Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in India, but did not actually live there until I was eighteen. I grew up in Sri Lanka, where my mother is from, and later in Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
Q: Was poetry and writing part of that mix?
A: Very much so. I loved books even before I learnt how to read. My parents say I looked at books on the potty! I have a memory of one morning when my mother put my books on top of the blades of the ceiling fan, so I could not have them until I brushed my teeth. I devoured books! I started to write at the age of seven, and immediately decided it was my life’s vocation.
It was poetry first and then, by age eight, a novel, which I abandoned after a point because I thought too many people were interested in it (my parents showed it to the principal of a school they were applying to enroll us in, and that was the end of it. It was a total violation). But the real role of writing in my life was something that only set in around the time I entered secondary school. I was very shy, and had very few friends.
But writing gave me an identity. I was the smart girl, you know, the one who was probably going to be famous. It was the only reason my peers had to even know my name. It was the one thing I couldn’t be denied. Being able to write, particularly because it is an act for which isolation is an advantage, tided me over many things, many painful things about growing up. Writing was sometimes my only friend.
Q: Who are your poetic influences, favorite poets, writers, artwork, other things that inform your work?
A: My work and my life cannot be separated, so what inspires one always inspires the other. I am inspired by strong, idiosyncratic women. I am inspired by food. I am inspired by music. I am inspired by spirituality. I am inspired by films. I am inspired by nature. I am inspired by bad moods and good ones. I am inspired by mythology. I am inspired by India. I am inspired by Sri Lanka. I am inspired by the Spanish language, Latin American culture and flamenco. I am inspired by the concepts of iyari and duende, and live mindfully because of them.
My favourite writers include: Michael Ondaatje, Sandra Cisneros, Isabel Allende, Ai, Dorianne Laux, Arundhati Roy, Louise Erdrich, Shyam Selvadurai, Junot Diaz, etc, etc, etc… It is a very long list. I am very easily provoked into a state of being inspired.
Q: When did you ‘become’ a poet?
A: What’s funny to me now is that I didn’t think I was a “poet” for a long time. I thought I was a writer who sometimes wrote poems. I think it only occurred to me that I am a poet when other people started using the term, because it is after all what constitutes the bulk of my creative work. But poetry was how I started writing. Poetry is the easiest thing to write for a nomad like me. It’s far easier to write poems through chaos than to balance the intricacies of a novel.
Q: Where were you educated? Was this important?
A: I went to about eight different schools and three different colleges, in three different countries. So it was important – the constant shuffling around. I always did well in school, and exceptionally well in college, but somehow nothing ever got completed. That kind of moving around – I should mention that I have lived in perhaps twenty different homes, also – really affects the psychological make-up of a person.
Q: How do you form a poem?
A: I don’t. Except when I work within a structure, say a tanka, haiku or ghazal, the poems are usually intuitively created. I like experimenting with structures because they keep my sense of syntax and vocabulary in shape, it’s like exercise. But I also find it tedious. I prefer free verse.
Q: Is poetry an organic or synthetic process for you?
A: Organic, absolutely. I believe the poems come from elsewhere. I am only a connector of dots.
Q: Where do you write?
A: Symptom of my generation – I am keyboard-bound. But I can’t just sit in front of a computer and bang away a poem or a passage. I need to get my energy from elsewhere, and then channel it.
Q: Is ambience important?
A: Yes. Procrastination is my worst habit, so I’m very sensitive to things that upset my energy. It just gives me an excuse to stop. So it’s important to me to be in the right frame of mood, the right place. I can be inspired anywhere, but to create from that source is much more difficult.
Q: Do you have rituals or habits when you write?
A: I pray before I start. I usually have music on, I find it much more difficult to think without music. Those are the two main things, I think.
Q: What major projects are you working on now?
A: Mainly: Constellation of Scars, a novel, and Witchcraft, a collection of poems. Witchcraft is very close to completion, and I am looking for a publisher. I’d like to have an audio CD with it, maybe even some video. As a page and stage poet, I should take a multi-medium approach to the final package. I’m a very hands-on person – okay, I am a control freak, why do you think I self-published the chapbook? – so I need to be as involved with the process as possible.
I am also beginning to conceptualize a book of essays on bharatnatyam and flamenco. I hope it’s safe to talk about it so early on. I have other projects, too, including a series of paintings. I wish I could talk about it now, but I think I should be further into the project before I can.
Kenny Mah is a multi-hyphenate: writer, designer, illustrator, fitness enthusiast and full-time head-hunter amongst other things. This interview was conducted for his blog.