Inside an Artist’s Head: Riya Roy

A United Nations volunteer, Riya’s articles have appeared in The Swaddle, Arré, LiveWire, BeBadass, Noble Missions for Change Initiative and Feminism In India. Her poems have found a home in The Alipore Post, Airplane Poetry Movement, Verse of Silence, On Fire Cultural Movement, Narrow Road Journal, and other loved poetry and art spaces. Her debut poetry chapbook is called Syllables in Exile, which also features her photographs. The Nook is her weekly newsletter.

What was the inspiration behind the establishment of The Nook?

In 2020, during the pandemic, I got to curate a newsletter for a friend. I curated just one edition and it was a completely different experience for me – it felt more personal. 

Within a week, she received a lot of responses and she forwarded them to me. Some people even wrote to me personally and I had never really expected that. 

After that, I discussed it with a friend and mentioned how I wanted to start my own newsletter. They got so excited about it and started checking in on me almost daily, just to see if I was working on it. During that time, I was also reading “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron, where she talks about being okay with your anxious moments and not knowing what was going to happen next. 

So, these two factors – trying the curation first hand, seeing how I felt about it, and reading the book – played an important role in the journey and made me go ahead with it.

Producing a weekly newsletter can be a huge commitment, especially when one has to toggle between different things. We’d like to know more about its curation – like how do you land on a particular theme, etc. 

Throughout my week, I read a lot; there are always a lot of tabs open, so I keep bookmarking things. I also keep a check on what could be useful for the newsletter or what I found to be interesting in a particular week. I try to make sure that what I have enjoyed the most finds a place in the newsletter. Otherwise, if I choose things that I think people would like, my newsletter won’t reflect myself. 

Coming to the choice of theme, it usually happens on its own. I don’t ever start with restricting myself to a theme because then the content wouldn’t be organic; I would be forcing myself to think in a particular direction. A week is a long period, and whatever I have felt during my week comes together in the newsletter, thus making it a reflection of how my week went.

As an Indian writer residing in Bhutan, is there any particular set of challenges that you have faced? Has Bhutan’s culture or literary scene ever influenced your writing? 

In terms of challenges, none really, because I have mostly worked from home. Even when I started volunteering for the UN, or after that when I got on to working for literary magazines, and now when I am working for a home solutions brand, the offices are either here in India, or based in Germany or the US. So, as long as I have a good internet connection, it’s all okay. 

Talking about my writings, I have mostly been influenced by Indian literature. I have had very little exposure to the literary scene of Bhutan. But if we talk about the socio-political environment, the cross-national element has always been there. 

Living in Bhutan has definitely influenced my spirituality. I have grown up with mountains around me, and a very quiet atmosphere in general. Then, it did make me feel lonely, but when I think about it now, it really helped me focus on my creativity. Plus, the concept of GNH has a played an important role too in my work. The fact that focusing on what you do is not just bringing in revenue, but also adding to the joy factor in your life is a great thing. 

As subscribers to your newsletter, we are aware of the fact that you send a pdf version of Big Magic as a welcome gift. What significance does the book hold for you and your readers?

When someone subscribes to my newsletter, I either send a copy of “Big Magic” or “When Things Fall Apart”. I have already talked about “When Things Fall Apart” in the context of The Nook. So, if this one is the why of it, “Big Magic” is the how of it because I think this is what The Nook is trying to do – making creativity accessible; deviating from the notion that creativity is something that requires you to be good at a certain thing and only then one is allowed to practice it. 

Last year at The Nook, we started with “Do for Joy”, which was a series of interviews. We interviewed a lot of people and even creative ventures that started because of the pandemic. The idea behind “Do for Joy” was to not ask these people about their work and their creative pursuit, but about their hobbies or the activities that they weren’t good at but did regardless because it made them feel good. Then on Childrens’ Day, we interviewed kids, and the answers showed us how during our life laughing becomes difficult for us. We forget that joy is extremely accessible and I think joy is the easiest way to access it. 

What does a usual workday in your life look like? Walk us through your writing/work routine.

