When I heard about the Great Indian Poetry Project, I knew I had to talk to the Poet who came up with such a concept. She seems to me a kindred spirit in her love for poems down to the last syllable.
Shikha Malaviya is a poet, writer and teacher. She is founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Project, an online archive of Modern Indian Poetry currently under development, as well as The Great Indian Poetry Collective, a specialized literary press. Her work has been featured in Prairie Schooner, Drunken Boat, Water~stone Review, and other fine journals/anthologies.
She also founded Monsoon Magazine, one of the first South Asian literary magazines on the web. Shikha believes in the transformative power of poetry, as a vehicle for raising social awareness and spurring change. Shikha gave a TEDx talk on poetry in Bangalore, India, in March 2013 as well as organized the ‘100 Thousand Poets for Change-Bangalore, 2012’ event. Her first book of poems, Geography of Tongues, is forthcoming later this year.
Visit her website here:www.shikhamalaviya.com
Tell us about The (Great) Indian Poetry Project.
Poetry has been the literary love of my life since I was a child. I never thought of poetry in English as being American or British or Indian. But the more I read and studied poetry, especially Indian poetry in English, I realized that there was an English vernacular of our own, informed by our personal histories, cultures and geographies. For quite a few years, I struggled with my own work and the purpose of being a poet as well. Why should my words matter? How could I make the personal more universal? At the same time, I was having trouble finding books published by Indian poets in English. Most had gone out of print. Also, it was difficult to find any scholarly or critical work about modern Indian poets.
All of this was stewing in my mind, when in July 2012, I came across an article in the newspaper Mint Lounge, as part of a series called Poetry Pradesh. I nearly leapt out of my seat when I read the first lines:
“What happens to my drafts, my manuscripts, after my death?” asks poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. “They will be kept in boxes and sold by the kilo to the raddiwallah (scrap dealer) is what.”
His quote hit me like a slap. The article talked about the need to properly archive Indian poetry, that there were manuscripts that had fallen to the side, that there were books that had gone out of print, books as recent as 5-10 years ago. It all came together for me in a flash. Here was something I could do that was beyond the scope of my own work and that honored the legacy of Modern Indian Poetry. And that’s how The (Great) Indian Poetry Project was born.
The (Great) Indian poetry project is very ambitious in scope, with a big online component. We are developing an online archive that would list all Indian poets in English along with their photos, complete bibliographies, links to poetry, interviews, audio/video and more. It’s been nine months now and we are still in the process of collecting all the data. The website will officially go live later this year.
Another component of this is a specialized press that will introduce new poetic voices through the publication of their first books. With two other talented poets, Minal Hajratwala and Ellen Kombiyil, we have formed The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective and our first offering will be out later this summer. We will be organizing talks, workshops and even a poetry festival. We are also collaborating with another poet on a project that would display poetry in public places.
What have you observed about poetry in India as compared to poetry worldwide? Is it more difficult for Indian poetry in English to flourish because of the rich vernacular poetic culture already available? Poetry is more of the heart and usually it is the vernacular that captures the heart-so would it be right to say that the writers who enjoy Indian poetry in English will be more limited?
Many people don’t realize that although India has a poetic legacy more than 5000 years old, Indian poetry in English is barely 100 years old. Our body of work is less than British or American poetry in terms of books, but what we have, through our poems, is a powerful, multi-hued history of Modern India and its people.
I view English as a vernacular language in India-a rich patois of regional words and experiences mixed in, depending on which part of the country you live in. If you read Indian poets in English, especially the work of Arun Kolatkar, Gopal Honnalgere and Manohar Shetty, it is hard to think of their work as anything else except ‘authentic Indian,’ even though they write in a language that isn’t their so-called mother tongue.Yes, there are critics that look at English as the language of our colonial oppressors and that it can never render an authentic Indian experience, but I believe all languages have the power to capture an experience in their own way and that English is just as good as any. The fact that English is globally recognized means we can take our poems/personal experiences and make them accessible to people all over the world.
Indian poetry in English is flourishing, but because Indians poets are scattered all across the globe, it is hard to gauge the breadth and depth of the body of work being produced. Having said that, there are a few anthologies that have cropped up in the past five years, such as 60 Indian Poets edited by Jeet Thayil and The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry edited by Sudeep Sen that give us an idea of how expansive the field of Indian poetry in English actually is.With 100+ Indian poets writing in English, it is really exciting to see how many fresh, new voices there are out there and how they fit in the global continuum of poetry in English.
Indian Poetry in India is usually activist if it is to get noticed –agree or disagree? An ordinary poem about say a cloud will not hold much traction here. Why is it like that? There was a time when Kalidasa could capture the imagination with The Cloud Messenger, but now?
I agree that activist poetry does get more publicity, but mostly because it brings to light certain causes. Poets such as Meena Kandasamy are exploring social issues through their verse such as gender and caste inequality and making a big impact. If there is a time when we need more activism through poetry, it is now. With the horrific rapes being reported in the media every day and the water and garbage crises we face here in Bangalore and other parts of India, poetry is a powerful medium to examine society, voice our opinions and create awareness.
