On Poetry & blending art forms with ami J. Sanghvi
Tell me about yourself Let's see...I’m 25 years old and a first-generation, Indian-American, queer author. All of my currently published work is poetry, though I write in other genres as well, like satire, critical theory, memoir, magical realism, etc. I’m a visual artist, mostly in the areas of photography and digital art, but I’m currently branching out. I’m also pursuing my M.F.A. degree in Creative Writing. I'm presently L.A.-based, and working on my next few books. I plan to release a minimum of four more before my 27th birthday in 14 months, so then I'll have an exciting 10 by 27! I also train in the mixed martial arts, and I've been painting a bit lately to blow off some extra steam between all the writing, digital art, and photography projects. My published books at this time are Amaranthine, Devolution, Armageddon, Silk & Cigars, Cerulean, and The Book of Soft, Sweet Nothings! Wow! That’s quite impressive, and what high and amazing goals you have. When did your writing journey begin, and what inspired you to first pick up the pen? Thank you so much for that! The commencement of my writing journey is actually a bit of a cliche, but I'm not ashamed of it. I believe I was around six or seven years old, and I'd just read my first Harry Potter book! Needless to say, the torch was lit. When I was a little kid, I definitely had more of an inclination for long-form fantasy fiction, non-fiction, and reporting (I actually thought I was going to be a journalist until I was around twenty years old). In middle school, the poetry reared its lovely head. That remained with me, and became my primary form. My fantasy also grew darker, and then somewhere in the whirlwind of early adulthood, I ended up being a poet, dark and/or queer magical realism fanatic, and cross-genre/experimental writer. Last year, satire and parody entered the frame, and I even wrote a first draft of my first novel in Summer 2019. Then, I started my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and the cross-genre/experimental nature of my work evolved.
Tell me more about your published works. Sure! Amaranthine (December 2018) is my debut. Unlike my other collections, it was in the works long before I started writing the poetry for it. It started for me as a visual art thing. I was honestly in that stage that follows like four major traumas too many, and trying to change my life while also struggling with my pain. That's when I discovered the word Amaranthine. It's an adjective with three major definitions: 1. Of a dark, purple-red color; 2. perpetually beautiful; 3. indestructible, immortal, eternal. As is my nature, I became obsessed with the word, the color, and what it meant for me. It also tied perfectly into my deep-rooted affinity for roses. So, with a plan of getting past the fear of others reading my work I self-published Amaranthine as a way to get my feet wet and also funnel out some of my pre-grad school work before commencing my M.F.A. degree, since I had years and years of work just sitting there gathering dust, and I'd also just overcome a post law school writer's block, which had the poetry essentially bleeding out. So, Amaranthine is the book about the aftermath of trauma, dealing with pain, and trying to stay strong and survive. Armageddon (April 2019), aka Book No. 3 (since I'd already caught the indie poetry bug by then), ended up being an accidental continuation of Amaranthine: a "cause" to Amaranthine's "effect." This is also the first time I published my poetry regarding John Milton, my favorite author and main inspiration. Book No. 2 was Devolution (April 2019), a dark, queer, poetic, old-world contemporary narrative inspired by Dante's Inferno and born as a result of my first NaNoWriMo in 2018. Silk & Cigars (Book No. 4), my official queer, femme, feminine, and feminist collection, followed Books 1-3 in October 2019. Since it was essentially drafted in the spring of 2019, I consider this the last of my pre-grad school collections.
Cerulean, released in March 2020, almost felt like a second Amaranthine in nature. It felt like a first, and it's the first one I used my own visual artwork for! The photograph on the cover is titled "Coffeeshop Wonderland," and I followed that up with more of my photography inside the book. This is another book that deals heavily with trauma, and it also gets into the really dark, uncomfortable parts of mental illness. I remember people being shocked when I told them this one is at least ten times darker than Amaranthine. The work I didn't put into Cerulean essentially bled over into Book. No. 6: The Book of Soft, Sweet Nothings (April 2020). Both of these books explore more styles, forms, and specific topics than the previous four do. They're also far more philosophical and existential in nature. That's definitely the direction I'm moving in currently with my creative work.
Excellent. What are you working on now?
