Tishani Doshi and Holly Amos on Shape Poetry and Loving the Process, PLUS a Writing Prompt

January 10, 2023


The Poetry Magazine Podcast: Holly Amos in Conversation with Tishani Doshi

(If you notice a mistake in the transcript, please let us know by emailing [email protected])


Tishani Doshi:

(READS EXCERPT FROM “Advice for Pliny the Elder, Big Daddy of Mansplainers”)

Great Man, now that you are dead, allow me to squeeze your hand.

Holly Amos: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m Holly Amos. For the month of January, we’re focusing on what keeps us writing. How do poets sustain their writing practices? Are there generative tips and tricks that we can learn from them? I certainly hope so. Today, we’ve enlisted the help of poet, writer, and dancer Tishani Doshi. Her essay in the December issue of Poetry is about shape or concrete poetry. Tishani lives in Tamil Nadu, India, and is joining us today from Abu Dhabi, where she’s a New York University visiting associate professor. She’s an incredibly prolific writer. Her latest book of poetry is A God at the Door. And her latest novel is Small Days and Nights. Tishani, welcome to the podcast.

Tishani Doshi: Thanks for having me.

Holly Amos: Thanks for being here. Also, I want to start out just by asking what time it is where you are. It is 9:15AM where I am, I think it’s 11:15AM where Rachel is. Rachel is our podcast producer, I probably didn’t need to put that in there, but (LAUGHS) Tishani, what time is it where you are?

Tishani Doshi: It’s 8:15 in the evening, 8:15.

Holly Amos: In the evening, so yeah, we’re almost exactly 12 hours apart. I’m starting my day, and you are ending your day.

Tishani Doshi: Yeah.

Holly Amos: But yeah, you have such a wonderful writing prompt to share with us today. I’m super excited also to hear some of your poems. The prompt itself, it’s part of your essay that’s in the December issue, and it’s drawn from one of your favorite concrete poems, which is actually not technically a poem, but it’s the dedication to E.E. Cummings’s book No Thanks. Can you describe the shape of the poem and introduce the writing prompt as well, which, just to give folks a little context, the writing prompt incorporates the aesthetic concept of rasa, which in Sanskrit means “essence” or “taste.”

Tishani Doshi: This is sort of just such a funny tongue-in-cheek dedication to his book, and it’s called No Thanks, and it has the shape of this funeral urn. And then it names a list of the 14 publishers who rejected him. So it’s, you know, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Knopf. He has a whole list of them. And it’s just the names of the publishers, that’s it, but it’s so brilliant. And you know, the sense of, “Well, here’s my book anyway, I published it without you.” And I thought that it would be an interesting prompt, because I have been thinking so much about the idea of shape and poems. And I thought that, you know, maybe this poem might be thought of as not technically a poem—and in fact, it isn’t—that perhaps a good prompt would be to try to write a poem in the shape of a funeral urn, but to maybe, to infuse it with a really presiding emotion or essence. And so I’ve listed the nine rasas. And you know, rasa basically means “taste.” It’s the juice, it’s the flavor, it’s the essence. And it is, the entire Indian aesthetic theory of performance is based on the idea of rasa, and this is a 2000-year-old obsession. And I think the sense is that while you’re watching a performance, or while you’re reading a poem, or while you’re looking at a painting, these emotions rise to the surface of the audience, or the viewer or the listener. And it’s very unpredictable, and we can’t explain how it happens, but we are being transformed or moved in some way. And that is the artistic experience. And so I thought the prompt could be to either stay with one predominant rasa or, if you’re feeling very adventurous, to begin with one, and then by the end of the poem, you leave us with another flavor on your tongue.

Holly Amos: I love that, Tishani. Let’s hear that prompt now. And then we’ll play it again at the end of the episode too.

Tishani Doshi:


Write a poem in the shape of a funeral urn, but try to infuse your poem with one of the nine rasas: the comic, the fearful, the violent, the erotic, the heroic, the tragic, the fantastic, the peaceful. Or better still, begin with one rasa, and by the end of the poem, leave us with another flavor on our tongue.


Holly Amos: I have so many questions. I’m curious with the rasas, can you talk a little bit about your connection to them like in your own work?

