Art Heals All Wounds is a podcast hosted by our friend Pam Uzzell. We wanted to drop one of her lovely conversations into our Reframeables feed because number one, we feel connected to her by our shared love of art and its reframing power, and number two, we want to amplify the work that she’s doing to share all of that art love. Her conversation with poet Preeti Vangani is a lovely meditation on mothers, loss, and the ref power of poetry to heal. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did. Give Art Heals All Wounds a follow to check out the amazing variety of arts-focused conversations that Pam has had — yet another opportunity to practice more of that socially conscious self-help that we value here on Reframeables.
Welcome to another episode of Art Heals All Wounds. I’m your host Pam Uzzell. On this show, we meet artists transforming lives with their work.
For all of my adult life, my mom called me just to say hi, see how I was doing — you know, just the normal mom stuff. If she didn’t call me, then it was an unwritten rule that I would call her, at the very least once a week. We’d chat on the phone, thirty, forty-five minutes. Before I hung up, my mom would always say, “Here, let me let you say hello to your dad.” My dad would then get on the phone and go, “Hey there. How are you?”
“I’m good, Dad.”
“Good. Good. Well, I’ll let you go, and get an update from your mom about all your news. Love you.”
Then one day, my dad called to tell me that my mother was in the hospital and that I’d better come quick if I wanted to say goodbye. I remember the first time I called my dad after my mom passed away. I just wanted to check on him and also to hear his voice. It was so awkward. When my dad hung up, he asked me to keep in touch. What did he mean by that? Of course I would keep in touch. He was my dad! But I realized that we really didn’t have a practice of keeping in touch, because my mom had always done that for us. Over time, my dad and I have found our way. The poem Dinner Conversations by Preeti Vangani puts into words the seismic shift in dynamics that can happen with the loss of a family member. Preeti’s poem paints the scene of the first meal between her father and herself after her mother’s funeral. The ache and discomfort around the hole in their family is palpable and describes the way in which loss of this kind can shift the ground beneath our feet.
You’re listening to Art Heals All Wounds. Listen, and let us inspire you. Preeti Vangani is an Indian writer, poet, and educator born and raised in Mumbai. She left a marketing career to get her MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco. Preeti has been published extensively in journals and magazines, and she’s the author of Mother Tongue Apologize from RLFPA Editions. Her work covers themes of family, sexual politics, and the body. Her poems can have you tearing up one moment, then laughing the next, as can a conversation with her. If you meet her or see her read, you won’t be surprised to learn that she’s tried her hand at stand-up comedy, as well as writing poetry. Juxtaposition of seemingly disparate feelings and occupations seems to suit her, and her work is always sharp and surprising. After reading her poems, I knew I wanted to learn more about Preeti’s story and follow her work. I’m so glad she agreed to join me on this episode of Art Heals All Wounds to talk about the themes of family in her poems.
Hi Preeti. Thank you so much for being on this episode of Art Heals All Wounds. Can you start by introducing yourself, telling us who you are and what you do?
For sure. Thank you so much for having me, Pam. I feel so fortunate to be here. My name is Preeti Vangani. I was born and raised in the city of Mumbai, and I moved to the United States of America in 2016, and I moved here to the city of San Francisco to actually pursue an MFA in creative writing, prior to which I was working in Bombay as a marketing professional for over eight years at the back of a postgraduate degree in marketing. My background is in commerce and economics, but I think since I was in primary school, I had a big inkling to be onstage. I didn’t know what shape or form it would take, but I knew that if there was anything happening in school that involved being on stage, whether I was skilled at it or not, I wanted to be there.
