27th October 2020
Interview with a Poet: Parth Sharma
On the blog this year we’ve celebrated many class, modern and rising stars in the world of published authors. But within our very own hallowed (though sadly empty right now in lockdown) halls at Uni, creative writers stand armed with pencils – ready to conquer the word! So this week one of our library patrons is bringing you an interview from on of our very own Monash Alumni writers, to share his insight on the writing process, reading influences, and more.
Parth Sharma is a poet by trade who graduated last semester with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Mathematics and Astrophysics. He enjoys teaching students and has a passion for STEM outreach, dabbling in recreational mathematics on the side. When he isn’t encouraging the creation and dissemination of all forms of creative writing, you can find him perfecting his weekly pasta recipe or curating the ultimate playlist. Parth has been published numerous times in the student magazine, Lot’s Wife. He was the Publications Officer for the Monash Creative Writers Club from 2018-19, and during that time was the Editor responsible for the printed anthology ‘Incisors & Grinders 2019: Creation Myths’, which curated work submitted from club members.
So read on to find out about all things reading and writing from the perspective of Parth!
Was there a particular book that resonated with you as a child?
Not really, I just sort of read because I liked the way it made me feel and how I could learn new, interesting things in detail. I’ve heard friends describe themselves as hungry young readers and books as favourite meals, but I really got into reading at university, where I had a much larger selection of accessible and unique literature. I sometimes do wish that I’d had a literary youth, but I don’t regret the progress I’ve made in my time as a young adult, especially now that I can understand more of it.
Aside from all the COVID updates, what are you reading at the moment?
I’ve got a few things going concurrently. Firstly, I’m working through a few of Patrick White’s novels. I’ve read ‘Happy Valley’ and ‘The Tree of Man’ and am on ‘Voss’ at the moment. They’re unlike anything I’ve experienced, novel-wise: they shimmer unassumingly with the poetic sensibility of a honed talent. They’re brilliant, and it’s a shame more people don’t know about his work. Plus, White’s currently Australia’s only Nobel Literature laureate. Plus-plus he was an openly gay man… in 1973 (when he won his prize). That’s enough for me to check him out. I’m also reading Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘Voices from Chernobyl’, who is also a Nobel Literature laureate (2015). After watching the ‘Chernobyl’ HBO series, I got really interested in nuclear-related topics and many of the scenes visualised there first appeared in this book of interviews. Finally, I’m reading the June 2020 edition of the American Poetry magazine, to whom I’ve been subscribed since mid-2018, and would recommend to anyone interested in reading or writing poetry.
Writers are artists, and so aim to create art in whatever form they choose. I don’t think you can do this well without consuming a wide and large selection of art by others.
What’s your all time favourite under-appreciated novel?
Since you asked for a novel, I’m inclined to say John William’s ‘Stoner’. It was perhaps the first book I’ve ever read cover-to-cover in one sitting. There was something so bright and promising about this young man’s future, and the way Williams crafts the narrative arc into something of a followable and reasonable, yet horrifying, banality is gripping. Mind you, this isn’t a plot-heavy book, but, like Patrick White, the psychological narrative takes center-stage, which I enjoy. Other than that, strong contenders would be ‘Sula’ by Toni Morrison, and Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘The People in the Trees’.
Do you ever gravitate towards a particular genre in your reading?
Overall, no – and I think that’s vitally important in any writer’s development. You’ll equally find me in a novel as in an essay-, poetry- or even photographic-collection. Writers are artists, and so aim to create art in whatever form they choose. I don’t think one can do this well without consuming a wide and large selection of art by others. I truly believe that’s the source of an artist’s vitality – one’s own creativity fuelled by the creative outputs of other artists. Doesn’t mean you can’t have preferences – plays have eluded me so far, apart from high-school Shakespeare – but I’d say try not to let your tastes limit your reading, since ultimately that’s the limit of your creative vision and scope.
This is partly why I’m always encouraging people to read widely: you never know who might help save your own life one day.
Is there any author who serves as a role model for you?
My role model author would probably be Mary Oliver. Yes, unsurprisingly she’s a poet. She’s very unassuming, gentle with a clarity of thought that leaves one feeling held, understood and speechless. Her poem, ‘Wild Geese’, is my favourite and still one of the very few I have memorised. It’s very much like a prayer, generously rewarding retelling, to be called upon in times of need. And in a world of hard corners and cruelty, it was communionable, unobscured. Her poems are often quiet and hold truth, a truth in our being ‘soft animals’, enveloped by and witness to ‘the family of things’. That really resonated with me. Another reason I love Oliver is because I think everyone can, on some level, relate to her; to her walks in the woods, and her words. She accomplished what every poet desperately aspires towards. That is to forge something that’s communal and communionable, something that’s enjoining and embodying; sometimes replenishing, sometimes intriguing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes desolate, always truthful. I’m not one to belabour the dark parts of my life but it’s not hyperbolic to say she saved me; some writers, the best of them, who speak embodyingly to us, can do that. That is partly why I’m always encouraging people to read widely: you never know who might help save your own life one day.
