Behind the Words: Ellen Kombiyil

Posted by on Aug 27, 2015 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

Ellen Kombiyil

Ellen Kombiyil

Ellen Kombiyil is the author of Histories of the Future Perfect (2015). She is a recent transplant from Bangalore, India, where she lived for nearly eleven years. She is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee and has read, performed or taught workshops at the annual Prakriti Poetry festival in Chennai, the Raedleaf Poetry Awards in Hyderabad, and Lekhana in Bangalore. She is the co-Founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a mentorship-model poetry press, publishing innovated voices from India/Indian diaspora. Originally from Syracuse, New York, and a graduate of the University of Chicago, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

In the following interview, we talk at length about her first and newest book “Histories of the Future Perfect,” as well as discussing her poetics and her work in publishing.

Faith Padgett: Can you tell us a little about yourself that your bio doesn’t cover? Maybe… how is it writing from India and still publishing in the U.S.?

Ellen Kombiyil: Well, I moved back to the US about a year ago, after nearly 11 years living abroad. I began publishing my work in the US because those were the journals that I was familiar with. More than writing/publishing, which I feel I can do from anywhere, I’d like to speak about how living in India helped me develop as a poet.

When I moved to India I was still very much in my early career. I was part of a thriving writing group in NYC when I moved and also had taken advantage of some of the great resources in the city. Poets House was still in its small space in SOHO, housing literary journals and all of the US-published books each year. I’d sit and read and learn. I hadn’t yet started sending out my work, but I was researching the journals and publishers that I admired. I’d make lists of journals that I liked to read. I took poetry workshops as the Unterberg Poetry Center. What India gave me was a chance to slow down. The pace of life is markedly more relaxed. Even as a new mother, I found time to write when my children were napping. I stayed up late after they went to bed and edited my work. This slower pace was an important piece in the writing equation of my life. Quietness and space – it allows the work to compost.

After many years, during which I joined an online critique group and starting sending my work out to literary journals, I missed the presence of a physical writing group. What began as an informal meet-up of four writers in a café in Bangalore, quickly grew into a weekly writing workshop, which I led for many years.

Nothing brings people closer than writing together, in community. Some of my greatest friendships have formed in writing groups. If you are writing honestly, nothing gets left off the page. You stand in your own fire and speak from it. You listen to others as deeply as you listen to yourself. It is nourishing and transformative. I once told my students, when faced with something scary on the page, that they must hold their own hands, remember compassion for themselves first. In reality, in a writing group that works, we are all holding each others’ hands. In that act, we give ourselves permission.

Teaching is one of the great joys of my life. I had a sensei, a great teacher who once told me that only by teaching does the student truly learn. I found this to be true. Teaching completes the circuit of understanding. India was where I first began teaching writing and it is the place I feel I came into myself as a writer.

FP: I would love to know how you got started with your work in publishing, and how you think it has informed your writing.

EK: The short answer is that I met two other amazing poets when I was living in Bangalore, Shikha Malaviya and Minal Hajratwala. We saw a need that we felt equipped to fill – there are so many lovers of literature and budding writers in India, but fewer opportunities to learn the craft as compared with the west. We decided to start a mentorship model poetry press, aimed at building these skills and growing them outward. Each poet accepted into the collective (on the strength of a submitted manuscript) receives a full year of one-on-one mentorship, leading to the publication of their book. The second year, the member gives back what they have themselves received, helping to mentor a new collective member through the process of rewrites, edits and publication.

FP: You frequently write epistolary poetry. How did you come to settle into this form? Do you feel it functions for you as secondhand nature, or is it more of a framework from which only specific poems can hang?

EK: I love the form because it can so easily set a tone of intimacy and vulnerability. That, plus there can be a voyeuristic quality for the reader. When all of these elements intermingle, there’s a certain sumptuousness that enters the poem. As a form of address, either the subject matter (a la “Letters to the God of the L&D Ward”) or intended addressee would determine when I use the form. Sometimes, I set out to practice it (helpful, when stuck, to have an intended audience). Other times, the form/content come out whole.

An inverse of this example is the poem “Recurring,” which appeared in Spry. It went through many iterations before it appeared in that form– the first drafts of which were epistolary. Even though I dropped the letter form, the tone of intimacy remains, like a ghost image. I ended up pushing this poem further, making it into a triptych of the recurring dream, the small changes reflecting the stages of grief over time. They appear spread out over three sections in my just released book, “Histories of the Future Perfect.”

FP: I have also noticed that you often draw on history, literary and not, particularly in titling your pieces. Can you talk a little bit about how that happens? At what points in the process does it become clear that a poem will need that kind of contextualization?

