Friday, April 25, 2014

Interview with Braja Sorensen

Welcome to The Women Behind The Poetry, where we interview women from the 'Journey of The Heart: Women's Spiritual Poetry Project'!  

Today we introduce you to the multi-talented Braja Sorensen, author of  Lost & Found in India (2013, Hay House International) and the very first poetess whose work appeared in this project! 

Journey of The Heart was inaugurated on September 22, 2012, a special day in the bhakti yoga tradition celebrating the supreme Goddess, known as  Radha. It all started with Braja's poem 'Fair Beauty', on Goddess Radha, found here.

When and how did you first begin writing poetry?

I was in my mid-30s when I first started writing poetry, and it was at the point of one of the spiritual evolutions in life, you know how those go, right? I was on my own, in a foreign country, and really wanting to put a lifetime — or a series of them — behind me and move forward. To what, I didn’t know, but I knew it was deep inside me and I started to dig.

What subjects are easiest for you to write poems on?

Pain and sadness; I felt it, and I had experienced it, and I wanted to shed it.

What subjects are the hardest for you to write about?

I don’t think I’ve come across that yet…

When do you feel most inspired to write poetry?

Possibly in those times, the deeply painful movements of time that each one of us goes through in different ways.

What is your biggest fear or hesitation when deciding to share a poem with the public?

I don’t think I have any, to be honest. I don’t really invest anything in a person’s response; I think it’s easy for a writer or poet to understand that they’re not doing it for approval or response; maybe some do. In fact, yes, they do! I don’t know about others but I can sense that need for validation in a person’s writing, and it’s an instant shutdown for me.

Writing and poetry, they’re like viewing a painting: it’s the individual’s interpretation, there can’t be attachment to what you’re doing or you’ll live your life jumping through hoops trying to impress or please. Conversely, people tell me I come across as arrogant or dismissive. But it’s neither; it’s just that once something is written I’m unlikely to go back and read it or see the response or think of it again. It’s out, it’s in the ether, it’s gone.

What is the most profound thing you have learned from writing poems?

The power and depth and beauty of words, without doubt.

How is writing poetry a spiritual process for you?

I think it’s hard to separate it from anything else I do, and to say, “OK, this is part of my spiritual process, this is not.” Isn’t everything? It is for me...despite what it appears to be on the outside, everything I say or do, right or wrong, it’s all part of my process. How can it not be?

And writing is my life, it’s all I do, it’s my work, my art, my expression, my mind, intelligence, emotions and heart. It’s my communication field of play, whether positive or negative, strong or soft, whiplash or rose petal.

Name some of your favorite poetesses.

Zeb-un-Nissa. She was an Imperial Princess of the Mughal Empire and the eldest child of Emperor Aurangzeb. She wrote under the pen name Makhfi, which means “Hidden One”. Naturally her vile father imprisoned her (he also famously imprisoned his father: Shah Jahan, the man responsible for the Taj Mahal) and consequently the last 20 years of Zeb-un-Nissa’s life at were spent in Salimgarh Fort in Delhi.

Zeb-un-Nissa’s writings were collected posthumously and entitled Diwan-i-Makhfi, which means “The Book of the Hidden One.” I have a strong attraction to the Mughal Empire period, and the women were fascinating: learned in Persian, Urdu, and often other languages, they were artistically inclined and  especially towards literary arts.

In the bhakti tradition, Mirabai (naturally); she writes from that mixture of solitude, of being tired with the world, of only wanting spiritual fulfillment, of not caring for social norms, of following her Lord despite the cost. She was a Rajput princess who gave everything up and lived like a yogini in Vrindavan, singing songs to Krishna and devoting herself to her spiritual practices. I like “Listen,” where she writes, “If the worship of stone statues could bring us all the way, I’d have adored a grante mountain years ago.” No doubt it referred to what was, at the time, a very secular and patriarchal society that she lived in, and women had little or no say. She was a real rebel with a clue, Mirabai...

Women tend to write for the same reasons: a combination of an expressive emotional art form and the processing of sadness and pain. It’s a universal theme in the poetry of women. Janabai, she was from the opposite end of the social scale from Mirabai; she lived in the 13th century and quite pointedly, she was a maid in the house of Namdev, a bhakti poet and a very high class member of society. She wrote hundreds of poems about being a low-caste servant and the restrictions of her life.

