Living the Question: An Interview with Seni Seneviratne

by Tara Shea Burke

I arrived for my interview with poet, activist, photographer, singer, and psychotherapist, Seni Seneviratne, with pages of questions and probably too much excitement. This was my first interview with a poet and, after hearing her read at Old Dominion University’s annual literary festival the day before, I knew she would move and shake me. We ended up having less of an interview and more of an intense and inspiring conversation about words, war, and how poetry doesn’t necessarily change the world. By the end of our conversation, we both agreed it is of equal importance to change our hearts, and if poetry can do that, if poetry gives us the freedom to feel deeply, then we can become more active in the world as thinkers and healers — and that does change something.

As a poet myself, I opened by asking what brought Seni to the page. I know many young teenagers begin writing about love and angst, and she too, began writing private poems as a teenager. But she recognized at a young age her need to write about the world and its injustices. Like most young writers, her poetry was for her own healing, and she didn’t show her poems to anyone. Seni went to University in 1969 and became very involved in the activism of the times. Most of her writing then became political; she was involved in women’s liberation, in protesting the Vietnam War, and in composing pamphlets, newspapers, and activist literature instead of poetry. Later, in North England, she channeled her writing skills into a political newspaper. After she had her daughter in 1978, she was able to spend time writing and reflecting. Still, she didn’t show anyone her poetry until the late 80s, when she and two other women from South Asian origin published a small book of poetry, photography, and other art. As she received feedback about her work, she realized that it too was something that could make a difference.

TSB: It’s interesting that you said your poetry began as a very personal project, because I believe that kind of expression is what brings every writer to the page; we feel the need to saysomething about our lives that isn’t being said. But I’m interested in how your roots in the political realm crossed over into your poetry. I believe in the saying, “The personal is political,” but as a young poet, I find it hard to express these things in poetry without getting didactic. So my question is, how do you do it? How do you wrestle with the themes in your poetry: war, violence against women, AIDS, etc, and come to the page with an image, or a persona, and make it into art? Your bio says you are many things: poet, photographer, writer, activist, psychotherapist, and on and on. But how do you come to the page with these themes, these parts of yourself?

SS: This is something that I do feel very passionate about: the idea of taking a current event and turning it into a poem. I have been very active for many years in terms of what is happening in Palestine and I feel a strong connection to the people there. I write poems, like the one I read at the literary festival, about Palestine from the perspective of the people. People always ask me why I feel committed to that and I don’t know where it comes from, but I do feel like what is happening in Palestine is very similar to what happened in South Africa, and nobody’s taking any notice of it. It’s Apartheid. I feel very passionate about this and I want my poetry to directly speak to it. But I’m aware that I don’t want to make a political speech in my poetry, because if I do, particularly on that issue, people will just stop listening. They close all the doors and don’t want to hear it if you try to make a direct political speech. So I suppose what I do with poetry is try to find the humanity in an issue, the human story. I want to tell the story through something or someone that people can relate to for themselves. For example, the poem about Palestine is based off a testimony from an Israeli soldier that I read on a website. He was horrified. A Palestinian family was kept in a house for days and when the commanding officer said they were allowed to go, a woman didn’t understand what he had said because of the language barrier. The officer had said to come out of the house and turn right. She came out with her children, went the wrong way and the sniper shot her immediately. This epitomized the way that people’s sensibility and humanity is literally taken away from them because of war. The woman had her life taken because the sniper had been desensitized and dehumanized. In no other circumstance would it be okay and would it feel okay to shoot a woman walking towards you with two children because she misunderstood the orders.

TSB: It’s as if there is something about the training of human beings into soldiers that makes them forget to even question:Did she misunderstand me?

SS: Exactly. In the interview, the soldier said that, in a way, a part of their training is to actually come to believe that Palestinian lives are not worth as much as theirs.

TSB: No matter what?

SS: They have to believe that some are worth less in times of war. So, I wanted to get that across, without saying it in the way we are talking about it here. I wanted to slow down the whole process to each concrete detail. Instead of talking about emotions, I wanted to evoke them, because sometimes when you start to try and talk about these emotions in a poem, it goes into the abstract, and when you’re in the abstract, people don’t know how to connect to it. Talking about it helps, but it doesn’t increase people’s understanding of it. Everyone knows about love and hate, depression, and war. What poets do is try to find a unique way of saying these things that gives them some connection and essence, a kind of texture, so a reader can feel it.

