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Book excerpt: Frazil by Menka Shivdasani

 

Frazil

Bass Notes

“How come your hair is so silky?”
the black musician asked, and she,
half-asleep, said Hong Kong was full of gloss
and sometimes the place got into your hair.

He was a professional, and they were playing
games with each other, fine-tuned notes
on silken skin. “The trouble,” he said,
“is you’re too sensitive,” and drew
music from the guitar strings on her head.

It was when he got to the bass
that something changed.
Later, he asked, anxious: “Did you,
Baby, did you?” for, at a crucial moment,
there were silences he didn’t expect.

“I always come quietly,” she told him
not adding: “I always go quietly too.”

 

The Clinging Vine

Put her in cold storage:
let the grey metallic doors
shut upon her. She will
taste good when the time is right.

Toss her into boiling water,
so red and soft, till the skin
splits and the juices ooze.
De-seed her; gently
roast the flesh.

A bit of garlic
is always good, roughly
minced, spluttering
in hot oil. For perfect partners,
try some ginger shreds.

Lastly, put her into the shiny processor.
Choose the blade with care
to ensure the texture’s right.
Chunky bits are perfect for the salads,
but pureeing makes her smoother
Down the throat.

Appetiser, main course,
take your pick.
Let dessert wait.

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Sometimes the best way to read is to mark up the book

Nineteen years old, I sat at a long table in a small room, a poem in front of me. “Harry Ploughman” by Gerard Manley Hopkins felt impenetrable. A jumble of syntax. Frequent semicolons and dashes choked my reading. While I listened to my professor speak about Hopkins and Robert Bridges, I noticed her own copy of the poem was littered with pencil streaks and pen jabs. My copy was pale. Unmarked, and truly, unread.

In order to understand writing, I have to annotate it. I started with Hopkins. I bought a used edition of his selected poetry and prose, and started writing in the margins of the beige pages. This wasn’t defacing; this was an act of communion.

There’s a difference between line-editing and annotating. When we edit—when we are edited—the goal is to transform a draft into something better, something finished. When I annotate a poem, I am receiving words that have been formed and felt and hoped. “Harry Ploughman” exists without my acknowledgment or enjoyment. I’m there to learn from Hopkins. “Hard as hurdle arms,” the poem’s first phrase, is enough for me to linger on—and we’re a few stanzas away from the combined word “Amansstrength.”

In order to appreciate Hopkins, I had to walk my pencil among his phrases. The spirit of his lines opened; that is not to say that all of his mysteries were revealed, but I could follow the turns of his rhythms. “He leans to it, Harry bends, look.” When I marked that final word of the phrase, the terse stop of look, I was documenting the poet’s accomplishment. Annotation can be an action of reverence.

Ever since, it’s been impossible for me to read a book, or analyze a poem, or follow the routes of an essay without underlining, circling, drawing arrows, making notes in the margins. Most writers and readers I know love to mark up their pages.

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A Marathi power loom worker’s poems, written to the sound of machines, have been winning awards

Why does poverty enter my house, and not that pucca house there?” asked 60-year-old Mohammad Naikavadi. “Well, my next poem is on poverty, my close friend.”

A retired loom worker from Rendal, a village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, Naikavadi is a rural poet with six published books. He has written close to 3,000 poems about life in the countryside on themes such as poverty, plight of workers, humanity, people’s lives, art, environment, pollution and nationalism, among others.

His book Vedna (Anguish), a collection of 65 poems, was published in 2014 by Sanmitra Prakashan, Kolhapur, and won a Karvir Sahitya Parishad Award in 2016Naikavadi has also presented a few of his poems at Akhil Bharatiya Muslim Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, an annual conference on Marathi literature, in 2011 and, again, in 2016.

“I am a poor man,” he said. “I’ve bought this register recently in which I can write my poems properly. Earlier, I used to collect the advertisement pamphlets which came in newspapers and wrote on the blank side.”

Shyam Kurale, a litterateur from Kolhapur, reviewed three of Naikavadi’s books – AamraaiJach and Gavran – in 2007. In the Marathi daily Pudhari, Kurale wrote:

“The colours, appearance and smell of the trees grown in city gardens differ from the colours, appearance and smell of the trees growing naturally in jungles. The poems from Gavran, written by Naikavadi, bring the same natural feel. You will find a variety of poems like LavaniAbhang, poems on nature, love, social issues in [this] poetry collection. The subjects, context and expressions of the poems [in Jach] are the best compositions of the poet… Aamraai is the poet’s collection of nursery rhymes, with very good subjects regarding the emotions of children. The poet has written the songs for children considering the changing world, which makes them unique.”

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100 Great Indian Poems — Editor’s Note and 8 poems

EDITOR’S NOTE

–Abhay K

100 Great Indian Poems

On 10 December 1950, William Faulkner began his Nobel Prize acceptance speech with these words, “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit…” As art transcends the artist, poetry transcends the poet. Faulkner further elaborated upon the importance of artwork over the artist in an interview with The Paris Review in 1956. Referring to the futility of conflict over the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, he contends, “…what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important.”

This is what I had in mind when I started editing 100 Great Indian Poems and its companion volume 100 More Great Indian Poems. The poetry anthologies I have come across have a clear emphasis on ‘the poets,’ illustrated in the titles such as Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, Twelve Modern Indian Poets, Nine Indian Women Poets or 60 Indian Poets. These My Words, edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo, which could be otherwise daunting and inaccessible to common people, may be an exception. These lines from De Souza’s poem ‘Meeting Poets’ are telling –

I am disconcerted sometimes
by the colour of their socks
the suspicion of a wig
the wasp in the voice
and an air, sometimes, of dankness.
Best to meet in poems:
cool speckled shells
in which one hears
a sad but distant sea

A general reader does not need to know which prizes a poet has won, how many books has s/he published or which festivals has s/he attended; the charm and force of an individual poem is sufficient to move the reader. Poetry survives the poets because of its timeless and intrinsic value. Therefore, I don’t understand the obsession of the 20th century anthologists of Indian poetry with the poets.

I was fascinated with Rashmirathi by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar while growing up as a child in Bihar. I chanced upon my father’s worn-out copy of this book at home when I was in class four. The magic that I had felt in the sound and energy of words in Rashmirathi stays with me till date. This Hindi epic tells the story of Karna, Krishna, Pandavas and Kauravas. It was my first lesson in literature as well as in politics and diplomacy. I memorised the third canto by heart as I often read it. I still do. I have unsuccessfully tried to translate this work into English. The magic of native words is lost in translation; and therefore, verses from Rashmirathi do not find a place in the anthology of great Indian poems. For the similar reason of untranslatability, several other great poems could not fit into this anthology.

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Book Review: Wet Radio and other poems by Goirick Brahmachari

By Bhaswati Ghosh

Wet Radio and Other Poems

Title: Wet Radio and other poems
Author: Goirick Brahmachari
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (August 18, 2017)
Pages: 148
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If rain is the central motif seeping through Goirick B’s Wet Radio, the poems live up to their task of carrying wetness and drenching the reader with soaking endurance. Like his poems, the poet carries a lot, too – the weight of nostalgia and nonconformity, strains of relationships and a disquiet that refuses to be quelled. In all the different themes Wet Radio explores, the poet’s visceral engagement keeps one hooked to his words.

This very act – of carrying impressions from location to location, both physical and psychical – makes Goirick almost a modern-day itinerant poet/songwriter. His sense of place, especially of Northeast India, is acute; at the same time, his is a poetic spirit that defies the idea of rooting in any one place. This impulse to move, even run, lends his poetry both breadth and passage.

There is gasping pain and seething anger, life-saving love and cynical disillusionment in the poems. The poet often travels back in memory to the Northeast, and in doing so confronts the impossibility of defining identity on the basis of the usual markers of region, religion and language. Consider these lines from ‘Rumour’: “The cave is like any other/only sometimes a Naga would enter/and come out as a Manipuri/Sometimes a Khasi would turn into/a Mizo or, a Bengali, a Bodo,/usually, after every 32 tunnels.”

Goirick plays with the question of identity even more adventurously in ‘Worshipping the Blue Mad Man’, a poem on Charak Puja held in eastern India to worship Shiva. In the poem, he employs a bi-lingual structure, which for those who read both English and Bengali, create a unique sensory and rhythmic experience. The Bengali words occur where they are evidently impossible to render in translation except as approximations, which is how they are presented in the final stanza.

Pain and its many contours has been a favoured subject for poets. Goirick touches the slippery pulse of pain, both physical and invisible, in a number of his poems. He speaks of sadness that’s “not of this earth but born out of the void above,” alluding to a hollowness that could be hard to frame within the conventional context of sanity. In ‘Ache’ he maps the journey of pain and the way it afflicts the mind as “it travels through the body earth./From the head onto the shoulders/From maps to borders/Down to the viscera,/nails Flowing like a stream.”

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Poetry: When They Open Our Bodies They Will Find the Whales by Urvashi Bahuguna

Urvashi Bahuguna – When They Open Our Bodies

urvashi

Urvashi Bahuguna is a poet from India whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Nervous Breakdown, Barely South Review, Jaggery, The Four Quarters Magazine and elsewhere. She was recently shortlisted for the Beverly Prize and the Wingword Poetry Prize. She has a poetry pamphlet forthcoming from Eyewear Books (UK). She was awarded an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom in 2014. Her essays have appeared in Hindu Business Line, Scroll, Helter Skelter Magazine and others.


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Poetry: Closedopens by Saheli Khastagir

Closedopens — Saheli Khastagir

Saheli

Bio: Saheli is an artist, occasional poet and a development consultant. You can find her art on her website or her fb page. She is currently developing an illustrated directory of mental health terms, called MH Illustrated, and also creating 26 portraits of Writerly Women for 26 letters of the alphabet.


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KAVEH AKBAR: “BEWILDERMENT IS AT THE CORE OF EVERY GREAT POEM”

THE CALLING A WOLF A WOLF POET ON WONDER, ADDICTION, AND PRONOIA

“I was not a good person,” Kaveh Akbar tells me. Though it’s the province of his work––in his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, and his debut collection of poems, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, both released this year––it’s hard to imagine the charming voice at the other end of the line belonging to someone in the throes of the “deeply miserable” life he speaks to in his poems. Among their myriad themes are the inherently paradoxical nature of being a grateful, recovering, sober alcoholic. Writing these poems, which Akbar calls his “fundamental bedrock,” has earned him a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Akbar and I first met earlier this summer at a poetry reading of his in New York City, where he shared the bill with several poets including Kazim Ali. “That’s big brother for me,” Akbar says over the phone in October. He continues, “Kazim was, I think, the first American poet I knew who was writing about Islam; who was writing about being interested, and in love with, Islam in ways that were complicated by his identity and experience. That’s very much a lodestar for me. Zeina Hashem Beck is another poet who I love for a lot of those same reasons.”

These references to fellow poets, and specifically these expressions of taking care with their work, come up often in conversation with Akbar. Fittingly, part of his new life is built on communing with other major voices in contemporary poetry, as the founding editor of his interview project Divedapper. He tells me that for the site’s interviews, which he aims to publish approximately every other Monday, he doesn’t often prepare formal questions. He explains his belief that, “It’s just conversation, and that’s all I ever really want. You and I are just having a conversation right now. You have these really intensely insightful questions prepared, but they’re based on your having spent time a lot of time with my words, both in my book and other interviews I’ve done. That is very much spending a lot of time with a person.”

The results of our conversation include reflections on humility, discomfort, memory, and having a sense of humor in your work.

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Book Review: Available Light – New and Collected Poems by C.P. Surendran

By Mani Rao

Available Light_Front Cover
Title: Available Light
Author: C.P. Surendran
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 272
Price: INR 499/-
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Available Light is a collection of new poems by C.P. Surendran appended with his four previous books of poetry — Gemini II (1994), Posthumous Poems (1999), Canaries on the Moon (2002) and Portraits of the Space We Occupy (2007) – of which the first three are out of print. The publication of Available Light brings these early poems back into circulation, and to our attention, helping us survey the achievement of this mid-career poet.

Like most collected works, Available Light is chronologically ordered, as though requesting a biographical reading or an evaluation of how the poet’s craft progressed or changed over time. I duly read this book from the end to the beginning so that I might arrive in the present, maybe with Darwinian notes; instead, I found a circle. After the stunning opening of Gemini II, the next two books were disappointing; Portraits returned to the passion and technical brilliance of the first book, with added maturity. The latest poems in Available Light continue to soar, but now the political and impersonal has become personal and C.P. draws his blood and ink from the wider world. The circle has come around, but now it is wider.

The book also includes an essay written by C.P. as a tribute to his friend, poet Vijay Nambisan, who died in August 2017, in which he describes the 90s Bombay. The inclusion of this essay helps us contextualize the angst in C.P.’s previous work. It also illuminates C.P.’s own milieu and lets us locate his time and place in the history of Indian English poetry.

A devastating separation fuels C.P.’s first collection, Gemini II (1994), which remains a fresh and fulfilling read. The poems do not indulge in melodramatic declarations, nor dampen intensity with platitudes. The narratives seem quick but they are terse and well-controlled; lines play off each other for resonances. A discussion of a single poem from this book will illustrate C.P.’s craft:

Renunciation

First light on the kitchen table.
Breakfast for one. Beer and wine.
Feline eyes kiss fallen tart.

Lunch is a conceit of three. My cat,
Your snapshot and me. Secret rum
In mint tea. Invalidation of the sun.

Last light comes to sup. Dinner is a feat
In rectitude. Water and whiskey. Campaign
Of shadows on the wall. No despair.

