Poetic justice is here
With writers of verse riding high on big publisher backings and support from strong mentoring communities, is the fortune of the neglected verse, finally changing?
There was a time, not very long ago, when Chennai-based writer Sharanya Manivannan, rued about the fate of her poems. She wasn't questioning her poetry, as much as wondering if she'd ever be able to find readers for it.
Sharanya Manivannan. Pic/Rahul Dev
The fears disappeared when she self-published a handmade chapbook of poems and illustrations, titled Iyari, in 2006. Two years later, a small collective published her first fulllength poetry collection titledWitchcraft (Bullfighter Books). By then, Manivannan was sure of one thing: "I had to give up the idea that I was going to make a living publishing poetry," she says. Having said that, the writer exploited every platform where she hoped to be heard. "Getting published in journals, doing readings, open mics and even organising workshops. It was a lot of hard work," she recalls.
Kanishka Gupta. Pic/Ajay Gautam
Today, Manivannan is among the few contemporary poets, who enjoy the backing of big publishing houses. Her second poetry collection, The Altar of the Only World (HarperCollins India), releases this December. Meanwhile, author and literary agent Kanishka Gupta of Writer's Side is putting final touches to his still untitled debut poetry collection, to be published by Speaking Tiger next year.
The news augurs well for a community that has long felt neglected and under-appreciated by mainstream publishers. Whether it's the proliferation of events like poetry slams, theunexpected rise of Instagram phenomena like Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav, or the number of readers patronising works of small presses like The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective and Poetrywala, we've never been in the thick of so much poetry.What we also have are new torchbearers of the genre, who are pushing the boundaries enough for everyone to take notice.
Linda Ashok. Pic/Rane Ashish
Waiting to be heard
"One day I just found myself writing poetry, and felt that the brevity of the format worked for me," says Gupta, of his tryst with the genre. Unfortunately, the rejections came too early, despite heading a large literary agency. "While a couple of publishers didn'tlike my style, what irked me was the outright refusal by most to give the genre a chance," recalls Gupta.
Akhil Katyal confesses to not having the courage to approach big publishers. He won the Editor's Choice Award during last year's The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective contest. Described as a "worthy successor to Agha Shahid Ali" by famed American poet Christopher Merrill, he will soon have his second book of poetry, How Many Countries Does The Indus Cross, released by the collective. Katyal admits that he grew confident of his work only after doyens of the industry recognised potential in his verse.
Akhil Katyal. Pic/Ajay Gautam
But, such validation doesn't come easy, says young poet Linda Ashok, 30, who has just released a new collection called Whorelight (Hawakal). Ashok feels that established writers of verse are "often possessive of the knowledge they have inherited" and not generous with validating newer writers or mentoring them. "With little support or backing from the community, it becomes difficult for poets to make a breakthrough," she says.
But, the problem is more deeply rooted, explains famed poet Tishani Doshi, whose new poetry collection, Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods (HarperCollins India) released last month. "There's a strange phenomenon where there are far more poets than there are readers of poetry, and this is why I think publishing houses struggle with poetry." This, however, is changing with newer poetry movements opening up spaces for talent to showcase their writing.
A platform for verse
In 2013, Ashok created ripples in the literary scene with her pet project,the annual RL Poetry Award. Having previously received the support of poet and art critic Ranjit Hoskote, it today receives contributions from across the globe, including several African and European nations. This year alone,Ashok received 87 manuscripts. "The winners, [one from India and abroad], get 20 copies each of their final work," says Ashok, who has been funding the project with her job as a communications and content manager for an IT firm. "The small effort has helped motivate several of our winners, who've gone on to do bigger things in the field of poetry," she says.
Shikha Malaviya, who co-founded The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, with Minal Hajratwala and Ellen Kombiyil, says they started the platform in 2013 to create a nurturing space for writers of Indian poetry. "The more we interacted with others in the community, the more we realised there was a problem with how poetry was being taught and published. There is nothing more empowering than taking matters into your own hands, and so we decided to create a mentorship model press/platform in which poets participate in all aspects of the production of their books, from editing to typesetting to cover design," said Malaviya.
Tishani Doshi. Pic/Carlo Pizzati
A new wave
The last few years has undoubtedly seen an unprecedented rise inthe numberofwriters,trying their hand at verse. "We've never been in the middle of so much poetry," admits Katyal. "Today, we have writers of 'page poems' [who write] and 'stage poems' [who perform on stage], and the latter is a totally new genre, slowly taking root," he says.
Manivannan says with such varied platforms and opportunities available, writers should stop vying forbig breakthroughs and instead focus on "working with integrity to hone and build their craft". "If you want poets to readyou, you should go seek out the presses that only focus on only publishing poetry. Small publishing houses can give you better editorial experience and attention," she adds.
In the end, says Malaviya, "all exposure is good exposure". "In a digital age, poetry is that one medium that can create ripples because of its compact but powerful character," she says.
Doshi agrees. "I think the world over, poetry seems vital in these crazy times. So much more meaning, so much more texture than any other literary form. People would argue that we've always lived in crazy times. I'd argue that we've always needed poets, and will continue to need them.