The only video of my readings that I’ve seen so far and liked was shot by Sze Ying Goh at No Black Tie, Kuala Lumpur on April 1 2007. You can find this video in the ‘Narc Is I’ section of this blog.
In it, I am reading “Karna Considers Yuanfen”. This was the first of the poems that reimagine the Mahabharata’s Karna as a woman and alter-ego, juxtaposing the epic character with personal history. When I first wrote it, I was not sure — it is a prose poem, clunky with text, drenched in heavy imagery. I did not think it could translate to the stage. But I found, repeatedly, that it was among my most popular works, the kind in which the audience stays silent for a moment after it ends before they begin to clap.
Although there are other poems outside of this trilogy, “Karna Considers Yuanfen” leads into “Karna Considers Light” and “Karna and Kunti”, neither of which have been published before. The former is a rumination on the nature of Karna’s relationship to her omniscient, unattainable father, the god of the sun, the latter a more traditional retelling of her encounter with her unknown mother on the battlefield. In the first poem, the closing lines are engraved on a plaque in the crypt of the astronomer John Brashear; the second contains a phrase from Ainkurunuru 13 (trans. Ramanujan). I realise my poems and blog have niche audiences who are probably already familiar, but Yuanfen is the Chinese concept of the apportionment of love one is destined to have in one’s lifetime.
All three are published in the April issue of Kritya. Click on the “more poems by SM” link there to take you to the second and third.
Why is Karna a woman, and why have I chosen this character to explore biomythography? Because the story of Karna is the story of why art has any meaning to me. It was the first story I ever heard that devastated me, that taught me immediately of both the power and pathos of storytelling and shaped my moral universe as a very young child. Karna is my mythological archetype, and the deeper I delved into creating my own art, the more I wanted to appropriate this story in a way that was truly mine.