EK: When I’m writing a new poem, it’s always from a place of wonder. I’m attempting to write about something that I don’t have the words for, that normal language bumps up against and clangs around with, showing its incompetence. I also love taking on big concepts in my poetry, and I’m particularly drawn to the confounding and counterintuitive ideas often found in quantum physics.

To answer your question, I would say that the poem begins with the lens, and sprouts from there. The quantum ideas (that lead to what I’ve taken to calling “quantum poems) find their expression through the body (emotions, sensations, movement), so that the abstract concepts become something tangible and felt, something easier to examine. In this case, the body is the lens, focusing the idea. For the historical poems, they mostly written in persona, and the same is true – the particular persona providing the lens through which to examine the event.

FP: Okay so enough specifics about craft. Who have you been reading recently, and who do you think has influenced you as a writer?

EK: I am currently reading Burnadette Mayer’s “Sonnets,” which I find inspiring for their subversiveness and delightful for their sense of play both thematically and with language.

I’ve had a great couple of months of poetry reading – ever since AWP, where I gorged on poetry books – it was hard to get ahold of many titles when I was living in India. I’ve recently read Tarfia Faizullah’s “Seam”, Saeed Jones’ “Prelude to Bruise”, Nick Flynn’s “The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands”, Yolanda Wisher’s “Monk Eats an Afro”, Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen”, Carolyn Forche – everything but most recently “Blue Hour”, and many others that I am forgetting right now.

So many poets have influenced me, but the poet who has influenced me most recently is Tracy K. Smith. At the time I read Life on Mars, I was just beginning to put together my collection. I had actually waited too long to do so:  nine years of poems I had to wade through, sift, sort and decide upon. The quantum themes had begun to emerge that I had never noticed before. She gave me permission to see these poems as work that could construct an entire book, and for that I am deeply indebted.

FP: Could you also tell me a little more about how you structured this new book? How did those quantum poems come together, and how do you feel about the book making process in general as it compares to the writing process?

EK: Your question about the arrangement is wonderful. It took me two years and four complete overhauls of the manuscript to get it into its final form. This was by far the hardest (and most rewarding) part. I hadn’t noticed the quantum theme until I had nine years of poems spread out all around me and I began to read through them. And after I noticed it, I wasn’t sure it was something I could build a manuscript around until I read Tracy K. Smith’s “Life on Mars” and felt the door open — working with the theme was not only possible but also exciting, and Tracy K. Smith had shown me the way. I understood that new poems needed to be written; others re-worked.

Once I gathered enough poems to make the manuscript cohesive, I set about making sections and an organizing principle. Each section has two loose themes — one emotional theme and one quantum theme. Section one, for example is ‘Adolescence and Time Loops”, Section two is “Love & Premonition”, Section Three is “Infinitudes and  Forgiveness” and Section four is “Trauma and Alternate histories.”

I also have a deep interest in the idea of corrections, repetitions and back-track. I begin the collection with a poem called “Erratum,” which is meant to set the tone: both playful in that I begin with a redaction of sorts, and also serious — I seriously want to re-write the past, find my way to a different now — which gets echoed throughout the collection. The idea, after my second draft — was to a quantum structure, something nimble enough to explore the terrain of memory and history.

FP: As a personal aside, it’s thrilling to see you were so influenced by Tracy K. Smith’s “Life on  Mars.” I poured through that book for weeks—it’s the first I had read that allows itself to dip below the surface of accepted reality, and to usurp the convention of “poetry belongs in/to a world we know.” As a final question, I’d love to know what you think about that convention; where (and to whom) do you think poetry belongs?

EK: I love that line break “in/to” with its multiple possibilities: poetry in the world, poetry to the world, poetry into the world (which I read and feel as falling down the rabbit hole: limitless). I also love that the quote offers ‘a’ world we know, not ‘the’ world. My answer is Yes, in all its multi-pronged glory. I truly see this world as a microcosm of the universe. The micro and macro are reflecting the same thing, even if they behave differently at times in their similar truths.


plane photoFaith Padgett was born and raised in the suburbs of Texas and is currently a Creative Writing/Spanish double major at Oberlin College in northern Ohio. Her poems have appeared in Hanging Loose and several anthologies including the Poetry Society of Texas’ student anthologies and the YoungArts anthology for 2014. She has won several Scholastic regional silver and gold keys, and was a semi-finalist in the Presidential Scholars program in 2014. When not working for Spry or writing, Faith can be found sipping tea with a book of poetry or walking through the prairie with one of her four adopted mutts. 

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful interview,very smart and informative.

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