IC held its third Desi Poetry Reading, in collaboration with Matwaala, on December 3, 2020, which was moderated by Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik. The topic was certainly timely – Uncertainty and Change.
After a quick introduction by Pramila Venkatewaran, the co-founder of Matwaala, the Desi Poetry Reading was kicked off by a prolific and accomplished high school poet.
Sara Garg started the evening with a reading of an experiential poem called 2020, that captured the universal feeling of waiting, waiting for the count to go to zero. Another tender poem was about the mini sparks of light that are the front-line workers who face darkness, terror, and monsters while just having each other while they cope with uncertainty. Blood Questions was hard-hitting, speaking dramatically about BLM and our common humanity as it took on the voice of blood as it poured out of the chest of a Black young man as he is killed by blue and brass. In Sunset Sunrise, she gives eloquent voice to the uncertainty we live with during the pandemic, finally admitting she cannot see if the sun is rising or setting, whether hope is ascendent or not. In an answer to a question, Sara attributed her sense of rhythm to the early influence of Usha Akella (co-founder of Matwaala) when she was in 4th grade, as she learned to write a poem about a banana. This was a story of affection that Sara shared with the listeners, a sweet moment of connection, one that most of us can engage with, and that lifted the weight of uncertainty to one of positive change.
R. Cheran, a poet and professor, writes creatively in Tamil. He shared four parts of a powerful translated piece called On the Street, Anytime. His poem had vivid images, of jackfruits, leaves, and bodies run over by tanks on the street, blood seeping into paddy fields, and leaves being the only witnesses to bodies getting together anytime. Repetitions of Anytime, built into a crescendo as he conjured images of extreme contrast – blood, sperm, and poems written on colored pieces of paper, on the street, anytime. He sets the stage in memories of experiencing and witnessing slices of the genocide in Sri Lanka. The poet shifts to potholes in snowy weather, covered in ice, that refill with the blood of 2 boys who could be his sons, shot by the white policeman. Black brave boys whose blood fills the pothole, not once, but twice. In the final fourth part of the poem, Cheran speaks of poverty of the soul, of being left by a lover, one who takes almost everything away with her, but the poem refuses to go with her, the one whose first line is, On the Street, Anytime.
R. Cheran shared another short poem that was equally evocative of remembered trauma as he sketched out the scene of Indian soldiers, a woman held down, a child thrown into a well, and the well that is now without a voice to even say Aiyyo. Cheran’s poems are certainly not “easy listening” but instead pull the listener into a well of traumatic memories and images, the work of a master story-teller, craftsman, and poet. In response to a question by Srishti Prabha about how he balances violence and beauty, Cheran said that the genocide he witnessed and survived cannot be written in words or taught through a lens of sociology or anthropology, that he has portrayed but the tip of an iceberg and such horror can only be begun to be experienced through an art form such as poetry.
I have to take a break in writing this now, and walk around, as I try to shake off and metabolize the intensity of revisiting and closely listening to this part of the reading.
Kalpna Singh-Chitnis, a poet, writer, and film-maker, continued the evening. In a poem about the pandemic, one of the stark images she drew was of the Faceless One stealing all the faces that have disappeared behind masks, likening it to Kabuki dancers magically stealing faces and tucking them away in their kimonos. In a hard-hitting poem titled E.R., she speaks of holding the ground like a tree in a storm, not collapsing or vomiting, but holding in her internal injuries, and dying inside without being noticed. In The Salt of a Woman, anger and outrage jump off the words, her story older than civilization, questioned, blamed, conquered, gifted, dismissed, shamed. In IF, she writes of the only power a survivor of sexual assault may have, in telling others what not to do if she is killed, do not hang the perpetrators, she says – they will be born again and do it again. Hopelessness permeates the poem but ends with dignity. Tell your sons about me, she asks of women, preach me as a sermon, she asks of the preachers, write me as an epic, she asks of the writer.
I believe the BLM movement’s rise in the summer of 2020, empowered many of us in the desi community to finally speak openly of our own experiences of racial discrimination in the United States. Microaggressions are carried in the body, held on to for years, taken out every now and then, and re-examined through various lenses such as – why did the teacher not speak up, why did I not speak up, as if it would have been easy, as if it would have found validation at the time. I think many will identify with the process, the self-doubt, the worry of being heard, being believed, and the fear of having our experiences being discounted
Singh-Chitnis bravely shares a poem 25 years in the making and birthing. In this final poem, Kalpna addresses these excoriations – I am sitting there like the stump of a tree, still sitting there like the stump of a tree, still sitting there in that classroom. The lectures begin and end, she says, but the question remains. She is still waiting for the professor to speak up for her – she was voiceless and powerless at the time.
As these wounds get more light and air, as more people hear our experiences, as more speak up, as more poetry and art is used to communicate, the more hope there can be. I fully understand how it took 25 years to write that poem.
Indran Amirthanayagam, an author and poet read from his recently published book, Uncivil War, continuing the theme of trauma, displacement, war, and unbelonging. In Fire Department asks displaced refugee peoples from all over the world – Where is your Village Burning even if your home is not in the list. Ready to Move was a poignant ode to those who are witnesses to the only truth worth repeating – ready to move with a toothbrush, a fresh set of clothes. In Father, Indran eloquently mourns his father, moving from speaking of personal loss (watching geese honking on their way to the other side of the sky, poems to survive the fires, he has left us his name we wear it today) to the theme of universal experiences of the death of a father. Indran moved on to poems of upliftment as he hoped that the world would be inspired by the outcome of the American elections, in spite of something rotten in America, life pressed out of George Floyd, there is still hope he said – ordinary decent Joe has my vote – ending by saying he is an American optimist, and that the next war needs to be one that can unite humanity – saving our planet.
Varsha Saraiya-Shah continued the evening with a reading of I Speak from Towers of Silence in which she likens 6 feet of social distancing as a coffin length apart, observing that babies pop out like flowers, and being moved in different ways by the reality of bodies piling up in refrigerated trucks in New York. In Neither Hope nor Miracle, she speaks of science being necessary, that it needs to be unfenced with countless windows, that climate will throw earthly tantrums, warning, exhorting, and pleading with people to heed science. In When the Wind Blows, Varsha goes back to music, drawing inspiration from Miles Davis, saying, listen to what you can leave out. In Headlines, she playfully alludes to hair at different life stages, bound, unbound, and finally to a time to reshape the wildness even if Broadway will be closed till June 2021.
Saleem Peeradina’s poems submitted for this event were read by Pramila Venkateswararan. In The Body in Question Saleem Peeradina examines the world through striking images of different bodies and their symbolizing the various states of humanity, power and inhumanity –the bud of infancy to maternal bloom, migrating bodies washed ashore, body behind bars in solitary, body in whose soil is grown cotton, cane or tobacco, bodies from which coal is mined, in genocide, counted in numbers. In Song of the Makeover, he embodies the split he experiences as someone who never fits in where he is, always travelling, seeking himself or what appears to be himself through vivid phrases like full circle renewing the past, most at ease in a state of passage, two tongues, over there another face goes by my name, and, whose shadow doubles behind me.
In The View from 70, Saleem Peeradina draws playful and delightful images for us of interlopers who take over our bodies and are finally successful. The interloper enters stealthily with unmarked baggage, practice(s) hit and run arts, is the seducer who played for years on the swings slides and seesaws of my heart, a seventh sense, even with a no-vacancy sign. Finally, he concedes that it is best to befriend them, learn about them and co-exist until they (armed and dangerous) eventually win.
I am so glad I made the time for this new (to me) listening experience. It opened my eyes to a whole new vibrant community of poets and lovers of poetry, as well as those who enjoy hearing about the desi experience that we bring to the world of poetry. It seemed generally agreed upon that there has been more poetry written and made available to people all over the world, and that more people turned to poetry during the pandemic. Whether people had more time, needed poetry to make sense of the world, or whether technology brought poetry to more people, the increased interest has been one of the more welcome outcomes of the pandemic.
Here are all these people
Who look like me Sound like me
And they read, and they love
Carry their hearts outside
speak the same languages
Of love and poetry
Of loss and separation
Of longing and dreams
Old homes and new
Old words renewed
Speak the language
Of Jack fruit, mango piquant as
Cilantro and green Chilis
Chai and samosas, sweet as
Jasmine with Thulasi leaves
Dusty tropical heat
Musty corner memories
Uncles, aunts, cousins
Clammy hands of first loves
Awkward fumbling kisses
Drenching thunderous monsoons
Umbrellas collapse in submission
Gathering with hope
rising in affection
Speaking old tongues in these newer lands
Using our Indlish to praise, protest, love
Finding connection in skin, language, country
Are these new cousins I see here?
Watch the Desi Poetry reading below!
Kalpana Asok is the author of ‘Whose Baby Is It, Anyway? Inside the Indian Heart’ and ‘Everyday Flowers’.