ARUN KOLATKAR: POET EXTRAORDINAIRE

Just got The Collected Poems of Arun Kolatkar in English, published by Bloodaxe Books (UK),  and what a treasure chest of poetry it is! I love Kolatkar’s poems just as much as I love Neruda’s and Lorca’s. Actually even more, because I can relate to their Indianness. His poems are like arrows that hit the heart straight. There is reverence for the mundane, humor and irony of how the lives of man, animal and landscape collide, and irony in how things come together and fall apart. Kolatkar is the real deal.

Can there ever be poets like him and his Clearinghouse gang in our generation? Now that I’ve thrown myself back in the poetry ring, I’ve come to realize how fickle the business of poetry has become, with more poets focused on image and publicity, rather than the power of their words and the inspiration that propelled the whole process. Kolatkar, Chitre,  and other poets of that generation knew that their words, once put down on paper, became avatars of their own and they respected that. Call me an idealist, but I long for those endless cups of chai, wrinkled manuscript in hand, type of meetings with poets and writers, where the laptop and cellphone are absent and our minds are focused on the craft and its numinousity (this should be a real word, an extension of numinous).

P.S.  If nothing else, one should read Kolatkar’s poem BREAKFAST TIME at KALA GHODA (p. 125), to see how beautifully this maestro of poetry conducts his orchestra of words. The poem in itself is an opera of Indian street life. How I wish I could have met him.

100 THOUSAND POETS FOR CHANGE, IN BANGALORE

Folks in Bangalore,

Mark your calendars for SEPTEMBER 29, for an evening of poetry, music and awareness. I am so very excited to be involved in this event. 100 Thousand Poets for Change (www.100tpc.org) is spearheaded by an American poet, Michael Rothenberg, to bring writers, musicians and artists together, all on one day, in different parts of the world, to raise awareness on issues that affect our society and greater world. To learn more about the Bangalore event, visit the FB page: https://www.facebook.com/100TPCBangalore

I have always been a believer in the power of words to create/promote social change. Mahatma Gandhi, through words and action, was able to arouse a whole nation to fight for their freedom. Martin Luther King through his famous speech, I have a Dream, was able to inspire African Americans to fight for their civil rights. And singers like John Lennon, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, through their songs, have been able to help us ‘Imagine all the people, living life in peace.’

Poets like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldua and Carolyn Forche`, have moved me with their commitment to embrace social change though their writing. I remember cracking open Adrienne Rich’s What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics and being flabbergasted  that one could be so honest in exploring activism through art. Indian poets like Namdeo Dhasal and Meena Kandasamy have blasted through stereotypes with their powerful poetry, exploring issues of caste, class and religion.  There are so many writers and artists, who through their words, have touched our lives, and will continue to do so.

What can you and I do? We can believe that nothing is too small or insignificant. Every word, every notion, every emotion counts. Drops do form an ocean. A simple poem can touch us and move us to action. Maybe a poem about a school under a tree, will make us want to volunteer once a week at a government school or help fund a new school. Maybe hearing a poem on domestic violence will give you the courage to approach your friend who’s been hiding her bruises We have the opportunity to put belief into action. And while I am not sure how things will evolve, I will be there to see the power of words bring us all together. Hope to see you there too.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY INDIA

A few days ago, India celebrated 65 years of Independence. It was a bright, breezy day in Bangalore, as the saffron, green and white of India’s flag flapped away on car hoods, auto rickshaw sideview mirrors, and from tall poles. We went to our children’s school Independence Day celebration, where everyone was dressed in their ethnic best: tunics, dupattas, skirts, and salwars in bright colors. There were songs, a play, and dances, and a speech from the chief guest, telling the children they made up 50% of India’s population and that as India’s future, they needed to think about what freedom means and how to preserve it. Most listened, but there was a general restlessness among the younger ones, who wanted to celebrate freedom by running around and playing. These younger ones stole the show with a song that they enacted, dressed in costumes from different parts of India. I had never heard this song-my kids are older now, listening to rock and pop, instead of nursery rhymes-but this song stole my heart with its beautiful message of unity in diversity. It’s by Usha Uthup, India’s sultry voiced-Bindi Babe, who is Just Like You 😉

Enjoy!

THE PROLOGUE OF NARCOPOLIS…

is seven pages long and has no periods in it until after the last word, how interesting is that? am feeling a little breathless just at the thought of reading the prologue out loud, which i’m sure Jeet Thayil must do, at book readings, and yes folks, this means i just got my copy, so stay tuned for the review, and for those who have not yet heard of Narcopolis or that it is longlisted for the Booker prize,  please see my post here.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF INDIAN POETRY ANTHOLOGY

(Cross-posted in T(G)IPP)

DO GOOD DIPLOMATS MAKE GOOD POETS?