Tishani Doshi: It’s, so there’s a scholar Kapila Vatsyayan, who just said that rasa was the most describable and indescribable word. And I think that’s so true, because when you’re getting into these sorts of concepts, which are not just simple translations from Sanskrit into English, you know, it’s not just one word, it’s this whole idea behind it, and it becomes quite dizzying, I would say that what I enjoy about it is the sense of this great categorization of human experience, thought, the body, and all of these things interlinked, and trying to sort of put a structure over something that is essentially quite abstract. Why do we respond a certain way to a poem or to a film or to a, you know, theater performance? What happens to us? Why do we feel forever changed sometimes because of that interaction? So this is what the rasa theory is trying to provide, some kind of structure of understanding. But as a maker of poems, and as a receiver of them, so as a reader and maker, I feel that you can’t like, just like you can’t decide that you’re going to write an environmental poem, or you’re going to write a poem about X, Y, and Z, you write a poem because you’re inclined somehow to move towards the subject of loss or grief, or, or whatever it may be. And then the poem is also surprising you in the best instances. And I think, probably, the notion of unpredictability is the most important thing when you’re writing, but also when you’re receiving, is that you don’t know how you’re going to react. But we do know from the long history of human existence that there are certain categories of emotions, and we can call them the comic, the, you know, wonder, anger, desire, and that we can sort of classify based on this. And probably, I think, as artists, we might veer more towards one or the other. But I think we’re always thinking of it as a kind of palette, or the taste buds. So it’s interesting that of the senses, this is about flavor and taste, rasa is taste. So it’s about what is that feeling in your mouth, you know, that flavor in the juice and basically the essence. So I think on some level, in my work, it’s all very mysterious, and I feel I can’t begin with the sense of—so in fact, I’ve given an impossible prompt.

Holly Amos: (LAUGHS)

Tishani Doshi: Now that I, now that I talk about it, I think well, I mean, yeah, but you know, if you think about the funeral urn, you know, would it be possible to write a comic poem? Maybe. I’m sure you could. But maybe that’s not the first thing that comes to mind. So I’m interested to see what it generates, you know, at the very least, it’s an idea of generating some kind of, some kind of emotion, perhaps.

Holly Amos: Yeah, it’s really interesting. It makes me think if like, having the shape with your poem is a way to try and keep a certain rasa there. Because your, your shapes of your poems, I mean, some of them are very funny, right? Having a poem to Pliny the Elder in the shape of a menstrual cup is a very funny shape. It just makes me wonder if the shape is a way to sort of like, form your poem. Actually, can you talk a little bit, Tishani, about when you’re writing a shape poem, are you starting with the shape first? Are you writing the text first? What’s the sort of like order of things for you?

Tishani Doshi: So I think I begin writing the poem and the shape comes afterwards. But I should say that a lot of these poems in A God at the Door were written just when the pandemic started, you know, and I found it to be a very disembodied time for everybody. Like, everything was very contained, and behind a screen, and I felt very out of touch with my body as a dancer. And I think in some ways, giving these poems these particular shapes was a way of giving them a kind of body and just saying, “Okay, this is a way to give that to you, since I can’t have that in my own life at the moment.” So I think I got very interested in the idea of containment and form and how something could be held. But I was also very aware of the fact that I was getting completely addicted to the idea of shape. And I didn’t want to—I wanted to use it only if it made sense for the poem, if it enhanced the poem’s power in a way or it added a kind of texture, you know? And so I did have a lot of fun with them as well. You know, I have like the poems in the shape of a pair of Speedos, and I was very pleased when I came upon that form. And I thought, “Oh, yes, that works,” you know. But I think they are probably many sort of abandoned poems as well, that didn’t quite fit. And, and so I suppose it really, it had to, it had to serve the function of form, but also to kind of add that extra texture.

Holly Amos: That makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting though, in my head, I definitely thought that you had like, chosen the shape ahead of time, and, but yeah, I love that it was, it was more sort of like organic than that. Could you read the Speedo poem for us?

Tishani Doshi: Sure.

Holly Amos: And also talk about the actual shape of it a little bit, if you would.

Tishani Doshi: Yeah. So, this is the thing with the, with the podcast, is that you can’t see the poem, (LAUGHING) but I’ll try my best. So it’s a very tiny poem. And it’s, I hope, in the shape of a pair of swimming trunks. And the poem is sort of a response to a news article I read about how Speedos were making a comeback. And I was in Italy at the time. And I don’t think Speedos have ever gone away in terms of fashion sense, they’re always there. So I was just thinking about my childhood and of taking part in this sort of swimming gala. And the gentleman who used to be our sort of person who got all of us, you know, in our groups, and we did the synchronized swimming, and we swam with a little candle on our heads. And it’s sort of this fun and yet weirdly embarrassing moment in my life. And so yeah, so I’ll just read the poem, and it’s called “The Comeback of Speedos.”


