It is not often that one has the opportunity to review the work of a dear friend, but perhaps it is inevitable that when writing for a community magazine, there is a spark of recognition upon reading the name of the author in a review copy.
The arts community of Silicon Valley especially might find that “it’s a small valley,” and some of those burning the brightest are technologists with a passion for the arts (STEM with an A, if you like.) A few weeks ago, Reena’s first play Art of the Possibleon zoom was at EnActe Arts, and left me feeling uplifted and helped me forget that COVID cases were rising. I was entranced by the play, on a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, and with a memorable allusion to an anglophile mother-in-law who spurns the humble samosa for a memsahib’s preference — cucumber sandwiches.
Arrivals and Departures, is full of deeply felt poems that caused me to see Reena anew. Her fierce intelligence, her sparkling wit, and sympathy for the unfortunate are now a book subtitled “Journeys in Poems.”
So, what moved her? What inspired this poetry?
Sometimes, it was the intense beauty of a moment that would soon be gone. The naturalistic photographs complementing these poems capture life at its most evanescent.
The sweetness of baby Mira, later a child who would leave home in the graduate.
The caring gesture of a life-partner — “how does an ordinary girl get so lucky?” in Interrupt me.
A ring lost in 2012, bittersweet and whimsical in lost & found.
Reservations on ceding agency to another in Sometimes or knowledge that in a marriage, “her chains have only changed hands.”
The “smoky blue hills” of Silicon Valley, in Truant (obscured by a fire haze at the time of writing this review, but I know they are there.)
My favorite was rude one, about the act of writing poetry itself — how her poem arrives in a peremptory fashion and insists on being heard — “this self-centered, maniacal one, my poem.” And another poem where, rushing to be on time for work, she pauses as her daughter picks out a perfect earring for her (morning rush).
Reena believes that “Life is a short yet lonely road unless we dare and bare our souls, even while fearful of what may come.” This sentiment is expressed in her poem Uncaged — “you could be more!”
“Life is that rare magic
Even when it remains callous, unsure
Beg off or behold it with fear
Or step out with a will to be more…”
Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is both gharelu and “homely” while waiting for the pandemic to be over. She is ostensibly working on a book called “50 Voices From South Asia.”
—From the poem ‘Queer As In’ by Delhi-based non-binary, femme disabled poet and journalist Riddhi Dastdar.
The World That Belong To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia is a first of its kind anthology that brings together the best of contemporary queer poetry from the subcontinent. The collection, which has been jointly edited by poet, writer and artist Aditi Angiras as well as poet, translator and teacher Akhil Katyal, took more than a year to put together. The themes in the poems range from desire and loneliness, sexual intimacy and struggles, caste and language, activism, the role of families, heartbreaks and heartjoins.
In the book’s Preface, Angiras and Katyal write that the call for the anthology was widely circulated online, emailed to friends, copied on Facebook groups and WhatsApped to acquaintances. Over a period of time, the text of the call kept evolving from what it was to what readers wanted it to be. In order to increase its reach and spread, it was also translated into several South Asian languages. In no time, submissions began trickling in from cities across the globe—Bengaluru, Vadodara, Benaras, Boston, Chennai, Colombo, Delhi, Dhaka, Dublin, Kathmandu, Lahore, London, Karachi and New York City.
The more than hundred contributors, poets and translators in the book are all varied in terms of their language, region, caste, gender, sexuality, class and publication history. While many are established queer poets from South Asia, many are also first-time poets. Apart from English, the book features poetry translated from a number of languages, including Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Punjabi and Urdu.
In his poem ‘What is Queer?’, Chand, a queer, agender trans research scholar, sets about trying to explain to his mother what queer is: “Queer is being the lowest of the low/ The absolute scum of the sexual pyramid/ And somehow still taking pride in it.”
Nepal based Phurbu Tashi elaborates further on the plight of queer people like himself in his poem ‘This World Isn’t For You’: “This isn’t nature’s fault, these are your own desires/ Why would I embrace desires that make life harder for me”.
US based Sehrish Rashid, a bisexual woman from Pakistan, writes in her poem ‘Shame’: “What for you is a thing of shame, only spells my truth, my name.”
Gee Semmalar, a queer trans man from Kerala writes in his poem ‘Resistance Rap’: “New skin stubbornly/ Grows over old and new wounds/ Proud scars/ That tell stories of tender love.”
Coochbehar based Arina Alam, writes in her poem ‘I Know’: “When I revolt against this construction of gender, I will keep my head held high.”
Lahore based Asad Alvi’s poem ‘La pulsion de mort’ talks among other things about the impossibility of queer love “for whom the only future carved out is death,” which he illustrates by citing examples of famous writers Tennessee Williams and Virginia Woolf, both of whom committed suicide.
Abhyuday Gupta, who identifies as agender, non-binary, writes about the angst of growing up in his poem ‘Bildungsroman’—one that feels like “the ache of the attic floor which squeaks at the slightest touch and dissolves into a wallflower to apologize for its insolence.”
Shaan Mukherjee Ghosh, who identifies as non-binary and bisexual, writes in his poem ‘Pantomimesis’: “I can’t be gay or trans or depressed./I won’t hurt my body even when it hurts me. I will not abuse others as I have been abused. Everything I thought was wrong. I suppose. I was too young to know.”
Sahar Riaz, a psychiatrist from Pakistan living in Dublin, writes in his poem ‘Do you want to get to know me’: “All day I wait for the night to come/ So I can wipe off this mask, Reveal something real, If only to myself/ I know 3 a.m. like the back of my hand.”
Though an anthology of separate poems, this unique collection advocates a singular voice—of diversity, compassion and justice for this historically marginalized community—one that thrives within the complex multiplicities of South Asia and its religions, sexuality, cultures, and languages.
Neha Kirpalis a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.
Poetry/Song-writing came to me when I was around 16 years old. Until then, I had no taste or interest in the poems that I had to mandatorily read and memorize as a part of my school curriculum. At that time, the school was the only place where I got any exposure to poetry or writing. I was not the kind of boy who would bother to go out of his way to buy a novel or a book of poems. However, when I did read poems in my school textbooks, I enjoyed reading the works of William Blake, George Cooper, and numerous poems which now float around in my mind only as faint images of reverberating words superimposed on top of the faces of my friends, teachers, and the places where I spent most of my childhood and teenage years.
Fast forward to 2019, and I found out that I had been writing for nine years now. I came to the conclusion one introspective evening after a recent move to San Francisco from Los Angeles, that a disparate amount of poems I had written all revolved around the broad themes of unrequited love, admiration of the lover, and just silly love songs. Sure, there was nothing wrong about having a consistent theme across your work. But I did feel that I was quite limited in the way I was repeating my experiences over and over again. It is strange that we choose to feel what we already know.
Until that point, I had thought that new life experiences were capable of enabling new channels of creative outlets. On the contrary, it was the opposite. It was, in fact, the conglomeration of beliefs, attitudes, personality, biases, and a myriad of factors that decided what one was actually capable of experiencing.
How many times does one need to fall in love before he can write about love with the utmost veracity? In clinical psychology, it is said that people high on Agreeableness tend to divide their lives into epochs dictated by the romantic relationships they have had at the time. Boy, was I agreeable! That was all that I was writing about. A psychologist may have recommended an assertiveness training for me, but instead, I just chose to diversify my writing style a bit.
I was lucky to have found a poetry group in the city through the Meetup app that year. I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of talent that was concentrated in a radius of 15 feet around me. These were people that I couldn’t have met anywhere else in the whole world. Hanging out with them had opened up new doors of perception and possibilities for me. Of course, it wasn’t apparent that I would associate with them in the very first meeting. Still, I gradually started to open up to this group of oddly passionate people who appreciated some of my eeriest poetries that would otherwise bring two likes for a friend list of 1500 people on my Facebook. Now it is 2020 and right before the COVID lockdown, I was fortunate enough to become a rather regular member of this group called Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley which, hosts a poetry circle through video conferencing apps each Saturday.
Writing and reciting poetry has ever-changing meanings for each individual.
At times, poetry is a psychological toolkit that enables me to express my feelings in a way that others perceive as novel and a work of art. On some occasions, poetry becomes the irrefutable divine law of nature that each man inherits but of which loses the appreciation as his life progresses into taking upon an increasing amount of responsibilities. At other times, poetry is how one could showcase their intellectual fitness and creativity to a member of the opposite gender that they’d like to woo. Poetry is also that friend who comes to sit down with you in solidarity when the world seems too chaotic or too orderly (in a dystopian way) as you look outside your apartment window and say, “Man! None of this makes sense!” Poetry can be your very own self when you have successfully identified your being as an entity compartmentalized into several flavors manifested out of a hitchhiker’s diary describing his journey across the country.
Poetry can also be this:
In a world with so many places to see,
I’ve never seen a tree that touches the sky.
Tangerines so high, invite me for a tea,
In a treehouse with nobody else but you and I.
And in a treehouse so green,
There are places where I’d like to be:
In your arms, in your eyes,
Watching you gaze, the paranoid.
In a country with so many people to meet,
I’ve never seen a man reading from a monocle.
Sidewalks so alone, hear them greet –
that lonesome band dressed in canonicals.
And with a band so quiet,
There are places where I’d like to sleep:
In your arms, for a hundred years,
Hearing the sound of the paranoid.
At a clinic with so many beds to sweep,
I’ve never seen a bed with strangers on a feast
Nurses so shy, ignoring those who weep
They only smile to pacify the familiar beasts
And along the rooms so sterile,
There are tables you’d like to clean:
In your hands, a surgical knife
Watching you operate the paranoid.
Regardless of how I conceptualized this abstract phenomenon of poetry, this group had made me feel that I wasn’t the only one trying to make sense out of the daily experiences and operations of the human ordeals and pleasures.
This article is part of the column – Poetry as Sanctuary – where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.
Vishal Vatnani is a man as ordinary as you can imagine. He is a 26-year-old data analyst working in San Francisco for a Fintech company. He enjoys writing poetry, playing guitar, reading self-help books, and slaving away his days working.
I live alone. I’ve lived alone for six years now. In that time, my state of being has evolved from not knowing what to do next, to a mix of daily routine, work, activities, social encounters, plans, travel, fulfillment and a life with meaning. Of late, however, the occasional, unexpected wave of loneliness has begun to wash over me once again, unpredictable in its arrival and in its impact. This is without a doubt a consequence of five seemingly interminable months of ‘sheltering’ in my home; a daily walk in the park my only foray into the outside world. Do I feel lonely? Yes, sometimes. Isolated? It seems that way! Do I feel sorry for myself? The answer is yes, on occasion, if I’m honest with myself. I’m a “people person,” and being by myself can be quite difficult.
I was ensconced in my couch late one evening, indulging in a little self-pity, when a vague memory straightened me from my slouch. Pushing up, I walked into the next room to scan my bookshelf for a couple of slim volumes of poetry. Thumbing through them, I soon found the verse from Hafiz of Shirazthat had shaken me from my little pity party:
One day the sun admitted, “I am just a shadow. I wish I could show you The infinite Incandescence That had cast my brilliant image!” “I wish I could show you, When you are lonely or in darkness, The Astonishing Light Of your own Being!”
I had been feeling lonely and in the dark. What made me seek out these words? What was the 14th century Sufi Master trying to say? A thought flickered, then flared. Was he telling me that I need not be lonely or feel lonely when I’m alone? Suggesting that I embrace my aloneness? Thrive in it? Exploit it?
Loneliness left unchecked can be dangerous for the body and the soul. Just a few short months ago, I talked about its ill effects in my article Lonely in a Crowd, describing how this hidden and largely unobserved epidemic had been sweeping through our society long before the coronavirus reared its deadly head. And now here I was, ironically, fighting off its symptoms! I expect some readers will recognize my symptoms. In that respect, I’m not alone!
What’s the difference between Loneliness and Aloneness? “Loneliness is a lack, a feeling that something is missing, a pain, a depression, a need, an incompleteness, an absence,” says Pragito Dove, “aloneness is presence, fullness, aliveness, joy of being, overflowing love. You are complete. Nobody is needed, you are enough.”
The Sufi Master, it seemed, was suggesting that I should seek my own light. Handing me the key to turn an absence into a presence, pointing me to the path away from the perceived pain of an unfulfilled want, towards a joyful exploration of an infinity of life and being that existed within me and around me. A universe waiting to be discovered, in which I would never feel lonely even in my aloneness.
A number of writers describe the power of aloneness; of solitude and the opportunity, it provides to draw strength, peace, and connectivity with oneself and with nature. Introverts thrive on being by themselves, says Sam Woolfe; they feel energized by focusing on their own inner world. Why can’t we give ourselves the same power? In Walden, a classic account of an experiment in essential living, Henry David Thoreau writes “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.” Naturalists who spend long stretches of time by themselves have learned about the power of aloneness and the value of solitude. Some claim that solitude reinforces a secure sense of self, and with that, the capacity for empathy that is so necessary in society.
Those moments when we’ve had a difficult, trying, or exhausting time, or feel that wave of loneliness approaching provide the perfect opportunity to reach within ourselves. That instant when we begin to feel sorry for ourselves or have the urge to get away from it all, is the ideal time for quiet introspection, to be alone and replenish ourselves. Constant “connectivity” in this digital age has driven many of us to a need to always “be with” or engage with someone; this has become so reflexive that we’ve lost the ability to be by ourselves, focus on our surroundings or turn inward to reflect, and connect to our inner selves. Let’s listen to Hafiz once more:
“Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly Let it cut more deep Let it ferment and season you As few human Or even divine ingredients can …”
I’m learning to embrace my aloneness; to find comfort and ease in my own company. It’s difficult. I still have a way to go. I see that light now and then, and experience the peace aloneness brings, as I sit in my front-row seat and observe and absorb the universe within me.
Are you ready to walk on a path towards the astonishing light of your own being?
Sukham Blog – This is a monthly columnfocused on health and wellbeing.
Mukund Acharya is a co-founder ofSukham,an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukhamprovides information, and access to resources on matters related to health and well-being, aging, life’s transitions including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death in the family, and bereavement. To find out more, visit https://www.sukham.org, or contact the author at email@example.com.
To join the poetry reading on Monday August 24th 2020 at 6 pm PST and 9 pm EST, click on this LINK!
The South Asian diaspora is perpetually evolving, breaking new boundaries and forging new connections in every sphere. India Currents presents its second Desi Poetry Reading to discuss how South Asian immigrant communities have changed over the years, as well as attitudes surrounding diversity, multiculturalism and belonging.
This is effort is in collaboration with Matwaala, a South-Asian poetry collaborative designed to provide immigrant and POC writers with a literary platform. In their own words, Matwaala represents “voices that dare to say the unsaid and hear the unheard…voices that break down barriers…voices that dare to be South Asian, American, and simply human.” Since their formation, they have hosted a number of poetry festivals and writing workshops. Most notably, they recently spearheaded Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood Project, where they created a Poetry Wall in honor of South Asian writers at the Irving Museum and Archives.
This poetry reading will feature notable writers from various pockets of the South Asian community, including Geetha Sukumaran, Ravi Shankar, Ralph Nazareth, Kirun Kapoor, and youth poet Kanchan Naik. India Currents staff Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik will moderate the event, facilitating questions from the audience via email.
To find out more about this event and its panelists, stay tuned for updates on our Facebook and Instagram!
Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, a Global Student Square editor for Newsroom By the Bay and Director of Media Outreach at nonprofit Break the Outbreak.
In June Ahmad Abumraighi messaged me asking if he can come to my community studio, Studio Pause, with his friend and filmmaker Anas Tolba. Anas was making a documentary on Ahmad as a Palestinian artist, whose work is about social justice and community.
I asked Ahmad, “Why the Studio?”
He replied “… it’s about being around honest company where I can be myself, without experiencing the feeling of having to defend myself or my beliefs. At Studio Pause I feel safe and creative when I’m with Sush and other community artists who care to bring love and light to everyone in the community.”
Anas would bring his assistant, Mohammad Saffouri, and Hanan would join them later. I agreed happily. I was going to have my first group of people at the Studio since lockdown. What better group than this?
I had first met Ahmad at Hanan Seid’s Mic-Less Night Series. Hanan, a local spoken word artist, activist and the Studio’s first artist-in-residence, had started her Mic-Less Night Series here in 2016 finding the space perfect for people who are intimidated by the mic to share their poetry and stories. Since then, Ahmad had had two shows here sharing his love for Arabic poetry and his mastery in calligraphy with the community, while he attended university as an international student.
Before they arrived that day I reminded them to wear masks. Susan Sterner, a PAUSEr who visited once a week, had brought in extra masks and hand sanitizer. She had figured out how we could safely work at the ends of the 6 ft long art tables. Ahmad and the crew arrived masked and with bags of goodies. I made coffee and set out the refreshments. Our last reception had been in Feb 2020, for Susan’s show, and this was the first four-month gap in seven years of the Studio. The AC was out, the windows were open, and a noisy bird sang from a tree.
The filming started with an interview. Ahmad asked what I had worked on during the pandemic. I showed him my calligraphic explorations in Hindi and Bengali. I told him how his art had inspired me to return to my languages and scripts reconnecting with them through my art. Then it was time for art-making. I introduced him to water-soluble graphite. “As I play music in my Studio,” I said, “a Hindi movie song might speak to me, and I make the lyrics into art.”
He got an idea. “Why don’t you play your music and I’ll play mine!” he said. “You do your calligraphy and I’ll do mine!”
The songs played and we wrote directly on the butcher paper taped to the table—Arabic and Devanagari. “What did you write?” I asked.
“Take me to Palestine,” he read.
I texted a photo of it to my friend, Sughra Hussainy, a calligrapher from Afghanistan, living in Baltimore, MD. She created a calligraphic artwork and sent it to me. Take me to my dear Kabul, it read. I showed it to the men.
I caught a few Arabic words from Ahmad’s songs. They were the Hindi/Urdu words duniya, mushkil. Ahmad painted with the coffee too.
“What is that? Looks like mountains and valleys,” I observed, as the wet paper warped.
“It’s the map of Palestine,” he laughed. Later, he started to dance.
The air was magical, yet, I was quietly panicking. What if someone caught COVID-19? Had I done everything right? I went and looked out of the window, tears rolling down my face. Was I being pessimistic as the friends chatted away, laughed and worked? I had missed people, even strangers. Every month, between an artist’s reception and Mic-Less Night I met 20-50 people here and it was always awesome. And here were these wonderful people and I was … what’s the word?
They continued their shoot downstairs in the community center. I had worked alone during the lockdown designing and producing handmade copies of Hanan’s first full-length poetry book, Catalyst: A Collection of Poetry by Hanan Seid. Now again, I was sitting at my table, alone. But my heart was racing. I breathed deeply, folding the printed pages, reading snippets of Hanan’s powerful poems.
Soon the group returned to the Studio along with Hanan. At the opening reception here five years ago we had 40 guests and now five made my heart race. But she was so excited to see the copies of her books and sign them. I noticed the red mask she wore over her hijab. I couldn’t see her smile let alone give her a hug. Who was I now? I could hardly recognize myself.
An excerpt from her poem Tsunami spoke to me:
“Which character will they remember? I’ve been them all The good and the bad Wonder if my soul is as claustrophobic as I am If it’ll fit nice in the coffin Then my eyes open And the nightmare supposedly over I gasp and wonder Who will I be next and will she be remembered?”
When they left, I helped the community center staff put the furniture back the way it was. They worried about what had been touched. I stared at where the woman sprayed the Lysol, and what she wiped. So much remained unsprayed and unwiped! I remained silent. I couldn’t recognize myself, a total stranger! But it would be fine, I told myself. We were all doing our best.
Sushmita Mazumdar is a self-taught writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood for her American children and making them into handmade storybooks. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration she opened Studio Pause in 2013 mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.
A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.
– W. H. Auden
In reading 16-year-old Uma Menon’s debut collection of poetry, it is obvious that W. H. Auden was speaking about her. For that matter, the fact that the author is a teen should not make the reader shy away from her work and chalk up the 96-page volume of poetry to rhymey-rhymes or hip-hop repetition.
On the contrary, Menon’s poems are as well crafted as those written by one twice her age with an equally-impressive and diverse backlog of publication. An exploration of what it means to be a young woman of color in America,Hands for Language is a deep dive into the joys, sorrows, and challenges met by straddling the white world and the land of her birth.
Comprised of 55 tightly-crafted free verse poems,Hands for Language is presented in four parts. Finding, losing, and keeping one’s language is the common thread of the collection.
Part One: Birth primarily moves from her childhood living in India through just after immigrating to the United States. She reflects on her early life in 11 poems, including “citizenship,” “birthdays,” “origin story,” and “at the intersection of the land & sea.”
Part Two: Discovery embraces language and the search for meaning, understanding, and communication while discussing the need to juggle her native Malayalam and the English of her new land. The 14 titles that make up this section include “spoken language,” “i forget,” “the world lies between her two eyes,” and “dictionary: tanpura.”
Part Three: Becoming examines “how to become a beautiful second-language poet,” “portrait of my tongue as a battleground,” “Ode to Debate / Sometimes, After Junior Year,” and “Orphan Tongues.”
Part Four: Rebellion includes 16 poems, including titles such as “revolution in my mind,” “border violence,” “Hand in Mouth,” and “independence.”
Language is the foundation of the collection, butMenon also centers on family: her mother, grandmother, uncle, and traditions they have taught her. As an activist,Menon expresses pointed concerns about hot-button topics such as immigration, current events, gender, nature, and climate change. She is as punctilious in her language as to make the reader forget her age but not her love of language a weapon against injustice.
An accomplished young woman, her writing has twice been nominated for thePushcart Prize. This debut collection was shortlisted for the 2019 InternationalErbacce Prize. Alongside her many literary achievements,Menon is a social justice advocate, a nationally ranked debater, and the first Youth Fellow for theInternational Human Rights Art Festival. As a member of the high school Class of 2020,Menon graduated as valedictorian from Winter Park High School’s (Florida) International Baccalaureate Program, and she plans to continue her education this fall at Princeton University.
As sanitizer turns into a balm for our weary nerves
And TP becomes our most prized possession,
We lumber out of hibernation every morning
With nowhere to go but the couch.
The only thing we’re creating these days
Is a six feet force field around us.
As we fight to flatten the curve,
This insidious little bug flattened our lives.
Zoom-ing through our days is ok,
But i-contact is not eye contact.
As I walk around I see a sea of masks
Like extras in a dystopian movie,
Their eyes constantly scanning for threats, avoiding mine
I can’t read them, can’t tell what they’re thinking.
“Windows to the soul,” they said.
I’m not afraid but sad,
As our humanity falls victim to social distancing.
Riya Arora is currently a sophomore at The Harker School. She finds her passion in social advocacy and giving a voice to those without one. Already involved in several non-profit organizations, she is also the founder of her own called Touched By MS. Outside of school, she is a 2x national medalist in figure skating and is on the San Jose Sharks synchronized team.
Can you think of major experiences of your life and community, whether it is to celebrate birthdays or weddings, or to mourn a loss or even at the rituals around a funeral, without some music and song, be it folk traditions or prayer chants? Poetry is so seamlessly woven into our lives that we may turn to its wisdom by sheer instinct, to find what comforts and elevates.
The Indian epics of Mahabharata with the Gita, literally the song of the God, contained within it, and the Ramayana, or the more recent religious text from the five-hundred-year-old Sikh holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib, are all written in verse. These verses are memorized and still sung aloud or chanted privately, as they were before the written word was invented.
Poetry belongs in the community, especially now, as the world goes through these transformative times.
On June 30th, India Currents(IC) andMatwaala held apoetry reading event with five award-winning South Asian women poets addressing activism. Matwaala director and poet, Usha Akella, said that it’s time to bring poetry, a minority art amongst arts, out from the university halls and into the community.
Two of the poets read poems about the Nirbhaya incident of the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh, showcasing how poetry can be activism by bearing witness. Sophia Naz, a poet on the panel, described each poem to be an experiment and an act of activism. She sees the process of subjective meaning as a democratic act of a dialog between the poem and the reader. The activism is inherent in poems as the reader must engage to make sense of it, with the meaning changing with every reading. At the end of the 90 minutes, Srishti, IC moderator, said how she found the session cathartic and was glad that several poems gave expression to what she felt.
Poems read in community have a way of connecting us to our spirit and with each other.
This is the first in a series of articles for the new column – Poetry as Sanctuary. Poetry for the poetry lovers and the poetically curious in our community. The articles will be written by our diaspora poets who are from the FB groupPoetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. This group meets weekly, on Saturday nights at 8:30 pm, to read and listen to poems, in all languages, with impromptu translations. We have poets who read in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Telugu, Sindhi, Farsi, Spanish, German, Japanese, Korean, and other languages.
About a half a dozen years ago, Mahendra Kutare, started meetups and formed a group that now goes by the nameKaavya Connections. Many of us met at the monthly gathering in San Francisco that Mahendra hosts. Three years ago, we started meeting once a month in Mountain View and has morphed into a weekly group since the shelter-in-place started in March.
Although the group is open to all, it is not an open mic, since we are not a performance space. Ours is an art practice space for poetry lovers who have a deep and old commitment to poems. Unlike some other poetry groups, we do not expect or provide a critique of poems. Our intention is to connect people through the love of poems, and we end up co-creating poetic conversations. It is an affirmative space by intention, following the Hindustani tehzeeb (protocol/tradition), where praise for the poets attending a mushaira or mehfil, poetry recitation event, is called, ‘daat dena’, where the listeners repeat words that the poet says or ask the poet to re-read some lines (mukarar), as a way to set the pace and punctuate the poems with generous praise, by saying ‘Wah! Wah!’ (great!) or ‘irshad’ (repeat please), depending on the response evoked by the poem being read.
We will be in touch with poems, and until then check out the recordings of the event.
I can recommend Sophia Naz’s the United States of Amnesia, where you might find yourself wanting to soak up phrases like “I know the smell of Genocide” or “I have fallen in your uncivil war of a thousand and one episodes. This beast you thought you tamed? He prowls the profiled night wearing a police uniform.”
Zilka Joseph’s poems on 25 responses to everyday racism, or the ghazal about Jyoti Singh, were immersive and evocative. She calmly stated the obvious, “Poets, words are witness, make darkness burn.” I was taken by her simplicity.
I heard poems about mothers who lost their sons and a reminder that George Floyd was a spark that ignited cataclysmic events brewing for hundreds of years – “take a breath brother because you are more than 400 years of hate and hurt”.
Usha Akella’s phrase, “Sanskrit mantras in my veins” or the poem Enough demanding “bring back our caged children to a field of sunflowers” kept me wanting more.
“How much of knowing do we need before we say it.” – I poignant end to a thought-provoking session. I knew I was ready for the next reading, as soon as this one ended.
Thank you, Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik for using the IC platform to elevate these minority voices that speak for the disenfranchised communities. I look forward to the next poetry reading.
This article is part of the column – Poetry as Sanctuary – where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.
Dr. Jyoti Bachani is on a mission to humanize management using the arts, specifically poetry and improv, as a founding member of the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley, a co-founder of the US chapter of the International Humanistic Management Association and an associate professor of business at Saint Mary’s College of California.
With America on the precipice of landmark socio-political change, India Currents invites you to celebrate activism through a virtual poetry reading! This effort is in collaboration with Matwaala, a South-Asian poetry collaborative designed to provide immigrant and POC writers with a literary platform.
In their own words, Matwaala embodies “voices that dare to say the unsaid and hear the unheard…voices that break down barriers…voices that dare to be South Asian, American, and simply human.” Since their formation, they have hosted a number of poetry festivals and writing workshops. Most notably, they recently spearheaded Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood Project, where they created a Poetry Wall in honor of South Asian writers at the Irving Museum and Archives.
Poetry has always represented rebellion — against injustice, against hierarchy, against the status quo. And this event, complete with live readings and a stimulating Q & A session, seeks to honor this sense of rebellion by addressing topics such as women’s rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. This discussion features an all-female panel of Desi poets, who will reflect on their own experiences to analyze these issues from an immigrant perspective.
To find out more about this event and its panelists, stay tuned for updates on our Facebook and Instagram!
Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, and Director of Media Outreach at nonprofit Break the Outbreak.
that is within us; let’s face it with positive energy.
Satyam Sikha Moorty is a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and taught for 31 years at Southern Utah University. He has two chapbooks ready: “Who Am I? and other poems” and “Poems of Fear and Songs of Hope.” His book “Passage from India: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays” has recently been published by Austin Macauley, London, England
Notes: “Sweet are the uses of adversity”—Shakespeare, “As You Like It,” Act II. Scene i.
“Suffering Makes a man wise”—Aeschylus, from his “Fragments”