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We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
― John Keating (Dead Poets Society)
“Poetry is what we stay alive for.” Irrespective of the times we live in, poetry sustains. It lives in overcrowded alleys and elite societies, in 6 ft X 6 ft chawls and penthouses overlooking the sea, in a 70-year-old’s unpublished diaries and a 40-year-old’s awarded writings. It lives, and it thrives in Manhattan and London, too, where new Indian poets are using the power of the social media and becoming stars with massive followings. Instapoetry is redefining millennials’ enjoyment of verse as Nikita Gill and Rupi Kaur, who live in England and Canada respectively, bring new rythm to literature.
The delicate looking Kaur, whose unbound black hair, intense gaze and nose ring give her an exotic look, sold 1.4 million copies with Milk and Honey (2014). The Sun and Her Flowers (2017) debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List. The reason Gill’s verse finds resonance with millions of readers is because her poems reflect the anxiety, loneliness and heartbreak that reflect the contemporary concerns that are youthfully globalised. Since she was 18, she was in and out of relationships with physically and emotionally abusive men. Last January, Nikita’s poems were on placards during the wordwide Women’s March that sought legislation and drafting new policies supporting women’s rights, immigration reform and healthcare. A word of caution: when you repost her lines, ensure credit is given.
You are the ocean deep
and those that are as
shallow as puddles will
always dismiss you, musunderstand you,
abandon you; all for
fear of diappearing in
your depths. (Nikita Gill)
All themes of cultural conflict, loss, abandonment that are familiar to the young generation. Indian-born Canadian poet and writer Rupi Kaur's driving muse is her homeland Punjab which she left when she was four, and is reflected through themes of isolation and displacement. Ironically, she did not speak a word of English first at school in Ontario and instead drew pictures to communicate with friends. Today, by adopting the most accessible form of communication, Nikita and Rupi have reinvented the haiku, with short poems that appeal to Instagrammers.Rupi is also a talented illustrator whose debut collection of verse and prose Milk and Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers exploit the visual form which attracts her dedicated audience. Each verse is acompanied with an illustration that translates its essence. Nikita doesn’t stick to Instagram alone, 'posting' her poetry on Tumblr, Facebook and ThoughtCatalog. Rupi’s poem, “If you are not enough for yourself / you will never be enough / for someone else”, got Instagram 1,75,000 likes. Her work is both simple and prolific. From exploring issues of migration and transnational identity to writing on womanhood and emotional abuse, she addreses the universal experience of young women today. Check this out:
i am water
to offer life
to drown it away
Little wonder that this Instagram sensation has three million followers. As per some reports, she even outsells Home 10 to 1. For purists, Instagram poetry is not ‘real poetry’, but then it has charted a new continent of imagination. Minimalist in its appearance, usually in lower case—perhaps in an attempt to reject mainstream conventions—Instagram poetry is not afraid to talk of forbidden topics. These poets on Instagram and other social media platforms are young—some barely out of their teens. They are at ease while tackling topics such as sex, menstruation, bullying, LGBTQ rights, caste, religion, and much more. They are not the romantics that Shelley and Keats were. They do not write sonnets like Shakespeare. Words are their armour and they are not afraid.
Sabika Abbas Naqvi has been writing poetry for as long as she can remember. A student of history, this gender rights activist writes in cutting English and breezy Hindustani about feminism and queer politics. She is also the founder of Sar-e-Rahguzar, a movement to bring poetry onto the streets. In July 2017, she decided to start performing her protest poetry in public spaces. From Shahid Kapoor to her domestic help who fought her oppressive family—all find a place in her poems that leave you with goosebumps. Model, poet, TV presenter, and writer Karuna Ezara Parekh often wins many hearts on Instagram through her self-written sonnets. Like Sabika, Karuna claims to be a staunch feminist and her poems are living proof of the rebel she is.
The change in the poetic idiom is that the poets rely on visual effects to communicate. Instapoet Chhaya Dabas’s blog platform ‘Baatein’ created an Instagram poetry community that goes beyond Indian plans to get on YouTube. Arunoday Singh uses the Insta name Sufisoul, and expresses his muse through calligraphy. Pratishtha Khattar’s instaverses uploaded in her own handwriting or as graphics, the erotic sketch on Jaya’s account et al show the writers are well-versed in the grammar of contemporary communication. Khawaja Musadiq ‘poetofblues’ invokes the pain of displacement, as a young Kashmiri studying in Bengaluru.