Wrote a little ditty for T(G)IPP on India’s diplomat-poets. You can read it here. In the past two weeks, I kept coming across small snippets on the internet, featuring Indian diplomats who are inspired by their travels to write poems. Obviously, their diplomatic status has helped bring their work to light. And that’s fine by me, if it brings people’s attention to Indian poetry. But are their poems any good? Maybe this is a good time for me to flash the poet’s ‘poetic immunity’ card. Ah, if there were such a thing. It’s not all that bad, really. But after Pablo Neruda’s contributions to the poetry world, diplomat-poets and plain old poets for that matter, have their work cut out for them.

SOMETHING TO GET BOOKED UP ABOUT…

Am not sure how other Booker nominees fare, but every time an Indian author gets their novel nominated for the Man Booker prize, there is always criticism, often the severe sort. So there I was, DNA Sunday Mag open, ginger tea in one hand (you are correct to sense a pattern here), reading the column Telliscope, by Delhi based Gay activist Ashley Tellis. His article, named Nothing to get Booked up about, recalls a time when the Booker prize meant something, namely 1972, when John Berger won the Booker, criticized the sponsors for having made their prize money from unfair trade, and then donated his prize money to the Black Panther party in England and to migrant workers. According to Tellis, the Booker prize seems to have now lost all sense of literary merit. How exactly? Tellis shares with his readers:

Today, the Booker is a joke. At 60,000 pounds, it may be a hefty prize but there is no real sense of the literary in it. In relation to India, it is like the literary equivalent of the beauty contest syndrome. It seems like the odd Indian (or Third worlder) needs to win it now and then to keep the book industry, like the cosmetic industry, going rather than because there is any literary merit in the writing. Absolutely appalling novels like The Inheritance of Loss and The White Tiger have won it. Arundhati Roy’s pathetic The God of Small Things, written in illiterate non-English, started the trend and now every other year has an Indian on it.

I am not very familiar with Mr. Tellis’s literary qualifications, but his criticism seems infantile, at best. All of us in the writing world (and many of those not in the writing world), know how to use adjectives such as appalling, pathetic and non-literate. In fact, those are adjectives I could very well fit in while describing Tellis’s aforementioned article. I am not against what Tellis has to say. There are many others who feel the same way about literary prizes in general. But there is a way to say things, a way in which people might take another person’s opinion seriously. If the Booker is a joke, how so? Why?

Tellis goes on to share his opinion about Indian poet and writer Jeet Thayil’s novel Narcopolis being long listed for the Booker:

Jeet Thayil’s appalling Narcopolis has made it to the long list and he’s about as radical as a stale carrot. In a recent interview, he spoke of how all those drugged days were a waste of time and how he’s so glad to be given a second chance! He’s been producing books like a popcorn machine and one worse than the other. His lobbying with the Western world means that they think he’s the bee’s knees when he’s only a washed out pseudo-junkie. He pretended to be radical by reading out from Rushdie’s novel and then ran out of Jaipur with his radical cohort for fear of being arrested at that national farce called the Jaipur Literary festival. John Berger would barf.

Yes, yes, here is yet another appalling novel, apparently of the stale carrot variety. Run out of adjectives Mr. Tellis? One can’t help but think there is a personal attack here, within Tellis’s words. And that is truly sad. I’ve often seen that when a poet crosses over to fiction, he is met with more scrutiny, with purists from both genres breathing down their throat. Will it be all imagery and no plot? Will it be just flowery language and word play? Personally, I love poet turned novelists. Michael Ondaatje is probably one of the most successful examples. I have not yet read Narcopolis, but have come across very mixed reviews. In fact, I remembered reading a particularly scathing review of Narcopolis after it had just been realeased. On tracking it down, lo and behold, guess who had written it? Tellis, at the beginning of his review, declares Narcopolis to be “one of the worst novels written in the English language anywhere.”

Perhaps all of this is just as good an excuse as any, to debate what constitutes a good novel, and to revisit the ‘Indian novel in English.’ Changes are happening in form, content and readership and along with that expectations.  I would also be very interested in knowing how judges in literary competitions come to a consensus. On their website, the Man Booker Committee seem quite transparent on how they choose their books:

Since they began reading shortly before Christmas the judges –Dinah BirchAmanda ForemanDaniel Stevens and Bharat Tandon – have met regularly but informally. They have discussed, debated, even argued (but amicably) about the entries…For this year’s prize, Peter Stothard (The Booker Chair) chose a different approach. Every novel on the agenda was first discussed with debate in each case led by one of the judges. What rereading quickly proved was that not every novel can stand up to being read even a second time so soon after the first…It took the best part of three hours for the longlist – or Man Booker Dozen – to emerge. I can testify that the process had been vigorous. Passion proved important. By the end novels by eight former winners had fallen by the wayside; only three out of fifteen works entered by previously shortlisted authors survived.

