Saturday, July 30, 2011

*Revising, Rewriting*

I am figuring out that I am that kind of poet who needs to figure out the political thrust and the sociological implications of the different elements of the craft and the content before moving a project forward. For years, I have been ashamed of this character of mine. As if I am a lesser poet because of it. Now, I don't think as much of the "lesser" part. Instead, what has become important is the element of getting the work done. So, now I have retrieved my Cinderella's step-sister poems again. In the first version, that was published in Pratilipi, I had reclaimed the figure of the step-sister, given her a voice, and I would even say, it was a feminist voice. Now, that I read it, I think, there are some good lines there. Some good images. I like the overall tone, which is a combination of passion, anger and lots of bitterness. And, I was also trying to problematize homogenous, easy notions of sisterhood. The step-sister clearly feels that Cinderella has been complicit with her own silencing. Cinderella, for me, became the symbol of a certain kind of neo-liberal feminism, which is trying to find its liberation within the consumer culture, commodified ethos. (Yes, I do think, Cinderella provides a wonderful conduit to rewrite neoliberalism.)

When I turned in a somewhat rough draft of a manuscript to KRA, I had modified these series of poems a lot. I had included Cinderella's voice within it, I have strengthened the step-sister's voice, and made it more specific. There was an implicit assumption running through the poems in this particular version --- the step-sis is a folklorist herself. She can break her deal with the Grimms Brothers, precisely because she is a folklorist herself, and does not need male folklorists who will tell her story. I have suggested this implicitly, but didn't really expand on it. Now that I am reading through these poems, I think, this figure of the folklorist needs to be developed and spelled out a lot more in these poems. The implicitness was a starting-point, but it won't work, until and unless the poems delve a little bit more into the politics of a woman becoming a folklorist. And how folklore as a discipline brings up all sorts of problems. I am hoping to finish giving the whole series a read within the next two or three days, and then I will have to think about the re-writing part. But at this point, I am excited just to have figured this out.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

::"I Don't Like Poetry"::

In the past two weeks, I have heard from two (no, three) young friends of mine, "I don't like poetry." I should have felt defensive, I guess. But I didn't. Probably because I could relate to that feeling. I loved to read, and by the time I was college-age, I was fairly well-read. Yet, I didn't sign up for an English major, inspite of getting in at Jadavpur's famous program, because I couldn't stand the thought of going through pages and pages of Romantic poetry. But then, it wasn't that I didn't like any poetry-- I spend all my allowance to buy collections by Pablo Neruda. This was in eleventh grade. I liked Mayakovosky, and a lot of the Bengali poetry I found in my parents' bookshelves. But it's also true, there were a huge number of poets whose work I didn't necessarily like or understand. The funny thing is, now I LOVE Romantic poets. A lot of the poets I dismissed then, I now love. Or, think of as plain problematic. I mean, there is no middle-ground here. Now, when I think back on the process of what brought me back to poetry, I would say, it's a combination of my increasing politicization, my conviction that art plays an extremely important role in building up a liberated world (and not just in a propagandist kind of a way), and my last twelve years of serious engagement with literature. A lot of that engagement did happen within academic spaces, but not all of it. For example, I have never studied poetry academically. But I do think, the kind of academic work I have done with prose, has helped me to think about poetry in more complex terms. The thing is, I understand the world of the Romantics much better now precisely because I am more familiar with the Euro-American social histories of those times. I have a better idea about the ideological, political, aesthetic, philosophical forces the Romantics were engaging with. Yes, it's precisely a better grasp of the social, cultural and intellectual history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that leads me to appreciate Romantic poetry better. But the kind of poetry-teaching I encountered when I was a teenager, excluded precisely these complexities. Consequently, I had no yardstick or context to think through the poems. I guess, this is precisely the kind of literature pedagogy that Gauri Vishwanathan writes about in her book Masks of Conquest. The pedagogy that came about from the cultural/education/ideological projects of the empire. So, I would say, at the cost of sounding reductionist, one of the ways in which poetry can be democratized is by engaging more and more with the sociology and social history of the form itself. By showing how poetry is not something that stands apart from the rest of the society and world, but is one way of writing that world. And therefore, inextricably related to the social, political, other art forms of its times.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

::Life Now::



Monday, July 25, 2011

::Post-Workshop Thoughts::

