“The Hinduism I grew up with was a very inclusive one” — Vikram Kolmannskog
(An edited version of this interview was first published in The Hindu on April 14, 2018. I am uploading the entire conversation here for those who have been keen on learning more about the poet and his journey.)
At a time when people in the arts often shy away from speaking of their spiritual practice for fear of being perceived as woolly-headed, apolitical or even dogmatic, Vikram Kolmannskog comes as a breath of fresh air. This poet and Gestalt therapist from Oslo, who recently toured India with his new book Taste And See: A Queer Prayer, wears his heart on his sleeve more fiercely than you can imagine.
“My experience and belief is that embodied awareness, being present here and now, with the senses, with attention and love, is a pathway to the sacred. True sensuality and spirituality are intimately linked,” he says, without hiding his emotional self behind the practised talk about craft that many contemporary poets like to spout.
The book takes its title from a psalm that reads “Taste and see that the lord is good.” It is a narrative poem loosely based on Kolmannskog’s own experiences as a gay man at a Christian retreat centre in Norway last summer — a luscious landscape with forest paths, mountain walks, and ripe blueberries. The narrator’s mind is as filled with thoughts of Jesus as with finding a partner who can fulfill his need for pleasure and intimacy. “I think the story deals with something many can relate to, namely loneliness, longing and the search for love and meaning in an age of hookup apps,” he says.
Here are some excerpts from an interview with him:
How would you describe your relationship with Jesus? What aspects of his life and personality do you connect with most intimately?
The brief and beautiful gospels are among my favourite texts. The Jesus of the gospels constantly challenges orthodoxy and advocates a radical love, such as when he eats with sex workers and other marginalised people. Moreover, he is a storyteller, one who conveys truth through stories rather than as simplified dogmas. A parable that touches me is that of the prodigal son. Like the son, we are loved regardless of who we are and what we have done; and perhaps we can also learn to become like the father who loves so generously.
I sometimes imagine the sacred in a certain shape and form that I can pray and dialogue with. My favourite forms have been Shiva, Krishna and Kali. In recent years, I have also nurtured my relationship with the sacred in the form of Jesus. I can share my suffering with him because he has truly known suffering. I can share joys and celebrate with him. When I imagine him close to me, his hand on my shoulder, I know that I am unconditionally loved. Sometimes I ask for guidance. You could say that it is the innermost in myself that I communicate with, Christ or the sacred in me, but sometimes imagining this as someone other than me is helpful.
While many queer people all over the world have spoken out about how they have been shamed by the church for their sexual orientation/preference, you speak of Jesus with deep familiarity and a tone that is affectionate, flirtatious and worshipful at the same time. In fact, you call him your lover. Would you say that there is a difference between the way in which Jesus is presented in organized religion, and the way in which you personally relate to him?
Being queer will often involve a certain questioning: Who am I? How shall I lead my life and express myself? These are also crucial questions in spirituality. As many others today — queer or straight — I am quite comfortable calling myself spiritual. It indicates that one has a personal and direct relationship with truth and the sacred. However, sometimes I also want to say that I am religious. While there has been much power abuse and other unfortunate effects of the church — or any institution with people, really — religious institutions also carry resources that I value and benefit from, including poetry, song and stories, meditation and prayer methods, community events, sacred spaces and buildings.
Some people in the church or temple may not want us there, but why should we give them the power to define who is a religious person? There have always been struggles within various institutions. While some may object to the homoeroticism in my story, it fits into a long tradition of mystic erotic poetry. In India, this is a rich tradition, of course, with Mira, Basavanna and many others. In the Bible itself, we have the Song of Songs, where one person begs their lover for a kiss. And again, the title of the story, Taste and See, is taken from a psalm which reads “Taste and see that the lord is good.”
Today, there are positive changes in some churches. In Oslo, Norway, we just got a new bishop who is very committed to recognising queer love and people and giving us a space in the church. And one of the most surprising and nicest outcomes of the publication of my book is that I have become friends with Frode Grøstad, a gay man and Christian priest. Frode has struggled to get positions within the church but he has not suppressed his sexuality or his faith. He has neither left his partner nor the church. Change is possible.
Which other teachers have you been inspired by?
While I have been raised in Hinduism and Christianity and know these traditions best, I find truth in the mystical traditions of all religions. I regularly read and am inspired by Kabir, revered by both Hindus and Muslims; Tolstoy who was a Christian mystic as well as writer; Rumi and other Sufi poets; the Jewish rabbi Heschel; the Buddha and his followers, including the poet-monk and peace-activist Thich Nhat Hanh, and many others.
What kind of role have retreat centres played in your poetic practice? Would you like to name any spaces in particular that have held profound significance for you?
I try to practice awareness and compassion in my everyday life, both through formal meditation and throughout the day. But I sometimes get a bit lost in the culture that we live and breathe in, a culture that emphasises consumption, external affirmation, a fast pace, competition, and production. That is why I also regularly go to retreats where there is another culture, one that emphasises slowing down, silence, love, and being rather than doing. I have benefited from Tibetan Buddhist retreats, yoga ashrams, Christian retreats, and others. These places are also important for my poetic practice. To create poetry you have to pause and take time to notice. That’s all. But that’s a lot for most of us. That’s god seeing and being seen, god tasting and being tasted.
Would it be accurate to say that your understanding of the sacred is shaped partly by your cultural heritage?
My dual heritage with an Indian-origin mother and Norwegian father influences me and my writing. My paternal grandfather gave me my first Bible, and I remember us talking about Christian spirituality and religion. As he grew older, he became more humble and open, and I could also talk with him about Hinduism and other traditions.
While I don’t remember much of Bapuji, my maternal grandfather — he passed away while I was still quite young — I have been told many stories that probably merge with my own memories. He practised yoga and meditation. He used to read Gandhi, Kabir and the Bhagavad Gita. I have clearer memories of Ba, my maternal grandmother. She didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t speak much Gujarati as a child. Yet, we had a very close relationship. When we visited, I would get up early every morning and go to her bedroom. She would smile, hold my hand, give me a mala, take one herself, and we would sit and do japa next to each other on her bed. She taught me one of my first mantras, and I consider her one of my gurus. I felt a love and connection and presence on those quiet mornings. We didn’t need too many words. Still I often think of her, see her with my mind’s eye, when I am upset and need comfort.
One of my maternal aunts, who is deeply spiritual, has also been a great inspiration. I noticed how she led her life, how she interacted lovingly with other living beings, people as well as animals. I was curious about spirituality ever since I was a little child, so I would ask her many questions. The Hinduism I grew up with was a very inclusive and generous one. Jesus was there along with a statue of Krishna and others in the puja rooms.
In Norway, I stood out as someone practising Hinduism. In a way, this was also a coming out process. I remember inviting neighbourhood children over and doing puja with them in my bedroom. I also remember being ridiculed at school for believing in a monkey god. Being truthful to who I am — a spiritual person, a queer person — is an important practice for me.
How has your book been received in India, a country wherein queer relationships are stigmatized by culture as well as law?
The people I have met and spoken with so far have been quite positive. I should say that these people have mostly been queer or poets or poetry appreciating people though. Other groups may react very differently. While section 377 is still in force and many in India today may be quite homophobic, we do however find queerness in the complex and rich culture and history of India. And my impression is that there have been some very important changes in Indian society over the last few years, regardless of the formal legal situation. Today, there are several films and books that have a queer theme, and there are pride marches being organized all over the country. Perhaps the queer movement can also help India and Indians appreciate and re-own the celebration of sex and the erotic that was here much more in the past.
Why did you choose to publish this book yourself, and what is the story behind naming the publishing house ‘Mohini Books’?
Mohini Books was started by me and two other queer friends. It takes its name and inspiration from the Indian myth of Mohini, a queer story which celebrates the diversity of genders and sexualities, a playfulness, and a subversive spirituality. This book is the first publication because it fits with our profile. We have already had various people, including queer writers in India, express interest in collaborating, and we will start accepting submissions from January 2019. We are small but already have enough projects that we are working on this year.