TSB: That’s good advice because I think what most artists are wrestling with are these big, untouchable ideas of how we live in this world: love, hate, connection, consumerism, nationalism, religion, and everything that wars are essentially fought over. It’s hard. It’s tough to want to say it out loud and have these conversations in art, without coming across as privileged, or preachy, or anything else that shuts people down and puts them back in front of the television. It is important to slow down, in life and with words in the poem, to focus on the moment, the pacing, and the humanity. Poetry makes me look at someone’s point of view that I would otherwise dismiss, and makes me realize that we all know things that others will never experience, but we can try to feel something close, we can imagine it through language.

In your poetry, you take on many personas, and I think this is one terrific way of finding humanity in the world and getting the human experience out of war. Many of your poems are also about your own identity and life, and I was wondering if you find it hard to write about yourself when you are also so focused on what is going on in the world. Do you feel that these poems do the political poems an injustice, or do you still feel like it’s important to write about your own experiences too?

SS: I think both are important. I came to politics when the whole “personal is political” mentality was at the forefront. It was the early ‘70s, and we’d just come out of the whole hippie movement, and I was very much involved in the activism of the time. So to me, yes, the personal is political and they’re always intertwined. People call the kind of poetry that I write about war the “public poem.” It’s about the world and it’s out there in the world. This is, of course, compared to the personal poem, which is still out in the world but in a different way. In all of them, I’m still trying to create something beautiful, in a way that an artist that is painting a war scene is, too. They are still trying to create a work of art that is aesthetically pleasing. It sounds like a contradiction, but it works, and that’s the magic of poetry to me; that’s what you do. I was watching the news about children that were killed in an airstrike and became enraged. I wanted to write a poem but I was too angry. At one point, I wrote loads of things out, tore them up and put them into bits and pieces on the floor. I just started walking around, picking them up, thinking I’ve got to try and try and try and find a way in, because I was too full of rage. In the end that was a process for me. I had to deal with my own emotions about the event, and deal with them first. I think we see things on the news and in newspapers these days and it’s traumatic. We have a response that’s very similar to the different responses that those who have been through trauma go through: our bodies shut down in order to deal with it all. I think that one thing that’s happening in the world is that we have become numb to the onslaught of horror. So for me, writing about those things in a personal way is trying to open up people’s hearts again so they can find a way to feel. We have to know that it’s okay to feel and process something. We have to allow ourselves to do this for our own sake so we can go out and do something about it, and also live our own lives. I can do that with poetry, and then go have coffee with a friend, or write about my granddaughter, because all of it’s important. The reason that war is horrible is that it is a disruption of normal life that everyone should be entitled to. The woman that was shot is the same as my daughter and you and me. That’s why it’s so horrific. If you don’t write about the other stuff, then you can become a part of that hate machine in a way. I’ve seen people, in the time that I was politically active, that are so consumed with the negativity about society that they become negative people.

TSB: They can’t even have their own relationships or life because of a lack of perspective.

SS: Yeah, and they can’t enjoy life. They become so depressed by the world, and I know the world is depressing, there are horrible things happening, but there is nothing to be gained by letting yourself go. If you become unable to live, then what’s the point?

TSB: Then what’s the point? Exactly. To me, this seems to point to your background as a psychotherapist. It’s not just about writing to inform a reader but it’s also about addressing emotions that we don’t know how to deal with anymore. We have all of these empty spaces inside of us. If we give ourselves the freedom to feel and process, then something opens up inside and we can act. I think that’s something that poetry really does. It allows us to feel something instead of find an answer. Here’s a moment: I’m offering it to you.

SS: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

TSB: I think your poetry addresses that balance required in making something which is grotesque, and horrible, beautiful instead. Do you think that in art, there is a kind of activism? Do you feel like this (poetry) contributes something to the world? I know it’s tough to say that poetry will always change the world when it reaches people and changes their minds, but how much does it really? Is it enough to say that through poetry, we give our readers and ourselves the freedom to feel?

SS: Personally, I feel like if we go to the page on a mission, then that’s going to come through in the poetry, and we’re not going to achieve what we want to achieve. If we go to the page — and it may be a bit of a cliché — with our hearts, then we will touch other people’s hearts. But if we go on a soapbox …

TSB: People will try to argue with you.

