A Ghost Is Not Scary: An Interview with Sneha Subramanian Kanta on Ghost Tracks

Dorothy Chan: Sneha, it’s such a pleasure to spend time with your gorgeous collection, Ghost Tracks. Many congratulations! I’m so excited to see this chapbook out in the world! It’s wonderful to be in touch and to discuss all things poetry today. 

Here’s my opening question: I always argue that the mark of a good poem is that its ending makes the reader go in a round—back to the beginning—serving as a closing volta. On a larger scale, I feel like collections are unified through voltas as well, in that that final line of the final poem of a book should take us back to the opening of the book. It’s a way for the reader to process everything in a full light. I think about how the final phrase of Ghost Tracks is “fragments turning whole” (from “We rise like wildflowers again the dimming light”), which then effectively takes me back to the opening line of the chapbook, “The birds have flown south. Gardenias blooming in the sky” (from “Fifteen Ways of Saying Hunger”). 

Could you talk about the ecology of this book, as well as how this ecological content works hand-in-hand with poetic devices, such as the volta? I also think a lot about how the book is unified.

Sneha Subramanian Kanta: Thank you for your vibrant, generous, and enthusiastic spirit, Dorothy. I’m glad to be in conversation with you about poetry and Ghost Tracks.

I’ve thought about the end of a poem as not just that— but a beginning from where one takes off. As a reader, there’s a practice I incorporate where I begin reading a poem from its supposed end, and then read upwards by each sentence. Ghost Tracks was conceived in Scotland, during my time as the Charles Wallace Fellow at The University of Stirling. There is a dimension of how space and vastness operate through ecology and landscape. I’m often thinking of how geography impacts us and how systemic dysfunctionalities may result in compromised safety in our conjunctions with landscape. When we place emphasis on the volta, for instance, it is about contrasting possibilities which exist within each fragment interlude. These are incorporated through leaps, and to me, these do not need to have an apparent connection. “Fifteen Ways of Saying Hunger” was one of the first poems I wrote, and I remember having written this particular poem soon after when I first arrived in Scotland. “We rise like wildflowers against the dimming light” is a title I borrowed from a line in my poem which is a part of an installation in a building situated at The University of Stirling. 

I like to think of identity in non-linear ways. When specific attention is placed on the volta, two functions interest me. The turns or leaps that the poetic device may bring through allows for a sense of place. This includes being rooted while you set out in exploration with a poem. I also tend to incorporate the functional aspect which inverts the expectation of narrative. For a book to be unified, the cohesive structure also necessities, including a range of experiences which do not necessarily have to be monolithic.

DC: Speaking of how Ghost Tracks is unified, I want to get to the root of this collection: the ghost. So many standout moments / images / scenes of ghosts exist in this chapbook. I’m obsessed with the line, “ghosts freckle silence” in “ghost with elegies of muscle.” I admire how ghosts are “walking through an infinite light” in “Everywhere, Ghosts—”. I keep thinking of moments in this collection where ghosts bring on further personifications of the natural world. 

How do you define the ghost(s) in this collection?

SSK: A ghost is not scary; nor does a ghost hold negative connotations as consumeristic ideas have been marketed to us, for instance, through horror films. There are multiple epistemologies to the words “ghost/ ghosts”. My idea and thought has been to explore those parts. These trace through landscape and people— when I say landscape, I refer to the thriving, bustling ecology of life forces, blurring the lines between what is assumed as living and non-living.

When in school, we had a chapter on J.C. Bose in the eighth grade. The end of the chapter has stuck with me. According to a metallurgy study, even metals have a life of their own and have shown to be sensitive to their space, with consciousness and memory. I’m saying all of this because of two primary reasons. The ghosts in my book aren’t lifeless. There’s always more to learn and know— and this new knowing would embrace over widening routes of our wildest imaginations and supposed beliefs.

I wanted to create a narrative that doesn’t equate ghosts to terror. We are often afraid of what we don’t understand, can’t easily fathom, or what does not tick into smooth boxes. In a similar strand, ghosts may also be myths lodged in the bodies of countries and people. For things and experiences which have no epistemologies, it is time to add our own epistemology. 

DC: Along the same lines, I think about how different cultures view ghosts differently. I think about how in Ghost Tracks, ghosts are given “circadian rhythm” and “circadian song.” They also hold prayers (“Ghosts in Empty Houses”). How do you connect the continuous symbolism of the ghosts to what’s human? I keep thinking about the ecological message we’re given from the very start.

SSK: I’m intrigued by how these interview questions are formulated, and how they may allow for an expansion in response. Since you do mention how different cultures view ghosts differently, I’m going to expand a bit more on that premise.

