I will make you buy my book," declared Tenzin Tsundue, self-published Tibetan poet, writer and activist, at New Delhi’s Yodakin book-store launch of Tsen-Gol, a mix of prose and poetry comprising his fourth book. He was explaining how publishing poetry at a grass-roots level literally sustains his activism. “Mine is a model of persistent personal entrepreneurship anyone can use; it’s my food."

This determined small-scale salesmanship vivifies the small group of publishers who comprise India’s independent poetry scene today.

Sidelined, as always, by the country’s publishing boom of the last five years, poetry is still a vocal player in its tough corner of the market. For this decade’s independent publishers—Poetrywala Publications, Almost Island Books, Pratilipi Books, Harbour Line Press, Navayana Publishing, Yoda Press and Zubaan Books (of these, only Poetrywala Publications and Harbour Line Press publish solely poetry)—the effective dissemination of the genre still comes first; before profits that they wouldn’t mind, but cannot reasonably expect.

Being ignored as well as sometimes blindly adored by the masses is the birthright of poetry. Even dedicated readers do not always have time for it. Out of everyone reading the books pages, a few might read this piece. But poetry also possesses the viral kind of cultural power usually commanded by socio-political causes.

Indie verse: Poet Vivek Narayanan is the co-publisher of poetry at Almost Island Books. Photographs by Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Numbers have always been low, impact wide. Poetry publication in the 1960s had Kolkata’s Writers Workshop, founded in 1958, and the Sahitya Akademi, founded in 1954 and working quietly on state subsidy—both are less prominent today. In the 1970s and 1980s, outfits like Clearing House, the ephemeral Mumbai poetry collective founded by senior poets like Adil Jussawalla and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in 1976, left a significant influence. The indies who took over in the noughties, after the reign of mainstream press Rupa & Co. in the 1990s, have had to be inventive to survive.

Tsundue, 37, uses a basic publishing plan to ensure his verse is read. Imperial Printing Press, Dharamsala, prints 2,000 copies—usually on reused newspaper and with handmade, recycled covers—at a cost price of roughly Rs8 per copy, so he can sell them at an unrivalled Rs50. This suits his politics and minimal lifestyle. “Mainstream publishers often cannot wait for five years for a book. But I am completely independent; I can produce more as I like, I have the copyright."

Are these one-man lyrical empires a necessary model?

“The scene is so emaciated, you can’t plug into something that is already there. You have to multitask and build the whole edifice: writing, publishing, editing, criticism," confirms Delhi-based poet, publisher and editor Vivek Narayanan, 39. “You have to make your own scene; poetry has always worked this way."

In April, he helped present Khari Boli, a performance featuring Hindi poets and English translators; a kind of sequel to Surfaces, a similar event he organized last year whose output later appeared in a limited edition of 100. He co-edits online literary journal, Almost Island (founded by writer Sharmistha Mohanty), which holds an annual international writers dialogue in the Capital and debuted an eponymous poetry list in 2011 with Trying to Say Goodbye, Jussawalla’s first in 35 years.

Narayanan, whose own second book of verse is forthcoming, says it can cost as little as Rs20,000-25,000 to produce a print run of 500 priced at Rs300. “If you want to be published, publish someone else’s poems—it’ll come back to you," he suggests.

For the poet-publisher, editing is also a creative activity. He lingered over and savoured the publication of his first the way a major publisher, with its many babies, cannot.

“My concern remains with small presses: There is a sense of cooperation, of working with people who care," says Jussawalla, who keeps the memory of the Clearing House days alive. “The question is sustainability; small presses have their own natural life."

S. Anand of Navayana has published volumes by poets Cheran and Meena Kandasamy.

Navayana has published six stylish poetry books for under Rs200 each—one or two a year—since it began in 2003, featuring non-mainstream voices like N.D. Rajkumar, a daily wage worker in Nagercoil. Ms Militancy is a top seller, at 1,000 copies in 18 months, and earned review attention rare for poetry.