I’ll keep this brief. I remember the shock of Mr. G’s tiger-striped trunks
at the Madras Gymkhana club. Nothing to conceal, everything to
declare, like a Mills & Boon hero. Shiver of ball and sack, acres
of hairy scrub. We could not imagine such freedom for
ourselves. To slice through chlorinated depths
with a little basket of dim sum on display.
We were girls. To open our legs
was treason. We held
our breath.


Holly Amos: So beautiful, Tishani. You just don’t expect a poem in the shape of a Speedo to be that lovely. (LAUGHS) Or at least I didn’t, I don’t know.

Tishani Doshi: (LAUGHS)

Holly Amos: Yeah, your prompt that is, you know, that’s in the essay in the January issue, the essay is called “In Praise of Shape Poetry.” And I do think in reading your shape poems, there is this sort of like, it’s clear that you love them, like that you have this love of the shape that comes through in your work. And you say, yes, you have so many of them in your book A God at the Door. It is honestly a surprising amount of shape poems. I’m not sure that I’ve seen that many in one book before. And so you write in your essay that, you know, your American editor gently, you say gently asked you, “Are you sure you need all these shape poems? They can be considered somewhat gimmicky.” And so, you know, of course, I’m curious if that was the impetus for you to write this essay? You know, what made you write this essay? Did you feel that there’s like something that, you know, an American audience was not understanding about how great shape poems can be?

Tishani Doshi: Well, I mean, it’s a lot of reasons, I think, partly yes, you know, when you write an essay, you’re trying to work through something for yourself as an idea, as a sort of question. And I think for me, what I was trying to reconcile is, why am I investing this power in the shape when it could be considered gimmicky, right? And I think I have to talk about shape in the context of living in India as well, and, you know, the, the general idea is that it’s a very chaotic place, which it is. There’s this image of the teeming traffic, of just crazy crowds. And all of that is true. But it also has one of the most sort of codified pedagogy of aesthetics that I think exists. When you start to think about it, it’s everywhere. It’s in the kolam, these patterns outside of the houses, it’s in step wells, it’s in the way that gardens were laid out, it’s in temple architecture. If you look around, there is this connection between micro and macro. And every geometric figure, whether it’s a circle or a triangle, or a square is invested with so much symbolic power. So it’s not just that thing, it’s never just the thing. That thing is representing the universe, the body, you know. And so when you think of the incredible sophistication that these poets in Sanskrit, but also in Tamil were writing with, you know, syllabic play and riddles and making pictures on the page, and you can read it this way, you can read it that way. And then they become more and more sophisticated. And you know, these acts of devotion almost. I wondered, as a poet practicing today, is there a way for me to speak into this tradition that I also happen to be part of somehow? And that living in this country, where the eye goes towards, towards the form, maybe because it needs it, because around there’s so much chaos, so you want to, there’s something soothing about shape, you know, to have a container, to have the form. So I think writing the essay for me, it’s sort of, it was a way to try and understand why these poems came to be. I don’t know if I’m gonna keep writing shape poems. But I know that in this collection, like I said, because of this disembodied feeling of the pandemic, I really felt like the shape was giving my poems a kind of extra thing that I didn’t have, you know? And yeah, I hope Michael hears this podcast (LAUGHS) and in some way feels okay about allowing me to, you know, I am usually quite good about being edited. But I did sort of say, “No, no, I really need all of these shape poems in here. We could spread them out, but I need them all.”

Holly Amos: It’s so funny. I love that, Tishani. When you were talking about in No Thanks, the funeral urn, it made me realize that this essay is a little bit of your funeral urn dedication poem to your editor being like, “Well, you didn’t really want them in here, but I kept them and I wrote this essay” (LAUGHS)

Tishani Doshi: Exactly,

Holly Amos: about this too, you know?

Tishani Doshi: exactly. And I’m just, I guess, trying to back it up with a sort of, a sense of history and poetics and saying, “Look, there is this tradition, and it’s existed in different poetic forms all over the world. And so it’s not just play, although there is a lot of play.” And I really liked that about poetry. And I also feel that in my own work, I feel like I want to involve that sense of play in the poem. So form is definitely one aspect of that, you know? And in the in the Speedo poem, I just realized that I do move from one rasa to the other because I think it starts off a bit kind of funnyish. And then I definitely think there is a swerve in the mood and you get to something a little bit more somber at the end of the poem.


