A poetic blend of nature, mythology and memories: an evening with Nalini Paul – 6 October 2021

I have been writing poems on and off for many years now – those who read my previous club blog will know improving my poetry was one of the reasons I joined AWC. I even have vague memories of writing a poem at junior school about a witch who used salt and vinegar crisps as part of her magic spells! Naturally, this meant I was looking forward to our guest speaker this evening, the poet Nalini Paul. Judging by the various other club poets on my Zoom screen come 7.30pm, I wasn’t the only one, as Ajay confirmed in his opening welcome. Confession time though – this blog will only touch on the beauty of the poems that Nalini shared with us; you need to watch the Zoom recording for full appreciation (once you’ve finished reading here, of course!)

Nalini was born in India and grew up in Canada, but has spent most of her adult life in Scotland, including Shetland and Orkney, the latter being where she was the George Mackay Brown Writing Fellow from 2009 – 2010. She was also the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellow in 2017, spending a month in France to concentrate on her writing as a result, and she currently lectures on Postcolonial Theory at the Glasgow School of Art.

Scotland has had a large influence on her work, with Nalini taking much inspiration from her walks in its varied natural landscapes. However, Nalini began the evening by telling us about an event she had attended in 2019; the Winter’s Nature conference held in Finland. As well as Nalini’s own poems being translated into Finnish, the other speakers delivered their sessions in a variety of languages, with live translations going on at the same time. I imagine that was quite a challenge, not only doing the translation, but also interpreting how the poems and readings should flow in another language.

Nalini then introduced a few of her published works, Skirlags, Slokt by Sea, and The Raven’s Song. All three took influences from Nalini’s time in Orkney, the latter also being inspired by elements from Shetland and Canada. Skirlags was her first poetry collection and was shortlisted for the Calum MacDonald Award in 2010. Apparently, the skirlag is the musical sound created by blowing on a large leaf that you have stretched taught, and lends itself to the phrase “the skirl of the pipes”. “Slokt” is another Scots word, meaning to slake, or drench, to extinguish a fire. For a non-Scot, such as myself, its fair to say every AWC day is a school day for new language and expressions!

Having taken us through some photos of the Orcadian landscape and its inhabitants, including the migrating birds which heavily influence her work, Nalini treated us to a reading of some pieces that were inspired by those places. Her poems are evocative, our senses drawn into Nalini”s natural world by the images she creates – beauty balanced with the wildness. I particularly enjoyed Warbeth Walk inspired by an atmospheric circular walk on the Stromness headland that wanders past the graveyard with its “tombstones, planted bookmarks” before returning you safely to “the orange-glow windows of home.” Bird Dreaming told us of a cormorant failing to sing…or a black bird without a voice, depending on your interpretation, thus touching on how poems can be multi-layered, with subtle references to serious issues such as race. I also enjoyed Sunlit Swim, the opening lines speaking of my own experience of sea dips on sunny winter mornings! I doubt our Ayrshire waters drop to the temperatures experienced in Canada though! Brrr!

After the obvious nature themes in Nalini’s work so far, I was intrigued by what Snood would reveal. This piece came about as a challenge to write a poem on an everyday object selected for the participating writers. In addition to Nalini’s handmade, patterned snood, the objects included a leather satchel, a ring, and a ceramic bird. Nalini initially felt the snood wouldn’t be that great to write about, but she tried to find out a little more about its origins, and discovered that the word “snood” derived from the Old Norse snúa, meaning to turn, twist. The final poem was inspired by another walk, so actually still featured Nalini’s impressions of nature: however, it did get me thinking about what inanimate objects I could use for inspiration, what their names could reveal – a challenge for a future poem perhaps, or even an AWC competition?

Nalini’s love of nature is pretty obvious from the above, but it is only part of the story; her work is also heavily influenced by indigenous myths and folklore. Whilst certain countries are very familiar with the history and culture of their First Nation People, this was not the case in Canada whilst Nalini was growing up. Her research led her to the Haida people, amongst others, and the stories surrounding the Raven. Crows and ravens are interchangeable creatures often found in folk stories, and can have sinister connotations, such as those in Norse mythology. In Haida culture, the Raven is a trickster, usually male, who is central to their beliefs, as he released the Sun and made the Moon and Stars. The Raven stories were the inspiration for Nalini’s latest collection of poems, The Raven’s Song, from which we were treated to The Fourth Craw, which again blended beauty with a starkness of both language and length.

The evening wrapped up with a final question and answer session. Carolyn commented on the brevity of Nalini’s poems, and asked Nalini to expand on an earlier poem To a Moth, which she had shortened following feedback. The final lines were spelling out the meaning of the poem, which was unnecessary, and a trap that we should be conscious of with our own poetry – always look to finish at the natural point, not some forced big finale or extra explanatory line.

Damaris wanted to know about Nalini’s normal process for writing a poem. Nalini confirmed the spark would normally come from something happening, something she had observed or read that she could link back to personal experience – we were recommended to read Explicit Snow by Norman MacCaig for its imagery.

Jeanette enquired if beginner poets could write their ideas down as a paragraph of prose, then convert into lines of poetry? Nalini confirmed that her poems were written as free verse, but that she paid particular attention to where line breaks should occur, and how her poetry was laid out on a page – her poem Snood was a great example of this. We were encouraged to read sonnets for the flow of language in poetry, and to look into the meaning of words for ideas and inspiration for key lines.

Other questions put to Nalini reflected her influences and her future plans. Having been previously inspired by the Scottish landscape and the indigenous culture and history in Canada, Nalini was now researching her Indian heritage. A separate reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels With A Donkey led to Nalini revealing a potential future project linking works from British Columbia and Scotland. The importance of nature during the pandemic lockdown was also touched on; Nalini acknowledged that she had not wanted to write about nature reclaiming itself during the lockdown; rather she had simply wanted to be closer to nature itself.

And so to the end of our evening.

A big thank you to Nalini for sharing her insights, advice and poetry. However, for me, the icing on the cake came from Nalini’s final reading; a poem about Nisabost Beach, on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. My other half is from the Isle of Lewis, and gets a “tad annoyed”, shall we say, when everyone raves about Luskentyre Beach on Harris. Don’t get me wrong, he thinks Luskentyre is stunning, he just wants people to   realise there are many other stunning beaches on Lewis and Harris. Thanks again, Nalini, for obliging.

Maggie Morton


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