There has been a ritual I have practiced since an early age, of feeding birds. I’ll share an ancestral belief with you, Dorothy. The wisdom passed across generations in my family gathered that birds are one of the many ways in which our ancestors may come to visit us. The belief is that when we feed birds, we invite and feed not only our ancestors but also those of someone else.

As a young girl, I used to accompany my grandmother to a nook near our home in Juhu, Mumbai. There were a lot of butterflies in that part of the landscape in the city. A majority of them used to be injured and needed to be revitalized. I did not fully comprehend it then, but of the varied things my grandmother taught me, one of them included making houses out of cardboard boxes with areas to feed the butterflies and replenish their spirit. After days of care, when they were healed and had more energy, we released them through our balcony. As I infer and gather perspective, today, I realize how our balcony was a space where there was healing— and there’s so much in terms of language and association that all of us have to learn.

The connectivity of ghosts with ecology is vital. There have been several stories of how the dead come back to visit, or leave signs and signals. There are as many types of mourning and grief as many people and coasts. I don’t see the two ideas between life and death as being disparate or necessarily separate. 

DC: Sneha, I love how your chapbook has so many ars poetica moments. It’s lovely. For instance, when reading “ghost sationem” I especially fangirled over “tercets of ghosts.” I love the “duet of hymn & slumber” in “hayloft snow.” And oh gosh, this moment in “How to Refuse Capitulation”: “Crack open the duendes // of ghosts in your body.” Let’s talk more about the ars poetica and how it relates to your poetry.

SSK: Thank you for the tenderness and meditative close-reading, Dorothy. It is a gift. I absolutely love for you to look at these as ars poetica moments, and I’m glad you’ve brought it up. There has been further work I’ve felt called to put in and the poems from Ghost Tracks have grown into a full-length manuscript.

I was having a word with another writer the other day, and I remember telling her how in a world fraught with pigeonhole identities, I like, to borrow from Emily Dickinson, tell it slant.

The ghosts in Ghost Tracks move through spaces crowded and quiet. Which is to bring to attention that even in the most desolate, remote landscape there exists life and there is activity. It is true there is life here, but there’s life also beyond what we experience. The way land operates through ownership and colonial ideas is not of value here. The dwindle is ecology is also due to selfish ideologies of utilizing the environment for supposed gains rather than to build holistic communities. For instance, “Crack open the duendes / of ghosts in your body.” refers to what you are supposed to kept hidden, as a secret, and instead, how you make it visible but protected.

I’m interested in pluralities. This is relational to the ars poetica moments you speak of in my poems.

DC: I want to close with a question that emphasizes how your poetry comes alive on the page—and I mean really alive. Can you talk about what’s ANIMAL and WILD in your poetry? I simply love all the personification of the natural world that happens on your pages! 

SSK: Cognitive biology taught in school disregards the fact that “human beings” belong to Kingdom Animalia. This paves way to a knowing and an innate sense of correlation with landscape and life, and the animal references in my book. I bring attention to the climate collapse in more ways than one. The idea is knowing. The intention is transcendence. 

As for what I’d have to say for “wild”, there are tenets and divergences for the reader to discern and unravel. I’ll share a specific example. I’m a trained mountaineer and have had the blessing to reach many altitudes across the world. There is a silence pervading over the mountains, and it is so holy— you can hold it in both your palms, and you can hold it without ever wanting to own it.

As a woman who has lived a large part of her life in India, I’m expected as a stereotype to be subservient and measure the length and breadth of my words. There is an underlying fissure of what is expected of you. There is a connotation of these misogynistic propagations, and racism and violence are implanted in these unreal beliefs. I’m sure you see it— and it finds resistance in the magnificent ways in which you explore femininity, self-expression, and belonging in your poems. I’m looking for what is sought to be tamed to be untamed. This is as true for our landscape as much as ourselves— these extensions will allow for more love and unbridled burgeoning.

About Sneha Subramanian Kanta

Sneha Subramanian Kanta author photo

Sneha Subramanian Kanta is a writer from Canada. She is the recipient of the 2021 Robert Hayden Scholarship at Stockton University. She has been awarded the inaugural Vijay Nambisan Fellowship 2019. She was the Charles Wallace Fellow writer-in-residence (2019-20) at The University of Stirling. She is the author of the chapbook Ghost Tracks (Louisiana Literature Press, 2020). Her poems are forthcoming in Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Pleiades, The Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her poem was a finalist for the 2021 Frontier One Poem Prize. She is the founding editor of Parentheses Journal. Read more at www.snehasubramaniankanta.com.