(READING OF “The Comeback of Speedos” FADES IN)

                     … I remember the shock of Mr. G’s tiger-striped trunks
at the Madras Gymkhana club. Nothing to conceal, everything to
declare, like a Mills & Boon hero. Shiver of ball and sack, acres
of hairy scrub. We could not imagine such freedom for
ourselves. To slice through chlorinated depths
with a little basket of dim sum on display.
We were girls. To open our legs
was treason. We held
our breath.

Holly Amos: I think that comedy works, you know, humor works that way a lot. Like it’s a way to, like, ease people in. Like, “I’m actually gonna say something really real, but I’m not sure if you’re ready for it yet.” So, you know, and yeah, I think if you titled your poem, “The Comeback of Speedos,” but didn’t have the shape, it would be a very different experience, you know, than seeing the shape, which made me think a lot about, you talk about kolams in your in your essay. Can you actually talk a little bit about that?

Tishani Doshi: Sure. So there is a tradition, and it’s in many parts of India, but where I’m from in the south, it’s called kolams. But in other places, it’s rangoli. And essentially, it’s the sort of patterns made from rice flour outside the threshold of the door. They’re supposed to be done daily, and they can be simple or intricate. But they’re freehand, and they’re just these beautiful geometric patterns, and they’re supposed to be auspicious for the house. I’ve also seen little ants, you know, picking at the little rice flour and going on their way, so there’s a there’s a form of sustenance in it. And they’re very sort of joyous. And I think there’s something very beautiful about the fact that it has to be repeated every day, because it’s temporary, and the shape begins in one way but then it gets all smeared about by the end of the day because people have walked over it and it’s sort of disintegrated. So it is a kind of repetitive process which I really love, and I link it to something that I heard Billy Collins talk about in a master class about the welcome mat, and the title of the poem as being a way to bring the reader into the poem. You know, I really love the idea of the poem as a house. The sense that it’s holding all these words, you know, the word for stanza is, you know, it means “room.” So this sense of guiding the reader through. And I was thinking about how the kolams were a way to bring people into the houses where I live. And what could that mean. Again, its shape, its geometry, its pattern, it’s ars poetica, it’s repeating everyday, come back, try to write a poem, you know. So I had all this in my head when I was, when I started with the essay.

Holly Amos: It made me actually wonder, were there any shape poems that you wrote where you started out with one shape, and then it, like, changed into something else for you?

Tishani Doshi: I started to write this poem. It’s called “I Carry My Uterus in a Small Suitcase.” And I remember trying to make the poem longer, and it just wouldn’t go longer. And then when I found the shape, which is a downward triangle or a yoni, I thought, “Oh, that’s it. That’s it. That’s my uterus, little small triangle poem. And it doesn’t need to be longer than it is.” And so in that sense, once I understood that it was going to go into shape, it didn’t need to be longer. So, but I don’t think—once I got the shape, I did manage to fit the poem in there.

Holly Amos: All of your writing that I’ve read is pretty sharply feminist. But I think especially the shape poems struck me that way. Can you talk a little bit about that? And I’m curious, too, just in the sort of tradition that you’ve been talking about—and I mean, that’s the tradition of poetry is pretty male heavy, at least in the Western canon that I’m familiar with. But so, it made me wonder, too, if like you writing into this tradition, like, are there other women that are touchstones for you? Or do you feel like you’re kind of bringing something new that’s been missing there at all?

Tishani Doshi: There’s a, there’s a huge tradition of women poets, and particularly sort of, I think, in the Bhakti tradition in India. So they were really sort of breaking all kinds of societal traditions and wandering and these oral poems that then got written down, you know, hundreds of years later, and people are still singing them. So, I mean, I don’t know that I connect myself with that tradition, necessarily, but I, I definitely draw from it as a source of power for myself. And I think that I’m very interested in the combination also of the sort of sensual poems, but are also quite erotic towards, I mean, they were speaking towards God, but I would also just say, oh, to the universe, or to something beyond us, you know, which is, which is also then bringing it back into us. But I think, in a way, the poems, so for example, the poem to Pliny the Elder, I had so much fun writing that poem. And it really was a way to kind of, again, jump time in some senses and just speak back to, to him, to his ideas about menstruation, while acknowledging that, you know, he was a pretty amazing person, and he did leave a wonderful body of knowledge. But I just felt like in my poem, I had this power to, to kind of not just say things to him, but also to offer him a menstrual cup. So that that kind of felt really good.

Holly Amos: I love it. Can you actually read that poem for us, please?