The last five days were busy. I now have a lot to process: my trip to DC, the workshop I did with the youth. Ideally, I would have liked the workshop to be longer. It's hard to fit in discussions of a cultural/social history with discussions of art-forms and then combine the two with some kind of writing exercise--- all within 90 minutes. What would have worked better was a three-day workshop where I could divide up the stuff into little bits and pieces. Something like

DAY 1: Discussions about food, cultural/social politics of it

DAY 2: Reading and discussing the poems together

DAY 3: Writing, critiquing and reading aloud each others' poems

But I didn't have that kind of luxury. Neither did the organizers. So, after I was done facilitating the workshop, I myself felt overwhelmed. And it made me think, how everything, and especially art-making is a process. It takes time. It needs time. One of the things that came up during the discussion was, how poetry is "abstract'. One of the workshop-participants categorically stated, I don't like poetry. This is something I would have definitely liked to explore more within the space of the workshop. One of the things that I have been thinking about ever since, I had no time/opportunity to talk to the workshop-participants about their familiarity with poetry or even literature. Is poetry something they relate to at all? If they were given a choice to choose their genres for the workshop, how many of them would have chosen poetry? What would have prompted their choices? I would have loved to know. So, I was also thinking, how very very logistic concerns like time, our scanty resources often end up reproducing the very myths we are trying to dispel. When I sign up for a poetry workshop, I sign up for it because I want to work on my poems. I have chosen the form as my genre, I want to get better at it, and hence my decision to sign up for the workshop. But the youth I worked with, did not necessarily sign up for a poetry workshop. They signed up for a three-day event where they would interact with their fellow South Asians on things. My workshop was something the organizers chose to present to them. So, in spite of all the good intentions and best of efforts, when working within structures like this one, we cannot really avoid centralized decisions.

Now having said that, I would also say, I am happy that I got a chance to do what I did. Maybe some of them will think about poetry as a form of self-expression now. Maybe some of them will take to writing it. Maybe some of them will begin to read it. And that's why, I am in favor of doing workshops in all kinds of settings. I think, it's important to do writing/poetry workshops in settings where the emphasis is clearly not on poetry or writing or even art. Because, I think, something about conducting a workshop in such so-called non-literary/non-artsy setting democratizes the very process of art-production. It demystifies art-forms and encourages people who wouldn't have ever thought about these forms to engage with them. It's especially important when the form is something like poetry--a form which lends itself to abstraction, and therefore, also to elitist obscurantism.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

::Imperial/Racial Privilege And Workshops::

There was a time today when I was angry. It wasn't a personal sort of anger, but anger which emerges from the helplessness of someone who is trying in her own way to be a better writer. Now, I will record the same questions I was asking myself this afternoon:

a. Am I responsible as a writer for my readers' lack of sociological knowledge?

b. I am not writing an ethnography of my neighborhood in Kolkata. I am writing stories--damn it. So, no, I am not going to explain the "social and cultural differences." Yes, someone said that in my fucking workshop-- Explain the social and cultural differences! I am pissed, because I read around 50 books every year. Almost 60% of them are on contexts into which I wasn't born. No, I don't expect any of the writers to "explain" to me the "social and cultural differences." When I feel like I don't know the history, I do the work. Period. So, this very assumption that it is the responsibility of the non-American writer to explain to the American reader what's going on, the "social and the cultural differences", clearly reeks of an imperial, white privilege. There isn't any other way to think about it.

c. A lot of the feedback I get from the workshops want me to do the work for my readers. They want me to fill in the gaps in their sociological/historical/anthropological knowledge. So, I have to do a lot of separating the wheat from the chaff, if I still want to get some benefits from the workshopping.

d. This makes me mad because the white and/or American writers can throw in a story to the group, sit back and not have to ever think of how "social and cultural differences" are working within their stories.

e. I don't bring up these issues inside the workshops. Why? Because I know none of these people are being deliberately racist and/or imperialist. More importantly, none of them wants to think of himself/herself as such. So my pointing these things out will cause them to have a knee-jerk reaction, they will stop commenting on my stories frequently. I don't want that to happen. The thing is, I have signed up for these workshops so that I can learn. I am not yet in a space as a writer to take up these issues. (Yet, I am, no? Otherwise, I wouldn't be writing this post.But I am not ready to take them up publicly yet.)

f. One would think, after the work of Gloria Anzaldua et al., this country, especially those who want to write, will have a better awareness of these kinds of representational/cultural politics. Nope! No such luck! Seems like every one of us colored folks will have to launch and plunge through our individual struggle!