When I organized the 100 Thousand Poets for change Bangalore event last year, in which poets and writers came together to share socially relevant poetry, we had over 100 people. It is lovely to see that kind of solidarity for change. I also think we need to acknowledge this digital age of tweets, texts, and status updates, that it is all about the economy of the word. People don’t necessarily want to dwell on messages that are long and winding. In that sense, poetry packs so much punch within the framework of a stanza and cuts to the truth. I think non-activist poetry is alive and well, but in this Internet savvy day and age, we want instant gratification, even in matters of love and beauty. We aren’t patient enough to follow the cloud and see where it leads us. We want cloudbursts wherever we are standing. I think Kalidasa would be stunned to see how his messenger cloud has morphed into a digital one.
Are you excited about how the digital world encourages poetry? Poets can now do audio versions of their poetry online and do slam poems on youtube.There are issues of plagiarism of course, but that doesn’t seem to stop the poetic output. Do you think a poet has to be a Personality as well to hold the reader’s attention?
I am extremely excited about what the digital world has to offer poets and vice versa! Imagine an audio library of Indian poets reading their work. I love listening to audio versions of poems by poets that I never could have met, such as Pablo Neruda or William Carlos Williams. Usually, a poet/writer is a personality in their own way and that definitely contributes to their persona. Listening to poets read their own work brings it to life in a way that is almost three-dimensional. There are also some lovely audio-visual poetry collaborations that bring poetry to life in a cinematic way. And then there are the slam poets, who are so expressive and have an almost story-like quality to their verse. There’s a young spoken word poet from the U.S., Sarah Kay, who gave a TED talk called, ‘If I Should Have a Daughter,’ that is fantastic. Without the Internet, I would not have heard it or been able to share it with you and others. There’s also a wonderful website out of the U.K, called Global Poetry System, that features poetry videos from around the world. It’s amazing how geographic boundaries collapse and we can all reach out to each other and feel a sense of kinship.This is what inspires me to build The (Great)Indian Poetry Project as a virtual platform. With high quality digital poetry books, magazines and journals, along with poetry blogs, videos and websites available at our fingertips, there is enough material out there on the web for one to potentially do their PhD in poetry!
Is there any advice you want to give poets who want to submit their poetry manuscripts….should they go the traditional route- approach literary agents or opt for small presses. Or should they go completely digital where there is more chance of being heard or seen?
Firstly, I would advise any upcoming poet to read as much poetry as possible, to write and experiment with as many different forms and to not be afraid to take risks. Poetry anthologies are a great way to explore many voices in one place. I also believe it is very important to understand one’s poetic history/legacy. Who were our poetic forbearers? Why did they write the way they did? What can we learn from them?
Revision is the most powerful tool a poet can have. Revise your manuscript once, twice, fifty times! Poetry is like sculpture, which you have to chip away at until you see its true form come through.Most great poems have been written many times over. But all the audience sees is the final product. It is very important for all to understand that poetry is hard work and that it isn’t simply about stringing together a bunch of words that rhyme.
In regards to publishing poetry in India, I think it really is important to explore all options. Publishers of poetry are few and far between. Compared to other genres, poetry has a much smaller audience and most traditional/commercial publishers don’t accept poetry manuscripts because it isn’t profitable. The same logic applies to literary agents, who prefer to represent writers of fiction and non-fiction. I was lucky enough to get an offer of representation from a top Indian literary agent, but was told it could take a year to sell my poetry manuscript and that even then, there was no guarantee. I chose to be part of a collective instead, where one has more creative control and can be an active part of the publishing process.Small presses and collectives such as Poetrywala, Almost Island Books, and the legendary Calcutta Writers Workshop are producing beautiful books, with support from its authors and dedicated audience.
Yet sadly, many poetry books don’t make it beyond a first print run, because of operational/printing costs. In that sense, going digital would ensure that a poet’s book would never go out of print and that people around the world could access it. Many poets end up funding the publication of their own books and organizing their own readings.
There is nothing wrong with that.I don’t look at it as a vanity thing. Rather, it has become a necessity. If we can garner more support from the Indian poetry community, we can have strength in numbers in spreading the word of how talented and vibrant the modern Indian poetry scene is and also ensure that quality work is being brought to the forefront. But in order to do so, we need to be able to access this poetic community and that is where the challenge lies. Everyone is spread out in different parts of the country and remain busy within their own communities. Many poets, especially the older ones, that are a treasure trove of knowledge, aren’t net savvy and are reclusive.
Thankfully, literary festivals are changing things, although poetry still isn’t given its due space on the podium when competing with other genres. We can learn a lot from the U.S. and U.K., in terms of how to cultivate a culture of creative writing in academia and greater society. The Poetry Foundation, in the U.S., is doing so much to promote and preserve poetry. I hope India will one day have an organization along those lines. In the end, it is the generosity of poetry lovers/poets that help poetry come into the world. We need more poetry journals, more poetry festivals and more people who believe in poetry as a powerful medium of expression! I see this happening within the next decade and feel that the best is yet to come!
What are you reading right now?
I am currently reading Manohar Shetty’s latest poetry book, Personal Effects and love the quietness and concreteness of his verse.Am also reading Says Tuka-selected poems of Tukaram translated by Dilip Chitre and Everything Begins Elsewhere by Tishani Doshi. I also always have on standby Pablo Neruda, T.S. Eliot, Arun Kolatkar, Kahlil Gibran and various anthologies.
Wonderful talking to you Shikha- can’t wait to see the archive complete!