Tishani Doshi: Sure. So this poem is called “Advice for Pliny the Elder, Big Daddy of Mansplianers.” And it is in the shape of a menstrual cup. And the reason is because the poem is a rejoinder to Pliny who, in his Naturalis Historia, stated that menstrual blood was so dangerous that a mere drop could kill bees, that they could make, it could make seeds and gardens dry up and destroy whole fields, etcetera. And so I wanted to sort of talk back to Pliny, in a way. And by making the poem an offering. When it was translated into Italian, the shape of the poem slightly changed, and my Italian translator actually thought it was a volcano erupting. And for those of you who know the story of how Pliny met his death, hint, it involved going off to the erupting Vesuvius, then you can see that even the volcano erupting would be an apt shape or container for this poem. So this is “Advice for Pliny the Elder, Big Daddy of Mansplainers.”


Great Man, now that you are dead, allow me to squeeze your hand. The sage
bushes in Umbria are heavy with bees, so I’m killing them with hypnosis. I
am a mere woman—inferior lettuce—but I understand swoon aka mirabilia.
I fill this cup with nectar and offer it to soothe your Vesuvian wounds. I share
your love of baths and classification and sure, if we had to point to a god in the
sky, why not call him Thunderbolt? I too believe sewers are the great architectural
invention. I do all my searching on roads. It has been two thousand years so we
can forgive some of your assertions. The sea mouse who helps whales find their
way by parting the brows above their eyes. The one-eyed humans and Sciopods
with umbrella feet, the whole exotic bestiary. If I had no mouth but could live
off the smell of apples I’d move to Kashmir—scratch that, maybe Sussex.
Once a month, when the blood comes, I go out to lie in whatever field I
find to feel the scorch rise and the crops wither. Our powers are much
depleted. I can stand among men in full swing of my menstruus and
nothing will dim their ability to tell me about me. There are birds
at the window this morning I can’t name and dogs in the valley
beyond, who are using their bell-shaped lungs to announce
their happiness again and again and again. Nothing has
changed. We worry about the wane and winnow. In
your time perhaps the ladies used bits of cut-up
smocks but these days we have menstrual cups.
Desire is still a kind of ruin—that silly bird
fluttering against the window net,
trying to get in, the body’s steady
lilt toward oblivion. They say you
had a sister, like Shakespeare’s—
mostly overlooked. That it was she
who first noticed the smoky clouds
which sent you on your way. Dear
Pliny, I guess you never heard the
one about curiosity. The cat is real.
The earth never tires of giving
birth. If you get too close
to a volcano, you should
know it may erupt.


Holly Amos: That poem is incredible. It is so good. I, like, don’t even know what to ask you about it. It’s just amazing. I guess, you said that you were felt that you are offering Pliny a menstrual cup. And it does feel like an offering. But I’m curious, like, do you feel like, what do you get from writing that poem? Like, what does that poem do for you? Does it do anything for you?

Tishani Doshi: I mean, it’s just sort of, you know, I think I was reading it in the context of, you know, different times. So reading about what, what he had said about menstruation about how, you know, just the touch of a menstruating woman can make fields go barren, etcetera, etcetera. But it was also reading about things that were happening in India about the sort of temples, which didn’t allow menstruating, women of a menstruating age to enter. So if you were not menstruating, if you were a young girl, or if you were over, you were in menopause, you could go into this temple, and the idea was that there was this bachelor God who could not be tempted. And I was thinking about it. And there was a huge case about it in the Constitution trying to say, like, look, we should allow everybody into this temple. And I thought, isn’t it amazing that the onus has to fall upon the woman who is menstruating? And that like, this is supposed to be a God in the temple? Like, what, what is this balance of power? And why is it that we have to do so much explaining, you know, and we have to create this room for ourselves? So I just thought, well, 2000 years may have passed, but not that much has changed, essentially, because there are still all these very strange ideas about the power of this. And then I thought, well, you know, maybe there is a power, and is there a way to harness this power? And so I sort of tried to get into that, that idea of, what was the fear here? What is this fear that is put against women and because of their ability to menstruate. Usually what happens is sort of, you know, you hear something, but there’s often something contemporary that’s going on. And then you’re trying to, like, connect different times and different parts of the world. And the poem again becomes container in some form for all these ideas, you know?

Holly Amos: Yeah, it’s so complicated. There’s just like a lot happening. So yeah.

Tishani Doshi: Yeah, there is.

Holly Amos: It’s great. It’s wonderful that you’re

Tishani Doshi: Thanks.

Holly Amos: you’re like, able to actually organize all of that into a poem.