How has your own writing been influenced by the works you’ve read?
Tremendously, in myriad ways – for sure some are unconscious. Like, just reading books and poetry, and conscientiously making a point to seek those out, has an effect. I think, kind of paradoxically, it’s much harder to find your own voice and your own style, whatever you gravitate towards, if you don’t read. But there’s the converse issue, that you can’t break the initial habit of imitation. Certainly, if you’re reading, and starting to write, you’ll tend to imitate what speaks most to you. And for sure, I do want certain elements present in the works of other, better poets to be in mine – the languid seriousness of a Mary Oliver poem, or the awesome bombastic language of an Ocean Vuong piece, the humour and power of Danez Smith, etc. These give you things to aim towards, if you so want them. And some poems need certain things that others don’t – being able to recognise that comes from making a practise out of your work which encompasses reading, listening, and finally writing. The works I’ve read have presented a plethora of guides on unique and effective enjambment, how and whether to punctuate or not, how to hear, see and then craft a line, how to create a narrative arc, how to honour and centre Image and Message, the two things I think drive a poem forward. My own writing comes out from the interplay of the works I read and the work I want to make.
For sure, I do want certain elements in the works of other, better poets to be in mine - the languid seriousness of a Mary Oliver poem, or the awesome bombastic language of an Ocean Vuong piece, the humour and power of Danez Smith, etc.
If you’re anything like me, you probably have a multitude of half-started unfinished manuscripts lying around. How many projects are you working on at any one time?
Usually, only one – the thing I’m working on at the moment. Lately however, I’ve found some space inside myself to think about multiple projects in different genres. Right now, I’m working on a long-ish poem (1,000-2,000 words) focusing on the experience of a hibakusha – the Japanese term for someone who survived the nuclear bombings on Hiroshima and/or Nagasaki, delving into the psychological and physical aspects of the event and its repercussions. That one took a lot of research to get some historical accuracy. Did you know that during the war, people couldn’t purchase liquid milk (it was all going to the war front), so instead they rationed an apparently foul-tasting skim-milk powder? I didn’t, before reading an article on war-time Japanese diets. Also, I’m working on a fiction piece, a character study, really, into childishness. How, to some, it’ll stick like a reputation. How, like a bad reputation, one is aware of it and one tries desperately but in vain to dissipate it. How, sometimes, neither time nor trial works – that sort of stuff. And finally, I’ve started getting into essays much more, so there’s one in the works (metaphorically) dissecting a high school crush I had. Sounds cliché, and maybe it will be, but there’s something there and I’m into it, so hopefully the end result won’t be too lame.
What drew you to poetry as your preferred mode of writing?
I genuinely don’t know. I’m sure there is something which draws any writer to their preferred style, or which compels them to write in a certain form, but what exactly that is escapes me. It’s doubly weird because, before I started, I never used to read much poetry either. I was solely a novel, non-fiction reader. Much like a chain reaction, something small must’ve precipitated a tendency and now it’s grown into something much larger. Plus, I can’t imagine the time and effort required to make a full-length novel. All those words, all that re-reading and editing – no thanks; thank you, next. At the risk of sounding cocky, it just comes naturally, I suppose.
All I’d say, as one writer-in-development to another, is to give it a try. Write it up, get feedback, improve, repeat. That’s how it’s been done, is done, and it works.
Here’s a controversial question.. Which do you think is better; books or films?
They both have their place. A bit of a cop-out, I know, but it’s the typically unsatisfying truth. If ‘better’ in this context means more apt to capture the imagination and take someone on a journey, then I’d say film. But if it is to mean something which enables a deep growth and grants an inside examination of a life and mind, then books by a long shot. There’s very little in film that dives into a psychological narrative nearly as well as in a book – and that too places it in a rich and coloured context. If time is a constraint, then of course, film. The shortest book will still probably take me longer to get through than an average-to-lengthy movie.
Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you would give to a fellow aspiring writer?
Frankly, I haven’t been writing for all that long – only slightly before graduating high school, so about five years now. Compare that to some of my peers who’ve been at it since they were ten. So, I wouldn’t presume to give advice to my contemporaries. All I’d say, as one writer-in-development to another, is to give it a try. Your first stuff might be great, might also be trash. Who knows? My first poems certainly were very much trash – and for all I know still are! But as they say, practise makes near-perfect and if you don’t succeed, try, try again. And shameless plug here, join the Monash Creative Writers club to meet like-minded people and an unabashedly warm community. Write it up, submit it to the club, get feedback, improve, repeat. That’s how it’s been done, is done, and it works.