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Collected in chromatic colours: rekindling the poetry reading sessions

By May 13, 2018No Comments
Source : The Hindu  –  Arundhathi Subramaniam


The glut of collected poetry volumes is pushing poets out of the isolation of the margins to the centre of a rather interesting dialogue

It’s raining ‘Collecteds’ in the world of Indian poetry. C.P. Surendran has a book out, Jeet Thayil had one out before that. Keki Daruwalla has just published a book that spans 12 years of poetry. And Gieve Patel’s Collected is out this month, bringing together more than 50 years of personal engagement with verse and translation.

At one level, the rationale is glaringly obvious. Books of poetry are perennially out of print. There’s absolutely no way one can read the earlier work of any of the pre- or even early-millennial poets unless one scours the depths of a handful of university libraries (or plans a pilgrimage to the literary archive, Study Centre for Indian Literature in English and Translation (SCILET), in Madurai). Few readers would embark on such archaeological insanity.

Grateful for legacy

But there is surely more at work here. Why are publishers suddenly inclined to present a panoramic perspective of a poet’s oeuvre? Is it cultural nostalgia? Retro-chic? Part of the academic impulse to mythologise certain South Asian cities as hubs of cosmopolitan coolth? What explains the palpable curiosity about ‘yesteryear poetry’?

Poetry 1

In recent times, I have received such a barrage of emails from young journalists and academics asking about the poetry scene in Bombay/ Mumbai ‘back then’ that I have begun to realise that I am passing, unbeknownst to myself, into a state of impending cultural specimenhood. It’s a strange experience. Strange because one is so used to the marginality of poetry that being part of a scene that suddenly ‘counts’ makes me feel a bit like a deer in the headlights.

I am wary of turning nostalgist. I’ve always believed in anecdotage being a sign of dotage — or just gossip dignified by the trappings of literary ethnography. But as I watch the growing tide of curatorial mayhem at lit fests — where poetry sessions are thrown together with a blithely slapdash and ahistorical understanding of context — I am beginning to see the value of documentation. Anecdotage isn’t always about cronyism and old boys’ networks. It is also about acknowledging one’s place in a wider narrative, and being grateful for ‘legacy’ with its complex skein of continuity and rupture.

And so, the recent avalanche of Collected Poetry volumes serve perhaps an important function. They are not just maps of solo trajectories, but reminders of context. Behind every ‘Collected’ is a muted welter of echoes, conversations, quarrels and feuds with a cultural milieu. Poets can seem formidably dense in individual volumes of verse. But in ‘Collecteds’, they suddenly seem less splendidly isolated. You see them mutating, more in dialogue with their surroundings. A Collected is a weathered photo album journeying slowly from sepia to chromatic exuberance; it is not the fleeting dazzle of Instagram.

A certain wistfulness

In his book, C.P. Surendran begins with a moving tribute to the late Vijay Nambisan. He speaks of heady days of poetic formation shared with Nambisan and Jeet Thayil in Dom Moraes’ Colaba salon, where the art was inseparable from alcohol, the self-exploratory from self-destructive. Poetry seemed, he says, like “a defiant and dangerous personal vocation”. Self-abuse may have been somewhat needlessly glorified, he admits, but certainly the self-promotional ethic of the marketplace had no place here. As a younger contemporary in the same city, I share some of C.P.’s wistfulness. I was certainly not a Moraes saloniste. Poetry for me was not the truculent, glowering, nocturnal beast he describes. I preferred the less dangerous environs of Nissim Ezekiel’s headquarters at the PEN where talking poetry over pumpkin halwaseemed as exciting as talking art over absinthe. But my formative world was also edgy and contemptuous of easy reward in its own way. This, I realise, made mine a “cusp” generation: we saw a period of widening opportunity and post-IT global access, but had literary beginnings determinedly synonymous with low-keyness, chronic self-deprecation and ironic understatement.

Protean tradition

Ezekiel’s dusty, book-festooned room became sanctuary through much of the 1990s to the Poetry Circle — a congregation of bright, sometimes brilliant, sometimes obstreperous, young talents in the city. Founded in 1986, the Circle evolved into a fluid organisation through the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s, changing form and composition, but never quite losing its identity.

Poetry 3

The Circle was sanctuary and creative akhada all at once. Our poetics were highly diverse. And yet, as we discussed how to shape a line or scrape the enamel off a phrase, we were shaping, and being shaped by, a living, protean tradition.

We lived in a city that was home to several poets: Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawalla, Dilip Chitre, Eunice de Souza, Gieve Patel, Imtiaz Dharker, Kersy Katrak, Ezekiel, Moraes, among others. And while some could seem odd or puzzlingly misanthropic, their presence offered a definite set of reference points (even if, at times, to define oneself against) — and above all, a sense of being connected to a living history of Indian poetry.

At the Circle, we were not without our own ungenerous moments. But I think what made it more community than cartel was the fact that the lack of generosity was addressed as much at the self as at the world. And much of the time, we were just deeply grateful for a hard-won camaraderie.

We were a temperamentally disparate bunch — Ranjit Hoskote, Jerry Pinto, Masud Taj, Gayatri Majumdar, Menka Shivdasani, Prabhanjan Mishra, Marilyn Noronha, T.R. Joy, Ashley Tellis, Derek Antao, Abhay Sardesai, among others — that read eclectically, often ferociously, and argued bitterly.

The conversations could be acerbic but were always stimulating, the air alive with possibility. Friendships could sometimes flounder over raging disagreements about line lengths and misplaced adjectives. But there were omelette sandwiches and chai at ‘Stadium’ afterwards over which frayed egos could be mollified.

Proudly marginal

More significantly, there was little careerism in the air; publishing opportunities were seldom discussed (because they were negligible) and there was little or no networking spirit to speak of. This wasn’t a world of smug cliques, of literary circuitry, of ‘poets on the make’. “Can poetry ever be a group activity?” I once remember being asked. It certainly cannot. But the Circle offered us, I realise in retrospect, a wavering community of solitudes, a solidarity of the proudly marginal.

Nostalgia runs the risk of lapsing into delusional mythologising. But as a way of re-examining the more shrilly self-promotional impulses of the present, documenting a history has its uses. Between canonical elitism and indiscriminate inclusiveness, there must be a way. A way to create a scene that is hospitable and rigorous all at once. That is based neither on self-flagellation nor on self-advertisement. That invites poets, writers and curators to be sensitive to a past without ceasing to be alert to the present.

And so, when Gieve Patel’s Collected volume is released this May, it will be testimony to a poet who has had an even longer innings in the literary scene of a complex city. If a dose of nostalgia is what it takes to win a new reader to English poetry in India, so be it. May the ‘Collecteds’ go forth and multiply.

The writer is a poet and author.

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