SS: Yes, people are either going to argue, or turn away, but it’s not going to open up their emotions necessarily, because one of the things about going up on the soapbox, that those who are good at it do well, is they move you in a different way, but they don’t slow you down. I know when I’m on a mission, I miss so much of what is going on in the moment, and poetry is about staying still, witnessing the moment. If you’re on a mission, you march too far forward in order to get to the end, or to make a point, but the thing I really love and value about poetry is what it has given me. If I just sit still and observe, either a moment about war, or domestic violence, or my granddaughter in the garden, or something quirky I remember about my day, then something always comes to me that I don’t expect.

TSB: You kind of have a discovery through that silence, right?

SS: Yes.

TSB: You see where the language can take you…

SS: It’s like if you go into the poem with a question instead of an answer, and you just live the question, then it becomes less about the mission. In one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters he says to live questions. Don’t look for the answers, and through living the questions, you’ll find that you come to the answer. Every time I write a poem, that’s what I feel. There is some kind of magic that happens. I begin the process, and I don’t even know sometimes what I’m writing or why I’m writing it, and by the time I’ve finished the poem, something has happened. I think, Ha! Where did that come from? It opens up another channel somehow, to a kind of intuition about …

TSB: … being alive in the world.

SS: Absolutely.

TSB: I totally agree, and I think that’s where we have to come back to when we get frustrated. As writers, we are all going to sit down to write one day and fear that we don’t have anything to say, or that we don’t feel good about what we’ve written, but there’s always something going on that makes usfeel. I think that’s what we need to trust, that intuition.

SS: The other thing is this debate about whether writers and poets can be political and if they can change things. One of the biggest answers to that, if it’s true that we are ineffectual as writers, is why in so many instances of struggle in the world, the writers and poets are put in prison. For example, if you look at the Chilean poet and singer Victor Jara, and many other poets and cultural speakers of his time, they were put in prison. He was killed. People all over the world, writers and artists alike, are either sent to exile or put into prison. Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian writer who had to leave Egypt because she was writing fiction that was challenging the status quo about women. So that’s my answer: if writers aren’t dangerous, why are oppressive regimes so afraid of them?

TSB: That’s one thing I worry about in American culture. Yes, we have freedom of speech for the most part; we can say what we want and we won’t get arrested. I don’t want it to be different, by any means, but I wonder what it says about the art and power of words here. Is it a good as well as a bad thing? Are words not valued as much when they are so free?

SS: Well, like you said, in a way people don’t have to struggle for it. It’s like education, actually. In countries where education is not so easily accessible, people value it so much more. In places where education is just a part of what we all have to do, students are truant, but in rural areas around the world, children walk miles and miles just to learn.

TSB: Exactly. I know you have first-hand experience with different cultures like this, and have spent a lot of time in South Africa. Where did you work most with trauma and as a psychotherapist?

SS: It was mostly in England, actually. I worked in a women’s trauma center. I’ve done more workshops in South Africa, rather than individual work. I did the one-to-one individual therapy in England.

TSB: How does that part of your work affect your life as a poet? Are you more of a poet than a therapist sometimes, or vice versa? Does it matter at all?

SS: I’m always a poet. That’s been with me all my life. I started writing as a teenager, but I believe that it must have been with me at an earlier age. In fact, one of the things I’ve been doing in South Africa is interviewing and studying poets about why they’ve started writing, because I’m interested in what it is in people’s lives that connects them with this drive to use language. I’ve found that a lot of poets begin from a kind of trauma in the broadest sense. Poetry becomes the answer to something that is missing. They need to speak about something that they can’t in their everyday lives. I have found that my own journey to be a poet started when I was very young because of these kinds of things in my life too.

TSB: It’s the same for me. I feel like most poets have to speak about something that has affected them in a certain way, even if it is an injustice in the world. There are few places where we can talk about the pain we carry. Many people say they used to write poetry, but it was only when they were young and in love and no one agreed that their hearts and loves were important, so they wrote.

SS: Love has always been the traditional theme that poets write about, and that’s not a coincidence. It’s major. It’s what everyone is looking for in life, in one way or another, from different people in different ways. People get hurt a lot, and I don’t think we should minimize the pain this causes almost everyone, because it’s often that people don’t process pain, which causes them to do terrible things to themselves and in the world.

I’ve always been a poet. That’s what I believe. I never grew up thinking like many do that I wanted to be this or that, so it’s probably why I’ve done so many different jobs to earn a living. I got into teaching literacy to adults when I first left the university, and I really enjoyed that. Language has always fascinated me. Through that love I began teaching higher education and English, and then English as a second language. Then I ended up teaching returning women students, the women that missed out on education but still came back. I taught women of all ages, and one of the main things we did was confidence building. I’d also been working with women refugees and had been a volunteer on management committees. I was always doing some kind of work to help people heal themselves. I was getting disillusioned with the educational system, and felt like I could use some training in the field of psychotherapy, so I started the training course. I did it partly to give myself some tools and safeguards for helping people, because otherwise it leaks into your entire life. I had been helping people for so long I didn’t know where the boundaries were anymore and I needed to protect myself, too. So the training gave me those boundaries, and I learned so much from the course. After I qualified I began doing arts-based psychotherapy at the center where I worked. Some of it was bodywork, and that’s the key to it really: everything gets trapped inside the body. The body is our home and it needs release. Writing can be a wonderful way to help traumatic patients heal, but it doesn’t work for everybody, and sometimes it’s just further along in the process.

After a while, I took a break and stopped doing that one-on-one therapy. I loved doing it, but I got to the point where I felt like my career as a writer was suffering. I couldn’t do both jobs properly. I couldn’t be committed to seeing someone every week, if I wanted the flexibility to go do a reading. Plus, I had been doing it for a long time, and in terms of your own self-care, you have to take a break. I don’t know if I’ll do it again with the same intensity, but it’s always there with me. Even if I’m doing a writing workshop, I feel like I’ve got that extra awareness in terms of how to hold the group together, because writing workshops can end up being just like therapy workshops.

TSB: Yes, they sure can. I think they should be!

SS: Oh yes.

TSB: What kind of advice do you have for poets who aspire to be in the world and write about it? For those of us who want to work with people, like you have, to go places, see the world as it is and still write about it well?

SS: I think the best thing to do is to read other poets. If you are interested in writing about war, read many of them that have different perspectives, like Brian Turner. See what they are saying, where they are coming from, and figure out what you like about it. There’s a poet I met in New York through another workshop, Nathalie Handal, who is writing about the Middle East in a way that’s not polemical; it’s personal and it’s also very challenging. I love what she is doing, and I learn the most from the poets I read. So find people whose poetry you like, see what they’re doing, and really try to understand why and how they are writing. I also think you should never be satisfied with just okay writing. Always try to improve and to write something better. Learn from other people and don’t become self-satisfied, in terms of your work. And also keep that sense of writing from your own heart. Say something happens on the other side of the world and you feel strongly about it, but also privileged and separated from that situation. How can you write about it? I was writing a poem about HIV and AIDS and I was thinking: How can I do this? It’s such a big subject. So I just stayed with it for a while. I wrote out all the statistics. I wrote about my own struggle, about whether or not I even had a right to write about it, and then it just came. I opened myself up to it in a way that had integrity, because that’s the thing. If I’m going to write about it, I really have to check myself and say: Is this okay? Does it have integrity? Am I using somebody else’s misery for my own enhancement?

TSB: That’s the hardest part.

SS: That is the hardest part. I think that talking about these issues with other writers and having a community of writers who are doing the same things, getting different kinds of feedback, and never giving up on an issue, really helps. Some people will argue that you have no right to write about a struggle unless you’re in it, but I’ve never agreed with that notion. I believe we are all in the world, and we have a right and a duty to say something. As long as we write with integrity, as long as we’re not using people, and as long as we’re doing it with the right motives, then it can only bring good. You’re bearing witness to something that is happening and saying: I’m not going to be silenced be this. In a way, everyone is privileged in relation to someone else, and if you start to get hung up on that, then you just paralyze yourself and never do anything. Poetry looks for the humanity in everybody, even a soldier who has been dehumanized to such an extent that he will shoot a mother coming out of a house. I want to find that man’s humanity again and give it to people.

TSB: That is so powerful and important to say out loud, right now, in this world we live in. You’re an absolute inspiration for me, thank you.

Also in this issue, three poems by Seni Seneviratne:

After Qana – July 30th 2006
Testimony of Baby Haydova
L’inconnue de la Seine

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Tara Shea Burke is in her second year of the MFA program at Old Dominion University. She is a writing tutor at the campus Writing Tutorial Services, has served on the administrative staff of Barely South Review, and is one of its current Poetry editors. She spends most of her spare time with her girlfriend, their three dogs, fat cat and hamster, and can be found pouring wine for guests a few nights a week at a local wine bar.