Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Indian Poetry on Social Media: Beyond Doggerel and Heartbreak Rhymes

by Nabina Das
Painting By A.A. Almelkar (1920-1982)

The latest phenomenon in Indian poetry is its increased presence on Facebook, the popular social media network, and this is no flippant event at all. With myriad languages and a large number of literatures, Indian poetry cannot be summarized in one simple way. When the group called INDIAN POETRY got started a couple of years ago, it evoked in me a range of feelings including awe, interest, disbelief, and indignation. Nothing seemed to stir in the group for a while. Struggling to control my new enthusiasm for “cyber poetry,” I found the page to be dormant.

But currently INDIAN POETRY has begun adding new members and setting topics for discussion at a renewed vigor. Initially, the group appeared only to deal with Indian English poetry (or IE, as it is referred to by several pundits), perhaps because of factors such as connectivity, access, lingua franca, common currency, etc. IE still seems to stay upfront while Indian language poetry is slowly spreading its roots in the group. One might look at IE as the “burden-bearer” of its colonial past, which would be to limit one’s vision. In INDIAN POETRY, however, IE seems poised to derive its unique strength from the vernaculars literatures, including oral cultures.

Of late, the soaring popularity meter of INDIAN POETRY (measured, I suppose, by the algorithm of comments and questions from new and emerging poets, lengthy discussion threads on critical topics, and induction of members who are quite well known and established) leads me to wonder: How or why is this group different from any other online poetry group or discussion board? The latter entities were also used to discuss IE poetry, provide feedback, and nurture the ambitions of both poets and poetasters. But of course, more was happening on our social media group page.

To its credit, INDIAN POETRY is administered by FULCRUM: an annual of poetry and aesthetics -- a US-based international serial anthology with a strong and lasting Indian bond. The anthology has had good words showered on it in respectable publications. “FULCRUM is an elegant poetry magazine published from ‘a room in Boston,’ already seen as one of the most significant of its kind,” said The Hindu, a major English language newspaper.

For a first time member of this group, it might come as a surprise that the “admin” of this page is not an Indian, but is a well-known Russian-American poet and translator named Philip Nikolayev. In running the page, updating it regularly, and acting as the gatekeeper, Nikolayev’s knowledge of Hindi-Urdu is certainly a plus point for him, as is his extensive experience of traveling in Indian cities and towns. In a curious way Nikolayev’s involvement with INDIAN POETRY seems perfectly natural to me because I happened to have grown up in the era of the “Hindi-Russi bhai bhai” (Indians-Russians are brothers) slogan. Those were the times of glossy, large, and colorful magazines by the name of Soviet Land, Sputnik, and Soviet Women arriving every month by post, bringing in the glorious news of how the two nations were committed to push forward each other’s culture and heritage, and of course, the socialist welfare agenda. Nostalgia apart, Nikolayev’s skills in poetry – Russian, English, and Hindustani – are not to be questioned.

**

I have mentioned that although the group page primarily discusses Indian English poetry, other Indian languages are not unwelcome here. One sees Hindi poetry stalwarts such as Mangalesh Dabral making it a point to read posts and offer comments and critique to all kinds of poets. He even takes time off to explain to a member the meaning of the phrase “ucchhala jaladhi taranga” (from the Indian National Anthem “Jana Gana Mana” composed by Rabindranath Tagore.

Shall we say then that poetry on Facebook is not a silly affair anymore? It has acquired a large and impressive proportion, especially going by the spirit and erudition of INDIAN POETRY. The latter is perhaps ready to mitigate the anxiety expressed by essayist and poet Sumana Roy in one of her recent pieces titled “We are all Facebook Poets:

“In poem after poem on Facebook poetry pages, I watched (not just read) with alarm and amazement the burgeoning confidence of the poet from English-speaking India showing-off his drawer secrets, drafts more than finished ‘products.’ After a couple of hours on the page, I was struck by how Facebook has become a ventilator for poetry, pumping life into a decrepit body, but then I signed out, gasping.”

Whether adhered to carefully or not, it seems there are group ethics and rules on our popular social media site. INDIAN POETRY is no exception.

Typed out in upper case, one of the rules states: “NO DOGGEREL.” The instruction arouses both fear and curiosity, for the description of the rules states: “Instant ban. Doggerel is atrociously bad verse. For our purposes, doggerel is defined as verse that is so bad as to make it instantly obvious that the doggerelist has no hope of ever becoming a poet.”