Anand tells of his first collaboration—now legendary in poetry circles—with Marathi poet Dilip Chitre, who translated Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal, and to whom he offered an unheard-of advance of Rs10 000; poets do not get advances, only due royalties. “Over three nights of wonderful drinking and merrymaking, we (Chitre and Anand) did the whole book; after 6pm we drank, and around 1 or 2am came the serious work. I woke up early and edited, then Chitre woke up—and it began all over again." Indie poetry is this alternatively rewarding kind of party.

Popular online book store Flipkart is the answer for Hemant Divate, 45, a Marathi poet, translator and editor who began self-funded Poetrywala Publications 10 years ago. “We focus on quality new voices," he says. The largest independent poetry publisher today, Poetrywala Publications has released 40 books, including noted younger poets such as Sampurna Chattarji and Anand Thakore, and plans 8-10 titles this year. Each has print runs of 500 and sells over four-five years, ranging from Rs700 for Chitre’s 364-page book, to just Rs80.

Ultimately, though, Narayanan reminds us, “Poetry is the last un-commodified art form." He narrates the tale of a Chinese prisoner who hand-copied verse from his journal in the ultimate limited edition. “We’ve been trying for more than a century to turn it into a commodity, " he says, “and haven’t succeeded."

Should we be trying now?

***************

Free Verse

Two poems from independent poetry publishing

Radio

One wire, what’s left of me.

If it worked like a hologram

you’d get the full picture:

what I was when you first

brought me home years ago.

••••

It’s me you miss most, not the Tate,

the flicks. You miss

the cities of music you had at your fingertips:

Berlin, Luxembourg, Hilversum, Paris,

their crackle, their hiss.

••••

One touch and I gave you

the full Braille of their music to learn.

And that’s how you made your way,

city by musical city, out of London,

my pointer your cane,

my blind face close to yours,

sending out words you could sing.

••••

Adil Jussawalla, Trying to Say Goodbye (Almost Island Books, 2011).

Somewhere I Lost My Losar*

Somewhere along the path, I

lost it, don’t know where or when.

••••

It wasn’t a one-fine-day incident.

As I grew up it just got left behind,

very slowly, and I didn’t go back for it.

It was there when as a kid I used to wait

for the annual momo dinner,

when we lined up for gifts that came

wrapped in newspapers in our

refugee school, it was there when

we all gained a year together, before

birthdays were cakes and candles.

••••

Somewhere along the path, I

lost it, don’t know where or when.

••••

When new clothes started to feel

stiff and firecrackers frightening, when

our jailed heroes ate in pigsties there,

or were dead, heads smashed

against the wall as we danced

to Bollywood numbers here,

when the boarding school and uniforms

took care of our daily needs, when

family meant just good friends,

sometime when Losar started to mean

just a new year, few sacred routines,

somehow, I lost my Losar.

••••

Somewhere along the path, I

lost it, don’t know where or when.

••••

Colleged in seaside city, when it was

still Bombay, sister’s family on pilgrimage,

uncle in Varanasi, mother grazing cows

in South India, still need to report

to Dharamsala police, couldn’t get train tickets,

too risky to try waiting list, and it’s

three days, including return journey

it’s one week. Even if I go,

other siblings may not find the time. Adjusting

timings, it’s been 20 years without a Losar.

••••

Somewhere along the path, I

lost it, don’t know where or when.

••••

Losar is when we the juveniles and bastards

call home, across the Himalayas and cry

into the wire. Losar is some plastic flowers

and a momo party. And then in 2008

when our people rode horses, shouting ‘Freedom’ against rattling machine guns, when they died like flies in the Olympics’ spectacle,

we shaved our heads bald and threatened

to die by fasting, but failed. I

couldn’t die.

••••

Somewhere along the path, I

lost it, don’t know where or when.

Somewhere, I lost my Losar.

••••

*Losar is the Tibetan New Year in the lunar calendar which generally falls in February or March.

Tenzin Tsundue, Tsen-Gol (2012).

rajni.g@livemint.com

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