All said and done, judgments are made on opinions and in the case of literary committees, a consensus of judgments. The world pretty much works that way.  If you don’t like the book, stop reading. I have many half-read books on my bookshelves. If you want to write about a book, show us you know your stuff, without the pejoratives.

I am really happy that an Indian writer has been nominated for the Booker. I wish Jeet Thayil the very best. This week, I plan to buy Narcopolis, and I promise to read it with an open mind.

Oh, and one last thing. Mr. Ashley Tellis, if you happen to see this, I strongly recommend that you read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

THE ETHNIC LITERATURE BOX

 I have sometimes wondered how much of the ghettoization of Asian American writers has been self-inflicted. Maybe the onus is on us to branch out more from writing about race and identity, immigration and assimilation…

In an interview with Guernica Magazine, Don Lee is unabashedly honest about being an Asian-American writer and of the cultural burdens/expectations associated with it. He also talks about what writing out of the ethnic literature box might mean and why it has taken Asian American writers so long to do so. Which makes one ask, is it really possible? Can the ‘great Indian immigrant novel’ ever be written? Many applaud The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, for its portrayal of Indian immigrant life in the U.S., during the 1970s and 80s, which is when I grew up there too. I was so excited to read The Namesake. But after I did, I couldn’t help but think, ‘This is not my life. This is not how my parents were. This is not how we lived.’ I  found Lahiri’s portrayal of Indian immigrant life to be two-dimensional, passive and  with an angst that didn’t seem compatible with the struggle. But why the expectation to see my life in someone else’s story in the first place? What is it that we, as cross-cultural readers and writers, seek?

I am no Don Lee or Jhumpa Lahiri, but I am a writer. And I do struggle with issues of identity. In fact, my first poetry collection was so steeped in it, that I decided not to publish it. Like the internet, once your words are out there, they are out there. I wasn’t this angst-ridden confused cross-cultural soul and I didn’t want my writing to identify me as such. As a 19-20 year old, I was really excited to explore poems/stories that talked about being caught in the middle of cultures, assimilation, and while assimilation will always fascinate me, twenty years of reading the same thing over and over again makes me think, “yeah, yeah, whatever, cry me a river.’ I think an immigrant writer having to write about identity and culture is like puberty, a rite of passage before getting to where you really want to go. Twenty years ago, when I sat in creative writing classes at the University of Minnesota, people were still trying to understand what other cultures meant. They nodded in recognition when one of their own shared a piece on how the mighty Mississippi was a metaphor for their own turbulent life, but couldn’t understand how the mighty Ganges pouring out of the locks of the Hindu God Shiva might be a metaphor for something powerful too. Suffice it to say, we’ve come a long way. At least the reader has. I am still waiting for an Indo-American novel that addresses the immigrant experience in a way that makes me say ‘Yes, yes, yes!’

Don’t get me wrong, that ‘inextricable tangle’ will always thrill and fascinate me, but I want it to connect with a greater whole, something more universal, which when I read it, doesn’t leave me with sticky mango juice on my hands or the song of the peacock ringing in my ears or the scent of jasmine tickling my nose.

(And yes, the writer of this post is guilty of writing about all three of these things).

GLOBAL POETRY SYSTEM-GPS

Just discovered this wonderful poetry resource on youtube called Global Poetry System, a project by Southbank Centre, UK, whose lofty goal is to explore and map the poetry of the world.  Within the span of a few minutes, poets read their work or share their relationship with poetry in terms of place, etc. They have 321 videos. Can’t wait to watch all of them. Some of our very own Indian poets are there: Jeet Thayil, Tabish Khair and Karthika Nair, among others. Enjoy!

TWITTERTRY, ANYONE?

‘Provoked’ by the power packed in little tweets, 71 year old filmmaker-poet-painter-journalist Pritish Nandy launched his book of 100 poems, two days ago, titled, ‘Stuck on 1/forty.’ Like a tweet, each poem of Nandy’s is defined by 140 characters. Enhanced by bright colors and bold fonts, each poem aspires to grab your attention and make you think.

Nandy’s thoughts on the book and poetry in general, as shared on IANS:

I don’t think poetry mutates over the years. It only keeps opening up to more new ideas, new vistas and new experiments, particularly in recent times…Stuck on 1/40 is one such experiment. If people read it, like it, share it, if it grows the conversation on the social network, it would have achieved its objective…Twitter is just a means of communication. Means do not inspire people. Content does. But the poems will work only when people read them and like them as poems. That is the most important thing. Poetry is format agnostic. It is even idiom agnostic. Language is changing today.

To get a taste of Nandy’s work, check out the slick youtube promo: