To read Megha Rao is to physically feel the agony, ecstasy, chaos, beauty, devastation and passion funnelled into her poetic confessions and endless metaphor. Her writing, sometimes stark and stripped of excesses, sometimes veering into the baroque, draws you in quickly, not just because of a skilful turn of phrase but because of its intrinsic vulnerability and profundity.
Teething, her latest book, released in December last year, is at its core a story about a dysfunctional family. It begins with a note left behind by a young boy who dies by suicide after being caught kissing the neighbour’s son before hopscotching in and out of the lives of the rest of his family, all broken in some way. The novel, written in free verse, unpacks a lot in its 80-odd pages: trauma, homophobia, abuse, fractured memory, sexuality, identity and unbelonging, among other things.
In a freewheeling interview with Mint, Rao—who is also an artist and performance poet—talks about this book, her relationship with the internet and how trauma triggered her art, a journey that continues till today.
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Can you tell me more about the genesis of Teething?
It started when I wrote this poem called Spoonerism a few years ago. I remember it being the only poem that both I and my audience loved. It usually doesn’t happen: My favourite poem would never be the same as theirs. Spoonerism was an anomaly that showed up after coming back home to Kerala from Mumbai (she spends her time between both places) after a stressful heartbreak. I was tired but feeling so energetic and hyper that day.
I remember reading the poem after I wrote it and thinking that there are characters in it—a brother, sister, father, mother. I told myself that I wanted to make a story with them. I found myself writing a lot of poems with those characters. I wanted to know their history, what they are afraid of, what and who they love.
I am the sort of person who writes from the end to the beginning; the first poem of Teething is the last poem I wrote. (laughs)
You have spoken about how the trauma of being bullied in college was how you started writing poetry, turning to it as a coping mechanism.
I had started writing at six—short stories mostly, and I even put together a comic book. But that was because I liked reading and wanted to create entertaining stuff too. Genuine passion, when you feel that this needs to be written, I can’t exist without it being written—I felt that only when I started writing poetry.
It happened sometime at the end of the second year of college, 2013 or ‘14, when I came across Sylvia Plath. Up until then, I didn’t understand poetry—Wordsworth and Keats and all were beautiful, I don’t think I got them. Everyone else in the class was so uncomfortable with Plath.
But I remember sitting there and thinking that I could relate to this, could feel it in my bones. I didn’t realise that you could be so confessional with writing.
I was dealing with a lot back then, and poetry became a medium to glue all the broken pieces together. It was both catharsis and this shield protecting me.
You have many followers of Instagram, people who relate to you. What do you think makes your poetry so relatable?
When I started writing about the personal and putting it out on Facebook and Instagram, random people read it. They started reaching out to me and said I was writing their life story.
That is when I realised that something so personal could be so universal. Why did all these people reach out to me—a stranger—telling me that I understood them completely? I was bleeding everywhere, and they could relate to that blood for some reason.
Everyone has different experiences, unique ones, but we are all human, after all.
There are a lot of writers who set off wanting to be relatable. I don’t do that; it kills art, I think. You have to tell your own story. Relatability will happen if you are honest.
I know being so active on social media helps you put out your poetry, an art form that has always been difficult to publish. But, on the other hand, it also means that your art almost becomes a brand of sorts, an extension of the persona you are projecting on social media. How does this baggage affect your art?
I am grateful for social media but am also careful with it. Social media helped someone with zero contacts—like me-- get access to a broad audience. Yes, it is hard to get published and find this audience. And we don’t know anymore who is reading books versus having poetry on social media where it becomes viral. So I am grateful for that.
However, I also understand the dangers of social media. I don’t think people should get swept away building their identities on it. It is a glamourous world with everyone pumping out what they are happy about. The influencer culture is scary.
As artists, we had always known when we entered this, your brand identity—that is what they call it—matters. You sometimes just slip into that, thinking that you have to do this to be an artist—you believe that you need to be the entire package. I make it a point to check in with myself and ask if I am doing something because I love poetry or am submitting to the attention economy? While social media has promoted art, it has also promoted the ambition to be seen, known and heard.
It is easy to be part of that attention economy and rat race, to tie it to your art to reach more people. However, I must constantly remind myself that I am not the hero in this. My work is the protagonist, and it should stay this way forever.
So what next for you? What are you currently working on?
I’m stepping back from social media and performance for a bit to focus on growing as an artist. To re-evaluate what it means to me to be one. Last year was grand for me—I did a podcast, did a lot of workshops, put out a poetry book with a big publisher (Teething) in the middle of the pandemic, travelled to different cities to promote my book, performed.
However, I realised that some of my more recent poetry isn’t brave. I have begun questioning my artistic integrity and am taking some time off to figure out what I want to do next. I want to keep writing forever, but I want to write about things I feel strongly about. I lost that fire and am in the process of regaining it.
I have a secret account on Tumblr (a blogging community platform) that I use. This gives me a safe space to create without being observed, without the baggage of all that I am and have created in the past. I’m trying to experiment with my poetry and work on my performance. I want it to be as raw as possible, as alive as it can be.
And yes, I am writing (prose) fiction. I’ve tried it before, but I have faith that I will finish this book. This is the first time I have written a total chapter-wise summary.
Teething by Megha Rao; published by HarperCollins; 88 pages; ₹299