'Poetry is staking claim to public space, kicking up ruckus we need'

Jaideep Sen Published :  25th December 2017 06:05 PM   |   Published :   |  25th December 2017 06:05 PM
Poorna Swami

Poorna Swami

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.

I think a readership for English language poetry is growing in India and, at the same time, there are more poets are being published by prominent publishers or with larger print runs. 

That said, the general, growing interest in poetry is more for easily-gratifying forms, such as Insta-poetry. More complex poetry still struggles  to find a place against prose as an Anglophone prose culture has a longer tradition in India. Often, I think English language poetry in India suffers because it is gauged by readers and publishers with standards more suited to prose - theme, narrative, and so on. But it is heartening to see that gradually there is more willingness to engage with the poetic form itself, with poems that rely on unconventional language structures, that are as much about what they choose not to say as about what they do.

To draw a comparison between English language poetry  and poetry in other Indian languages is misplaced as the  two really don't share a readership. For that, more Indian poetry would need to published in translation, across languages. For most Indian English language readers, the non-English poetry they are most likely to be familiar with is by Tagore. There has been an era of poetry since then, but we have missed much of it. 

Earlier this year, I co-edited a feature on Indian language poetry in English translation for the international online quarterly Asymptote (some poems were published as "Republic of Verse"). The call for submissions was open to all genres but we received an overwhelming number of poetry submissions and so, decided to make it a poetry feature. This was a revelation to me but also exciting - it's amazing that poetry in various Indian languages has its own insular cultures and communities that are vibrant and expanding. In Malayalam, for instance, many poets are publishing serious poetry on social media. These new ways of making the poetic landscape more porous are promising. 

Tell us a little about your plans at the Prakriti Festival. What can audiences expect, given your participation at the event?

It's a festival of poetry readings, so that's what to be expected, I suppose. My own work has many different series, in terms of content and form. There are more obviously political works, erotic works, mythologically inspired works - I am looking forward to walking through these different shades at the readings.  

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?

Most new poetry festivals in India are dedicated to slam poetry. There has been a noticeable rise in the number of slam poets and slam culture, with Indian poets performing alongside poets from the United States, Pakistan and other countries. While slam poetry gets this kind of boost, Prakriti's focus on the printed poem is very important.

It is a misconception that a poem as much for paper as for performance isn't as enthralling or experimental or hard-hitting as slam poetry. It is vital to have a space to encourage and expose the breadth and dynamism of the printed poem, especially when a poetry-reading culture is largely occluded by that of prose.  

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? 

For me, a poem is created as much for silent reading as to be read aloud. Each line, when spoken - whether proclaimed across a room full of people or whispered in someone's ear - is a full-bodied utterance. The weight of sound and breath and physical presence invites people into a poem, sometimes even consumes them. 

Please 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?

I don't think poetry is gaining significance as a form of protest but reinbahiting what it has been all along. Whether in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany or closer home, in the Indian subcontinent, poets have been imprisoned, poetry has been smuggled to reach readers, and poems have turned into public slogans. Even if poems are delicate arrangements of words, they can be lasting, uniting, and devastating. Perhaps that is why so many governments have thought them dangerous. We are living under a regime where each day we are seeing more blood on the streets and a machine-like denial of it.

We are being told more and more that our bodies are not ours, that we cannot eat and dress and love as we please, that we cannot question those whom we elected to power. An afternoon at the movies  now comes with a nationalist agenda or a country-wide call to kill an actress - these are the ideas and interests that are being protected and propagated. No wonder then that in each gathering on the streets - whether #notinmyname or campus elections or vigils for Gauri Lankesh - poetry is staking claim to public space and kicking up the ruckus we need it to.

Maybe a poem can't change the world but it can make music, and it can also make a lot of noise. Right now, we need that noise, because it is too easy to stay silent in our most violent hour.