Poetry at Sangam



July 2016

Sharing happy news: Poetry at Sangam is now supported by Atta Galatta.

Book lovers warm to the words ‘Atta Galatta’, the bookshop in Bangalore that stocks over 10,000 titles in regional languages, particularly from the South, as well as those in the English bhasha, besides hosting performances and readings. The roomy red brick-walled space is welcoming, enhanced by the smell of coffee and cookies that caresses books and comfortable chairs. The couple behind Atta Galatta, Lakshmi and Subodh Sankar are most welcoming to what I still consider the most endangered of literary arts, poetry. Atta Galatta is also hosting the inaugural Bangalore Poetry Festival on 6th & 7th August, 2016.

Now to our new issue.

‘Janice Pariat ranks among the finest young Indian poets,’ I wrote back in our December 2013 introduction to her work at Poetry at Sangam; she was among the first group of poets whose work we showcased. Janice is also a remarkable writer of long and short fiction as awards and nominations testify. Go get her books; check it out yourself. But first, read this quarter’s fantastic issue that Janice has guest edited with wit and élan; the selection flies like a banner of fire over water.

— Priya Sarukkai Chabria

I am weary of earnestness.

Of earnest poets writing earnest poems read aloud earnestly at poetry readings. It might not even be bad poetry. Just sweetly, cloyingly earnest. And it’s bearable, even endearing perhaps, in small doses, this seriousness. But how insufferable to posture perpetually as a Poet. How irredeemably boring. So my first intention upon having been invited to guest edit Poetry at Sangam was “no earnestness, please”. Which doesn’t mean these six aren’t serious, or utterly devoted, to their craft. But they have a sense of humour. A wryness. An ability to look at themselves from a distance with a comic eye. To be free-wheelingly Dylanesque, in a way, about it all. (“Yippee!” He once sang. “I’m a poet, and I know it/Hope I don’t blow it.”)

I called for irreverence.

Underrated as it is today. And important. When there seems to be fewer and fewer things we’re permitted to laugh at. Or be irreverent about.

And my poets have risen to the occasion.

Zachary Bushnell, born in New Jersey and “raised between states” offers us, among others, Pussy Sestina. (A most fitting place, I imagine, for a lyric tradition born of praising courtly love, to end up.) Here, he claims, in “Constructing sanctuaries to pussy, / one must be overly careful not / to overdo the Thing.” And master of form as he is, he doesn’t. Ever. Bushnell’s poetryscapes are scathingly contemporary. Touched, always, by the gently surreal, and filled with odd communions. In Transplant, the “blond hirsute pig” rooting through detritus is “similar twin”. In Gratitude as a Kind of Continuation (Tweet), “The blue bird contains the occasion / For declaring war.”

In lines that evoke a similar sense of explosion-upon-contact, Sridala Swami gives us the four-part Three False Starts and a Conclusion. She is laconic. Poet with a candid, throwaway skill. “My ambition now,” she says at the beginning of the poem, “is to hide effectively which is to say, I would like / to do nothing superlatively well.” What she also does well is language—not the usual she is in love with words bunkum—with a poststructuralist’s eye. “For spell read landmine / For any war read The War … For artifice read reserve, read modesty / Read garden. Foreign field.” And to that question, “who are we anyway”, she replies “trees”. That have lost their way.

Amanda Calderon also reveals similar linguistic wildness. For her, in Composite Tiger, the creature is “so wide you thought it was a cinema.” “It played a newsreel across its spine.” There is, in her words, constant surprise. A supple newness. And touching delicacy. She has, in these poems, an eye for the ancient. In Yurt, poem like a display in a museum of cultural anthropology, it is laid out: skin, musical instrument, weaving. The patterns that map our lives. It’s a bid to infuse life into “objects”, to avoid the museumization of things. So that even if “Nature is nothing but information / It is undeniably beautiful.”

Also wandering galleries, Tishani Doshi offers us in O Great Beauties! an archive of solemn women. Painted on canvas through the ages, unsmiling. “But Ladies, fripperies aside, I must hasten. / I must ask dear daughters of important houses, / heroines of epics, Helens, whores, how did you know / to obscure your true selves? Wherefrom the maturity / to swallow your grins and hide your teeth? … How did you perfect the art of staring so well?” It is an important question. It is playful. And through the heart of these poems runs (to borrow from Swami) “the wonder that is the thing that survives.” So to a beloved, Doshi promises in Love in the Time of Autolysis not a red rose or a satin heart, but that “When you die, Love, I will leave you out like a Zoroastrian.” That she will touch his skin as he turns from “man to farm”. Behind Doshi’s lyricism lies steeliness.

What we also find, quietly, in Vijay Nambisan’s work. Here is someone who once told an acquaintance who proclaimed “we don’t need poetry” that “poetry does not need you”. Indeed it doesn’t. But poetry needs Nambisan. His sardonic wit, and droll humour. Coupled with a formal precision designed to make you weep. So for Narendra in To Vivekananda, Jr, nothing less than the heroic stanza, deployed to scathe: “Narendra, when the gods come calling / Will you render strict account / Of all the times you might have fallen / Off your high and mighty mount?” For the ducks in the series of Duck Poems a gentler mix of free and blank verse, and here too we see the lovely odd communions. The quiet revelations. In Buoyancy, “Ducks have, in water, a feeling that they are / Not quite all there … I too, sometimes / Catch myself looking down to see if my feet / Are still on earth.”

Once Nambisan’s published companion in the two-poet collection Gemini, Jeet Thayil does not offer us a poem. Instead he gives us rage in poetic form. Also sadness. Origins, selected from his new novel, will sweep and carry, halt and suspend, wreck and pillage, you. Your heart. It is divine itinerary. It reads Biblical. An unstoppable outpouring of sordid warning and soaring prophecy. Take this, all of you, and eat of it. For this is “ennui sold as spirit food.” Do this in remembrance of me.

Here, they are all together, these irreverants.

Read them, for you must.

— Janice Pariat