I'm actually working on a handful of things currently! On the "currently writing" front, I'm primarily focused on my masters thesis. There are two different projects, and I'm supposed to decide on one by August. One is a critical/theoretical/memoir/lyric essay focusing on an almost-formulaic recipe for "happiness" (in more general terms) based on my past experiences with it, places in art, literature, academia, pop culture, etc. where it's considered in a manner worth analyzing, and more. It also explores joy and melancholy in different degrees as it may pertain to writers, artists, etc. The other project is actually also a cross-genre, experimental work playing with parafiction, poetry, letter writing, critical theory, the philosophy of language, and some major-world building. Think high fashion and Gossip Girl meets Dante meets queerness meets Faust meets extensive fantasy world-building meets existentialism, etc.
As far as editing goes, I am currently working on editing Books. 7., 8., and 11. While I'm keeping a certain air of mystery around these, I will say that Books 7. and 11. are born from the same two hour writing purge, and the prior is currently set to be released on July 24th of this year (my 26th birthday), and the latter on July 23rd, 2020, the day before my 27th. Furthermore, 7. and 8. are very involved with roses, and all three of these are experimental poetry collections involving my own art work for the cover images.
And, on the querying front... Well, I'm super new to this process, and essentially terrified, if you want the truth. I have a queer, femme fatale, magical realism, experimental short story collection I've recently started querying, kind of to get my feet wet. The major thing I'm about to send out to agents, however, is my first novel, satire, and major MMA-centered piece, Dickhead. It deals with some VERY delicate subject matter, so that makes querying it that much more terrifying. Wow. You’re a busy woman. So you’re getting your MFA? Tell me more on what getting the degree has been like. Haha yeah, I guess I do keep busy!
Well, up until starting my M.F.A., I actually had no prior, official creative writing education, and I'd only just had my first encounter with other authors a few months before starting my degree. In fact, I think my admissions process was the first time I had people who aren't my parents or very, very close friends reading my work. That was pretty terrifying, but I had no idea what I was in for!
To be frank, going from my year in law school to my masters at CalArts (aka the experimental art school) was a LEAP. I went from what is apparently called an "art world outsider" to an "insider" overnight, and it has been a RIDE. I've loved every single moment of it. I learn so much everyday, and am constantly challenged and inspired. Not only has my writing significantly evolved in my two semesters as an actual writing student, but I've grown so much as an academic, a thinker, and an artist as well. One of the really funny things about this experience is that my parents and I expected my art side to eat my "scholar" side along the way, but if anything, it's somehow made me more of both. It's even inspired me to push up my Ph.D. applications by a few years, because I'm just way too excited to wait. All in all, I've loved every minute of it. Life-changing, to say the least. What do you plan to pursue a Ph.D. in? That's actually the really funny part of it... I'm still not entirely sure! From the time I was 7, I was confident I'd pursue my Ph.D. in English Literature. By my twentieth birthday, I already knew where I'd specialize, and even had a general list of schools to consider! Then, I came to CalArts and realized there might actually be other degrees better suited for me! I've spoken to a few of my professors, and they've all been of the opinion that my true love of English Literature may not mean there aren't other degrees I should consider. Apparently there's a certain irony to how this works, where literature-centered people end up pursuing literature under other degrees, and people centered in other areas end up pursuing these under a literature doctorate program! As of right now, I've already ruled out Comparative Literature for myself, and I let my fantasy of pursuing the Classics go a long time ago. The main ones I'm considering, with plenty of encouragement from my professors, are Philosophy, Art Theory, and degrees that combine the two. I plan to include literature in my thesis either way. The end game is the same, though: becoming a professor-artist hybrid when it's all over!
That’s great. Talk to me about writing poetry. What do you consider the core elements to poetry writing? I'm not sure anyone's ever asked me that before! That's a great question, and I'm already excited to try and answer it. Something I've learned in the past year of my life is that poetry takes so many different shapes and forms. From school, I also learned a bit about the "materiality" of it, which is something I constantly rant to my mom about every time we videochat (sorry Mom). In other words, I'm realizing how much more complex poetry is than I ever knew before, despite years of pouring over classical verse and absorbing its many whims and ways. This complexity definitely makes it tricky to condense into a single genre. The one thing that appears consistent across the board, however, is that relationship with ones self it not only requires, but essentially demands from those who write it. This means that we must grow along the way, and the depths of it varies... but that leaves a few core elements, which I'd say are keen observation, honesty with oneself, the determination to reach deeper and deeper each time despite knowing what it might do to you, and the courage to speak in the face of adversity... A lesson I very much learned from Book No. 4, Silk & Cigars, every step of the way.
