The new life of English poetry
Long confined to a niche literary circle, Indian poetry in English is becoming part of the mainstream
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Fancy giving somebody Rs.2 lakh because you like their poetry? That’s exactly what happened this year at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Arundhathi Subramaniam received the inaugural Khushwant Singh Memorial Prize for Poetry for her collection, When God Is A Traveller. The annual prize will be sponsored by marketing professional Suhel Seth.
“If Suhel Seth is giving away money for a poetry prize, then we’ve entered the mainstream,” says New Delhi-based poet-novelist-guitarist Jeet Thayil, only half-jokingly—he was on the jury.
Poetry has a rich tradition in India. It was instrumental in earning the country its first (and only) Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded to Rabindranath Tagore in 1913 for his collection Gitanjali. Old Delhi’s Urdu-speaking dwellers spice up their daily conversations with couplets of 19th century poet Mirza Ghalib and 18th century poet Mir Taqi Mir. The Sufi poems of Bulleh Shah are sung across the Punjab countryside. Indian poetry in English, which began in the 1820s, has produced its own share of canonical poets.
Even so, Indian writing in English has mainly meant prose. That seems to be changing. “You’d be surprised at the number of people reading poetry nowadays,” says Seth. “Once we announced the award, we were flooded with applications, which show that more and more of us are dabbling in verse.” The award presented at Jaipur, he indicated, was a first of its kind. “While there are enough annual awards for fiction and non-fiction, there was none for poetry.”
Arguably some of the best poetry so far goes back to the 1970s. But though today’s poetry hasn’t yet found its way into the best-seller lists, excitement is mounting. It’s almost as if an underground club of poets, publishers, critics and readers has joined forces, defying the scepticism of some publishers. The poetically inclined have responded by turning out in droves.
Indian poetry in English is no longer the solitary art of crafting verses that few will read.
Vijay Nambisan’s forthcoming poetry book already has people gushing. “I’ve heard it’s amazing,” says poet and AI’s co-editor Vivek Narayanan. Nambisan’s First Infinities is being published by the Mumbai-based Poetrywala imprint, run by Marathi poet Hemant Divate from his home.
The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a publishing venture founded by a troika of Bengaluru poets in 2013, has recently announced an Emerging Poets Prize. The three winners will be awarded Rs.15,000 each; their manuscripts will be published with a minimum print run of 250 copies; and there will also be a book launch.
Last month, Hyderabad-based poet Sridala Swami completed a book-reading tour of her new collection, Escape Artist. In Bengaluru, she recited her poems at the Atta Galatta book store and the Alternative Law Forum. In New Delhi, she read at the Hauz Khas Village bar Toddy Shop—a few minutes of poetry were followed by a party that went on till the wee hours. It was the first of the monthly Poetry at Toddy evenings launched by Thayil at the bar where the bills come in poetry books.
Invigorated by well-attended book tours and prominent reviews, poets have reason to be happy. “More gratifying (than reviews) are the moments after readings when people come up to me and say they liked this or that specific poem,” says Swami, “or when people write about the book on their blogs, or tweet about it.”
So, can our poets now be less melancholic?
“Indian English poetry is on the cusp of a new moment,” says Narayanan, who accepted Jussawalla’s award on his behalf this week because the Mumbai poet has curtailed his travel. “There seems to be a bunch of very talented young poets who are revving their engines up and all the older poets are writing better than before.”
Narayanan is also heartened by the emergence of “little clutches of poets and writers running small presses” who are rigorous about how they select and publish poetry.
The landmark book encapsulating the fabled age of Indian poetry in English is The Oxford India Anthology Of Twelve Modern Indian Poets. Edited by Mehrotra, this 1992 compilation is into its 17th impression. While editing it, Mehrotra wanted to cast the net much wider than R. Parthasarathy’s compilation, Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets (1976), which missed significant contemporaries like Dom Moraes and Dilip Chitre and didn’t include Agha Shahid Ali, Vikram Seth and Manohar Shetty simply because they arrived much later.