Now that I have vented, and written this post, I need to go back to the actual work: writing my poems and stories. Maybe some day I will be able to talk about these things more explicitly. But now is not the time! Inshallah!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

.Facilitating Youth Workshop.

I am going to Washington DC in a couple of weeks to facilitate a writing-workshop with South Asian youth. I do not have a whole lot of time for the workshop-- only 75 minutes. Now, it's hard to do anything remarkable during that time. What can be done though, is to open a door or two, and then hope that the young people in the workshop will pick it up. There is no substitution for long-term work, and none of the fruits of a long-term project can be attained during a 75 minute workshop. So far, I have thought of centering the workshop on food.

In my experience, most young people in USA do not necessarily think of food as something political. Some brighter ones might think about it as cultural, but rarely have I met with kiddos who think of food as political. Consequently, they do not have the knee-jerk reaction to it in the same way they have to something like race or class, which they have always associated with politics. These young people I will be workshopping with, are more socially conscious. A lot of them are already involved with community projects. So, I do not think apolitics is going to be an issue. What is going to be an issue though, is to restrict myself. As a workshop facilitator, I need to have clear sense of goals. A 75 min workshop cannot be both a seminar on food-justice issues and a writing workshop. For that to happen, we need at least a month of regular meetings. So, I am trying to remind myself, this is primarily a writing workshop. And I am not someone who is "cool" in that edgy kind of a way. When I talk about writing, I talk about in a very old-style way. Why? Because I think, the book, the printed page and the very act of physical writing can (still) give us things which other art/media forms cannot. So, one of the things I will try to do is to, encourage the young people I will meet to be more cognizant of the form "book" as a whole--not an e-book or a kindle. But an actual paper book which one can grab between one's fingers. I will update more on this workshop as I go along! But I am EXCITED!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

~Why This Blog~

I am not very good in writing reviews of poetry collections, short-story collections or novels. My LONG training in academic literary criticism has taught me to think through words, plots, themes, characters in a relatively more expansive way than the usual review would permit. That's why, this blog space is important for me. Because it allows me to articulate my thoughts about writing and literature in a very different way from my formal academic training. While I wouldn't mind anyone else reading this blog, and there are some close friends of mine who read this blog, this is a space primarily for me and my own self. This is a space where I write to articulate ideas, thoughts, reflections, concerns. Maybe some day I won't feel the need for this space in the same way. And then I won't write here anymore. But for now, here I am, scribbling some fragments right before going to bed.

Monday, July 11, 2011

;;Individual Poems Vs. Manuscript;;

As I am sending out poems to journals from the manuscript 2, I am learning that the book and the individual-poem-in-the-journal-from-the-book are two very different genres. Although inter-related. The individual poems, when they are being sent out to the journals, as stand-alone poems, often need to be tweaked, modified and given more definite shape, because they need to function as one whole piece, something autonomous. On the other hand, when they are part of a manuscript, especially if the manuscript itself is functioning as one whole thematic unit, they are not standing alone. Rather, they contribute to the meaning making process by being one of many. Of course, the individual poems still need to be strong enough and autonomous enough so that they can stand on their own two feet, but the pressures there are slightly different. At this point, this whole process of sending individual poems out in the world is turning out to be an extremely productive one. I am revising the individual poems, making them stronger, better. Without the deadlines of the journals, I don't think I would have done them so promptly. Besides, it's easier to take one poem at a time and revise it, rather than a whole manuscript.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Robert Frost's "Directive"

