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The ancient Greeks, I remember learning, were ferocious about their poetry. Plato’s distrust of poetry is famous; he banished poets from his theoretical ideal city along with war and hunters. The Romantics wept over poetry to prove their humanity, ghazals in the Mughal courts of Delhi propelled many young writers to dazzling fame, and Dylan Thomas, in his low, round voice, was the tragic rockstar of his generation.
Where is poetry now? What used to incense us, comfort us, move us, what used to make heroes and headlines, seems now to occupy the margins of the literary world. Yet the marginal space for any art form can be a dynamic place. Called a sister to visual arts, poetry has always been the most fluid and hybrid form of writing: constantly creating and challenging and transforming rules, rhyme schemes, meters, and forms. And as the face of the United States continues to shift, so does the face of poetry, opening its mouth to speak in new and diverse voices. A new generation of South Asian poets are using the medium to explore neighborhoods, identities, languages, politics, and love. As the work of Sujata Bhatt, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Bushra Rehman makes clear, poetry, these days, is quiet, but it’s quietly thriving.
Of course, poetry is far too diverse a genre of writing to generalize about. Even the body of work these three poets have created is difficult to distill—they write about love, sex, politics, language, violence, food, fish, colonialism, names, flowers, families, heartbreak, and more. Is it fair to group three artists together because they all happen to be women of color? Some find labels limiting; others find them empowering. Yet all accepted the label of “poet” without question. Gently, fiercely, sensually, furiously, these women explore themes and subjects that are both universal and specific to their communities. As life experiences, viewpoints, and approaches differ, it is no surprise that they disagree on many points. There are moments, however, in which their thinking intersects—even if only to diverge again. Poetry is capacious enough for all perspectives.
“I see myself as a Pakistani from New York,” says American-born poet and author Bushra Rehman. “When I think of my poetry,” she says, “I see it coming out of the immigrant tradition of New York City writers.”
The label—”South Asian woman poet”— “is a way for people to find me, to find my work,” Rehman says. “It’s when people feel like they are limited by those labels that they become problematic. I don’t feel limited in my subject matter at all, so I don’t think it takes away from my authenticity as an artist.”
Sujata Bhatt, born in India, educated in America, and currently residing in Germany, disagrees. “I believe that categories based exclusively on gender and race can be boring, simplistic and dangerous,” she writes. “Most human beings are either male or female and have some sort of cultural heritage. I know who I am. Scholars and academics tend to have more problems with my identity than I do.”
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who is of Filipino and South Indian descent, thinks on the subject of identity in terms of both self and audience: “A former classmate in grad school once told me that when he thinks of India, he thinks of poverty and dirt. That really burned me up. No way was I going to let people get away with thinking that of my parents’ beloved home countries.” Many of Nezhukumatathil’s poems are set in India and the Philippines, where, curious and loving, the speaker describes local landscapes and traditions. “I think the power of a poet,” she continues, “lies in getting another person to think about a written experience in a new, surprising way that showcases a delight in sound and language.”
Rehman is even more explicit about her relationship to the reader. “For me, poetry is a form of activism,” Rehman says. “It’s a way to keep sane as a person of color in this country, but it’s also a place to write from your heart, and be honest. In the world we live in, people are constantly throwing up illusions—everything from television to what we hear politicians saying. And poetry is a place to stop and be honest for a second.” Since she sees poetry as activism, Rehman makes it a priority to address issues that affect her community. “I make it a point to talk about South Asians in New York because of the way South Asians are treated in New York. In a post-9/11 world, the writing I’m doing is to show that [Pakistani-Americans] are part of the city, and we’ve been here for a long time.”
Rehman pays particular attention to her relationship with her audience when she is performing her poetry. While she isn’t a slam poet, (“I’m more of a folky poet”) the simplicity of her language, and her use of repetition, gives you the feeling that the work is intended to be read aloud. Rehman says her performances change the dynamic of her writing: “When I perform it’s more like teaching—I would like to pass on something, or create something together.”
Bhatt’s approach is not specific to any community, but echoes the same sentiment: “One of the traditional roles of the poet is to be the spokesperson, the most articulate speaker for the nation or the tribe. Today, in 2008, I feel that poets should be responsible to language and to their craft, and they should also be true to themselves. I believe that this ancient role of the poet still resonates with many people and many cultures, and in that sense has been kept alive.”
Herein lies the quiet tension of the poet’s allegiance to her audience and to herself. Bhatt interestingly uses languages, like Gujarati, in her primarily English-language poetry. So what is communicated and what is lost in a language the reader often cannot speak or read? How much meaning can be conveyed through sound? Is there an emotional charge in syllables that one cannot understand? Bhatt cannot, or will not answer these questions; she keeps her cards close to her chest when speaking about the language in her poems. “I have a number of ‘ideal readers’ and not all of them know Gujarati. Obviously, every reader has his or her own way of connecting to the interplay of the two languages.”
