Seni Seneviratne is a poet, creative artist and qualified psychotherapist. Her poetry collection, Wild Cinnamon and Winter Skin (Peepal Tree Press 2007) has been described as “a virtual master class between covers.” Her work was showcased in the Bloodaxe anthology Ten: New Poets from Spread the Word in 2010. She has been a Poetry School student for some time, and is currently anticipating the release of her Second collection The Heart of It. here, she chats to us about her new collection and being mentored by Mimi Khalvati. She has also given us a poem that is included, below.
What are the main recurring themes of your new book ‘The Heart of It’?The themes of my new Book The Heart of It are, as Mimi Khalvati so aptly puts it, "two-fold like that of the heart". The first section is a journey through personal heartbreak and reflects on themes of love, loss and desire. The second section contains more public and political poems that echo the same themes of love and loss often in the voice of the marginalised and traumatised.
Could you tell us a bit more about the writing process that came about in writing it?
My first collection, Wild Cinnamon and Winter Skin, was published in 2007 and my plan had orginally been to continue working on a fictionalised memoir that I started some time ago. But I found myself wanting to get started on another poetry collection and when, in 2008, I was fortunate enough to be selected by Spread the Word as one of the poets on their Complete Works Programme. This gave me the focus and support I needed. Added to that I was selected for the El Gouna International Writers Residency, so I had a whole month away to devote new poems for the manuscript. I was doing Antony Dunns online course, Going Public, at that time and several of the poems in the collection were drafted as part of this course. (Including Operation Cast Lead - which I have attached and which was also subsequently shortlisted in The Arvon Poetry Competition 2010) In 2010 as the Complete Works was coming to an end I was awarded a Time to Write Grant from the Arts Council. This meant I had seven months in which to immerse myself totally in the book and the completion of the manuscript. Mimi Khalvati's support as a mentor both on the Complete Works Programme and later with the Arts Council funding was invaluable. (More on that later)
You are currently taking Kathleen Ossip’s online course with The Poetry School, ‘The Public and the Personal’ – what drew you to take a course with these concerns?
I first got involved in politics in the early 70's and the beginnings of the feminist movement when we were arguing that there is a deep connection between the personal and political. In terms of my poetry, what is happening in the world has always been as relevant a subject to me as what is happening in my personal life. If I am in the world and I care about what is happening beyond my personal sphere then it is important for me to bear witness/respond to these things in my poetry. What matters is how we approach poems about bigger more public issues. I am particularly concerned with how to achieve a balance between the public and the personal; how to find the lyric voice in the face of trauma, violence and catastrophic historical events; how to speak the unspeakable; how to avoid polemic and sentimentality; how to write in a way that invites empathy; how to change hearts as well as minds through the medium of poetry and how to do all this with integrity. At the moment I am thinking about the poet Adrienne Rich and what a great loss it is that she died last week. She is one of the poets of our time who achieved this balance that I am talking about and who has been a great influence and inspiration to me. So to answer your question, I joined the course because of my commitment to grappling with these challenges.
In another interview, you talk about Mimi Khalvati as your ‘mentor’, how do you find working with Mimi to be?
Working with my mentor, Mimi Khalvati, has been a joy. I have a great respect for her work and her skills and generosity as a tutor/mentor. She has given me so much in so many ways. She has picked up each of the poems I have given her with all the love and care that I laid them down and she has helped me to nurture them, interrogate them, craft them into poems I am proud of. She has given me her time and support, enhanced my skills and my belief in myself. She is the best companion I could have hoped for on this journey - the process with each poem of waiting, watching, researching, crafting, editing and the constant exploration of language in the service of the truth of the poem. I feel privileged to have had as my mentor such an accomplished poet and beautiful person.
Operation Cast Lead
She was baking bread
when the soldiers came.
Her children ran to her.
She held the two of them,
one against each hip, the dough
on her fingers stuck to their hair.
Two days and she never washed
her hands, kept thinking of the dough
still rising in the kitchen.
Now the soldiers are saying things,
jabbing at the air with guns,
fingers too near the triggers.
She thinks the guns are like
heavy limbs in the hands
of these wild-eyed boys.
If they let us go, we will
walk south, she tells herself,
walk south with everyone else.
We may not sleep tonight
nor find bread but, Insha’allah
we will stay alive.
With her hands full of children,
she moves through the space
where her door used to hang.
Her right hip rotates, lifts
her right foot, her left hip tilts
the left foot follows.
The turn, the swirl of her dress,
the squeeze of her hands
on her children’s palms.
The turn, left instead of right,
the sniper’s eye holding her heart
at the centre of his lens.
The moment of turning left
instead of right, the arc of a weapon
across the wide screen of this moving picture.
This woman walking, this woman
walking with her children, walking
the wrong way, too close to the red line.
This woman, her hands’ grip loosened
with traces of dough on her fingers,
remnants in her children’s hair.