Poetry has been with humans since the beginning of time. And will remain with humanity until the last human breath is stilled. Throughout the millennia of poetry’s existence, it has always reflected upon and mirrored the world in which it was birthed.
Poetry, like all the other arts, reveals society’s soul. Poetry speaks of the wounds and anguishes of the people. Trends come and trends go, reflecting the ethos and times prevailing. So why should it be different in the arts, in poetry? Poetry is also a political beast. Poetry is like a fist hurling a brick. How can poetry not be affected by its surroundings? And react to the needs of our times. In Indian English poetry as much as in the poetry of our other Indian languages.
The poetry of the very first Indian English poets – Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu to name a few, were full of patriotic fervour. Even when their poetic sensibilities were dictated by western, specifically British poetic styles. The earlypost independent Indian English poets, had leftist leanings, and this trend has continued to influence poets even today. The poets of the sixties, specifically the Hungryalists, had strong anti-establishment leanings. The poets of the seventies wrote a lot about angst and loneliness, their personal and emotional journeys, like Pritish Nandi, for example. His collection, Lone Song Street, was made into an LP record and was a huge hit with the Anglophonic youth – including teenagers and preteens, like myself. We would borrow the LP and hear it almost back-to-back for days on end, before another friend borrowed it from us, and so on. Names like Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Eunice Dsouza, Keki Daruwala, Jayanta Mahapatra, etc. were household names already. We were reading them until well into the eighties, and they are read with the same enthusiasm today. Then there were those who came up during the late seventies and eighties, like the late Meena Alexander, with her exquisite lyricism, and the then new idea of being brown in a white land. This is just a quick glimpse of the growth and flow of Indian English poetry. The intention being to demonstrate merely that trends in the subject matter of poetry depend on the lives and times of the poets, and nothing more, apart from certain universal ideas, those that have continued to evoke the human down the ages.
I personally have a problem with the word “trend.” It’s a synonym of fashion, vogue, fad, craze, and so. When you see the weight of these words against the weight of ‘poetry’ you will understand why I am discomfited by the pairing of poetry with trend. But ‘trend’ also has another synonym: ‘movement.’ And what has been occurring in the world of Indian English Poetry is not a movement of subject matter or style, but is in fact a publishing movement! A movement of squared chin determination, in spite of being unobtrusively silent, like walking on padded feet. One could even call it a silent revolution. One that is gaining momentum even as I write this article, and is manifesting itself in poetry in a major way. This movement is also manifesting in related literary streams such as fiction and drama, as well as children’s literature, but it is most prominent in the publishing of poetry. Specifically, English poetry in India.
When you think of publishing, the first names, and often the only ones that come to mind immediately, are a handful of big names. How many of them actually publish poetry? Moreover, out of the rare ones that do, how many of them take on poets, unless they are stars already? Famous poets, already established, having been endorsed in the UK or the USA. I don’t need to drop names. A glance through the list of poets in these publishers’ websites will tell you. Other poets are rendered invisible because of the ceiling. One that is not made from glass, but concrete, and weighted down with prejudice! The excuse is the same. Poetry does not sell; there are more people writing English poetry than reading them etc. etc. etc. Strangely, all the poetry gatherings I have attended seemed to be bubbling over with both poets and eager listeners. But of course, naysayers would say that these are but small gatherings. True. Poetry hardly carries the strident voice of mega-buck novels. But humans will always look to poetry, for succor, for truth, for that ‘speaking-mirror’ of our times, and for that unalloyed joy of having immersed oneself in something profound and beautiful.
Thankfully, during the last decade there has been a spurt of believers. Though the ‘trend’ had already begun in Kolkata’s Lake Road area, in the house of a professor of English literature decades ago! He was none other than Professor P Lal, and his Writers Workshop was the pioneering publishing house for poets writing in English in India. Professor Lal published everyone. And, by that I mean all the famous senior poets of today. He was the first to bring out their books, and give them their first break in Indian English poetry. His publishing house remained the only one for years and years to come. Other than him, nobody was spending time and resources on poets.
Young people during the eighties, and I remember this, because I was a college student then, would self-publish poetry books, slim things printed on paper as thin as kite-paper, and sell them outside the annual Calcutta Book Fair, from trestle tables. We were all poets, and we felt a solidarity with these earnest young men and women. I bought quite a few with my very meager allowance at that time. We believed in starving for poetry. But we were ineffectual. The books and their publishers vanished when the book fair ended.
Unlike in the USA, UK and European countries, poetry is not subsidized by the government of India or any official body. You don’t get grants, and universities don’t have budgets set aside for journals. Poets are pretty much on their own. It’s been like that for a long time, and still is. We have a long way to go. However, this new century has turned the idea of starving poets lurking in the backdrop around on its head. This is the revolution that I am talking about. It’s almost like suddenly poets have friends who have stepped out from the shadows, with journals, publishing contracts and awards for poetry.
Some of the awards that have been established in the past decade, sponsored by corporate houses, are Toto Funds, Srinivas Rayaprol Award, Rabindranath Tagore Literary Award, Jayadev National Poetry Award, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, The Raedleaf Poetry Award, etc. to name a few. They are an indication that the Indian English Poetry scene is not an intellectual’s past time, but is in fact something serious, and meaningful to all. An acknowledgement of poets and poetry deserving greater visibility.
Poets are still not rich. They never will be. But now, we also have dynamic young people, who are brave and willing to pump their personal resources for a cause they believe in. People who are poets themselves, with fire in their bellies, and who are not willing to remain placidly seated, waiting for alms. These people believe in standing up and creating space for poetry, and opportunities for fellow poets. And they are using their own money and resources to fund their poetic ventures! The new breed of Indian English poetry publishers is dipping into their own pockets, their earnings from their day jobs to publish poetry. Since poetry is hardly a profit-making business, what drives these people? I believe, it is passion, self-belief and loads of self-respect that makes them help fellow poets literally come out from the woods. And yes, these men and women are poets themselves. Their publishing houses are labours of love. They are unafraid to take risks in terms of the poetry they publish. They publish what they feel passionate about. They believe that poetry’s worth should not rest in money.
To put a face to these publishing houses, we have the following, and forgive me if I have missed out any name/s:
Bitan Chakraborty, who left a lucrative IT career to pursue his passion, is the man behind Hawakal. They not only publish poetry under their imprint as well as their online journal in English (Ethos Literary Journal, headed by its chief editor, Kiriti Sengupta) as well as Bengali, they also hold poetry festivals and gatherings across India. A recent one was held in Hyderabad, which I was honored to attend.
Poet Linda Ashok curates the annual Raedleaf Poetry Award, and publishes the award-winning manuscripts. She has also begun collating the best English poems by Indian poets that were published in journals across the world into an annual anthology, aptly termed Best Indian Poetry Anthology. It’s already into its second year now. And she has more plans for Indian English poetry in the near future.
Dibyajyoti Sarma runs his Red River Publishing which produces poetry books that are like works of art with beautiful black and white illustrations. Sarma, like Ashok, is a poet and dependent on his day job to fund his publishing house.
Copper Coin, established in 2013, is a multilingual publishing house, and is managed by a small group of professionals. Copper Coin’s founding director is Sarabjeet Garcha, a poet himself. They produce fiction as well as poetry books.
Manu Dash, a writer, poet and translator, is the face behind Dhauli Books. This publishing house also publishes Oriya books, and has been vigorously taking in both new and established names in poetry as well as fiction and drama.
The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective was established in 2013 by three women, Shikha Malaviya, Ellen Kombiyil and Minal Hajratwala. They hold an annual contest and publish three award winning poetry books from the submissions.
Paperwall Publishing is older than the ones I have mentioned above, and is well established. It is run by poet Hemant Divate and his wife, Smriti. They publish Indian and overseas poets writing in English, and also in Marathi.
Other than the book publishers, there are also those who run journals. Paresh Tiwari along with two other colleagues curates Narrow Road, a magazine devoted to Haiku, Haibun and flash fiction. Then we have poet Mihir Vatsa, who runs Vayvaya along with his associates. Vayavya is a journal solely devoted to poetry. It is one of the longest continuously running poetry journals in India. The Sunflower Collective is a journal that takes inspiration from the Hungryalist Movement. It’s an ambitious project, been running for several years now and has published some of the biggest names in Indian English poetry today. Another journal is Spark/Words/World/Wisdom, curated by two sisters, Vani Vishwanathan and Anupama Krishnakumar. Spark has been regularly bringing out easy to read and visually appealing web issues every month since 2010.
Most of these journals are online. We do have print journals though. The Little Magazine, edited by Antara Dev Sen and Pratik has been around since 2000. The Bombay Literary Review, curated by Kartikeya Bajpai has print issues as well as a web presence. They publish both fiction and poetry. I have also seen many good journals go belly up, with Reading Hour coming to mind easily and regretfully, since it was such a thoughtfully curated magazine, and which actually paid contributors. There are others too that sank. The Four Quarters Review, edited by Arjun Chaudhuri, a stylish online journal with an occasional print presence, for example. Apart from the time and expense of running a magazine, the editors often get mired in their own writing pursuits and/or other commitments.
Thankfully, the last few years have seen poetry lovers take emboldened steps for the sake of poetry. So, other than those who have taken the traditional publishing route, we also have some unusual players in the poetry scene today. Two names come to mind. Satabdi Mishra and Sonnet Mondal.
Satabdi Mishra, along with Akshaya Routray, curates Walking Book Fairs, a mobile book venture. They have travelled the length of the country by road taking books to remote areas. They also publish poetry, and recently brought out 101 Poets, a volume of off-the-beaten track poets. They also publish poets who live in the margins, and their first such book Aintha Plate, Rasta O Champa by Akshaya Bahibala has already gone into its second edition.
Sonnet Mondal, a young poet who is well known both in India and abroad, apart from editing his online poetry journal Enchanting Verses, recently launched a unique event in Kolkata: The Chair Poetry Evenings, an international poetry festival based in the city. Apart from hosting poets from India and abroad for the three-day poetry festival, Chair Poetry also curates a month-long poetry residency in which poets both Indian and foreign who live outside West Bengal get to stay in an apartment and complete their poetry manuscripts.
These are some of the Poetry-Brave-Hearts amongst us. Together they have made the poetry scene vibrant, hopeful and dynamic today. The trend for Indian English poetry is nothing short of a forward march!
I ardently hope that all these dauntless supporters of poetry will join hands, form a guild, a parallel publishing club, where common issues can be addressed, a common platform be raised, and maybe even a collective award be bestowed on various aspects of Indian English publishing for both prose and poetry.
Poetry may not stop the bullets, the crimes and the pain, but it allows us humanity. It reminds us of our frailties, and takes us to a place, even if momentarily, which speaks of salvation and gives us succour. Needless to say, we need it now more than before.
In conclusion, I would like to take a leaf out of one of Kiriti Sengupta’s poems “Salvation,” as published in his chapbook, Reflections on Salvation (Transcendent Zero Press, Houston):
“We live as long as we breathe; and it is but the breathing which occurs on its own will. No gods but the breath that builds a home for our life and death. They say, god dwells within; it is then the mortal exploration of the resort where salvation is largely seen!”
True words, indeed. Especially when seen in the light of poetry!