So, growing up, we had this thing in school called a fancy dress competition where you put on a costume (much like you do on Halloween), but you’d write a speech around it and then you’re judged on your costume and speech. And then, you know, prizes are given out. And I won that a whole lot. Thanks to my mother. And my mother was like always my, you know, my brightest, my strongest cheerleader in terms of making things happen for me. And she used to put out these elaborate costumes and I used to do this, you know, writing with my limited auditory skills, I guess. And it used to give me such a thrill. And I think as I grew up, I took to dramatics and I started, you know, learning improv. I did a little bit of standup comedy when I started working and I couldn’t yet still quite figure out, you know, what performing art meant for me. I love writing, I love acting, but I also absolutely love the culmination of writing and performing on stage. And I got like a sort of big outburst in experimenting in that, in the two ideas that I liked the most in 2014, when the subculture of spoken word poetry started becoming more prominent in India and the same venues that I used to do open mics at for poetry were actually venues for comedy. So I kept, you know, navigating the lines of both these forms a whole lot, and I realized that poets don’t get heckled half as much as stand-up comics do.
So I guess I decided to, you know, go full steam and do writing poetry. And I think I was writing a whole lot out of impulse, and I didn’t quite know in the ecosystem that I was growing up in, in the decade that, you know, I took to becoming a marketing professional, that there were actually academic outlets where you could work on your craft, and a friend of mine introduced me to the idea of doing an MFA, which got me here. And then slowly I started getting out of my comfort zone of writing spoken word poems to, you know, poems that also work on the page. In my mind, when I’m reading them out loud, I see very little difference between what works on the page and the stage. You know, I think I’ve come to look at it in a more comprehensive way than a siloed way. And that is really how, you know, I’m starting to build my foundation as an artist. I love poetry, I love oratory, I love acting, and therefore my dream for myself is to do something or everything that can happen or blossom at the intersection of these three spaces.
Hmm, that’s fascinating because that just really filled in some questions I had reading your biography and reading some of your poems. I don’t think I knew… maybe I knew you’d done a little bit of standup, but not to that extent. You introduce yourself in a way that’s very funny on your website, which I really enjoyed. It’s not your standard bio and it’s very much a way for people to get a taste of who you are, maybe, but it also isn’t exactly like your poems, because there’s a lot in your poems which are not comedic. They’re very… I don’t know, for me, a lot of them just really reached in and sort of grabbed me — like, oh my gosh, this is such a poignant and painful topic that we’re exploring. So I love that these are both parts of your background and it really brings out the complexity of who you are. I also think it must have felt… did it feel scary to leave marketing and to come to a different country and to pursue an MFA in creative writing?
Yeah, it was very much like getting grief. So, you know, there was the excitement of moving to a new space and, you know, beginning to live on my own. I come from a rather conservative environment, my family are, you know, very conservative and tight-knit at the same time. So it was my first time beginning to live alone and also giving up, you know, the security and the stability of good money that, you know, that I had come to make on my own. But I think I knew I needed to carve time out for myself because I think through these poems (although, you know, my life was rooted in some kind of comedy and under the label of a hobby artist), I knew I needed sustained clean amount of time to work through what was happening underneath the spoken word poems. And I think I was processing the grief of losing my mother. I lost my mother when I was 22, and she was 44 when she passed away. And the timing of it, I think everything was so uncannily close in the way that… the night I graduated from business school, my mother passed away, and I did jump into, you know, beginning my life as a working professional. And the way we get through our education system, it’s so meritocratic and also, you know, bureaucracy of the workplace, all of these coming together — there’s always been a spirit in me that says that I need to show myself as the best version possible.
And you know, it often gets nomenclatured as ambitious, but all to say that it was a process of grief, having to unlearn what ambition means or what success means. There was a lot of heartburn on the part of my family as well, and I think I often give them a very bad rep, you know, given their conservative values. But I think it was really hard for my father to see me go, because I’m the only child and he couldn’t quite understand being, you know, a businessman all his life — why I would give up a life that’s rooted in such, you know, top-level stability to pursue something that seems obviously commercially a flop idea. But I think he was also worried that emotionally I am unstable and I haven’t quite found an even ground to work with my mother’s loss — and he cannot articulate it. I don’t think even I can articulate it correctly, given how non-confrontational our lives were at the time, and still are. So I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain how hard it was, but I remember sitting in the plane feeling just grief at my side, a whole lot of that. And then I think once I immersed myself in the program, the joys of finding new friends, finding all these fantastic professors and, you know, new books to read, it was like being born again. And I wouldn’t change anything about it.
