Last week, the Gratiaen Trust announced their longlist for the Gratiaen Prize 2020, a prestigious award by the Gratiaen Trust that recognises and promotes creative writing and supports creative writers in developing their craft.
This year, one of the authors on the longlist, appearing for the first time, is Megan Dhakshini for her book of short poetry Softly We Fall. Dhakshini is a creative multidisciplinary who has delved into many industries including advertising, creative design, voice acting, and singing. She is also the Co-Founder of boutique creative ad agency, The Next Big Think.
Brunch chatted with Dhaskhini to find out more about Softly We Fall, short poetry, and how she as a multidisciplinary creative keeps it all going.
How does it feel to be on the long list for the Gratiaen Prize? How did getting longlisted come about?
It’s a very humbling experience and such an honour. Looking at some of the names on that list and knowing that they’re already accomplished writers, it’s amazing to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. The Gratiaen Prize is a very prestigious award and to have my work be considered for the longlist is just amazing.
I applied for the award. They call out for entries each year. I applied with the manuscript for my book Softly We Fall.
Some give in finished books, and some give in their manuscripts that have not yet been published. This is actually my third time applying, I applied previously with my first book Poison Apple. I was among 10 authors to make it to the longlist.
The next step is to see who is shortlisted; the shortlist should have five of us picked. The shortlist is being announced on 5 April through a Facebook Live event and five lucky winners will be announced that day. No one knows yet who’s been shortlisted – the lucky winner gets published.
You write in the genre of ‘short poetry’ with your first ‘short-poetry’ book being Poison Apple. What does ‘short-poetry’ mean exactly and what was Poison Apple about?
You would possibly have heard of names like Nikita Gill, Nayyirah Waheed, or this writer Yrsa Daley-Ward. All of them are international bestsellers who have published books that are predominantly one or two verse poems – collections of very short poetry that deals with a very specific feeling or emotion. They pick one thing and only write about that one minute thing.
My poetry falls into the same genre. It’s extremely short, sometimes even two lines though mostly it’s between four and six lines. This was because it was predominantly published on Instagram and that was the medium of getting it out that I composed it for so it was tailor-made to that medium. The feedback I got was that these short poems were getting to people better.
Short poetry doesn’t differ from poetry per se – there are many different forms of poetry. It’s still a poem, just very short.
Poison Apple was in this genre and was experimental at first, and grew into a collection after some friends read it and said it was scattered. I structured it into a poetry story with a beginning, a middle and an end. In Poison Apple, you follow this relationship, a very passionate love affair, and then you see how it ends. It’s all told in poem.
Tell us about Softly We Fall. What are the themes it covers? Is it related to Poison Apple?
So Softly We Fall kind of takes off from where Poison Apple left off, but is also a standalone book. It’s more about loss than the passionate love affair. It explores the varied emotions you feel after the end of an affair, the varied emotions you experience including love, loss, regret, hurt, and in some cases, even touches upon depression. It magnifies the very mundane occurrences that take place and explores the tiniest of emotional revelations. This is why I feel it will speak to anyone even if you’re not usually a poetry reader. You will find a verse in there that speaks directly to you because it’s something all of us have gone through.
What inspired you to start writing poetry? How did you get into it?
I was a big reader from my childhood, and I’ve been writing since my school days. I was the “Hallmark Girl” in school – I would write cards for other girls to give friends for their birthdays. There was also a batch magazine I used to edit. From about 13, I used to write things like short stories (though I seem to have lost the knack for that now). I write a lot for work, I’m predominantly a copywriter, so I’m constantly writing something.
With inspiration, I would say life is my biggest inspiration. Life happens, and my poetry is left as proof. My poetry was something that accidentally just sort of happened, I started writing poetry as a side thing, and it seemed to have a style of its own, something I could call my trademark, so I explored it more and stuck to it.
How do you build the environment you need to concentrate and write?
Funnily enough, I don’t do that. I know I should, but I don’t. Sometimes I write in the back of a cab on my phone, or while waiting for my daughter to finish a class. Sometimes I write at 3 a.m. and then can’t read what I’ve written when I wake up.
Many writers have a regime, but unfortunately, I don’t follow any such thing. If it’s something I have to do, I like to be left alone and have some sad Tamil music playing in the background. I can’t function without coffee, but I can’t say coffee goes hand-in-hand with my writing. Honestly, I’m not very organised, my writing just happens, and when it does happen I have to put it down.
What are your cardinal rules when it comes to writing poetry?
My first rule is I don’t force it, if it comes, it comes. Then I read and read and read. Not just poetry, in fact, I don’t read a lot of poetry. I look for some poetry online every now and then. I love my fiction and I love my childrens’ books. I’m a Potterhead and a big Neil Gaiman fan. I read stuff that is removed from what I write.
I also find that being creative in other ways also helps. I sing, and I am creative in other roundabout ways. I feel it fuels your ability. In general, I am what you call rasigai in Tamil. Loosely translated, it means I’m a romantic. I enjoy the beauty in almost anything. I always find and appreciate the little things in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s eating or watching a sunset. I find awe in every little thing, and this translates to my writing as well.
With writing itself, even though my poetry is very short, I rewrite and rewrite until I feel it’s perfect. I have this thing about my poetry needing to evoke an image. It has to conjure a vivid image in the reader’s mind when they are reading it, and I rewrite and edit till I am sure every poem can inspire this image in someone’s mind. For Softly We Fall, I started with about 110 poems, which I cut down to 73 in the end. I feel it’s important for you to reread and criticise your own work.
You are also a full-time creative with your own creative agency The Next Big Think. Tell us more about that, and how you keep your creative juices flowing through it all.
The Next Big Think is my “full-time part-time job”; my other job is as a voice over artist, at one radio station or another. The Next Big Think with my partner Dillai Joseph is basically two full-time mums with agency backgrounds who couldn’t do agency hours anymore. We cater to small niche clients and work directly with them on anything they need, from strategy to creative direction to executing creative campaigns.
It’s been about eight years since we started, and we work with different partners to make sure things run smoothly and the good thing about The Next Big Think is that our clients have become our friends. It’s a different experience from the traditional agency because we’re involved in watching our clients grow.
With staying inspired, I try to keep up to date with what’s happening around me. I am guilty of not doing this enough, in the same way I would if I were at a full-time agency, but it’s important to be observant of people and their behaviour because, in the end, if you’re marketing products to people for their use, you’re not going to sell if you don’t connect with them, trigger their emotions and speak to their threats. I’ve found that a lot of work that comes out now is very cold. You have to evoke emotions in people and that’s a commonality between my work and my poetry.
What have you got planned next?
I want to get into prose of some sort, or short stories and experiment with writing in some way, but I don’t think it will be anything like a novel. Stories don’t come to me as easily as poems do.
I’m a very unplanned person in general, I’m very “one day at a time”. I have goals yes, but I don’t put too much pressure on myself to get them done in a specific time frame, because I’m not someone who works very well under stress.