That’s such an interesting way of looking at it. We talked about poetry writing, but talk to me about how you go about putting together a collection of poetry and publishing, and how your mediums have added to its?
Yes, totally! I'm definitely very controlling about my poetry, which is why I self-publish it for the most part. I don't think I really realize I'm writing collections while I'm writing them... I just tend to have certain obsessions which take up my brain for a few weeks, sometimes a few
months (Amaranthine was the only obsession I had that lasted over a year). Then at some point, either immediately before the obsession is about to flicker out, or else right after I'm done writing what will probably be the last poem for it, I discover the relationship between everything, and usually my heart already knows the theme and title of the collection before I do. After that, I decide whether I want my art to be apart of the collection. If so, it's unlikely I'll use any stock images anywhere in the book. If not, then I just remove myself as a visual artist for a bit (outside of compiling the cover). So, I draft a few versions of a potential cover, and then I go into the editing phase. This is almost where 50% of the writing occurs; I tend to expand my poems while editing them lately, so usually my page count increases by a good 30-40 pages in the first editing stage. Then I take this version into the desired sizing dimensions after beginning to set it up on Amazon KDP. From here, it goes through a final content edit. Then, I transform one into a print manuscript and one into a Kindle copy, upload these to Amazon, and make adjustments as necessary based on the previews. For some reason, every part of publishing is just as much apart of the process for me as writing the actual poetry is. I don't have this relationship with my other genres, which is why I'm comfortable querying that work, but not my poetry. Actually, since we're on the topic, I do want people to know that I'm working on some resources based on what I've learned along the way so that others can also self-publish their poetry with ease without having to do the trial and error process from scratch. Why make other people go through that entire, grueling process when I can share what I've learned from my mistakes instead?
As far as my other mediums go... Amaranthine was the first time poetry evolved from my visual art inspirations. Now, when my visual art and poetry do go together, in tends to be a process that occurs unintentionally, like with Cerulean. I don't realize the connections until later on. Furthermore, the more I've been studying performance in school and taking a personal interest in it, the more it leaks into my poems. Cerulean and The Book of Soft, Sweet Nothings both have plenty of content that could easily be performed.
It sounds like inspiration and the artistic spirit really drive these projects. And that’s so great about the resources. If you give me links, I will share at the end of the article.
So you are very diverse artistically, both with the types of art you do and being a cross genre author. What are some of the benefits to having such a wide stage to perform on, and what are some of the challenges?
The benefits... Well, it never gets boring! Between multiple writing, visual art, and performative projects, I always have something to do in each separate genre for when I have a block on a specific project, but not the area itself. Additionally, when I get burnt out from writing, photography, etc., I have something else I can turn to so I'm still getting the creative energy out in a focused way. I can't really just sit on the energy without snapping, so it's great to have multiple outlets. It's also really wonderful when I find these art forms merging into one another; it opens entirely new avenues for me, and it always feels like they can go anywhere if I just let them! As for the cons, well... Things can definitely get chaotic and overwhelming. It's sometimes difficult to know where one thing starts and another ends. Allocating my efforts to the right medium(s) can get tricky, my thoughts are often scattered, and I honestly don't get much downtime. Balance is a difficult thing to strike, and since I let my work lead me wherever, I sometimes find myself pulled in too many directions, stretched too thin, as they say. At the end of the day, however, I like to think that the benefits outweigh the negatives. No one ever said being a writer or an artist would be easy, and if it was, I'm not sure I'd find it so enticing anyways!
We've talked about a lot of your diversity in your art, but you also personally have a lot of diversity in yourself--being an Indian American and queer as well. How do you feel like this impacts your art? In one way, my heritage and queerness of course impact my art because they effect my perception, identity, and way of moving through the world. That's the obvious, simple answer. On the other hand, I'm actually surprised by how little my heritage and culture show up in most of my work. I think, growing up, there wasn't much room for me to write about those things... Something I hope today's kids and teenagers won't be saying in another ten to twenty years like I am today. Therefore, in recent times, I feel like I keep special projects and pieces where I delve into my brownness, my ancestors, my culture, etc. This is still so new to me, and so I'm still learning how to write poetry in this area. However, "own voices" plays a major role in my fiction, where you'll always find at least one queer, Indian-American woman throughout the text. My queerness, meanwhile... well, it shows up in just about everything I touch. I think it's been such a huge part of me since I was so young that it manifests in just about everything I create. There's so much love and respect for all things female, feminine, and feminist in my work. I'm not sure I've ever had a male main character or drawn a man in my life. Everything I write and draw leans female, femme, or nonbinary for sure. All my female characters tend to take on some aspect of queerness. Every woman I draw or write about, even if she's some kind of a mythological beast or something, is still beautiful and majestic. Everything I touch also seems to have lipstick and/or eyeliner on it. Thank you so much for opening up on that. Your art sounds so personal, as it should be. Do you think there is anything that keeps yourself or just people in general for fully expressing themselves authentically in their creativity? If so, how can those challenges be addressed?