“Parthasarathy’s introductions were blandly descriptive; mine, heavily opinionated,” says Mehrotra. “I had a quite different idea of Indian poetry in English, a different idea of what a poem should be. The main difference between our anthologies was in the general introduction as well as the short introductions to individual poets. I wasn’t always polite when I introduced the poets. It upset some of them. Nissim Ezekiel reportedly chucked the book into the wastepaper basket.”
She notes that Slam poetry (competitive performances) has also drawn many younger people. The past year has been phenomenal. Other than Subramaniam grabbing the first Khushwant Singh prize, Vijay Seshadri won the Pulitzer Prize, and Imtiaz Dharker won Britain’s Her Majesty’s Gold Medal for Poetry. “If that doesn’t say Indian poetry has arrived,” says Malaviya, “I’m not sure what does.”
Thayil’s personal experience illustrates this new reality.
“Twenty years ago, a poetry reading was an exercise in humiliation, for the poet, certainly, but perhaps for the listener too,” he says. “Last year, when I read poems from Adil’s new book at a furniture showroom in (New Delhi’s) Defence Colony, I expected 15 people at the most, including showroom staff. About a hundred turned up.”
Not all, however, share the same level of enthusiasm. Nambisan, who prefers a secluded life in Coorg, Karnataka, says, “It seems that the marketing mentality and commercialism have infected poetry as they have everything else. Publishing is, of course, rank with that infection and poetry can’t stay free of it, unless we choose not to publish. I find distasteful the idea of writers pursuing publishers with manuscripts of poems.”
Facebook, Twitter and websites like PoemHunter.com are helping to get the word out for both new and established poets, and steadily bridging the gap with readers. It’s ironic that technology, which supposedly drives us away from reading, has brought people closer to poetry.
Much is discovered on the Internet these days, and poetry is no different, says Jaideep Warya, a landscape architect and poet who recently moved from New Delhi to London. “It is impossible to hear of a new poet through newspapers or TV. But when reading someone’s brief bio at the end of an opinion piece, you see it mentioned that the person also writes poetry, and then you google his poems. If you like these accidentally discovered poets, then you follow them online or order their books on the websites.”
The zesty poetry scene has also spawned quality commentary. “There has been some wonderful critical comment recently—Laetitia Zecchini’s lovely book on Kolatkar, for instance,” says Narayanan. “There are young writers who have just started publishing criticism—Mantra Mukim and Bharat Iyer come to mind—who are bringing the kind of intensity and empathy to their commentaries that I would normally expect only from poets.”
Even as Indian English poetry gains followers and notches up sales, some publishers are trying to look beyond financial considerations, looking at it as “art for art’s sake”. The AI website declares that it is “a space for literature that threatens, confronts, or bypasses the marketplace.”
Why be in the market then?
“We love persecuting ourselves,” says Mohanty, with a mix of sarcasm and anger. “The idea that people do things only for monetary profit is an extremely superficial attitude to living. There was a need for a journal which would stand up to the market. We are interested in great literature, whether the market considers it successful or not.”
To find new voices, the journal recently launched a manuscript-writing contest that will be judged by Jussawalla and New York-based writer Eliot Weinberger. The winner gets a publishing deal. It has also been holding an annual gathering of poets and prose writers called “Almost Island Dialogues” in New Delhi. The eighth edition was held last month at the India International Centre in the Capital.
“Both the journal and the Dialogues are funded by two people with a deep love for literature who will continue to support it, whether we make profit or not,” says Mohanty. “I have never paid myself for the work I do, and currently most of the team doesn’t get paid, or is given something which is like an honorarium rather than a salary.”
Garcha, who lives in Ghaziabad, near New Delhi, doesn’t even have an office for his firm. How did he manage to steal Berger? “I knew that John’s poems were being published by (UK-based) Smokestack Books,” he says. “I reached out to John’s son, who pointed me to John’s literary agent, from whom we obtained the rights for the Indian edition.”