Tishani Doshi: Well, yeah, I mean, I just think, you know, I couldn’t tell you sort of, I mean, I’d be struggling to say where I left something, or what I did yesterday. I mean, I have trouble with very basic things, like we all do, I think. But I think sometimes with writing, what happens is that you’re, you’re trying to arrive somewhere, and you can’t know what that’s going to be. And that’s why it’s marvelous. Because when you write a poem, or when you write an essay, you’re just, you’re just struggling around in the dark, you’re just trying to touch something or get to something. And so when you do, it feels that you have a sense of resolution, or you’ve resolved something, at least for yourself, it may be complicated for other people, but you feel like you’ve managed to feel that sense of resolution, you know?

Holly Amos: Yeah, that’s great. I’m curious, then, Tishani, for our January podcast, our hope is that these episodes are sort of going to offer to listeners like a resource, an inspiration, to either start a writing practice or like, recommit to a writing practice. You it sounds like just from your body of work are sort of always creating. You’re not only a poet, you’re also a dancer, you’re a novelist, you’ve written several books. Can you tell us a little bit about what your writing practice is like? Is it super scheduled? Is it really, you know, when the mood strikes you? And like, are there any rituals that you do for yourself to sort of get into that creative space?

Tishani Doshi: Honestly, I haven’t written in so long, it’s so weird for me to talk about writing right now. I wish I were writing, I miss writing. I’m happiest when I’m writing. I think I feel a sense of real envy when I hear people talking about their struggles with writing and I think, “I want to be struggling, I want to be struggling.” (LAUGHS) I just want to feel something because right now, I’m in—you know, my feeling also is that a lot of the times, I’m not a person who writes daily. When I am deep in a work, I try to write daily, and my ritual is quite simple. I work in the morning. As the day progresses, I sort of slide off. So if I’m not making sense, it’s because it’s close to 9:00 in the evening and my brain has stopped working a long time ago. (LAUGHS)

Holly Amos: (LAUGHS)

Tishani Doshi: But I think what I try to do is, what is at the very basis of all my writing practice is that I need to be reading. So if I’m reading, I feel I have something that’s entering me. And that’s, that’s creating some kind of sense of excitement, or do you know, something that is going to make me want to then go and write. And of course, I don’t isolate forms. It could also be music, it could be film. But in general, I feel if I’m reading really wonderful poetry, I start to consider poetry, the forms, what it could do. And I like to, I think it’s interesting, I mean, I’ve talked about form in the sense of shape, but I also like to think of trying different poetic forms like a ghazal or a sonnet or, you know, a sestina. And I think sometimes those constraints or those little blocks scaffolding structures that we put around the words, give us a kind of freedom, or at least make us go in and in a direction that maybe we didn’t want to go. But yeah, there’s no, there’s no great secret. I think you have to give yourself the time and space. And if you can be regular about it, then that’s beneficial because you know that that’s your working hours and you just show up and hopefully one day, something will click.

Holly Amos: Thanks, Tishani. It makes me feel better. I totally expected you to have just like this huge, elaborate practice. It’s really impressive that you have so many books, (LAUGHS) that you’re creating so much. Can we hear your poem, “Tigress Hugs Manchurian Fir”?

Tishani Doshi: Sure, yeah, this poem is inspired by a photograph. It’s this most beautiful, gorgeous photograph, and I urge you to go and find it, taken by the photographer Sergey Gorshkov, and it is of a Siberian tiger hugging an ancient Manchurian fir tree. And so my poem is in the shape of the fir tree. You have to imagine the tiger hugging it.


“Tigress Hugs Manchurian Fir”

far north
the sun rises
and sinks in
the same spot. Insects
announced the apocalypse
and fog moves through all
the uncountable hours like a
bright gray scar. The forest is
awash in a dial of light more
luminiferous than a Canaletto. I
misuse the words forest, woodland,
, because I have never walked
alone through forest, woodland, jungle.
I say Canaletto because I long to be in a
place of light different from this place of light.
The days are bleak and I’ve forgotten how to dress.
I don’t believe you need to wear a loincloth to prove
your sincerity, or know how to sew your own lederhosen.
I begin my diaries with Chipko means to hug in Hindi.
And even though I know the history of the ecofeminist
embrace is fierce, not cute, it helps me understand the gap
between my life and the denuded hillside. There are remote
places in the world—Garhwal, Siberia—where trees are extracted
like teeth to make way for the king’s summer palace, for a sporting
goods company. With this new virus, hugging has been outlawed, so the
picture of you, dear tigress, has sustained me more than a triple-glazed room
in Yakutsk. If I had been sent to collect spring water and found myself in a
desert, I too would want to lie down in a pile of broken glass just to feel a
piece of my lung. We are asked to leave things to chance, but if the future
is really a slaughterhouse, then why not stake our territory?
Imagine saying to the tree: I’m cold and alone
and I need this small fire to burn
Imagine the tree replying:
come seedling, let’s dance.


