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Monday 13 January 2020

A Dinner Party in the Home Counties: a poetry collection by Reshma Ruia

I am delighted to welcome Reshma Ruia as my first guest on the blog for 2020. I first came across Reshma’s writing in May we borrow your country (published Linen Press) and you can read more on this wonderful anthology in a previous post here. Reshma has now published her debut poetry collection A Dinner Party in the Home Counties (Skylark Publications) and has joined us today to talk about her writing …
Reshma Ruia:
Reshma is a published author and poet. Her first novel, ‘Something Black in the Lentil Soup’, was described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy.’ Her second novel manuscript, ‘A Mouthful of Silence,’ was shortlisted for the 2014 SI Leeds Literary Prize. Her short stories and poems have appeared in various British and International anthologies and magazines and commissioned for BBC Radio 4.  Her debut collection of poetry, ‘A Dinner Party in the Home Counties,’ won the 2019 Debut Word Masala Award. She has a PhD and Masters in Creative Writing from Manchester University, a Bachelor, and Masters Degree with Distinction from the London School of Economics. She worked as a development economist with the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Programme of the UN. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani-a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers. Born in India and brought up in Italy, her narrative portrays the inherent preoccupations of those who possess a multiple sense of belonging.
Q: How did you come to write this collection, and what do some of the poems mean to you?
I started my journey as a writer through poetry. My earliest memory is winning a UNESCO award at school for my poetry and the first prize was a trip to Paris. I can still remember that heady mixture of excitement and fear as I boarded the overnight train from Rome to Paris.  ‘A Dinner Party in the Home Counties’ has grown organically over the years. There have been digressions in terms of writing novels and short stories, but poetry has always been there, quietly ticking away, biding its time.
 These poems are about people travelling between worlds- geographical, cultural, and emotional. As such, they reflect my own hybrid identity, which straddles India, Italy and Britain. There are poems about letting go of old certainties, of hope and of betrayal and loss too. Identities are in a constant flux, being shaped and reshaped by an imperative to belong whether to a map or a feeling.
 The poems are personal in tone but will I hope resonate universally through their exploration of grief, loss, love and age. The poems are particularly relevant to our times when there is a growing sense of parochialism and hostility towards ‘the outsider.’ They will resonate with all those who have portable roots and are at home everywhere and nowhere.
The poems also portray the emotive minefield of relationships, questioning the ambiguity behind maternal or filial love. Society conditions us to love our parent or child or partner but my poems challenge this by describing the tug of war between a woman’s sense of self and the roles she is expected to play.
 I have dedicated the book to my father. I lost him last summer and some of the latter poems in the collection echo with his absence.
 Q: Could touch on the differences in the creative process (if there are any for you) in writing poetry versus fiction (I do love your short stories)?
 I seem to gravitate between the genres. Someone once said that people read poetry for emotion—not information and I believe this. When I write poetry, it is an attempt to arrive at some kind of understanding about what it means to inhabit this world and be human-flawed, imperfect, torn by tribal loyalties yet capable of astonishing kindness. There doesn’t need to be an obvious plot or narrative arc in poetry, there is fluidity instead and I am conscious of language, its tonality, texture and imagery. Some emotions and themes can only be captured in verse. It’s almost a visceral, an intangible tug at one’s core, at what makes us human, like mother’s milk-it’s a taste one never forgets.
Short stories need to be less condensed and more structured in terms of conflict and resolution. Pacing and resolution must be snappy and less open ended than poetry. As Frank O'Connor said, in a short story the crisis is the story. Yet in both genres, I try to capture the predicament of everyday people being at a crossroads, making choices that have far-reaching consequences.  

My thoughts on A Dinner Party in the Home Counties:
This whole collection was a joy from start to end. As a prose writer who loves poetry but often finds collections a little bit scary I found these poems incredibly accessible. Ruia's writing is fluid and lyrical, and I found narrative arcs within the poems and across the collection, which is divided into three sections to neatly present a beginning, middle and ending. Dare I say it but it was the prose that drew me into the poems here. There are many characters and voices, all with distinct stories to tell, often outsiders (for whatever reason) longing to belong or worse being made to belong, and I feel this is a collection I will continue to return to again and again. Ruia captures the thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams of both men and women. Her poems feature bored accountants, desperate mothers and echo how we are all trying to make sense of the world.
My copy is now jam-packed with yellow stickies where I marked up particular lines or stanzas I enjoyed. There really are too many to mention but I want to share some of my favourites as they perfectly illustrate the quality of the writing:
Class Reunion:
Her rose-tinted yesterdays that she ruled
like a queen have no echo in what she is today.
A woman greedy for a gilded past,
dancing in a room full of trick mirrors
that only knew how to lie.

This Could Only Be Lennon's Doing:
Imagine a day like no other.
The sky - a blue-skinned Krishna's belly.
Sun dripping its honey.

A Conversation With Sylvia Plath:
The clouds bleat heavy with rain.
The trick she tells me, is to balance while falling.
To stand still while burning quick.

And then there is this beautiful poem that I want to recite every day as it quietens my fears, bringing peace and calm into an uncertain world ... it could be a mantra for 2020.
(Note: I've aligned this centrally for the blog)
The Lord's Prayer:
Lord, grant me the quiet perfection 
of imperfect days.
The radiator breaking,
the kettle that won't sing,
the train leaving the platform just as I reach.
Lord, grant me sorrows that can be stilled
with toast and tea.
The sound of rain, washing a windowpane.
The world has had enough
of bullets and leaders barking blood,
women clutching babies as they sink.
The world has enough of peacocks.
Let the sparrows come out to preen.

[The Lord's Prayer is reproduced here with the permission of the author, Reshma Ruia]

I hope I've inspired you to share and enjoy A Dinner Party In The Home Counties, it really is a collection with something for all tastes in poetry.
May I also recommend you to read any of Reshma Ruia's short stories if you come across them. She really is a multi-talented writer and I am overawed by her ability to switch across poetry and prose.

And finally ... and most importantly here are some links to where you can buy your own copy of A Dinner Party in the Home Counties