Once I wake up, I leave my room and go around for a walk, particularly to prevent myself from checking emails or social media right after waking up. I come back and get onto practising Yoga and mediation. Then I sit down to work. The first half of the day is for the commissioned projects, mainly the home solutions brand that I am working for. The afternoons are for my side projects and for all the freelancing work that I take up. Finally, I get about an hour in the evening to create the content pipeline for The Nook’s Instagram and one of the sections of the newsletter, so that I can get it all done before Sunday because I take Saturdays off. Then I just spend time with my family. So, this is how the day usually looks. 

Tell us about your writing process in detail.

I religiously follow “Morning Pages” by Julia Cameron. While journaling, I write in such a way that absolutely no one can decipher what has been written, including myself, only so that I don’t go back to it and also to make sure that whatever I am writing about does not make its way into the writing that I am sharing, because when you are just pouring things out, you are only getting rid of thoughts and there’s not a lot of thinking involved. And, I believe, that it doesn’t make a mark. Adding to that, I’d mention that I usually like raw work, but sometimes it’s too raw, and I feel like the person has presented morning pages as their final write-up. Even in poetry, I like its raw elements but the efforts should show, and the thinking should be reflected in the words. 

Coming on to the various parts of the process, I usually keep a different hour for analyzing things, to see which all ideas can be paired. Jotting ideas down is a constant thing. 

There’s one more thing I like to do, especially when I am nervous about a certain project or a deadline – I write a love letter to myself. I type out a sentence for the piece I’m working on, and then I write something to myself. So, suppose, I have to type out 500 words, and I am only done with ten, I’ll write to myself that you are doing well, go on. 

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Big Magic says that these are the words that we are expecting someone else to tell us, and our entire lives we wait for it. It also makes us bitter towards other people because they don’t know we are expecting them to say such things since they are also expecting us to say those to them. So, we could just say these things to ourselves, and it doesn’t matter who says it, and here, the funny thing is, that once I write it to myself, I feel like someone else is saying those things to me and it really has the same effect. 

Inside an Artist’s Head: Seep Agarwal

Seep Agarwal

Seep is a spoken word artist who spends her days building artist communities at Soulstuff, driving youth innovations at UNICEF India and championing the inclusion of arts learning in formal education systems. She believes accepting uncertainty is actually great evidence of courage, and hopes to always be remembered by her poems.

Q: What has your experience of writing during the pandemic been like? What were the challenges?

Seep: I think for me, it’s been a little different than others because I have been continuously working full-time. I was already doing a job when the pandemic began. Then I shifted homes and started working from home. So, in the initial few months, the transition was about striking the balance between getting things done, being productive, while also focusing on my mental well-being.

Writing-wise, I’ll just say that for the last one and a half years, I have been in this space where I have just felt that there’s so much happening in life, that I want to be able to live it fully and feel it completely, before writing about it. For me, otherwise as well, writing is very observational in nature and the part about living and observing really matters a lot.

My writing has seen a shift from me saying things, to me asking questions, and it also quite focused on growth and the concept of adulting, because I think people don’t talk about it enough, especially how difficult it is. So, this is how it has been. I’ll just say that the past one and a half year has been a process of me trying to discover myself.

Q. Tell us about your writing process. Do you follow a strict writing schedule? Are you an ardent notes maker? We’d love to know what the process looks like for you.

Seep: I think for me, writing is very observational. I’m very particular about the long-form content that I consume whether that’s cinema or articles because those are the things that stay with and influence us the most.

I often get ideas at the most random moments- going to sleep, writing an email, reading an article, so the process of conceiving these ideas is mostly impulsive and observational. Although most times, I forget to write them down ( chuckles) but when I do note it down, I type ideas out in the WhatsApp group that I have with myself or send myself a voice note, so when later I finally sit down with my words, I go back to these little realisations and build my craft around them.

I usually try to convert one thought into a metaphor. Earlier, when I used to produce more spoken word poems, my writing used to be focused on themes. I would choose concepts like balance, self-love or homesickness and then weave a story around it or incorporate my own experiences with it in my pieces. However, now, since I have shifted to long-form essays, I usually sit with my thoughts for longer durations, ask myself questions, and then I bring it all together.

