In poetry’s delicate shadow – a few are saving love itself.
Jai Polepali, a Stanford Ph.D., now serving as a neuroscience professor in Singapore, read these lines in Urdu, in a zoom poetry circle he has been attending every Saturday, since March 2020. I first met Jai two years ago, at a poetry reading at Manny’s café in San Francisco, hosted by Mahendra Kutare of Kaavya Connections. Many poetry lovers of the rich and ancient poetic traditions of the Indian sub-continent used to meet monthly to read poems for a few hours.
When the pandemic started, several of us started to meet online, weekly, as a spin-off group from Kaavya Connections, organizing ourselves using a Facebook group called Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. The love of poetry was such that all languages, all genres of poetry were welcome, and the doors were always left open for anyone to come in, to read, or just to listen. Unlike an open mic, this was not a performance space since we all were united in our declaration “I am not a poet”.
We tried impromptu translations. We aspired to co-create a sanctuary for those who love playing with words. A few sang their words to share the music within and to convey the sentiments. Failing regularly, we continued the struggle bravely. We thrived on diversity. We included everybody and listened to the shy ones with a lot of patience and encouragement. We hated small talk and preferred a pregnant pause, as there was no such thing as an awkward silence when the words moved us so deeply. Something about giving your breath to words of poets long dead, and yet describing feelings that we were experiencing.
The pandemic brought tragedies to everyone, caused social unrest in the US after George Floyd’s murder, and made visible the oppression of our systems as the largest migration of daily wage workers occurred in India. The strong feelings these evoked were spoken of in epic poems from centuries ago. Poetry created a sanctuary of tender loving care, where through old and new poems, we could remember the violence, hold on to what is precious and let go of what had served its purpose, to collectively explore the messiness of the human condition. We had a time and group of reliable poetry lovers to help us discover our edges and relearn to trust after every shock. Some weeks it was enough to celebrate the triumph of having found a good poem that spoke to the moment, making one eager to share it, knowing it would be heard with affection and appreciation.
Being online meant that Jai could join the Poetry Circle even if he had moved away from the Bay area. Our open-door policy and word of mouth amongst poetry lovers soon led to poets joining us from Dubai and India as well. After a year of weekly poetry readings, I decided this virtual love-fest needed to be commemorated beyond the virtual world. We compiled a 200-page multi-lingual poetry anthology with 22 of us sharing poems for it.
When India Currents hosted the Matwaala poetry reading, we started a monthly column called Poetry as Sanctuary to share our love of poetry by writing about it. It was time to share our joys with the community in times when so much was going wrong for so many. After a year of hosting, I decided to take a break, only to discover that this weekly circle had a life of its own and continued even when I was no longer the host. Jai just completed six months as our dependable volunteer host.
During my childhood, growing up in Delhi in the 70s, my extended family would gather every weekend at my grandma’s house. My uncles and aunts would pamper me in ways that compensated for my mother’s stricter ways of being a parent. I grew to know my cousins by playing and eating with them. Anyone could come to the open house as the weekend family ritual was the same forever. This poetry circle reminds me of those old times remade for modern times. Our virtual Saturday poetry circle is a home for anyone who wants the predictable love of poems and reliable commitment. The regulars continue their labor of love by hosting, writing articles, sharing poems on our Facebook and Instagram pages, making poetry films, inviting their friends to the circle, now a new book is in the making, and a public performance, just for you. Like my family, this weekly ritual grounds us by being a part of the community that belongs to poems. We invite you to join us as we prepare for our first-ever performance.
In the delicate shadow of poems, we gather to save old-fashioned deeply committed love – in our own modern ways. Come listen to find your own voice in our song, with your family and friends, on Aug 28th, 7:30 pm PT. Register here.
Dr. Jyoti Bachani is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is a former Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, with degrees from London Business School, UK, Stanford, USA, and St. Stephen’s College, India. She translates Hindi poems and edited a poetry anthology called ‘The Memory Book of the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley’.