Holly Amos: Such a beautiful poem. And yeah, I did look up that photograph. It’s incredible. It doesn’t look like a photograph. It looks like a painting.

Tishani Doshi: Yeah. And actually, there’s another photograph that also inspired—and, you know, Chipko was a kind of a movement in India. There’s beautiful pictures of these women in Garhwal hugging trees because they wanted to protect their trees. And so it’s a kind of ecofeminist movement. I mean, there were men in it as well. But it was predominantly women who led it. And they were the original tree huggers, I guess. And so there was these two images, again, of these, these women hugging the trees and then the tigress and it kind of comes together in the poem. So I guess, yeah, the brain works in funny ways with images and where it stores information. And poetry is a way of, you know, bringing things together.

Holly Amos: Yeah, it makes me feel too that because these poems have such a specific shape, they’re easier to remember in a way, and to hold, like you have given us the container, like you talk about all of the shapes that you see in India, like the lunchbox shape, and this is a container for the reader also to, like, be able to more easily take the contents of the poem along with us. So, thank you for that.


Holly Amos: Tashani, you talked about that, like you’re not writing right now. And I don’t know if this has ever come up for you, but I’ll speak for myself. I have not been writing for some time now. It’s been a while since I’ve really written with dedication. And I think a lot of people get to that point where maybe it’s been a while and you’re like, what if I’m just like letting this go? What if this is just a part of myself that I’m letting go? I’m gonna lean into, you know, the other things I do. And yeah, Tashani, you know, you’re a dancer, you write novels, too, you write prose. Has there ever been a time for you where you’ve been like, “I don’t know if I’m gonna come back to poetry”? And if so, you know, what, like, what came about that brought you to that next poem? Like, were there things that sort of pushed you back onto the poetry path?

Tishani Doshi: I just have to say, I don’t do that many things. So, you know, I appreciate, it’s wonderful to be praised in such a way but honestly, (LAUGHS) I mean, I’m teaching at the moment. So there’s a lot of energy that’s going out, which is, which is wonderful. I think—and I haven’t been dancing for a while so I also feel estranged from my body and that practice—poetry seems different to me, though. And I’ll try to say that without being, I don’t know what the word is, but it’s really a very core, fundamental part of my life and how I relate to the world. So I can’t imagine not writing poems. I can very easily imagine never writing another novel again. I mean, I’ve published two. And if I don’t, I think I’d be fine with it. And I don’t even have an idea. It doesn’t, it doesn’t bother me, doesn’t keep me up at night, you know that, “Oh, what am I going to write next?” But I’ve somehow never thought that about poetry, even in the periods when they’ve been no poems. I don’t know, it’s maybe you’re storing all these things, it’s a way of thinking about image, it’s a way of, I mean, metaphor, I can’t, I can’t imagine sort of not somehow finding my way back to poetry. And usually, there’s, I think the sort of, the pandemic was a big shock for me. I know a lot of people stopped writing during that time. But for me, it was this real big existential crisis of—and also a moment of wonder, of potency, of thinking, we’re all going through this together, and I needed to write into that. But if it wasn’t that there might be something else. So I never imagine a world without poetry. I just can’t, it just hasn’t happened. I don’t even want to contemplate it, it would be too terrible. I really, I can’t imagine it. (LAUGHING) Life would not be worth living. So, so I think I just sort of allow myself a lot of time and space. And to feel okay with having these various sort of periods when I’m not being productive and to be okay with that. And to, to know that even though I’m not producing, I’m still being sensitive, I’m still looking at the world, I’m still gathering, and that ultimately, all of this gathering will find its home in a poem. And I have to believe that because I really, really, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a poet and I need to have that.

Holly Amos: I love it. It makes sense too, right, like, sometimes in order to cook a meal, you have to go like forage the food. And so it’s okay, like you’re not, it’s not that you’re not a cook, you’re just doing the other things that are required to do it. It also made me wonder, Tishani, do you—this is gonna sound like such a stupid question in a way. But do you like writing poems? Like, does it feel good (LAUGHS) when you’re actually writing the poem? I know a lot of people, it doesn’t feel good. But I’m curious, the way you talk about it, I’m just curious what that feeling of the actual process when you’re in the writing mode, the full poem isn’t there yet?