All the bhakti poetesses write in the same vein, the ones from centuries ago: the restrictions of their life, the pain of having to live according to society, their longing for their Lord – Mahadevi, from the south of India, wrote of her love for Siva in the same way Mirabai wrote of hers for Krishna.

Yet conversely, and interestingly, Zeb-un-Nissa was not confined by any social pressure, at least in the first part of her life: she was learned, enlightened, fluent in many languages and assisted her father, the Emperor, in his court, serving in his councils. She wrote in Persian, a particularly poetic and beautiful language, and communicated freely with many famous male poets of the time (the 16th century), was encouraged by all, and her poetry was filled with expressions of a painless love towards her Lord, a joyous glorification of life. She was deeply religious, a Sunni Muslim, but with none of her father’s rigid orthodoxy.

There is a story told, that Zeb-un-Nissa was walking in the beautiful gardens of the palace, and chanting a poem she had written, “Four things are necessary to make me happy — wine and flowers and a running stream and the face of the Beloved.” She suddenly saw her father sitting under a tree in meditation, and feared he had heard her and would consider her words profane. She noticed he hadn’t, and so she continued to chant, but changed the second line to read, “Four things are necessary for happiness — prayers and fasting and tears and repentance.”

Of course during confinement her words became deeper and her poetry and expression of the pain of the course her life had taken. “Even the morning breeze is hot with wrath, No soft assuagement in its breath it hath, It only faints and dies.” Yet in the end, her poetry bears resemblance to Mirabai’s and others who write from the pain of life cruelties inflicted upon them:

How uselessly is spent
And cast away the treasure of my life,
In bitter separation from my Friend !
Surely, O cruel Heavens, might now my strife
My grief, my pain, my weary discontent,
Attain the end!

What effect does reading the poems of others have on you?

They tap the locked words inside me and free them, like you would rattle the cage of a dove who hesitated to fly out the open door. They give me wings.

Have you publicly shared your poetry before doing so via this project?

Yes, I’ve written from time to time, and been published in anthologies and won awards even, in Australia and Britain. But the more personal, deeper, spiritually oriented writing, that, I haven’t shared so much. Some has been published in bhakti publications, but the Journey of The Heart site is the first of its kind for women, I think, and it’s natural to have some of my poetry published there. It’s nearing a “collection” stage, I think!

Any last words you’d like to share about poetry?

Just one: WRITE!

Braja Sorensen is an award-winning poet and writer, and the author of Lost & Found in India 2013, Hay House International. Originally from Australia, she has spent most of her adult life living and working in India, London, and the United States. She now lives in the village of Mayapur, on the banks of the Ganges in West Bengal. She writes for several publications internationally, but is waiting for Vogue to see the light and give her a damned column. Until then, you can find her on Facebook and on her series of article with Catherine Ghosh on Yoga in the Gita here, which is in the process of becoming book. 

~If you are one of the poetesses from 'Journey of the Heart', and would like to appear in this blog, just click here to request an interview. We are excited to learn more about you!~

~If you write poetry and would like to share it on 'Journey of The Heart', click here for submission guidelines. And thank you for your interest!~ 


  1. Thank you, dear Braja, for supporting my project when it was just a little seed in my mind. Launching it all with your poem on Radhasthami set it off to an awesome start! :) And thank you for elaborating on the interesting lives of your favorite poetesses in this interview. As always, an eventful read! And I love your last words: something I need to do more of. Definitely! xoxo

  2. My first and only writing partner....:) Love our past and looking forward to our future...! love you xo

  3. I am glad to find you back. I liked the entire interview. Nothing can be separated from the spiritual process, every thing is spiritual. I agreed totally with this and other parts of the interview.

    1. I also resonated with that, Pradip! Yes, why should anything be excluded from our spiritual practice? I like how Braja puts it: "...despite what it appears to be on the outside, everything I say or do, right or wrong, it’s all part of my process. How can it not be?" :)

    2. Thank you Pradip; it's nice to be back :)