“I have this urge to express all this pent-up emotion.”

Panna Naik

Naik pulls a copy of her “Collected Poems” off the Van Pelt-Dietrich shelf. Below: a poem from the book with English translation.

The Living Room
I reorganize my living room
asking each piece
where it would like to be placed.
I give a new spot to the sofa and the lamp,
change the drapes, and
replace the old rug with a wall-to-wall carpet.
The living room with its new décor
looks precise and proper.
When everything is thus in place
I begin to wonder!
where among these things
should I place myself?


Cataloguer, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
Length of service:
37 years
Other stuff:
Holds master's degrees in Gujarati and Sanskrit literature, library science and South Asian studies; taught Gujarati at Penn for 17 years.

Photo by Tommy Leonardi

Panna Naik, a cataloguer in Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, writes books of poetry that hold first prize from a state government, are required reading at her alma mater and have earned her a national reputation as a pioneering feminist poet.

Haven’t heard of her? That might be because all these accolades take place in Naik’s native country of India. She moved to the United States with her husband more than 40 years ago but remains relatively unknown here because she writes in her native tongue, the northwest Indian language Gujarati, and has not yet published any volumes in English.

Sitting on the top floor of Van Pelt, Naik talked about her career as an expatriate poet and the universal struggles of being a writer.

Q. When did you start writing poetry?
I’m a late bloomer. I always wanted to be a poet but I never wrote anything till 1972.

It has something to do with Philadelphia, I guess. Something happened here. I mean, [in Bombay] I had lived in an extended family of 25 people. and then when I came here all of a sudden I felt that I couldn’t relate to a lot of people, and I felt really lonely and isolated. I have this urge to express all this pent-up emotion.

And then once I heard Anne Sexton on television. I started reading her poems and somehow I could relate to her very much. I think she was in therapy at that time and that her therapist had told her to write, write without any inhibition. And I said, I have a lot to say, why don’t I try? And then I wrote a few poems and I showed them to a friend of mine. I told him, Don’t read these in front of me, please, take them home. And he took them home and immediately he called and he said, Oh my God, these are great poems, why don’t you write? And that’s it. That is one of the best days in my life.

Q. Why do you call yourself a feminist poet?
I wanted to write whatever I felt like, and I wanted to express myself in a male-dominated society. Before I started writing, there were poems about women [in Gujarati], but all written by men. So I wanted to write about women’s point of view and women’s sensitivity and sensibilities. And especially coming from an Indian background, there were some topics that were sort of taboo. People never talked about sex or menstruation or childlessness or man-woman relationships which had gone sour, things like that. And I knew a lot of women, and I wanted to give voice to those women, not just me. In that sense I’m a feminist.

Q. What are other issues you address in your writing?
How I view India, sitting here 10,000 miles away. I write about the United States because I’m an insider and I’m also an outsider. I write about nature. Some of these experiences one can never have sitting in India: falling snow or daffodils or cherry blossoms. These things are very exciting. I have written a lot of poems about my mother after my mother passed away.

Q. Do you have a writing routine?
I used to. I used to do it over the weekends, I would just get up, have my tea, turn off the telephone, and I would write till 11 or noon every Saturday, every Sunday. I’m not doing that any more. I wish I could go back to that.

I believe that one should write every day. Otherwise they become very rusty and you don’t know where to begin. Beginning is very, very hard, to just sit down and write. Inertia — I mean I always find other things to do. Always, always. Laundry, ironing, cooking, this, that, and at the back of mind I say, No, I should be doing this. Nobody’s going to remember whether I cleaned my house or that I fed people. This is very important. I know that. I just — I work under pressure.

Q. Have you tried to write poetry in English?
I have, but it doesn’t work. I’ve grown up with this language, I can express myself very well. I can’t do that well in English. I speak well, I think in English, I write in English, I have no problem. But when it comes to creative writing —

I’ve done some translations but a lot gets lost in translation. I am working on a bilingual edition of my work in Gujarati and English.

Q. What’s your biggest challenge in writing?
The short story form. It looks very easy; it’s very deceptive. I know what I want to say but sometimes I don’t know how to say. It’s like swimming. I know how to swim, intellectually. But when I go into the water I cannot swim. I cannot! It’s the same thing about the short story.

Q. Why is your second book of poetry called “Philadelphia”?
Every single poem is written in Philadelphia. I have not written a single poem in India or anywhere else. Something about this house, something about this city. I owe it to Philadelphia. Because sometimes when people say, Oh, do you think you’ll go back? I say, Listen, even if I go back, the creativity that this city has given me, where am I going to find that?


Originally published on May 3, 2001