Tishani Doshi: No, I love it. I love it. I love every stage of it. I love, I love when I know that I have the beginning of a poem, because then I know that there’s a possibility of a poem. So it’s like, aha, I have something, I have an image, I have a line, I have a title, I have something. It’s so exciting to me. I get very obsessive about it. And I just feel like I just want to stay in that world. And I think I don’t feel like that about other forms of writing. I would say that other forms of writing can be quite headache inducing, and can be quite stressful and getting confused. But I think with poetry, it’s, it’s not that I don’t, I don’t struggle, it’s not that it comes easily, it’s just that I just love the process. I love going down the winding alleys and getting lost. I like the drafting, I like—I just love being in the world of the poem. So you know, if I’m writing, it’s a happy thing. And if it means coming back day after day, and trying to edit and to release the poem, or to find the poem and do you know, I keep drafts, I keep multiple drafts, so that sometimes it’s interesting, especially if you haven’t written a while and you’re stuck, to go back to a poem that you’re fond of that you’ve written. And then to just see, where did that poem begin? Where do these crazy things start? How does the even, how did you even get an idea to do something like that? I feel like that about my own work, and I’m sure other people do. So if you have actually like a kind of archive, it’s almost like, do you know, a sense of seeing the progression or the arc, and you realize how messy the process is and it’s very rare that something just pops out. So you can see the directions it moves in and the jumps that you’re making, which seem kind of effortless maybe in the final poem, but then you realize what’s going on behind the scenes, so I think that’s a good practice.

Holly Amos: It sounds like you have a very healthy relationship with creation. I think a lot of people get so, like, hung up on the end product, you know, and yeah, it’s like the same advice, sort of, that you hear from everything. Like you have to love the process. And I heard something else recently that basically was saying, like, if you don’t like the process, make it fun. Figure out a way to make it more enjoyable. And, you know, I would imagine that yeah, getting obsessed with shape or getting obsessed with something else, getting obsessed with like, putting a joke in a poem or like, hiding little, you know, there’s all kinds of ways that you can entertain yourself or make the process more enjoyable. But I feel like, it sounds like you do that sort of either naturally or just by practice. I feel like people can learn, I can learn that from you, for sure. Tishani, thank you so much for spending your evening, my morning, who knows what time people will listen to this, but thank you so much. It’s been so lovely to talk with you. I’m super excited to go home and write a poem. So yeah, can we hear that prompt one more time, please?


Tishani Doshi: Yes, thank you, Holly, it’s been wonderful chatting with you. Here is my prompt.


Write a poem in the shape of a funeral urn, but try to infuse your poem with one of the nine rasas: the comic, the fearful, the violent, the erotic, the heroic, the tragic, the fantastic, the peaceful. Or better still, begin with one rasa, and by the end of the poem, leave us with another flavor on our tongue.


Holly Amos: Big thanks to Tishani Doshi. Doshi has published seven books of poetry and fiction, including her latest novel, Small Days and Nights. And her fourth poetry collection, which you heard some poems from today, is titled, A God at the Door. She is Visiting Associate Professor of Practice Literature and Creative Writing at New York University in Abu Dhabi. You can read the essay, “In Praise of Shape Poetry,” as well as two poems by Tishani Doshi and her writing prompt in the January 2023 issue of Poetry, in print and online. If you’re not a subscriber to Poetry magazine, use the code to receive a year-long subscription. And that’ll be just $35. That’s 11 book-length issues for just $35 if you use the code This show is produced by Rachel James. The music in the episode came from Resavoir, Alabaster DePlume, John McCowen, Rob Mazurek, and Irreversible Entanglements. That’s it for today. Until next time, be well, stay safe, keep writing, and thanks for listening.


For the month of January, we’re focusing on what keeps us writing. How do poets sustain their writing practices? Are there generative tips and tricks we can learn from them? Today, Holly Amos enlists the help of poet, writer, and dancer Tishani Doshi, whose essay in the December 2022 issue of Poetry is about shape or concrete poetry. Doshi lives in Tamil Nadu, India, and is joining us today from Abu Dhabi, where she is a New York University visiting associate professor. Doshi’s latest book of poetry is A God at the Door (Copper Canyon Press, 2021) and her latest novel is Small Days and Nights (W.W. Norton, 2020). Today, she offers listeners a wonderful writing prompt drawn from one of her favorite concrete poems, which, fascinatingly, is not technically a poem but the dedication that E.E. Cummings included in his book No Thanks.

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