pandemic Days (2020). It has been published in several publications before I included it in my latest publication, Rambutan Kisses (Maya Press, 2022).

Do you have a writing routine you flirt with?

No. Much of my writing has been when I could find time when am not teaching or doing any other work. This has often been in the late evenings. I have retired from my Professor of English Literature job at the University since January 2021, and I still find the late evenings the best time to do my writing. The afternoons tend to be time for editing and reworking.

Is it meditative—the entire process of coming up with a poem?

The meditative is a huge part of the writing process when I am working on poetry. This could be the reason why I find the evenings and late nights when I can focus and deliberate on my thoughts and work with words more deeply. I return to notes that I may have taken down during the day and revisit the quiet of the night. From the meditative I move on to looking at ways I want to craft the thoughts into words and take various forms and structure.

What books one might find your nightstand?

Often the book I am currently reading. It will be probably be a recent collection of poems.

You can follow Malachi Edwin Vethamani on Facebook, YouTube, and on Instagram @malachiedwin and @mygardenblossoms.

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