Well, that’s sort of leading me to my next question. You brought up this idea that you needed to work through some things that were beneath the spoken word poetry that you’re doing. And I am wondering what are some of the themes in your work that you feel address some of those things that you’re working through?
Yeah. I think loss is, definitely — loss and grief are. You know, they go hand in hand — are definitely one of the dominant threads in my book. And I think before my MFA program, I was working through a lot of grief and loss without understanding it was that, through the lens of nostalgia. So I was writing a lot into childhood without realizing that what I’m missing is actually my mother, not, you know, some day that I was sitting in my summer holidays with her — and all of that is a part of something bigger. But as I started working through grief, you know, of course the mother figure is absent, but I also realized that my mother was a very young woman and the way women are treated within the medical system, within the patriarchal marriage system, within, you know, within society itself — like my own aunts and my mother’s own quote-unquote friends, you know, the things they would say about her when she was ill, the amount of ignorance that is about — my mother passed away to breast cancer, and the amount of social taboos that that comes with.
I remember my mother not, you know, wanting to go out for a walk because she didn’t want to be seen by too many people in a wig. And all of these are also secondhand stories and they come to me, you know, through some kind of oral history generated by my dad or my grandmother, because I was not there for the two years that my mother was ill. You know what my first book is about, primarily, is that she is not in my life now, but I was not in her life for the two years that she went through, you know, very serious, bout of cancer that proved terminal very, very quickly. I was away at business school getting my master’s degree, and so there are these twin absences that keep coming up. There’s guilt, and there is loss, and, you know, they keep talking to each other a whole lot.
I think that that can really sum up a lot of people’s experiences with the loss of a parent — guilt and absence and grief, they’re so… and exactly what you talked about, this feeling of someone leaving before you’re prepared for them to leave, and looking back and feeling like you didn’t have the time with them that you wanted before that end. I can definitely relate to that. Are there any other themes that you explore in your work? Because just reading through it, you can name a handful in a lot of those poems.
Yeah, I think about the body and sex a whole lot. I also think a lot about, you know, I was talking about the way women are treated, and I come from a country where rape is a constant and expanding problem. And the fact is that, you know, especially women who get to report rape even are a very privileged lot, there are a lot of numbers that go unreported. So I think about, you know, the idea of seduction, the idea of togetherness and marriage, but also the idea of rape and marital rape a whole lot, and how much of it goes unreported, but also how much of it just becomes propaganda in terms of girls should watch what they are doing instead of making systemic changes. So for me, in that sense, you know, that really is the heart of where personal and political cannot be separated from each other, and I keep going back to this, but I think it keeps coming up in the landscape of my mother’s passing, because I think my own sexual life was initiated or I became active just around the time that my mother was diagnosed with cancer. So in some senses, you know, there is a kind of, you know, void feeling that happens at a physical level every time I think about the body in conjunction with another body.
So sex, sexuality, the politics of, you know, receiving sex, giving sex, is the work that I’m most interested in — especially when girlhood cannot be separated from daughterhood. In the way I grew up, you know, we continue to live with our parents. I did not have the freedom, like many, many young kids in Bombay, or even young adults, early adults in Bombay to have, you know, time and space of our own to understand what physical relationships mean. So it was all very, very taboo. I don’t think my mother and I were ever in the same room where the word ‘sex’ was mentioned. Same with my father. So the way sexual education gets passed on to us or, rather, does not — I think about that a lot, in contrast with what it means to be a good daughter.
Well that’s all… again, I would say so many people here in the US as well are grappling with some of those same issues. And when I say ‘people,’ I would mostly say female, but maybe not. So where does a poem start for you — like how does it start?