A silver of music around the ankles.
Endless retreat of inaccessible feet.

Each of the three stanzas is a tableau set around a kitchen table at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The scene is similar but slightly different each time. If the first stanza is somewhat cryptic, the second stanza clarifies the three characters — the narrator, a cat, and a missing lover. Pronouns mark relationships — “my cat, your snapshot” with the slant rhymes of “[C]at” and “shot” and “rum” and “sun” against the monotony of “me” and “tea”. Every detail adds to the poignancy of the missing person — the evening visitor is none but the sunlight, and even the cat’s kiss is only visual. The dynamic events, a “campaign of shadows” and the “silver of music” are a counterfoil to the sun and silence.

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The Ekphrases of Eye/Feel/Write: Writing About Architecture

EFW II NGS Dome Opening Pix

The building is but material structure. Within its architecture is imbued its aesthetic character. What happens when a writer confronts such a created space, and what texts emerge, themselves rendered as works of art?

At the Singapore Writers Festival, Eye/Feel/Write will launch its third instalment, with the publication of a beautiful anthology, titled Eye/Feel/Write: Building Architectonics, as well as curated reading tours at National Gallery Singapore. A special commission by the National Arts Council, Eye/Feel/Write is an ekphrastic project that invites distinguished writers in Singapore to pen texts inspired by art institutions here.

This year, editor Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé extended the invitation to twelve eminent writers — Aaron Lee, Aaron Maniam, Amanda Chong, Clara Chow, Daryl Lim Wei Jie, Heng Siok Tian, Josephine Chia, Kirpal Singh, Nuraliah Norasid, O Thiam Chin, Toh Hsien Min, and Tse Hao Guang — each creating texts inspired by the history and architecture of the Gallery.

In the preface to the anthology, a series of questions are posed: “On its own, architecture already surfaces its own symbols and associations, its own poetry. How then may a writer gaze upon a building and take in its space, then render the experience in language? How is the language of architecture translated into the language of lyric or narrative? Across artifice and edifice. What of proportion, of range? What of scale and shape, body and motion? What is inhabited, what inhabits, through time and space? What is made manifest, what new memories in the poetry of fiction — and how momentous, how memorable?”

Towards understanding any emerging discourse borne of these ekphrastic experiments, Kitaab shares beautiful insights from several of the contributing authors, as they contemplate how they went about their particular creative renderings.

AARON LEE

“The former Supreme Court building holds special memories for me. In 1998 I was admitted to the Singapore bar to practice as a lawyer in a ceremony that took place in the grand hall of the building. As an apprentice litigator I often accompanied senior lawyers to hearings in the chambers of various judges in the same building, and visited the Court library to do research. The National Gallery Singapore that now stands in the place of the former Supreme Court and the former City Hall, is a marvel of architecture and design. Since it opened I have spent many a contemplative hour in its various galleries enjoying the spectacular art and the grandeur of the building’s interior. For this ekphrasis project I thoroughly explored the NGS several times, always taking my time and stopping occasionally to make some notes when inspiration struck me. I paid particular attention to the exhibitions which told stories about the people who inhabited the Supreme Court building as it was then: judges, lawyers, court workers and victims of crime and those affected by conflict. I wanted to challenge myself to write three different poems for this anthology. The poem ‘Lady Justice Contemplates’ expressed the reverie of a person I imagined as a conflation of an actual judge and the figure of Justice in the tympanum pediment of the building. The poem ‘Then & There, Here & Now’ is a response to two books that I read about the NGS building project. I wrote it as a ‘twin cinema’ poem as a tribute to a newly-invented poetic form native to Singapore, and also because the NGS comprises two buildings, each with its unique history and purpose, now put together. ‘Poetic Justice’ is a tongue-in-cheek mash up of common idioms related to the law.”

AARON MANIAM

“Working at the Treasury Building on High Street, I visit the National Gallery often — sometimes for lunch, sometimes during lunchtime in search of silence amidst the whirring routine of a day. I love the art, but I think I love the architecture more; particularly the clean lines and curves, and how light shines into the most unexpected corners. Desmond’s challenge to us — to write about the architecture — was therefore very welcome! Many of my usual poetic concerns play out here — silence, in-between-ness, space and how we find names for them when they defy easy articulation. I also decided to experiment a bit with myth-making; the Gallery has always struck me as a world unto itself, and it seemed like a fun experiment to see what the dwellers in, and travellers into, such a world might be like. I’ve long been fascinated with world creation, where knowledge of ‘True Names’ enables heroes and heroines to claim a special kind of power. Perhaps such Naming is all that poetry really is!”

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