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In conversation with Rochelle Potkar (Fictionist, Poet, Translator and Screenplay Writer)

About Rochelle Potkar

Rochelle Potkar is an alumna of Iowa’s International Writing Program (2015) and a Charles Wallace Writer’s fellow, at the University of Stirling (2017). She is the author of Four Degrees of Separation and Paper Asylum – shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020. Her poetry film Skirt was showcased on Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland. Her poems To Daraza won the 2018 Norton Girault Literary Prize UK, and The girl from Lal Bazaar was shortlisted at the Gregory O’ Donoghue International Poetry Prize, 2018.  

As a critic, Rochelle Potkar’s reviews have appeared in Wasafiri, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian LiteratureAsian Cha, and Chandrabhaga. Widely anthologized, she has read her poetry in India, Bali, Iowa, Macao, Stirling, Glasgow, Hongkong, Ukraine, Hungary, Bangladesh, and the Gold Coast, Australia. Her short story collection Bombay Hangovers was released in 2021. Co-author of The Coordinates of Us/ सर्व अंशांतून आपण – a bilingual cross-translation of English/Marathi poetry.

Her first screenplay ‘A Brown coat’ was a quarter-finalist at the Atlanta Film Festival Screenwriting competition 2020. 

In conversation with Team HWR

We interacted with her in FDC # 5 where she shared a lot of insights on writing and publishing in India. (You can also interact with more such literary guests in the next FDC session being held in April 2022. Know more and apply through this link: Himalayan First Draft Club)

Team HWR: As a writer-poet and a translator, your journey has been very interesting can you tell us a bit about your publishing journey?

Rochelle Potkar: From the poetry short story and the translation perspective I’m talking of publishing as well because you know we’re talking of creation plus public publication and especially for this group so uh you could singly publish your poems or your short stories that in itself is a journey and then when you have a collection of short stories or poetry or hybrid that becomes another journey because there you need publishers of a different kind.

In the first instance, you needed journals and magazines anthologies or prizes and in the second you needed either the big five publishers if they are ready to look at your manuscript or the independent publishers or even the smaller publishers. There are so many of them right so basically the journey is of two.

What I noticed in poetry, especially for those who are coming up with collections of poetry is that even if you have fifty percent of your manuscript in journals and magazines or have won prizes fifty percent of that it’s considered good. Simply because it means that your work has circulated, people know about you already. So, what it means subtly is that there will be more readers, rather than you being a rank new poet.

You may be a very good poet but no one has heard of you when you have this collection out. So, it would take some time to you know for somebody to review it or say something about it. It’s best if a few of your poems are in some journal or in contents. At least 50 as I’m thinking that’s a very good ratio.

Team HWR: You have an interesting journey as a writer too where you started writing while you were still in the corporate world and then decided to plunge into it full-time so what are your thoughts about the qualifications of a writer.

You know this debate that we constantly have in context to Indian publishing is whether a writer should have an MFA or should not have an MFA. Does it actually impact your chances of getting published or being chosen by a publisher what are your thoughts on that and what has been your experience on this?

Rochelle Potkar: I think this is an eternal debate and this will continue forever. It’s a good debate actually because the real debate is about whether you can be a self-learner or you need gurus to have organized learning. I am thinking of it that way. So, I believe in both.  But I’ll tell you when I came to writing I was a self-learner so even if you just have the hunger and the thirst to learn that’s enough.

That can actually offset any MFA program because what do people do in MFA programs also they are stoking your hunger and right to learn. They’re giving you assignments but only it’s in an organized fashion. Here it is self-learning which happens in a chaotic way. It’s like the chaos theory right you can learn from here and there and everywhere.

There’s a lot of fun in self-learning. The only thing is the journey is longer. I took a long time to learn the short story form. I made a lot of mistakes and stumbled to learn line breaks and free verse. Even free verse is supposed to be just free. It’s not like it has a rhythm or it has a line break. It has so many things.

It has a relationship with the space on the page. So, when you are self-learning you take a long time because no one is there to tell you or guide you as a mentor or to quickly tell you. You may have beta critique groups which might be your kind of peer mentors. Maybe that will work. But then all of you are on the same boat.

You don’t have a bigger mentor so you take longer to learn but I think if you have enough hunger and thirst every single day to last you, you don’t need a map or a program. You need MFA programs or organized learning only if you are a late bloomer. Or you are in a hurry or you’re very clueless. Maybe you tried self-learning but you feel inadequate. You feel, no I need a mentor. I need a guide. Then you should definitely try to go for them and they are expensive, most of them. But then I think no one ever came back saying that they regretted doing an MFA.

Moreover, the challenges are the same. I feel you go to the moon also you have to come back to the earth. So, you have to come back to your page, your research material, and your themes. You have to work with your plots and stories. No one is going to do the writing, rewriting, and editing for you. No one is going to do the evolution and the growth of your relationship with your art with you. They are going to give you the best tools but eventually, you would have to come back to earth and do your own work.

Only sometimes, I feel in an MFA program people get dwarfed with the literary giants. Sometimes you come across so much good work that you feel a little off. It could also be that sometimes and it can go. That backfiring impacts negatively. I heard much about it.  Somebody said I stopped writing because I thought what can I write. You know there are the giants here. I felt that was a very sad effect. Largely, no one really regrets an MFA program but I feel if you have self-learning, it also equips you well.

Also, enterprise! I’ll tell you this, there was a student from one of my workshops. She recently went to Glasgow University. She reached out to me and said, ‘I need your help.’

I said, ‘You’ve already reached somewhere.’

She: ‘No, I need some guidance on how to get into these journals how to go about it all.

So, this brought me to the second thing is that even if you go to the MFA programs or you may go to writing residencies, you still need a lot of enterprise to know how to figure your way even there.

You know, like it’s not over when you go to the moon. You now have to manage the craters. It’s not over anywhere.

Online Poetry Workshop with Rochelle Potkar

Click on the image given above to check out our Poetry Workshop!

In the workshop, you will learn:

  • To appreciate Haiku, Haibun, free verse poetry: themes, scape, and canvases
  • To learn techniques of link, shift and juxtaposition 
  • To concentrate on rhythm over rhyme, finding sound and music in words
  • To write and participate in a collective classroom critique – understanding the Art of Editing.

This two-day poetry course is for:

  • Poetry lovers who are keen to explore the art of writing meaningful poetry.
  • Prose writers who want to learn the technique of lyricism

Team HWR: We believe you recently got a literary agent to represent your works. How was the whole experience both before and after finding a literary agent and how did you go about it?

Rochelle Potkar: I think literary agents are not easy to come about and I say that only because of the forms I write in especially the poetry forms or even haibun. First of all, very few people know what a haibun is. I think Red River press is publishing poetry books by the dozens. Paper Asylum was published by Copper Coins. It was a haibun collection.

People are now opening up to publishing. The response is like she has a book by a big five publisher so yeah, now we are seeing something beautiful in this subculture but first people didn’t know. They didn’t think that haibun was even legit. People thought what is this. Some puritans thought what is this prose-poetry form.

They were like it can either be prose or poetry how can it be both. But now all these things are you know settling because now it’s becoming a very publishable medium. I feel that because of its hybridity, it’s going to stay because you have this story and the poetry. So, this form is going to stay.

Coming back to your question, as a poet and a writer it was a little difficult to find an agent because they all wanted novels. Novels mean business.

Rochelle Potkar

It was a little difficult because whenever I asked some of the agents they would be like give us a novel. But what if I want to write haibun! What if I want to write poetry. There’s also this whole debate of your creative instincts where you do want to follow any compulsion. You want to write what you want to write. You don’t want to be led by the market. You probably want to lead the market. You don’t want to be led all the time.

Finally, I found one who was ready to look at poetry. The Book Bakers, my literary agents, also look at short story collections. For a writer, the best part is that he’s supportive of it. Though it’s difficult to place poetry. Sometimes I feel you are your own agent if you are doing forms that are not very popular. It’s also fun being your own agent because you are learning how to agent it, how to represent yourself.

I am glad I managed to get an agent and The Book Bakers placed me with Vishwakarma publications. Even short stories are not a form that big publishers who publish short stories look for actively. But if you are within a certain theme and it matches their list then they do. It is not so all the time.

It’s a little bit of a lottery, a little bit of a land mine, a little bit of a labyrinth and you’re finding your way.

Rochelle Potkar

There is definitely much luck with novels but I didn’t want to be forced to write a novel. I’m writing one now but organically.

Team HWR: Do you feel that now publishing seems easier having an agent now that you have an agent than what it was when you were self-representing your work in the market?

Rochelle Potkar: Definitely, because now you don’t have to build that one railroad. Now, it’s already there you can simply send your manuscript to the agent and say, ‘Tell me what you think. Evaluate this and tell me where it goes.’

What I noticed is whether you are going to be big five published or independently published, you still have to market your book. You still have to do all that so even if your big publisher has contacts let’s say at a literary festival they’ll give you a slot because they all have that clout. Or maybe they will give you a bigger distribution than a smaller publisher. It still doesn’t mean that you can sit, and say Chalo ab hogaya.

You have to sell that many copies to continue to be on that list. What I noticed is that you are against celebrity bestsellers and a big pool of popular authors. You have to prove that you’re worthy. Worthy I’m saying in quote-unquote of that big publisher thing so it puts stress on everybody.

Everyone is a bit stressed with the marketing of their work. You cannot sit easily even with a big publisher. You have to see that a certain number of sales happens. Especially if you are a debutant. A big publisher published your work. That is when you realize Oh my God! It’s not even relaxing there. This you would say irrespective of genres you write in.

The pressure is there in terms of all three types of writing. Would you say that novel because it’s a more commercially acceptable category of writing? No! It depends on if it’s a small publisher and they come up with say 200 copies print run. Then you don’t have to worry much because I think 200 copies will get absorbed. You can reach out to your close near and dear ones to buy them. But say if you have a print run of thousand copies, somewhere at the back of your mind you know that inventory has to move. The worst fear for an author would be if the publisher says this has not sold can we pulp it?

Imagine thinking a book is going to get pulped at some time! You would have to make your infrastructure nevertheless your big published or small published. It’s only a matter of distribution then you know you get a bigger distribution map with a bigger publisher. They can see that you have to be at that bookshop having one book event.

So, you also have to plan that infra at the back and somewhere are working on the next title also. Along with the next thing that you want to do to promote your book. When I say pressure, it means I didn’t find much pressure in poetry but I think there might be a bit of pressure in novels in the sense 3000 copies are supposed to be the best seller.  3-0-0-0 copies only!

I think it all depends on the print run. You should try to get the least print run.

Team HWR: You were an alumnus of IOWA’s international writing program in 2015, and Charles Wallace Writer’s fellow at the University of Sterling in 2017 and you were also at the UEA Creative Writing India chapter. So please tell us how all these experiences helped you shape your writing and also how should a writer aim to participate in such scholarships. What should they expect when they are aiming for such recognition?

Rochelle Potkar: The experience of sitting at a large table, sharing our works getting it critiqued was a beautiful experience because I think this experience is unmatched. Of course, you get beta reading groups and critique circles. But sitting on a table physically and listening to your mentors like eminent novelist Amit Chaudhari and Booker prize nominee Romesh Gunesekera talk about writing at large is a different kind of experience. 

As a writer, you also gain some writer friends in these programs who stay for a lifetime. At the IOWA residency, we had had 35 other writers and poets coming from different corners of the world. You also learned a lot. When you read literature or hear literature or contemporary literature from different parts of the world I think there can be no better-accelerated process of understanding the world. You’re not listening to world news or world affairs but to poetry, which crosses so deep into the psyche of the culture around you.

Charles Wallace is more of a solo residency where you are on your own. But each one of them does what a residency should do.

They help you-

  • Dive deep into yourself
  • Find your inner voice, your inner music
  • Discover your truest part from where you write.
  • Tune out the noise
  • Excavate what you want, who you are and what you want

Writing is meditation. You need to connect with yourself to be able to do so freely.

To answer the second part of your question, applications to residencies are very lottery-like because there are so many people who apply every year, and all of them write well.

If you don’t get selected doesn’t mean you’re not a good writer. There are too many people so they search for a unique voice. How do you build a unique voice is how close you get to words and how often you write. Your own voice is your own words that you use. You have to say something extraordinary.

In fact, you know just recently I realized there are three kinds of voices-

  • There’s a voice which is the writer’s voice
  • There’s a voice which is a world view voice
  • And then, there is a when you’re writing a novel there’s something called the novel’s voice.

I always thought the novel’s voice is the author’s voice. It’s not the novel’s voice. It is the rhythm of the novel, the beast that in itself is so powerful. It’s a unique voice that roars for your attention.

If you don’t get into residencies don’t let that define you as a writer or a poet because not all are going to get the lottery all the time. It’s very dicey even I didn’t know I would be getting IOWA or Charles Wallace.

It definitely instills unprecedented levels of confidence in you as a writer because you get externally validated from big places. But you have to still come back to earth and do your work. You still have to research. You still have to rewrite that novel. You still have to go through the fine-tuning of every sentence. No one is going to do that for you so you come back but definitely come back with more conviction.

Residencies don’t define you as a writer or a poet because a poet or a writer makes festivals it’s not the other way around. Hold on to your self-belief and keep at it!

Rochelle Potkar

Team HWR: How do you look at social media as a device for book marketing or author branding and are there any tips that you would like to share with us?

Rochelle Potkar:  We authors are wearing so many hats. We don’t have an agent you’re an agent. If you don’t have a pr person and you can’t afford a PR person, you are your own PR. I think we are 10 people. I am trying to enjoy it all. I think you need to enjoy the promotion otherwise it becomes very distracting for the writer. The news feed is so noisy these days, either you are not going to get discovered or you’ll get discovered 100 years later.

Team HWR: All your work has been published by various publishing houses you know which includes small presses independent publishing houses and now as you said your recent short story collection was published by Vishwakarma. How has your experience been with all of them and what tips would you like to give to writers who are querying right now or might be doing this soon once they’re ready.

Rochelle Potkar: Just go about it. You’re going to have different publishers for poetry if you’re looking at India. If you’re looking at international for poetry it will be very difficult not because they won’t like your work but because the price the pricing will be in dollars on pounds. While you convert it here your book price will be very high and so people will not afford it so you will have that to deal with it. But if you are say an Asian American then it’s different. You can pitch your work to American publishers also.

However, having said that for poetry, for short stories it’s going to be a little different challenge because of the form. If you have the theme that a big publisher needs you to get it or if you can have an agent well, then it is all good.

Most importantly, if you concentrate on your craft and you know your craft right then I think everything else is going to be not so difficult. Get your manuscript in perfect order. That’s the weapon that’s the biggest weapon you have. Even if you get rejected there will be good rejections as in to say I get a lot of good rejections for my novels that make me feel happy rather than feel sad about a rejection.

Concentrate on your craft and continue making submissions. Submissions are not an emotional process. Make it an unemotional process so that the rejections don’t hurt you.

Team HWR: You’ve been writing across genres and have been published in all of them too so what would you advise a writer who wants to do this because publishing houses and PR firms usually don’t advise us to mix so many things or so many genres and categories. What has been your experience and what would you advise to someone who wants to do that?

Rochelle Potkar: I am very wild in that sense. I believe in going by your creative instinct. I feel your gut knows the future. No one knows the future no industry pundit can really predict or extrapolate the future. They might say this will happen in publishing that will happen in films but they really don’t know.  Today haibun is now becoming a form that is publishable and books are selling.  But I knew it since the day I started promoting this form. That was my gut.

I don’t believe that I should follow the market. I’m not gonna follow the market or the trends. I’ll follow my gut.  I’ll follow my nose. I’ll do whatever I want to do and explore all the themes I want to explore. Every idea has its time every story has its destiny it definitely comes.

Questions from the Audience

How did you get your poetry books published? Given that you have said it is difficult to get poetry published. Did your agent help you with that too?

Rochelle Potkar: I didn’t get my poetry published through an agent. I self-agented because that genre is very difficult to get through. I found Copper Coin on my own for Four degrees of separation. When I went to IOWA and i came back the publisher himself said that he’s interested in publishing my book. It was more like you went there so you might be of good quality.  The book was ready in 3 months. But yes, for the next book I had to work very hard.

Besides self-agenting your work, see that you have a lot of your work published in journals and magazines even if you’re getting rejected. You should always read a lot of good poetry. When you’re getting rejected look at it from a critical eye or an objective eye. If you can’t see for your own work, try having a group of poets who can who can critique your work.

We are constantly evolving as writers we are very blind to what we are doing or not doing. Many times, we think okay this is good. Then after a year, you realize that there are these gaps I didn’t see before.

Watch the full interview with Rochelle Potkar on our YouTube channel

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