I wish there was one clear answer — it would be so easy to just get up and do it. But I think it starts in wondering. I think if I’m thinking about something that happened in my childhood or I’m writing around an incident or I’m writing, you know, around something that I don’t know — for example, what happened in the room when I was away and it was just my mother and father in the hospital. So, I think very often a poem begins in absence for me, because then it opens up a realm of imagined possibility. Sometimes it begins in another poet’s line. You know, I think I respond very quickly and urgently when I’m reading a lot. So I’ll quickly underline if a line sits in my heart and then try and do a free-write around it. So it begins in absence. It also begins in conversation with poets who are writing now and have written before. Sometimes an image gets stuck in my head — you know, I still feel like these are my early years, and I attend a lot of generative writing workshops, so prompts from, you know, folks who I admire, I try and take workshops with them. You know, any image that another poet has spoken about — like Li-Young Lee has a fantastic poem around persimmons and I can never get persimmons out of my head. So sometimes I’m writing around the idea of fruit. So that’s really how it begins.
Right, right. It’s funny, just a few hours ago, I was reading An Apple a Day, which is an amazing poem of yours. I’m going to ask you to read something, whatever your choice is, but I’m also just going to tell you some of the ones that really were, like, “Aah,” that I loved. There’s one called… I think it’s two poems called Invisible Knots, and the one Dinner Conversation is such an incredible poem of a family that was three, and now the main person, maybe the person who is sort of the glue of that family, is gone, and the other two are trying to negotiate a new family dynamic. That’s an amazing poem, but I’m wondering, do you have a poem you’d like to read today?
Oh, I would love to read the one you just spoke about. That was one of the ones I had up as well.
Ah, ok, yes. Yes, because it’s very much in keeping with what you’ve been talking about.
Great. Thank you. This poem is called Dinner Conversation.
“My father, with the kitchen scissors, cuts the tiniest hole
in the restaurant’s chutney packet. I ask him to pass
those on to cut open the tied plastic bag of vadas,
already losing their crunch. He puts the metal down
on the table. Then I lift it up. Because we believe
handing over sharp objects by hand forebodes a fight.
The marigolds on my mother’s funeral frame are still alive.
We share a bowl, eat the dosa straight from the single leaf
it came wrapped in. Less dishes, less mess.
We are a ministry of less.
We are four unslept eyes and a race
to the remote’s volume high button.
I mute the possibility that he skimped on her treatment.
Like a subtle chutney that never lets its final ingredient
be known, he is holding back his urge to disclose
he will remarry. I swallow the sambar’s drumstick whole
with skin. Flip the channel from news to comedy.
He leaves to wash his hands. I could identify his
agitated gargling from planets away. The scissor lies
split open between what’s leftover. Why isn’t mum
smiling wider in this photo we’ve chosen? If she were
here there would be no blades while eating.
She could untie even the most invisible knots.”
So there are so many things to unpack in this poem, and just one of the things that really hit me were this idea of muting yourselves during this grief process — that grief is such a complicated thing. I mean, obviously there’s sorrow, sadness, loss — but there’s anger, and maybe it’s anger directed at the person who left, but in this instance, and I think a lot of times, it’s anger at the other parent who’s still there. You know?
What would you like to talk about, about this poem?
I think you absolutely — I was also thinking of rage and anger, as you started unpacking the emotions it moves through. And I wanted to sit with this poem in the absence of noise, because we’re a very loud family. I think we all have high-pitched voices and we don’t hold ourselves back when we are fighting. And I learned that from my mother and my father, and therefore to return to a house that was so eerily silent after being away for two years was very unnerving for me. And anger is interesting, because most often your words don’t know which anger they’re responding to, right? That is the anger of the mother not being there, but there’s also the anger of that mourning in that there is no food in the fridge. There is the anger of what time will the restaurant delivery come in, or which dishes will we eat in? And a lot of it is embedded in the larger patriarchal structure of, you know, my father’s job has always been running the shop, my mother’s job was always running the kitchen.
And these, you know, ideas, this reality, (which is so stereotypical) is a part of our running and breathing lives, and reconciling the big loss, the hours my father spent alone with my mother, knowing she was terminally ill. And yeah, reconciling the big anger with the microscopic anger of, “How the hell do I hold this packet that’s so hot and, you know, cut the tiniest hole so I don’t spill it?” These angers are constantly dancing with each other, and I just wanted to freeze frame on that and sit with my father for a little bit.
I also lost my mother and one of my discoveries that I actually didn’t know was that the emotional work that my mother did really kept the family going. And when you talk about that if your mother was there, there would be no need for the scissors or anything sharp because she could undo the tiniest knots, I just thought, “Wow, that is so familiar!” You don’t notice someone’s presence and what you’re taking for granted until it’s gone.
Yes, absolutely, and I feel like, you know, my mother (and even my father), we are all pressure valves with each other in different ways, right. When we say things like, “Who is the good cop,” or, “Pick your battles,” what gets unsaid is just how much we’re absorbing on behalf of the other, and what of our own are we letting go? And, you know, often when my parents fought, my mother tried to keep me out of the way, or, you know, my father just decided to go down and smoke instead of continuing the angry banter. And, you know, I think growing up, it was like if I wanted two things and one was bigger than the other, I would only ask for one. So we are constantly negotiating what we want from our beloveds, and therefore when one goes missing, the system just breaks down.
Right. I feel like we could keep talking about this, but I’m wondering if there’s another one that you wanted to share and talk about.
For sure. I have a poem called Unrewarding, which again is, you know — I think I’m working into a manuscript where my father plays a much more or bigger or more urgent and active role than he did in my first book. And I would love to read this poem called Unrewarding, if that’s ok.
Unrewarding? Oh, yes. I would love for you to.
Ok, great. Unrewarding.
“From my father’s cupboard,
I fish out the familiar purple tin,
heavy with his old coin collection.
Let his vintage piggy-bank waterfall
into a pyramid of silver on the bed.
Aanas, athanas, chavanis from when
a gallon of milk was a chavani. Sparkling
gold ginnis. My favorite though
is a one aana coin that he, still in school,
threw on the tracks to see what a fast train
would do to the penny. It is important I think,
for me to like this blanked metal, a little
crimped moon. Because it reminds me
that my father, the constant harbourer of hurry
and worry, the man who plots to leave
a room as soon as he enters it — once stood still
as a summer afternoon — back of his knees
sweating sweet, tapping his feet at the edge
of a railway platform to simply observe
the workings of pressure. Just as he sat,
rocking his chair, slow as a lullaby,
for three months and change by my mother,
comatose in a non-AC hospital room.
By then he was done running
her memory back by purring the songs
she loved. By then, the only song
was him waiting and his resting
heart like an empty bucket poised
to be filled with the water of courage.
What is his exit strategy now? Where does
he hide his sorrow? Between the same
molars that once thickened as honeycombs
with mum’s roti crumbles, deep fried
in sugar and ghee? Kutti — we call this
rich breakfast. And dad’s salesman-superstition
is to absolutely eat kutti on the first
of every month. Kutti on the tongue,
he used to sing, means Lakshmi will come
chhan chhan chhan. Once, he sang
for more money. Once, he sang for more
of mummy. Now, before work, he gulps down
three Marie biscuits, a glass of milk. Rubs his belly and
says, I am superbly full. He knows he isn’t.
He knows I know he isn’t. Fullness,
his currency of consolation, his way of saying,
I know we’re grieving for your mother,
but I don’t want you to
also grieve for my hunger.”
That’s amazing. When you’re talking about this memory or this idea of your dad throwing that, or putting that coin on the train tracks, and you incorporating this idea into your picture of your father, it just reminded me of something that someone once said to me, that the amount of time that we know someone is like, almost like a snapshot of who they are and it can’t contain the fullness of who they actually are. Tell me more about this poem for you.
You know, I think the meaning of this poem, which is not contained in this poem, actually came to me after many, many drafts of writing and finessing and speaking it out loud and carving out all the sounds within it. Was that I wondered why I remembered it so much. And I think within me, there is a very agitated person who is so angry that, you know, my father is perhaps not 200% ok with my life as a poet. And I find that very astonishing, because the person who introduced me to film and song and made performing art take centre stage in my life is actually my father. You know, he used to very regularly bunk college to watch movies. He took so much pride in watching movies first day, first show. And he has a very good visual understanding, I think he understands visual narrative really well. He’s also an excellent critic. He has a good hold of vocabulary, and excellent memory in terms of singing songs. And I think all through my life in the States, I have been trying to reconcile the angry father with the father who has a softness for the arts.