  • I have enrolled in a form class. I think, as a general rule of thumb, my poems are too rowdy. Not very disciplined. Kind of like my mind. The things I write about, tend to find their own forms, rather than stay within the norms of the forms. But isn't that the thing about forms? But, I still think, it's good to try to write in forms. Like, this week, we are doing "blank verse." A form, which, admittedly leads itself to "imitation and reflection of thought." In other words, wordy! Now, this shouldn't scare me, the verbose person that I am. Except for the fact that all this wordiness needs to be expressed in iambic pentameter, in a fixed order of stressed and unstressed syllables. From what we read this week, I really liked Robert Frost's "Directive."
  • Frost's poem, I think, is very much a pastoral and anti-pastoral at the same time. I was trying to read it in conjunction with Charlotte Smith's poem, where the nature has been personified, the narrator seems to be in perfect harmony with it. But in Frost's poem, “nature” and “human history” confront each other in a somewhat antagonistic relationship. The nature is beautiful in Frost's poem too, but it changes through human intervention. It is almost as if Frost feels compelled to use the same form in which pastoral poems were written to show that his concerns are very different. I think, that sentiment has been best expressed in the opening lines: “ Back out of all this now too much for us,/Back in a time made simple by the loss/Of detail burned, dissolved, and broken off/Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather.
  • It seemed to me that in lots of places Frost is lapsing into hexameter. For me, what is meant was that, he was looking for a form, which needed to be a little bit hefty. As if his thoughts are struggling to fit themselves in lines, and even a pentameter is not always adequate for him.

Friday, July 8, 2011

. Paris Spleen.

I am halfway through Baudelaire's Paris Spleen. I do want to read the original French, but I thought, I should give a quick reading of the English translation before beginning to labor with the original. Yes, it's gorgeous. I am trying to put my finger on why I like it so much, but there is something in those paragraphs that resists explanation. But still, if I have to enunciate what it is about these poems that are drawing me so much to them, it is the sense of despair. The sense of despair that invades a mind which can see more than others. The sense of despair which follows the realization that individual human beings are capable of immense fuck-up and immense greatness--sometimes within seconds.The same human being who has fucked something up gloriously, can also do something which will blow away your mind. Personally, I like those poems best, where he moves beyond his own sense of despair, where he takes a character and tries to see what lies beyond what immediately meets the eye. On the other hand, when I read his self-despairing rants, I have to keep reminding myself, this is one of the original alienationists. The ones I have grown-up reading, are more like derivates, fakes. Now, keeping that in mind, it also seems that the alienationists haven't really updated themselves much after Baudelaire! Now, this is the glitch:

Paris Spleen is so beautiful that sometimes I have to pinch myself to the reminder that Baudelaire was a jackass. A fucking egotistical jackass!

Monday, July 4, 2011

{So Far}

The days are hot, I am tired...I am slowly feeling that I am zoning out more and more from certain kinds of writing. The struggle is: how much to tell, and how much to keep outside the page. Not in my mind, just outside the page.

This weekend, so far:

  • I have read two short stories by Carol Azadeh

  • Worked on revising two poems

  • Worked on revising a story

  • Worked on revising/writing an academic article

  • cooked alu-phoolkopir dalna from The Hindi-Bindi Club, of all places. Didn't turn out to be too bad

  • Eaten BM's eggplant parmesan

  • Watched Pyasa along with my running commentary

It seems like the most common feedback for my poems is that, I need more clarity. This confuses me, because I don't want my poems to be stories, in the same way I don't want my stories to be film-scripts. I began to love poetry because it allowed imagistic, impressionistic expression. Playing with language, fragmentation. But, a lot of my readers want clarity here. I am trying to think about the issue of “clarity” in my work. Why do I need to explain myself so much?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

[Explaining Kiranmala]

I was recently asked by a writer-friend of mine about the storyteller-commentator divide I create in this poem. The way she put it:

commenting too has its place in the scheme of things, while stories, too, differ from each other

And this is what I wrote back to her:

For me, it's not the line between "fiction" and "non-fiction" that the words "commentator" and "storyteller" invoke. Although, that's how we understand those two words generally, especially within our commonsensical knowledge. Rather, the way I have tried to approach it in this poem, "commentators" are those who reproduce knowledge, rather than producing it. They do not essentially challenge the boundaries of dominant thoughts and well-established maxims. On the other hand, "storytellers" are those who push our accepted borders of thought, language, norms, knowledge and produce something that is, for lack of any better word,more original,organic and boundary-busting. There are lots of "commentators" in the world of creative writing. As there are many "storytellers" among the theorists, writers of non-fiction prose.