Berger’s book is not available in New Delhi’s leading book stores, but it’s there on Amazon—Garcha’s major distribution outlet. “Publishing poetry cannot support anyone financially, at least not initially, but who’s to foretell the future?” he says. “It’s time for India to have its own ecosystem of small independent publishers who are driven by passion alone.”
Such passion is evident to anybody who has traced the career graph of independent publisher S. Anand. He says, “I have cut down on poetry because it is so difficult to sell.” Anand’s Navayana press recently brought out a memoir partly written in verse, but he isn’t hopeful about the future of poetry publishing.
“We started (poetry) in 2007 with Namdeo Dhasal’s book,” says Anand. “Despite his iconic stature as one of India’s finest poets, it took us four years to exhaust a stock of 1,400 copies of the low-priced hardback.” On a visit to The London Book Fair the same year, Anand realized poetry sells poorly everywhere. “However, in the first world, be it the UK or Australia, poetry publishing, and much of independent publishing, is supported by generous grants from the arts councils,” he says. “Between 2012-15, the grants allocated by Arts Council England for poetry alone were a phenomenal £6.6 million (around Rs.62.7 crore now). A gentle giant like Faber & Faber received £117,499 in this period. We need something similar in India.”
Anand has also published Meena Kandasamy, whose dramatic style of reciting her feminist and anti-caste poems on stage synchronizes perfectly with the title of one of her poetry collections. “Meena’s Ms Militancy has done well; but clearly, despite her high social profile, even she can’t make a living as a poet or writer,” says Anand. “But I’m sure her translations of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar’s love poems that I’ll publish next year will be a hit.”
Anand speaks highly of Karthika V.K., the HarperCollins publisher: “She is regularly publishing contemporary poets. To sustain that in a trade publishing house is commendable.”
Karthika has brought out 22 poetry books in five years. Her poets at HarperCollins include Altaf Tyrewala, Anita Nair and Hoshang Merchant. She is now ready with a collection by US-based Kazim Ali, who has never been published in India.
Some might argue that Karthika’s rival publishing house is less suicidal. “At Penguin, we haven’t focused on contemporary poets,” says executive editor R. Sivapriya. “The exceptions are Arvind (Krishna) Mehrotra and Ranjit Hoskote.”
HarperCollins brings out about five volumes of poetry a year, each with a print run of 1,000 copies. “That’s a really small number and the reason to publish is not the revenue we earn from it,” says Karthika. She goes on to say that the belief driving the list editorially is simply that poetry is at the heart of literature, it’s where ideas and language originate, and it’s important to help sustain it.
If Mehrotra were to prepare an anthology of modern Indian poets of the new generation, who would he pick?
“It would have more poets than 12,” he says. “Thayil’s 60 Indian Poets, that comes 15 years after mine, has redrawn the map. Then there’s the Internet. I would, though, use it more to discover the past of Indian poetry in English than to keep up with its present.”
Mehrotra adds: “I’d written that the origins of modern poetry in English go no further back than the poets in my anthology. I was ignorant; I’m less so now. The parallels between us and some of the 19th century poets like Kasiprasad Ghose and Toru Dutt are too strong to be missed. Which is why we need good literary history.”
Happily, one such book is being edited in Kolkata by academic Rosinka Chaudhuri. To be published by the Cambridge University Press, New York, it may be priced exorbitantly. A wealthy poetry lover wouldn’t mind paying if it was printed in India by one of our little anti-market presses.
But, then, we are talking of a perfectly poetic world.
Some poets to follow:
u Arundhathi Subramaniam
‘When God Is A Traveller’ won her the first Khushwant Singh Memorial Prize for Poetry.
u Kazim Ali
The US-based author of many volumes of poetry, he will be published for the first time in India this year.
u Sridala Swami
Her first collection, ‘A Reluctant Survivor’, was shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize.
u Vijay Nambisan
His forthcoming collection, ‘First Infinities’, is his second poetry book. The first one was in 1992.
u Vivek Narayanan
Having published two collections of poetry, most recently the ‘Life And Times Of Mr S’, he is working on an “experimental” translation of Valmiki’s Ramayan.
Also read In Mumbai, the poetry never ends