In Kolkata, for generations the Little Magazine Movement has been trying relentlessly to give poetry a recognisable and viable platform. This later evolved into the New Age Little Magazine Movement. Magazines such as Bohemian, Angick, BongQ, Ekak Matra, and writers such as Swagata Dasgupta, Rajdip Roy, Somen Mukhopadhay, Akash Gangopadhyay, Sankhayan Nanda, and many more made a deep mark. That was then. Founder of the Bengaluru Poetry Festival and also owner of the boutique bookstore and cafe Atta Galatta, Subodh Sankar, began hosting poetry events such as ‘Let Poetry Be’ (a monthly event for amateur and published poets), ‘Anjuman’ (a similar event for Hindi and Urdu poetry) at his bookstore in Bengaluru. Egged on by the enthusiasm and overwhelming response to these events, he was convinced that poetry as a form of self-expression was growing. He decided to launch the Bengaluru Poetry Festival three years ago as a platform exclusively for the poetic form.
The Bengaluru Poetry Festival is the country’s only literary event dedicated to poetry. In its first outing, author and festival director Shinie Antony and the other co-founders decided to play it safe by keeping it small. They were wary of the response that they would get and thought poetry might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But the overwhelming response shocked them. “We were not logistically prepared for the huge crowd that turned up,” she says. This year young poets such as Kavish Seth, Ulrike Almut Sandig and Rabia Kapoor garnered a lot of attention at the two-day festival that concluded on August 5.
Elaborating on the festival, Shinie says, “The thing about Bengaluru is that audiences are very engaged. The average Bengaluru person has a bookshelf he is proud of.” Little wonder that the interactive sessions with poets, with their cosy intimate feel, were a big hit, she says. She goes on to add that poetry is all about readings, unlike other festivals where panel discussions and thematic sessions happen. “This helps people connect more,” she says.
Subodh is hopeful of the future. In its third edition, the footfall at the festival has gone up to a healthy 5,000, across all age groups. Subodh hopes that the direct contact that budding poets develop with publishers who attend the festival will translate into more poetry being published. Also, such festivals create awareness about the knowledge of the craft that many budding poets are seeking. Their interaction with senior and peers who have gained mastery with their craft also helps bridge the gap.
Poet and publisher, Red River, Dibyajyoti Sarma was invited to this year’s Bengaluru Poetry Festival both as a poet and a publisher. This year, he says, there were more than 50 poets who had been invited—both well-known and emerging—writing not just in English but in all Indian languages. Everyone was given the opportunity to share their works in a hall full of eager listeners. “Usually, poetry readings are fringe events. Bengaluru Poetry Festival has managed to take it to the mainstream,” he adds. According to Dibyajyoti, poetry was always popular, but its readership was always limited. But with Facebook and other social media, Indian poets, especially younger ones, have managed to find a community to share their work, or be a part of it. This visibility has also been helped by experiments like ‘Insta poetry’ or ‘spoken word poetry’, he adds. He published his first book with Writers Workshop, Kolkata, in 2004. “It was a buy-back arrangement. I could recover at least some portion of the investment,” Dibyajyoti explains.
According to him, poetry has a limited market and for a commercial publisher, it’s a risk. This becomes a roadblock for new poets who are keen to be published by a mainstream publisher. But the landscape is slowly changing. About a decade ago, Poetrywala was established as a dedicated poetry press. Today, there are several such initiatives, such as Hawakal (Kolkata), Copper Coin (Delhi) and Red River (Delhi), among others. Besides, initiatives such as The (Great) India Poetry Collective, and RL Poetry Awards run by Linda Ashok, are a major encouragement.
Recently, ‘Terribly Tiny Tales’—known as the world’s most celebrated micro-fiction platform—plunged into publishing poetry with their book Ninety-Seven Poems with support from Penguin Books. Co-founders Anuj Gosalia and Chintan Ruparel in their own way have brought poetry closer to millennials. For the duo, it was a natural progression from the e-platform to publishing. And, why not? Sample this: On their platform, poetry is in the top three performing text formats. On an average, one poem gets between 15,000 and 25,000 likes on Instagram alone, along with a bunch of comments and screenshots. The anthology Ninety-Seven Poems with Penguin has had a great start with over 10,000 copies sold in the first couple of months. On their app, there’s a new poem being written and published every few minutes. In the last 100 days alone, they have received 11,000 poetry submissions on the app. The poem—‘What to never tell a writer’ by Ayushi Trehan—in the collection goes:
Never tell a writer that her poems don’t rhyme
She’s running out of words and whyme
Never tell a writer that ‘whyme’ isn’t a word
She’s coming up with new ones so that she can rhyme
There’s a sea of writers/performers who are wanting to get their pieces published, or spoken word videos uploaded. Everyone has a lot to say, and now there are enough platforms that let you. There’s nothing like self-publishing and letting you find your own audience. Instagram has been the forerunner in that way. It’s where young people today spend most of their time and feel less judged. They feel encouraged to create and share on the go.
