“The book aims to fulfill a cultural mission: A Conversation with Kalpna Singh-Chitnis About Poetry, Social Justice, and Transformation” – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Kalpna Singh-Chitnis is an Indian-American poet, filmmaker, and author of six poetry collections, including ‘Love Letters to Ukraine from Uyava’ (River Paw Press), a finalist at the 2023 ‘International Book Awards’; ‘Trespassing My Ancestral Lands’ (2024, Finishing Line Press); and ‘Bare Soul,’ the recipient of the 2017 Naji Naaman Literary Prize. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her poems have been translated into twenty-one languages. ‘Sunflowers: Ukrainian Poetry on War, Resistance, Hope, and Peace,’ an anthology curated and edited by her, was shortlisted for the 2023 ‘National Indie Excellence Award.’ She is also the recipient of the ‘Rajiv Gandhi Global Excellence Award,’ ‘Bihar Shri,’ and ‘Bihar Rajbhasha Parishad Award’ given by the government of Bihar, India. Kalpna’s poetry has received praise from eminent writers such as Dr. Wazir Agha, a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature; Amrita Pritam, recipient of the Vaptsarov Award and Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; and Gulzar, a poet, Academy Award-winning lyricist, and filmmaker. She has read at the International Literature Festival Berlin (ilb), Sahitya Akademi—India’s highest academy of letters, Poets & Writers, AWP Conferences, and other international venues. Kalpna’s poems and her poetry film ‘River of Songs,’ included in the Lunar Codex, were sent to the Moon’s south pole with NASA-SpaceX-Intuitive Machine missions in 2024. A former lecturer of Political Science and Editor-in-Chief of ‘Life and Legends,’ she is also an Advocacy Member at the United Nations Association of the USA.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell us about “Love Letters to Ukraine From Uyava,” which just launched from River Paw Press. 

Kalpna Singh-Chitnis: “Love Letters to Ukraine from Uyava” comprises sixty-eight poems of love dedicated to Ukraine and its defenders. These poems directly respond to the events that unfolded during the first two years of the latest armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The collection has been translated into Ukrainian as “Любовні листи до України від Уяви” by Volodymyr Tymchuk, a poet, translator, and Lieutenant Colonel in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The book aims to fulfill a cultural mission. The poems within are written with the hope of building bridges in the hearts of readers, connecting them with Ukraine, and inviting the world to understand its deep longing for love, peace, and freedom. The bilingual edition of the book was a finalist at the 2023 “International Book Awards,” presented by American Book Fest, which acknowledged its spirit and furthered its purpose. It was also a reaffirmation of the power of poetry, languages, and cultural confluence.

KMD:  What inspired you to create a bilingual edition? 

KSC: There is a profound impact of languages and cultures coming together. However, the bilingual edition of ‘Love Letters to Ukraine from Uyava’ wasn’t my personal idea. The credit goes to Lt. Colonel Volodymyr Tymchuk. He admired my poetry, appreciated my sentiments toward Ukraine’s struggle for freedom, and suggested translating my work into Ukrainian. He thought it was important for ‘Love Letters to Ukraine from Uyava’ to reach the intended recipients, meaning the people and defenders of Ukraine. So, we ended up working together and got the book written and translated in just eight weeks; and within twelve weeks, the book was published and distributed globally.

‘Love Letters to Ukraine from Uyava’ is also cataloged in all major libraries in Ukraine, and its poems have been featured in the country’s top literary journals. A big thanks to translator, Volodymyr Tymchuk. The book has also been distributed for free among Ukrainian warriors, and has helped raise funds for Ukrainian charities. 

KMD:  Can you speak about the relationship between writing and social justice? 

KSC: Writing is a powerful means of expression and thus serves as an effective tool for social justice. A society is formed of individuals with both personal and collective aspirations, as well as of other living beings, that are integral parts of our environment and nature. Not all creatures can advocate for themselves, thus social justice must also include environmental justice. Our society and our environment aren’t two separate things; they co-exist.

To write for social justice, we must engage in a genuine conversation with ourselves, about our relationships with others and our environment. Writing helps us recognize our emotions, limitations, and deepest aspirations; how we perceive our surroundings; our likes and dislikes; the changes we wish to embody, and the transformations we want to see in the world.

Writing for social justice comes with a responsibility. It requires us to rise above a narrow sense of identity and consider perspectives beyond our own, allowing others to see themselves in our narratives. In doing so, we recognize that our true identity is greater than our individual selves; it is in unity with others (even amidst our differences), as everything in the universe is interconnected. The suffering of others and our planet are not separate from our own. When a war takes place, it doesn’t just affect the warring nations but the entire world. Similarly, when a famine, pandemic, and other climate disasters occur, they impact everyone globally. Therefore, when we write for social justice and take action for it, we need to do so genuinely.

Writing poetry and letters of love may not stop wars, social injustice, and natural disasters, but they can heal us, and inspire us to heal our planet. They assure that others are not alone in their suffering, and by relating to others’ pain and coming together, solutions can be found to end social injustices.

It’s also essential to recognize that those inflicting pain upon us and our planet are also suffering due to their unmindful actions. Pursuing social justice requires an expansive view of the world, society, and humanity that transcends our immediate surroundings, national and geographical identities, as well as the alliances and divisions formed by nations for narrow interests. It calls for a commitment to justice that spans the entirety of earth and the cosmos.

KMD:  Relatedly, how can poetry foster understanding and cross-cultural exchange? 

KSC: Since ancient times, throughout history, across the earth, poets, thinkers, and seers have used poetry to share insights and wisdom that have proven cross-cultural effects over time. Poetry carries emotional depth and resonance that has the power to transcend the barriers of language and geography, speaking directly to the human experience. It establishes connections with readers at a much deeper level, as it often deals with universal themes—like love, loss, suffering, hope, faith, and resilience—that any person can identify with. In a poet’s work, we often encounter reflections of their cultural heritage, offering readers a window into their world. This demystifies racial, ethnic, and cultural differences and highlights our commonalities, promoting understanding and empathy; thus becoming a powerful conduit for cross-cultural exchange. Here I want to mention both of my poetry collections, ‘Trespassing My Ancestral Lands’ and ‘Love Letters to Ukraine from Uyava.’ Translating poetry into other languages and adapting it into other art forms can inspire meaningful dialogues, and foster inter-cultural understanding and exchange. 

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a writer and translator, you are an accomplished filmmaker. What has film opened up within your writing practice? 

KSC: The influence of film on my writing may not be noticeable to readers, as I ventured into film directing long after I began to write, and do not consciously bring the influence of cinema into my writing works. However, I have noticed that my poetry, along with my fiction and nonfiction, often contain a lot of visuals. I’m not sure if this is because my poet and filmmaker selves subtly offer their insights to each other, reflecting across all genres of my work. However, I can personally identify this element, often inspiring me to turn my poetry into films or to create films that are poetic in nature. For instance, “The Tree,” a sequence of environmental poems that I wrote and published in “World Literature Today,” was adapted into a film, directed by me, that garnered several awards and accolades at international film festivals, including the Best Experimental Short Film Award at the 2022 North Dakota Environmental Rights Film Festival. In my feature film “Goodbye My Friend,” written, produced, and directed by me, there are some scenes where poetry is featured.

KMD:  What else are you working on? What can readers look forward to? 

KSC: Besides working on writing screenplays for my next two feature films; one expected to go into pre-production in 2025, I am looking forward to the release of my sixth poetry collection, ‘Trespassing My Ancestral Lands,’ published by Finishing Line Press in May this year. I have also a completed manuscript of my yet another poetry collection, ‘Love isn’t Audacity,’ and am currently seeking a suitable publisher for it. My fourth poetry collection ‘Bare Soul’ translated into Ukrainian by the People’s Poet of Ukraine, Ihor Pavlyuk is also publishing in Ukraine this year. Additionally, after three decades, I am publishing a poetry collection originally written in Hindi titled ‘Jo Tum Ho Wahi Hoon Main’ (I Am Who You Are), forthcoming from Agnipath in 2024. The poems in this collection are inspired by the memories of Bharat (India), and my deep connection to my Indian roots, which foster a sense of belonging to both India, my motherland, and America, my adopted homeland.