"Poems are alive volcanoes. They live, breathe. Hear the earth."
An interaction with the poet Saima Afreen, leading up to the festival Poetry with Prakriti 2017, set to be held from December 3-17, across multiple venues in Chennai.
Please give us your overview of how you see the space for poetry changing and evolving in India - specifically, for regional language poetry alongside writing in English.
Poetry is the topography where a moment is captured which grows both wings and roots. A poem can make the reader fly and dive deep into the space he belongs to. This sense of belonging records how poetry is evolving through a series of changes in socio-political and cultural scenario. We hear more voices. New voices. Translations. The lyricism is there, but the tone is angry. Verses hiss and comfort. And it’s interesting to see so many literary celebrations of regional poetry happening. Jashn-e-Rekhta: the celebration of Urdu poetry pulls audience from across the country. Young Writers Festival to be held at Central University of Jammu will see poets reading in Hindi, Dogri, Punjabi, Rajasthani Kashmiri, and of course, English. We also get to see Dastangoi: the lost art of oral story-telling in poetic prose finding much momentum. Then there are English translations which often unlock Braille doors of regional poetry – that’s how Ranjit Hoskote’s translation of mystic Kashmiri poetess Lal Ded introduced readers to Shaivism School of Philosophy through her vakhs (poems).
At the same time, there’s also an inclusion of words from regional languages with English poetry which gives it its typical Indian flavour. The poem, which won me second prize in Prakriti Foundation Poetry Contest the last year, is titled in Urdu as ‘Shab-e-Qadr’; I’ve also used a few Urdu words in the poem. And it’s not deliberate because these words find their own way into the poem(s) as many of us think in a mixture of languages given we speak, read and write in at least three of them. It’s an osmosis of languages which happens on its own.
Tell us a little about your plans at the Prakriti Festival. What can audiences expect, given your participation at the event?
I will begin the reading with the winning poem ‘Shab-e-Qadr’. I like telling the audience little anecdotes related to the poems as the verses are nothing but records of your own experiences in nebulous forms where you sometimes take the voice of somebody else, something else. Rainer Maria Rilke says: “For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things.” During Villa Sarkia Writers Residency, Finland, which I attended the last month, interesting things happened. Once, on a rain-soaked evening a Finnish girl gave me her umbrella as I didn’t have one. Kindness of a stranger in a foreign country stayed with me. And of course it found its way in the form of a poem titled ‘A Polka Dot Umbrella’. A few lines:
Hold strong, pierce the wind
And sometimes try to fly
To answer the sky
As a pointed question
As the proof of an existential error.
How would you like to see the Prakriti Festival holding its own alongside various other new events and biennales dedicated to poetry, across the country?
Hats off to Prakriti Foundation! Their dedication to poetry is commendable. They do it quite enthusiastically involving the poets, which is what separates them from the rest of the forums. On the other hand, there are not many festivals in the country dedicated to poetry. Prakriti Poetry Festival stands sturdy bringing together a melange of poets from different parts of the country. I really appreciate their efforts to bring out the biannual anthology of poems. It gives the poets a solid platform to showcase their works in print. Such collections are often discovered by readers in libraries, book shops and online book marts.
Would you consider poetry readings to be rather similar to performance art pieces? How does the performative aspect of a public reading change things in terms of engaging listeners, and disseminating and offering poetry?
There’s a thin line between the two. Many times, the line changes and blank spaces in the poems are filled by music or multimedia projections. Performance poetry is more about expression of repression and angst as a reaction to it. There’s a lot of physical action involved. Not all poems can be performed. Some are to be read lyrically, listened to patiently, let its sap flow; that’s how it disperses the fog within the audience’s minds. At the same time, not all poems can be read slowly, musically – they demand to be performed. The poems shriek in pain, unleash the anger, stop even a passerby and make him listen. But the success of a good poem is when it stays within a reader’s mind in the form of an image which opens its eyes and connects directly with his life.
Tell us a little about how poetry is gaining significance as a form of protest, in the present day. How can activism through poetry be more effective?
Poems are alive volcanoes. They live. They breathe. Hear the earth. They have the power to shake the world, to remould its architecture. Poetry as a form of protest has always been there. We had Progressive Writers Movement which produced firebrand poets and authors like Manto, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Kaifi Azmi among others. In Punjabi poetry we had fearless poets like ‘Pash’ who revolted against Emergency and wrote lines like: ‘Main ghaas hun phir ugg aunga…’ In our times, given the changing socio-political scenes within and outside the country; the poets give voice to the anger. Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes against terrorism exemplifying her shock and the hurt of the world through an atlas in one of her poems.
A strong poem in itself is the voice of activism. It stirs the humans within people, gives them slogans and marches side by side with the protestors. Words behave like seeds of fire, they go inside the minds, set the damaged structures on fire, and what one sees is white light, much needed to erase the darkness around, especially within the young minds.
Ajinkya, Saima Afreen, Poorna Swami & Parvathi Nayar will perform a reading at The Brew Room, Besant Nagar, Chennai, on Thursday December 7, 7 pm.