I don’t have a stringent writing schedule, because of my full-time work and also because the emotional turmoil of living in a pandemic doesn’t really allow it. I think I have grown to be comfortable in not writing for prolonged periods because when I come back to it, it stems from an honest and authentic place and I would much rather prefer creating pieces in gaps of longer periods than writing inauthentic pieces often.

Q. We have noticed that you are a great proponent of mental health. How important do you think it is, especially in the current day atmosphere, for art to recognise the sensitivity of mental health?

Ans. It is extremely important, so much so that I think that one can not exist without the other. And of course, it is always better if one is aware of and sensitive towards such things because that also helps in creating the required space to talk about it. Adding to that, I am of the opinion that performance poetry, in such cases, is a great medium to be our own selves and to be in a space where our feelings will be honoured and heard.

In the past few years, even the organisation of slam poetry events has revolutionised to such an extent that there’s more focus on the procedural aspect – proper trigger warnings and guidelines are given out before every event. This is also really great because performing a poem about mental health or someone’s own challenges and/or experiences with it, is one part, but the moment you say that this is a space where these experiences would be heard and more than that, the fact that one would be heartily welcomed to share such feelings, things really change. So, we again come to the point that one won’t really exist without the other. If you don’t create a space where people can speak for themselves, I don’t think slam poetry would exist.

With reference to that, we also have such amazing poets in the Delhi poetry circuit who write strong and powerful poems about their own challenges, without romanticising or whitewashing them, and I think that really lays the groundwork for similar pieces to follow. They really paved the way for such great work to come after.

Q. Where did the idea of establishing a spoken word platform like Soulstuff come from? Could you also shine a light on your transition from writing poetry to its spoken form?

Ans. I would like to take on the latter part of the question first. I started writing poems or as one might say, some brief metaphorical pieces, when I was in the 11th grade. It mostly happened because of my English teacher who used to teach us, Shakespeare. She used to draw metaphors out of trivial things, such as blue-coloured curtains, and I would get fascinated just by the amount of poetry people see in everyday life.

After that when I came to DU, the first spoken word poem I saw was Sarah Kay’s “If I should have a Daughter” and I was really moved. I kept crying while listening to it because I could relate to it and I thought that this is how my mom and I are. I hadn’t heard anything like that before, and I didn’t even know spoken poetry.

Almost 6-7 months after that, I started writing longer poems. My first spoken poem was something really preachy. Eventually, I started going to slam events. So, I sort of directly segwayed into spoken poetry. I have written a lot of poems that are not performative in nature and could be read as paper poetry, but I technically started with spoken word poetry itself.

Coming to the establishment of Soulstuff, it has been co-founded by me and Aprajita, who is again an amazing spoken word poet. Since its inception, Soulstuff has been a place where we are not very regular with events, but whenever we do something, we put our heart and soul into it. We try to think of events as thematic concepts. For example, our very first event – ‘Neon’ was named so, keeping in mind the fact that art is like the neon city lights in the night. The next event was called ‘9798’. It was about the people who were born in 1997/98 and are in their 20s currently. It was essentially about growing up and finding ourselves in that process.

Something that we also wanted to do and acknowledge while establishing Soulstuff was to create some part of the ecosystem, where artists are also monetised for the efforts they put in and that is something that Aprajita and I are both really proud of.

Q. Who are some of your favourite growing artists?

Ans. Wow (chuckles). I don’t really know how to classify, because all of us are growing artists, but all of my friends are my favourite. Even people from the Delhi poetry circuit, are so talented, it’s crazy. I think that the world is missing out because they don’t know these people exist. Aprajita is surely one of them. Utkarsh, who is a brilliant political poet and also Muskaan, whose poetry is conversational in nature. In the music scene as well, there are some amazing artists like Manikaant.

There are literally so many more names, other than the ones I mentioned.

Seep often shares her words via Barstool, her newsletter named after the first spoken word poem she wrote. You can subscribe to it here: http://eepurl.com/g-JZNz