All that rhymes, or not

Sep 09, 2012, 08:30 IST | Sowmya Rajaram

In this comprehensive anthology of post-1950s contemporary Indian poetry in English, poet and editor Sudeep Sen presents a panoramic view of the country's poetry culture. From Vikram Seth to Aditi Machado, there's enough here to delight academicians, or just have you fall in love with poetry once again

Why has there been so little awareness of poetry in English by contemporary Indian poets as opposed to contemporary Indian fiction in English?
Poetry has always been on the backburner for mainstream publishers. It is supposedly not good for business, i.e. it does not make money. But poetry lists in any mainstream publishers are supposed to add to the prestige of the house.

It is ironic that it does as very few of them have a serious poetry list in India. Penguin has a very good list of translated poetry of the ancient and medieval times (and some modern) in their Classics list. HarperCollins by far are the market leaders in this genre. Sadly, OUP has shut their list down a good while back. No one else (among the mainstream publishers) touches poetry. Thank God for literary small presses, magazines and online webzines, and for reading circuits, festivals and poetry meets where poetry thrives.

Literature students in the country are often exposed only to a limited pantheon of Indian poets writing in English. Could this volume change that?
Absolutely. I think this anthology will change the way students and literature lovers alike will think about poetry that Indians are writing in a significant way. I am already getting a lot of feedback from various academics all over the country — there is a serious interest in that community. Many of them have ordered the anthology for their college/university libraries, put it on their course reading lists, and some of them are currently writing review-essays on the book. So it is definitely a positive sign on that front.

Could you elaborate on the themes, and historical, cultural and artistic preoccupations that you considered essential for these poems to be included in this volume?
The essential selection criterion was a good well-crafted poem that has, perhaps an interesting narrative, or poems that are formally challenging, or unusual in their approach — certainly I was looking for freshness. My purpose as a practising poet, translator, and literary editor, was to offer a judiciously selected bouquet of modern poetry written by Indians in English, one that presents an unusual and original wordscape of a vastly multilingual, historic and artistic terrain of the variousness of India and the Indian diaspora.

The poetry here uses fresh techniques, linguistic tropes and plays with visual artistry too. Could you talk about the inclusion of Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s poems, as well as Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s and Vivek Narayanan’s in this regard?
There is free verse and an astonishing penchant for formal verse — so you are likely to encounter a pantoum next to an acrostic poem, a triolet juxtaposed against a ghazal, lyric narratives and prose poetry, Sapphic fragments and Bhartrhari-style shataka, mosaic pastiché, ekphrastic verse, sonnet, rubai, poem songs, prayer chants, documentary feeds, rap, reggae, creole, canzone, tritina, sestina, ottava rima, rime royale and variations on waka: haiku, tanka, katauta, choka, bussokusekika, sedoka — the Indian poets are in full flight.

Yes, Rukmini Bhaya Nair is an intelligent poet whose fascination with exploring various verse forms is something I have admired for a long time. Her ‘shatakas’ are not sonnets per se, but an unusual structure that reflects the incantatory mode of orality, aspects of historicity and a certain view of the cultural times of the poem’s setting. This long poem is inspired by Bhartrhari (who was born around 570 AD in Ujjain, Malwa and died in 651 AD). It is a good example how a poet successfully overlays contemporary politics and violent history of the recent times over a historical word/landscape, beautifully and cleverly, without being didactic.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes largely in the American tradition, in particular the avant-garde tradition. Her poems can be minimalist (though ironically and wittily laden with footnotes, as in ‘How to be a Poet’). But when she engages with the Indian landscape, she does so with panache that is infused with a direct epistolary vocabulary. Vivek Narayanan’s ‘In the Early Days of the Delhi Metro (2005)’ is a poet’s paean to Delhi by a person engaged with the city in an intimate way. The poem is at the same time a commentary, a fluid narrative of train-track topography, a poetic device that is declamatory in nature — all in all, it is a fine performance piece that is subtly textured and layered. I love the visual structure too where the second and third lines in each stanza mimic the actual parallelism of the rail-lines, with the first and fourth lines indicating the hint of the platform’s presence on either side.

What are the prominent themes and influences you discerned while putting together this anthology?
The subject matter and themes of the poems and their poetic concerns are staggeringly large and wide-ranging. There is introspection and gregariousness, politics and pedagogy, history and science, illness and fantasy, love and in erotica, sex and death — the list is centrifugal, efferent, and expansive.

How does contemporary Indian fiction compare with contemporary Indian poetry?
Taking into consideration the quality of the contents in this anthology, I would provocatively assert that the best English poetry written by Indians in the contemporary national and international literary arena is perhaps as good or superior to Indian fiction in English as a whole. There is bravura, experimentation, risk-taking, innovation, erudition, and delightfully uninhibited and fine use of language by the poets here. And for the best of them, this book is just a mere show window displaying only a small slice of the authors’ individual oeuvre that is wide-ranging and impressive.

Many writers in the anthology come from the larger Indian diaspora. There is a departure from the traditional diaspora themes, however. Why and how has this changed?
Fortunately, the contemporary poets in the Indian diaspora are no longer stuck in the past debates of identity, colour, black politics (though these themes may subtly appear in a textured way). The best of them have all moved on and embraced the use of the English language as their own and just as confidently as their peers of their host country — and this is refreshingly different from the earlier practitioners of verse.

Since 90 per cent of these poems are fresh and unpublished, on what basis were they commissioned for this anthology?
Simple enough — I asked good poets who I thought should be in the book for their new work for me to choose from. I had also sent out a general call for submission, just in case I missed out on a voice that needed attention. Selection itself was based on good writing and that alone.

The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry by Indians Edited by Sudeep Sen Rs 599 Published by HarperCollins

Shiva’s digs
Fragrant floured
Nude blue bloat
Last seen by the boy who
Wanted to be a ghost

The scavenger hooks
Fingers in the rim
Bone pots conk
Dangling swing

Finger a ring ran away with
Knobs and bits
Found in ash spills

It’s his job but gravely notes
Soil bored with air
Fluids laying cesspits
— by Mani Rao

Love’s language lost
She thinks
She thinks that he knows
She thinks that he knows that you believe
She thinks that he knows that you believe that I feel
She thinks that he knows that you believe that I feel that they imagine
She thinks that he knows that you believe that I feel that they imagine that we sense
She senses that he imagines that you feel that I believe that they think
She imagines that he feels that you believe that they know
She feels that he imagines that I believe
She believes that he feels
She imagines

love’s language lost
— by Rukmini Bhaya Nair

The hermit on the ice
The hermit sits upon the ice.
The bluish light burns all around,
Immune to flame and sacrifice,
To breath and death and scent and sound.

The scent of pine, the river’s roar
Are muted in his breath and pace.
The blue earth with its iron core
Spins on through time, spins on through space.
— By Vikram Seth

Swayamvar: sita
The way you bent that bow
made me love the place
your spine begins its declensions
(base/apex, high/low),
yet dread the symmetry
of man and weapon;
the deadly circle
of your combined inversions:
you rigid
with complex curvature of bone,
the other turning all that is liquid
into stone.
— by Leela Gandhi

Still life: artichoke
Inside an art—
cave of mirrors,
creased petals,
— by Siddhartha Bose

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