Now, you can ask me, why Kiranmala? Why am I ascribing upon her that role. Well, I was thinking about the ways in which knowledge production has always been a site of gender discrimination in South Asia (and elsewhere). It's not just gender, race, class and caste have been used too, to keep thousands of people from away from written texts and intellectual resources. Think of all the prohibitions around women and shudras listening to/speaking/ learning Sanskrit. Just think of the news that made headlines last week: a temple in Orissa does not allow the Dalits to cross its threshold. Similarly, it was illegal for slaves in the colonial plantations to learn to read and write, as it was to teach them. But does that mean that women, untouchables, the enslaved, and other marginalized folks who have been systematically excluded from literacy, did not think about the world around them? Does that mean they did not theorize about their own conditions? Not really! But they theorized differently. They theorized through songs, proverbs, stories(which "we" sometimes call folk-tale), dance-forms and numerous other aesthetic expressions. So, those very art-forms, for them, became forms of commenting. But at the same time, they are also attempts to tell stories. Stories with characters, histories, emotions embodied within the forms. They are all trying to tell a story, whether through language, through colors or through musical notes. But where they differ from, say the knowledge that was being learnt by white men, men of upper castes (esp. Brahmins) etc. is that, those forms of knowledge, as against these aesthetic expressions I have been talking about, were supported by institutions, dominant cultures. These forms of knowledge are meant to reinforce and reproduce the status quo, whereas the other forms of knowledges, often embodied in aesthetic expressions, question that social status quo. So, to put it simply,

Commentators=those who engage in institution-sponsored knowledge

Storytellers= who try to reclaim their voices from outside of the institutions

So, in my poem, I tried to give Kiranmala some agency, some creativity. As a woman, she is excluded from the world of Brahmanical knowledge production and learning. But instead of feeling victimized by that exclusion, she proclaims that she does not find that knowledge, the books her brothers are learning to memorize, aren't useful for her at all. She rejects institutional knowledge, rejects the language associated with state power/institutional power, and demands something else for herself. She is looking for alternative methods of expressing herself. The language that is specific to this context is, of course, Sanskrit. But if we move beyond that specifics, it can very well be construed as any power-language, any language that the institution upholds as exclusive and legitimate. Hence the storyteller-commentator divide.

Now, an honest admission: it does feel very weird to explain my own poem to someone. The poem, I believe, should speak for itself. And then, there is this little niggling thingie, that my years of academic training in literary criticism has taught me to decode almost all literary texts. I can justify any badly-written text, I can tear apart almost any gloriously-written piece of writing. And I don't think, those skills are useless. But at the same time, because I can do this with such ease, I prefer not to turn back my own critical gaze into my own poem after it has been published aka. gone from my hands. The poem should speak for itself.

But then, I write about things that are often considered uncomfortable-- gender, class, emotional cost of ascribing to a political ideology. Pepper this with reference to obscure texts, myths, folklore that often invade my lines. So, my poems, I do understand, can be a little dense sometimes. If I am faithful to my work as a poet, I will have to do a little bit of unpacking for my audience, precisely because I am not writing on nostalgic poems about one's childhood in an American suburb. My poems need more education than an average white-American poem. And even when the readers are Indian/South Asian/Bengali, I still might have to do some unpacking, because I am trying to debunk things that have been socially accepted. Even after all of this explanation and contextualization, some readers might not just like the poems I write. Therein, I guess, lies the test as a poet/artist.

Friday, July 1, 2011

::Publication in Hawai'i Review::

Yesterday I received two copies of Hawai'i Review Issue 74 in mail. Yes, my contributors' copies. I held them in my hand, sniffed through them, and then looked through the TOC. There it was--my name in print and my poem. My work has not been published in many print journals, so this was an incredible feeling. There is something so tangible and ephemeral at the same time in holding a book, feeling its material presence, and then realizing that I, too, played a part--however small it might be--in bringing it into being.

I read my published poem after getting out of work. Some imageries sounded cool! As if someone else had written them. But there were also things I would like to change. For example, some line-breaks. There are places in the poem where I need to strive for more clarity. So, what I realized was that, even if a journal publishes a poem, it doesn't mean that it is "final." What it means is that, at a certain point in my life, I thought this poem was completed. I had sent it out in the world. It found a home, but that does not mean that the poem itself has to remain unchanged. And once it changes, it will also have to look for a new home. The book, or something a little bit lengthier than 8 pages in a journal. I grow as a human being and a writer every day. My poems and stories also grow with me.

By the way, the name of the poem is "bildungsroman." Read it!