Penguin editor Sohini Mitra believes poetry has traditionally been seen as a niche genre, and hence most publishers have been slightly cautious about publishing new voices in this space. “However, within the larger umbrella of poetry there can certainly be forms and sub-categories that have the potential to be very popular and hence commercialised.” She goes on to add that the new crop of poets have also made poetry more accessible and ‘mass market’ by taking it to digital platforms such as Instagram and Twitter. At the same time, Chintan and Anuj acknowledge that more needs to be done to take poetry to a larger audience. They are planning to launch their first poetry writing workshop—it could be a musing on an Insta story, or a rant video on YouTube. “Making people comfortable to share personal experiences through poems, and expanding the outreach of writing is perhaps the need of the hour,” they say.
What Allen Ginsberg had said decades ago, seems to fit today’s self-publishing scene:
“Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”
Terribly Tiny Tales has company when it comes to such innovative platforms to popularise poetry. Simar Singh, founder of the Mumbai-based UnErase Poetry, is still in his teens, but that has not stopped him from going ahead and promoting something he believes in. In fact, he has been writing poetry since he was nine. The platform organises shows that take place twice a month. These one-and-half-hour-long shows comprise up to six poets who perform for 10-15 minutes each showcasing their original works. These shows also go viral through social networking sites. Then there is Kommune—a collective of artists, producers, patrons, collaborators and art lovers. Their aim is to discover and nurture creative performance art ideas. From storytelling, to poetry, to theatre—it’s all about mesmerising the audience.
...Her question, a woman in a sweatshirt,
Hand raised in a crowded room—What use is poetry?
...Standing apart I looked at her and said—We have poetry
So we do not die of history...
— Question Time, Meena Alexander
Contemporary poet Ranjit Hoskote, who started publishing his works in 1991, says, “The future of poetry has never been in doubt. Poetry has remained an integral part of human and cultural experience from the time of the earliest shamans and bards to the present. Today, we can legitimately celebrate the diffusion of poetry in diverse forms and on a range of platforms, ranging from print and online publication to the zine and journal, from readings and performances to slams, spoken-word gatherings and poetry festivals.” He believes that the young have always been attracted to poetry. For some, it is a venue to express key emotions. For others, it offers a way to explore deeper aspects of their consciousness, or to connect with a larger world. “Some of them may feel intimidated, but they often rise to the challenge without being hobbled by preconceptions. Young people in India form an important part of the readership for poetry,” he adds.
Poet Mani Rao agrees with Ranjit when she says poetry was never ‘out’, rather it is more ‘in’. “Poetry can expand within the reader, unravelling over time. I never thought it translated into sales until I saw what the Bengaluru Poetry Festival accomplished,” she smiles.
It is not just in metros where the literary world is buzzing with poets and enthusiastic readers are going out of their way to encourage budding talent. Even tier II and tier III cities are not shying away from holding their version of poetry festivals—albeit, more like poetry slams. Something like what Simar did in Mumbai, Avadhesh Sharma did in Indore. He started One Cup Poetry— an initiative from Poetry Corner India—which was founded by him about five years back. One Cup Poetry is a rich brew of Hindi, English and Urdu songs, ghazals, poems in which youngsters across the country recite their compositions. It is an all-encompassing platform that allows free discussions on taboos. Few selected poets also get a chance to perform on bigger platforms with renowned names.
To popularise poetry, Ranjit has a simple word of advice: “Poetry has never been dead. Several independent publishing imprints (such as Poetrywala, Copper Coin, and Hawakal) are committed to bringing out volumes of poetry, as well as websites, journals and poetry-specific festivals.” One has to acquaint oneself with the poetry scenes in various languages in India, whether English, Urdu, Kannada, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, or Malayalam. Besides, reading English translations of poets across languages and periods, which have emerged during the last 15 years, can always build healthy readership. Ranjit names Sampurna Chattarji’s translation of Joy Goswami’s poetry, Arunava Sinha’s of Sunil Gangopadhyay, and Mustansir Dalvi’s of Hemant Divate as some of his must-reads in translations. Publishers have to think of sales, and poetry may seem less marketable than fiction, believes Mani. She echoes Ranjit’s thoughts when she says: “Buy poetry books. Attend their readings, volunteer at their events, and share their announcements on social media.”
As E E Commings so aptly put it for all of us:
Well, write poetry, for God’s sake, it’s the only thing that matters.