And I think my brain must have wanted to try and remember an instance or a story from my father’s life when he was a free person. And he tells me so little about his youth and his childhood, and this is one of the stories I think he told me when he was showing me his coin collection many decades ago, and I was always very fascinated with that coin. So in fact, when I was writing him without telling him that I’m writing about it, I just asked him, “Can you send me a picture of that coin?” He was like, “Oh yeah, here it is.” And it was just such a good symbol of the fact that my father also before, you know, the world of making money and providing for us became a part of his life, he was a free person, too. And to me, I think that was a point of connection — that a free person is a poet. And I just wanted to make space for my father as a poet.
And it’s interesting. You don’t know, but one day, he may very much embrace your life as a poet.
Yeah, and I have a feeling that he already does, but it’s just that, you know, the salesman / businessmen will never actually ever admit it.
Yeah. Well, they say that parents want their children to be safe first and then happy second.
This is true.
Yeah. I mean, it’s wonderful that you’re writing this because your story with your father isn’t done yet.
Yeah, and I’m so happy that we have so much more time together.
Yeah, and you’re definitely a co-author of that story.
I love that. Thank you.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, I love both of those poems. I love your new work. I’m very excited for this new book. Can you tell people what’s next for you, and how can people find out more about you and your work?
Thank you. Yes. Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to read new work. My first book is called Mother Tongue Apologize, and that can be purchased, you know, on bookshop and all the big box retailers, but don’t go to them, try to buy it at your local bookseller, please. My first book came out with a very, very small indie press out of India, and it’s literally a one-woman operation. So I’m very, very proud that I got to publish with them, and the second collection of poems that I’m working on is titled Home Science. So while the first book is rooted in early grief, this one is more centre-staged in understanding family dynamics. There are a lot of, like, bratty daughter poems, sad daughter poems, angry father poems. So I think of it as family drama meets poetry. Yeah, and those are also my favourite kind of films. I’m very obviously attracted to family dramas. And I’m also working on a collection of short stories. It’s still untitled, but it seems to be coming along as unconnected stories and in each story, the protagonist is a person who is a wife, or wants to be a wife. So this book is obsessed with wifehood, and all of these women are very sassy for their own good. And one of the stories, which is called F.L.A.M.E.S., is up on Variant Literature and can be freely accessed.
Ah, that’s wonderful. Can you tell people your website?
Absolutely. My website is wixsite (that’s w-i-x), wixsite.com/preetivangani.
Ok. Well, Preeti, it was such a pleasure to talk to you today. I love your poems that I’ve read already, and I’m very excited about the new collection and the short stories. I’m going to look for the one that I can find online that you mentioned. So thank you so much for being a guest today.
Thank you, and thank you for, you know, letting me go astray in all my responses. I love talking to you, this was great.
I agree. I love people who do go astray. So thank you for doing that.
You’re listening to Art Heals All Wounds.
Thank you so much to Preeti Vangani for joining me on this episode of Art Heals All Wounds to talk about her poetry. If you want to learn more about Preeti’s work, you can go to her website at preetivangani.wixsite.com/poetry. That’s p-r-e-e-t-i-v-a-n-g-a-n-i.wixsite, which is spelled w-i-x-s-i-t-e, /poetry. You can also find information about getting her fantastic collection of poetry, Mother Tongue Apologize, on her website. The music you’ve heard in this podcast is Yellow Light District by Lobo Loco, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major was performed by Karine Gilanyan. The two additional pieces of music used in the intro were by Remus and Ketsa. This podcast was edited by Iva Hristova. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Art Heals All Wounds. If you’re enjoying what you’re hearing from this podcast, you can help us get more content like this by giving us a 5-star rating and following us on whatever podcast app you listen to.