“I read poems very attentively,” she adds, “and that is how I would like my own poems to be read.”
Nezhukumatathil’s audience is more clearly defined, and yet more expansive as well. “I write for anyone who wants to find beauty in unexpected places,” she says, “I write for my family, my husband, my ex-boyfriends, for my students, for the old lady in the back of the bus who never reads.” She shares the same desire to connect with her audience as Rehman. “Mainly, I never want to isolate my reader and make them feel stupid for not knowing a particular painter or writer,” Nezhukumatathil agrees. “Why be purposely difficult when, at core, I’m just trying to communicate?”
Rehman’s work, which has been published in magazines like Mizna, and collected in the chapbook Marianne’s Beauty Salon, is inspired by and constantly evokes the New York neighborhoods where she grew up. Her poetry, at times densely magical, often transposes the ordinary landscapes of New York boroughs like Corona, Queens, and Brooklyn onto the narratives of fairytales and the lush details of new spring. In “Rapunzel’s Mother-Or a Pakistani Woman Newly Arrived in America,” Rehman explores the concept of compromise with the inversion of Rapunzel’s story, casting her mother as the pregnant woman with a craving, and America as the witchy antagonist. The rhyme scheme is sing-song and occasional, like a bedtime story gone wrong, and an American supermarket is suddenly transformed into a garden full of forbidden things: “My mother tried to act like she didn’t care. ‘I have money,’ she said, / her English breaking all over her and falling apart in the air.”
Rehman says she is drawn to writing about neighborhoods and landscape for many reasons, but the biggest one is the rift she felt between her world and her parents’ while growing up. “As the child of an immigrant, I was constantly aware of this other world that could have been my home,” she says. “I was born in Brooklyn, but I mostly grew up in Queens and Corona, and that’s such an intense environment, overwhelming and inspiring, it would be hard to push it out. It’s an extremely international place. You walk down the street, and it’s really like you’re walking down the whole world.”
While Rehman’s poetry is at many points an exploration of identity through neighborhoods, Nezhukumatathil, author of At the Drive-in Volcano, Fishbone, and Miracle Fruit, frequently uses names and language as a central theme in her poems. Poetry for her is about communication: “I hope, first and foremost, that my poems are accessible. I’m mystified by poets who purposely want to be elliptical and obtuse. I think because my sister and I were raised in suburban neighborhoods where my family was the only family of color, I was used to having to ‘explain’ my (then) unusual packed lunches of curries and fried rice, or having fish for breakfast. You could say I spent my whole childhood and teen years building a language that is accessible yet colorful, which comes in handy now as a poet.”
In her poetry, Nezhukumatathil utilizes vivid imagery and humor to talk about the sometimes painful experiences of being an outsider. In the impossibly long-named “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia,” Nezhukumatathil, whose own long name is dwarfed in comparison, lists the things her students might find more frightening or startling than the length of her last name (“X-rays,” “coal lung,” “monkey spiders”). Since many poems take the form of lists, reading them can feel like a closed-eyed recitation. The details of images she picks up are natural ones, fruits, and sea creatures.
Bhatt is the author of seven collections of poetry, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize winner Brunizem. In several of her poems she deals explicitly with the link between language and identity, switching from English to her native Gujarati, as in “Search for my Tongue.” The poem literalizes the concept of a mother tongue, in which the speaker’s first tongue has rotted and must be spit from her mouth. The rhythmic and desperate interplay between English and Gujarati underscores the feeling of loss in the poem and pulls the reader into the musicality of the words. The poem is long to the point of excess—it creates a clever framework for the idea of language as identity, making the sound and meaning inseparable from the body by using both senses of the word tongue.
Much of Bhatt’s poetry is daring and deeply sensual, and yet of the three, her poetry is the most reserved. She answers questions as reluctantly as a magician being interviewed about his approaches to sawing women in half. “I would prefer my poems to speak for themselves,” she says. “On one level, one is always using language as a medium to explore language as a concept. And many writers tend to be obsessed with language. What I wanted to say about this subject has already been expressed in my poems in a manner that cannot work in prose, and as poems can never be adequately paraphrased I suggest that those who are interested should read the poems.”
“I’ll walk around all day feeling like it’s about to rain,” says Rehman, “and then when I come home, I’ll realize that I was just feeling a poem coming on.” She finds inspiration from “mystical” poets like Rumi and Neruda as well as a host of other artists. There are a lot things that make Rehman angry—mostly the racism she sees everyday, and often times it can spark a poem, though she says that she doesn’t want to write from a place of rage. “The backdrop [of my poetry] is always war or conflict, but the actual characters are men and women who want to love each other but can’t—and the feeling I’m trying to convey is that they can’t because of the world we live in.”
