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Ode to the world wide web

By March 20, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu – SUNDAY MAGAZINE    –    K. Srilata



Leading up to World Poetry Day, a look at how much Anglophone poetry has changed. The market-unaware Indian poet of the 80s, faintly apologetic about writing in English, is nowhere to be found today


Up until the 90s, Anglophone poetry was considered a ‘minority’ interest, a genre which had not ‘arrived’ in the way that Anglophone fiction had. As an Anglophone poet myself, I was acutely aware of this. You could count on your fingers the number of anthologies that publishing houses such as Oxford University Press or Penguin published. Literature syllabi of Indian universities did not seem to care much for this poetry either. This, despite the fact that so much English poetry was properly canonical and kosher (Milton, for instance, or Wordsworth) and despite a major re-thinking within English Studies that had resulted in the prising open of the literary canon so that it now included Anglophone literatures and literatures in translation. One reason was that the poems were considered a pedagogical challenge. No one quite knew what to do with them. All things considered, the genre appeared to have missed most buses. Then the Internet, which first appeared in India in the 90s, changed all that.

The Anglophone poets of the 80s had learnt not to measure their ‘success’ against that of their fiction-writing colleagues. One was simply not running the same race. After all, the conditions for poetry to thrive, the nature of the art, the work rhythm of writing and publishing poetry (often done in staccato bursts and between times) were substantially different from those surrounding the writing of fiction. So, arguably, were the rewards. A poem was deemed as having done its job when a line you had written lodged itself inside the mind of a reader somewhere. One wasn’t looking to be a best-seller.

A new landscape

For Anglophone poets writing in the post-Internet, post social-media era, however, these little nuggets of wisdom must seem strange. They find themselves in a substantially altered landscape. Tishani Doshi and Meena Kandasamy have a fan following that rivals that of many a best-selling novelist. Anglophone poetry in India today is, at least on the face of it, more ‘vibrant’ than ever before. There has been a radical transformation of writing practices, forms, readership, publishing and mentoring practices. Much of this is happening on the sidelines — in the informal sphere outside of academia and outside of mainstream publishing. The tiny canon of Anglophone poetry in India has been caught napping, and as a woman poet who began writing in the days of snail mail I am cautiously happy. For the first time, the textbook or the anthology put together by an established poet is no longer the only go-to place for poets and readers of poetry. There are ways to bypass literary gatekeepers whose blind spots deserve a whole other essay.

In the pre-Internet, pre social-media era, if you didn’t find yourself in the right place at the right time, it was difficult to get your foot in the door. More importantly, you simply did not have a peer group or mentors. Geography was quite literally everything and that tiny strip of land then called Bombay — home to Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes — mattered considerably. In the mid-70s, the Bombay poets Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar and Gieve Patel even started a poetry publishing collective called the Clearing House.

Indeed, the city shaped some of the most significant voices in Anglophone poetry that included, apart from the above four, Eunice de Souza and, a generation later, Ranjit Hoskote and Arundhathi Subramaniam. Today, email and socialmedia constitute another sort of geography altogether, at least for those fortunate enough to have access to them and for those who possess the complex literacies these forms demand.

Begins with a ‘Like’

Online poetry journals and social media networks have not only facilitated the rise of new poets creating a completely new dynamic in the Anglophone poetry world, they have also given poets from the pre- and post-Internet era new ways to share their work and engage with the work of other poets (even if much of this begins with the somewhat dubious ‘Like’ button on Facebook). To sift the grain from the chaff becomes an enormously challenging task, of course, for there are almost too many poems coming at you from different directions, cluttering your inbox and your social media feed. But it changes the nature of the game.

Fuelled by these developments are the rise of new online poetry journals (to which you can submit via email or “submitabble”) as also new players in poetry publishing, many of them run by poets. Older presences like the Kolkata-based Writers Workshop have been supplemented by other small poetry presses, some of which operate on the basis of the economically sound option of print-on-demand. Marathi poet Hemant Divate and his wife Smruti Divate set up Poetrywala, an imprint of Paperwall in 2003, which has published debut books and books by established poets such as K. Satchidanandan, Gieve Patel, Eunice de Souza and Vijay Nambisan.

Leap of faith

Twenty years ago, says Hemant Divate, there were no buyers for poetry and no poetry presses in Mumbai. It was all down to small groups of poets reading to each other from their work. In 2003, the poet Dilip Chitre translated Divate’s Marathi poems into English and since there was no publisher in sight the latter decided to publish it on his own.

This is how Poetrywala started — a leap of faith made by a Marathi poet which had implications, eventually, for Anglophone poetry. Divate argues that it is a good time for poetry. The presence of online book stores has changed the nature of distribution and availability with most poetry-lovers ordering books online. The phenomenon of print-on-demand means that smaller presses can publish poetry without going broke.

Other poetry presses and initiatives include RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts, Copper Coin, Red River, Dhauli Books, Hawakal, and Yavanika Press. In what is perhaps an unexpected fallout of the success of these poetry presses, bigger publishers who do not have dedicated poetry imprints are also publishing the occasional poetry title.

Established in Bengaluru in 2013, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, founded by poets Shikha Malaviya, Minal Hajratwala and Ellen Kombiyil, has published the work of new poets such as Akhil Katyal and Urvashi Bahuguna. It follows an interesting peer mentorship model, which means that established poets help new poets to fine-tune their manuscripts. The poet is involved in designing the book as well. Poets who become part of the collective return the favour by mentoring a new collective member and participating in the work of the press. Malaviya says, “We are the only small poetry press in India to offer this, and it is amazing to see how our poets grow by actively participating in the editorial, publishing and mentoring process. Most presses accept a manuscript, give the author their edits, and then ask them to make one round of changes before finalising the manuscript for publishing. We sit down with our poets and go through each poem, as well as the architecture of the manuscript as a whole. We look at the themes, the order, the actual construction of the poem itself, and offer critical feedback that may result in three to six revisions.”

Contemporary Anglophone poetry in India is also supported by creative writing residencies (both in India and abroad), by MFA programmes in the U.S. and in the U.K, which provide easy access to work by poets from all over the world (this makes for some fascinating and unpredictable cross-influences); by festivals dedicated to poetry such as the Bengaluru poetry festival and the Prakriti poetry festival; by prizes and readings; by a growing sub-culture of slam and spoken word poetry. The somewhat shy, market-unaware, metropolitan poet who was maybe even faintly apologetic about writing in English is nowhere to be found. The new poet is a post-globalisation, post-Internet era poet.

All about everything

Thematically, there is no one thing that appears to characterise this new poetry — for its subject is everything, from mental illness to anxieties about the body to the political landscape to Bollywood. Available at the click of a button on mobile phones and laptop screens, this is poetry that is confident, cheeky and unapologetic. It is poetry that has quite literally re-invented itself. Its readers are drawn from everywhere and they are getting younger and younger. There is no danger of obsolescence.

The involvement of the poet in the making and the promotion of the book and the presence of online poetry communities have de-stabilised the older, more romantic idea of the poet as a recluse untouched by commerce — an idea that has clearly outlived its time and was perhaps thoroughly unsustainable. However, these new ways of being a poet must make for a busy, highly fragmented and frazzled existence. One cannot help wondering if this does not lead to artistic burn-out, to a situation in which the poet has less and less writing time. The relentless pressure to be visible and to promote your work could well come at the price of quietude. Considering how fraught the business of writing can be in itself, you wonder if this price is, in the end, worth it.

The writer is poet, fiction writer and Professor of Literature at IIT Madras.

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