I think there are two major things that impact this freedom to express oneself "authentically in their creativity," as you so eloquently put it. One is this entire discussion around what makes "good art." This changes over time, so while a lot of the authors, artists, etc. I take my inspiration from loved elaborate, often rhyming language in poetry, classical beauty in aesthetic, and realism in visual art, modern-day creators and critics consider these to be the makings of "bad art." There's also a vice versa scenario here, but the point is that current art trends definitely apply a certain pressure on creators, as does the marketability of a product in what is undeniably a capitalist society. Something else is this idea of "cancel culture." I definitely believe it has some merit because hate and ignorance should never be tolerated. However, someone who is a forward or experimental thinker could very much get dragged because they've come into something others haven't yet, or else had the courage to grapple with something terribly controversial which can be purely progressive in nature, yet deeply misunderstood. I think we've reached a new level of societal pressure, and that's very difficult. I've been very uncomfortable with some of my work because "it goes there" (Degrassi, anyone?), and it's taken an insane amount of encouragement from my professors and confidants to even consider moving forward with some of this work because I'm terrified it'll be misinterpreted. For example, my novel, Dickhead, primarily stems from the point of view and perspective of what I'll happily describe as the worst human being EVER. I am horrified by the things I wrote as this narrator and character, but they delve into our really messed up reality as a misogynistic society right now and that's important. My fourth collection, Silk & Cigars, was also a tough one because I spoke up on issues like femmephobia, femme-erasure, misogynistic women, etc. I almost didn't publish it, and I can't tell you how many times I've nearly pulled it off Amazon in a state of 1 AM panic. Sometimes people aren't ready to hear things yet, and artists suffer for that majorly. The best way to address these issues is to keep on creating, keep on being honest with ourselves., and continue supporting each other. Creatives have always been on the front lines of progressive change, and often that means fighting for our work and our truths. An uphill but absolutely worthwhile battle.
Oh goodness, I love that so much. It's very inspiring for me, who strives and desires to put diversity and 'go there' with my literature as well--even though I'm quite the opposite of diverse personally and I'm worried-as you said-about not getting it right. I think you offer great insight, you are clearly very knowledgeable and that your work is destined to touch a lot of lives. I can't thank you enough for sharing this with me.
I'm seriously so glad you found that inspiring. I think we should all respond to genuinely good intentions more positively, and help each other along. Mistakes may be made, but as long as they're honest ones, I think many of us are so capable of improving as needed. No one's perfect, and we're all still learning! That's what life is all about. And my goodness, thank you so much for those beautiful words about me and my work. It means a lot. You're welcome. I meant every word. I only have two questions left, that I ask all my writers. First, what is one random fact about you? The sillier, the better.
Haha! One random fact... Hmm. Not only do I love the Bee Gees, but sometimes I turn into, like.... All of them... Like every single "Bee Gee"... At once... I kind of aspire to walk around with a bucket of paint like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. It's very embarrassing, and all I hope for in this lifetime is that no one ever witnesses it.
I think that’s awesome! Last question, if you could only give one piece of advice to writers, what would it be? Haha, thank you! I hope my crush never finds out about it! Hmm, one piece of advice...
Just write. Write, write, write! Don't worry about how good it is, don't stress too much about where it's going, don't focus on whether you're writing enough or too much, don't even consider whether anyone else will like it. Just write. Write your truth, and don't be afraid to immerse yourself in it. Don't be afraid to be angry, insane, bloody, or shameless. Sometimes that's just how it goes! Patience, passion, mind, heart, and soul are all you need. The rest will fall into place when the time is right. Until then, don't let anyone stop you. Just write.
I love that so much I might hang it on my wall! Thank you again for your time.
More about Ami: