Join India Currents and Matwaala, once again, in our Desi Poetry Reading Series. This time we bring you six poets addressing the ever-present uncertainty and change. The South Asian diaspora is perpetually evolving, breaking new boundaries and forging new connections in every sphere. India Currents presents its third Desi Poetry Reading to discuss how South Asian communities interacting with a year of inconsistencies, trauma, growth, and change.
To join the FREE poetry reading on Thursday, December 3, 2020 at 6pm PST and 9 pm EST, register here:
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.
We hope to see you there!
Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.
When I was young, I used to get a kick out of seeing words rhyme. Reading Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, I would enunciate the rhyming bits out loud for fun. Later in high school, I marveled at Shakespeare and his dexterous lines which stoked the imagination and inspired lofty notions.
Poetry, in contrast to everyday speech, has an eye for beauty. She has a penchant for the pretty phrase, a fancy for things well said. With her, language is revered and words are caressed and carefully ensconced in a metrical mold which lends rhythm and musicality.
While I was in college, I listened to a recitation of a narrative poem my grandfather had written in Kannada (my mother tongue). The tune was captivating, the story was beautiful, and it made an unforgettable impression. Never before had I experienced (or given much heed to) sound and sense so intimately connected in my mother tongue. As Alexander Pope describes poetry:
Thereafter I began to realize – like the proverbial frog in the well – that other languages contained profound treasures of literature and poetry that my anglophone worldview wasn’t privy to. Unable to resist the siren call, I set out to learn my mother tongue.
A few years down the rabbit hole, I acquired Kannada and Sanskrit and delved into the literature with zest. When I moved to the bay area, I was fortunate to come across a poetry meetup group where I met some birds of the same feather. We started meeting weekly to partake in virtual poetry gatherings using the Facebook groupPoetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley, where I found encouragement and an outlet to share the poems and translations that follow.
The best romance poems employ a subtle art of suggestion; without being coarse, they indicate rather than explicate. In this Sanskrit verse from the 7th century, we see a poet’s tasteful portrayal of conjugal matters:
As the newlywed couple whispered through the night, their pet parrot overheard the words exchanged. The following morning, in the presence of elders, it began repeating what it had learned. Hearing this, the wife was mortified and she grabbed her ruby earring (which resembled a pomegranate seed) and thrust it into the parrot’s beak to silence it.
Here’s another verse in Sanskrit which makes a delightfully wry observation:
A red color is left lingering on her lips from chewing betel leaves. When her father dies, that courtesan, not wanting to smear the red from her lips, cries “Taata, taata!” instead of “Pita, pita!” (both words mean father). i.e., Even while mourning the death of her father, she is mindful of her lipstick.
“Brevity is the soul of wit” runs the common adage. Taking it to heart, this nifty triplet in Kannada claims to encapsulate all love stories:
Poetry – and by extension, Art – seeks to elevate the connoisseur from the clutches of the mundane. In the process, ordinary emotions are rarefied and become things of beauty. Love, compassion, anger, sorrow, or any of the palate of emotions when expressed through the medium of art achieve a sublime dimension and unequivocally yield aesthetic joy. The joy of course, is an end in itself and needs no further recourse.
Navaneet Galagali is a software engineer in the California bay area who slyly siphons away time for his excursions with literature and music. His present obsessions include Sanskrit and Kannada literature. He is also learning Hindustani classical vocal music and Tabla.
A collaboration between tpet, Zilka Joseph and pianist, Veena Kulkarni lends itself to a unique experience for the Rasa Festival. The poetry section of the festival will also feature a reading by Sumita Chakraborty.
Zilka Joseph was born in Mumbai and grew up in Kolkata, India. She came to the US in 1997. She is the author of two chapbooks, Lands I Live In and What Dread, and a collection titled Sharp Blue Search of Flame. Her new chapbook Sparrows and Dust will be published this fall. Her work reflects the complexities of life as an immigrant, issues of displacement, racism, women’s issues, death and loss. She has a deep love for and knowledge of Nature and wildlife, which are also recurrent themes in her poems. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches creative writing and poetry, edits manuscripts, and mentors writers in the community. She is dedicated to lifting up every writer/student she works with and aims to create a unique and generous community wherever she lives and teaches.
Sumita Chakrabortyis a poet, essayist, and scholar. She is Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Poetry at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, where she teaches in literary studies and creative writing. Previously, she was a Visiting Assistant Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, as well as Lecturer in English and Creative Writing, at Emory University. Her first scholarly book, tentatively titled Grave Danger: Death, Ethics, and Poetics in the Anthropocene, is in progress. Her debut collection of poetry, Arrow, was released in September 2020 with Alice James Books in the United States and Carcanet Press in the United Kingdom.
Also based in Ann Arbor,Veena Kulkarni-Rankinwas born and raised in the US Midwest and began her piano studies at the age of 5. A western classical pianist, she won many youth competitions, studied at Indiana University, and then earned a doctorate in Piano Pedagogy & Performance at the University of Michigan. Finding great fulfillment in teaching, she is currently the Lead Instructor at Faber Piano Institute Over the years as a lover of all types of music, Veena has branched off into other styles of playing, many that fuse improvisation with composed-out music. Most notable is her partnership with baritone Jean Bernard as Duo 1717, whose concerts feature folk and art music, storytelling, and social justice issues from the United States, Haiti, South America, the Philippines, India, European cultures, and beyond. A second-generation American, Veena loves connecting with and learning more about her Filipino and Indian roots. And if you are a fellow musician, she wants to sit down with you, start playing, and see what happens!
When Veena first read Zilka’s book Sharp Blue Search of Flame she was inspired by poems that were musical or rhythmic in nature and after a discussion, they decided that the poem “City of Hibiscus Eyes” would be perfect for their experiment. The poem is a pantoum, a form that originated in Malaysia, and it has a repetitive structure. Moreover, there is a haunting and lyrical quality to this particular poem that attracted Veena. Her subsequent improvisation is a stunning combination of eastern and western classical music, which is inspired by Raag Malkauns. Veena quotes a classic Hindi film song, Jaane Bahaar Husn Tera Bemisaal Hai (1963), and Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise.
We present a reading of the poem by Zilka with Veena’s composition playing in the background, and then Veena performing her piece.
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.