“More than not, my poems begin with an image,” says Nezhukumatathil, whose love of language was born in the library. “I can clearly remember my father taking me to the library and us leaving with a giant stack of books on seashells, various astronauts, lizards, and field guides, spiders, arctic animals—you name it, if it was in the Science section, I read it.” The influence of these books is easy to see in her work now—for me, the first image that springs to my mind when I think of her poems is the coiled fist of a sea-creature’s shell—many of the images in her pieces are described with scientific precision. Other influences include “Greek mythology, the suburban desert landscape of Phoenix, Arizona of the 80s, Pablo Neruda, Elvis Presley, sappy 70s-era ballads a la Olivia Newton-John, the flora and fauna of Kottayam, India, and the little province of Pangasinan in the Philippines, on the coast of the China Sea.”
“The visual artist in me wants to present beauty in ways that are unexpected,” she explains. “I try to present unexpected miracles in nature, myth, science, and relationships. If I don’t surprise myself when I am writing, I usually can tell—my writing becomes flat. The writer’s unpardonable sin is to bore the reader.”
While Bhatt says she has a number of influences, the two she names are Leonardo da Vinci and the American poet Eleanor Wilner. The spark for Bhatt’s poetry is harder for her to pinpoint: “For me, a poem can start anywhere, with an image, a word, a line, or a mood. It depends on the poem. There is no recipe.”
Poets may not be rockstars anymore, and they don’t often make headlines. But maybe we don’t have to be so quiet to hear poetry after all. Nezhukumatathil’s poetry is a delicate whisper, Rehman’s is a joyful cry, Bhatt’s a song without melody. Bhatt’s outlook on the future of poetry is either bleak or optimistic, depending on your own. “The real question is, ‘what is the future of our planet?’” she says. “Poetry is thriving and will continue to do so, but I’m not so sure about the future of life on earth as we know it.”
Whatever the state of the world, poetry is flowering in the margins, a big slam dance, identity politics, angst, alienation and ecstasy smashing up against meters and rhymes.
When All of My Cousins Are Married
By Aimee Nezhukumatathil
I read books about marriage customs in India,
trying to remember that I am above words like
arranged, dowry, Engineer. On page 28, it says to show
approval and happiness for the new couple, throw
dead-crispy spiders instead of rice or birdseed.
Female relatives will brush the corners of closets
for months, swipe under kitchen sinks with a dry cloth
to collect the basketfuls needed for the ceremony.
Four years ago, I was reading a glossy (Always
reading, chides my grandmother) in her living room
and a spider larger than my hand sidled out
from underneath a floor-length curtain
and left through the front door without saying
good-bye. No apologies for its size, its legs
only slightly thinner than a pencil. None
of my cousins thought anything was wrong.
But it didn’t bite you! It left, no? I know what they
are thinking: She is the oldest grandchild
and not married. Afraid of spiders. But it’s not
that I’m squeamish, it’s not that I need to stand
on a chair if I spy a bug scooting along
my baseboards—I just want someone who gasps
at a gigantic jackfruit still dangling from a thin branch,
thirty feet in the air. Someone who can see a dark cluster
of spider eyes and our two tiny faces—
smashed cheek to cheek—reflected in each.
Copyright © 2004 Aimee Nezhukumatathil, from At The Drive-In Volcano(Tupelo Press). Reprinted with permission.
By Bushra Rehman
The other day, I found my mother’s cassettes from the eighties
they were full of love songs from Indian movies
Amey used to tape them from the TV while she cleaned
And I thought back to the orange carpets
and the sofas with their plastic
the way everything was dusted and perfect
I tried to fill that memory with her music
I tried to come up with something peaceful
but the tapes they just didn’t play that way
You see, they caught all the background noise:
the sound of babies crying
fire engines going
and then the sound of a child being hit
The children wouldn’t stop making noise
until my mother’s own voice would break
then there would be nothing
but the sound of her crying
and the sound of music
in a language
my mother was dying to hear
And I thought back to the orange carpets
and the way I would press my face against them
and against the plastic sofas
until the perspiration would make it stick
and listen to the sound of her crying
and all the love songs of longing
they promised everything
that was missing in our house
with its orange carpets
everything missing in the plastic
everything she ever recorded
Copyright © Bushra Rehman. “Amey’s Cassettes” was published in Mizna: Prose, Poetry, and Art Exploring Arab America (Volume 6, Issue 2, 2004) p. 5-7. Reprinted with permission.
|Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.|