And beware! A “like” on doggerel can get you banned from the group as well. Of course, you know it indicates a lack of taste in poetry, as posted by Nikolayev.

Naturally then, poets are worried:  is this piece of mine doggerel? And we have a few of them flagged for the crime on this group page:

 “Soul mates

Predecessors
Of my garden
Blossom like
Moon
Behind the clouds
Invisible water
Transforms into
Dew drops on the
Bamboo leaf edges
Like kinfolk”

 

Declared doggerel, the verse above spelled a poetic requiem for the writer. But this comes with no malice. The group promises to support those who want to try, try, and try. And this applies to those prone to writing lachrymose heartbreak verse or cloyingly sweet serenades.

The strict tone apart, Nikolayev’s humor is infectious in its serious probe into certain practices by self-conscious poets:

“A cultural query. Why do so many Indian poets add the honorific "Dr" to their names, when they appear as poets? I only see Indians doing this, no one else. In fact, it looks kind of ridiculous to many of the rest of us. If the idea is that readers will trust the quality of the writing more if the poet holds a PhD, I suspect the opposite is true -- and I'm speaking as both a poet and a PhD. Believe it or not, several doctors have been removed here for posting compulsive doggerel.”

There is no escaping from the crime of writing that doggerel!

**

But there are discussions that merit keen attention and demand some serious scholarship:

“Who are the significant Jain poets? … Have there been any in English?”

To which poet Nilima Vinod responds citing “The Cilappatikaram'/The Tale of an anklet” by Ilanko Atikal, a prominent Tamil epic rendered by a Jain writer. “The translated version by R. Parthasarathy is worth a read...,” she says.

The admin makes sure the members are not too prone to self-promotion, although a one-off posting of published or unpublished poetry for appreciation and feedback seems to be a popular activity of the group. Notifications such as this one below are significant in that it gives us a fair idea about how independent poetry press in India has been growing over the years, in this case, Poetrywala from Bombay:

Poetrywala has turned 10!! We would like to thank all our friends for their support, encouraging words and unfailing faith in us. To commemorate this wonderful occasion, Poetrywala will be organising a one day event dedicated to poetry in Mumbai on the 21st of September, 2013.

And the admin would at times post that odd beautiful poem. Sample an extract from Athena Kashyap’s collection "Crossing Black Waters:"

Partition Story 
for Hukum Devi Kashyap


I thought I lost you—
after these thirty years of yearning 
to see your face again, brown eyes, 
hair caressing your forehead, 
your smile. And, then this chance 
to go to Lahore, to see the house.
Don't raise your hopes, your father warns. 
It is not our house anymore. But, I see it 
on the street lined with Gulmohar trees,
orange flowers sailing like swallows
before falling. The woman who opens
the door is old like us. We used to live here... 
before the Partition. She smiles. 
I’ve been waiting for you.

She thrusts a package in my hands.
There are taxis are at the end of the street. 
There were always taxis waiting
at that end. My feet crunch flowers 
leaving orange footsteps. I peel away
the yellowed paper, headlines 
still screaming—

TRAINS PACKED WITH BURNING BODIES 
REFUGEES COLLIDE IN RIVERS OF BLOOD
THOUSANDS MURDERED IN RAWALPINDI 

***

And who said the page was only about the written word? Members can post music, animation, and images (paintings, graphics, photographs). It’s not unusual to come across pictures that themselves tell stories about verse-makers.

Poet Anand Thakore writes in a caption to his image: “Here's Arun K(olatkar), Gieve (Patel), Kumar Vaidya, Tenzin tsundue, Jerry Pinto, Mehli Gobhai, Arundhathi, and Derek Antao in my old back garden -- Harbour Line event 2001.” A veritable poetry feast, that.

What sets INDIAN POETRY apart from online poetry groups, discussion boards, and the like, is that, it is neither set up in a workshop mode, nor as a classroom seminar. Not even like the rest of the Facebook poetry discussions that are limited to showers of “likes” and similar platitudes. While the spirit is that of sharing work old and new, group members earnestly discuss poetics, vernacular poets, and the connection of the arts to poetry in Indian and Diaspora contexts.

Posts such as these from Suhasini Kamble attract the mind and the eye – an article on Marathi Dalit writing titled Inextinguishable Fires (By Shanta Gokhale; 1 August 2013; Caravan Magazine;  See more here.

Where do all these eclectic discussions on the group’s page go to? Do they die like herds of aged elephants gone to their silent spot for that last moment? For we know the transitory nature of Facebook and how it never records anything presented in the vein of a serious discourse. Thankfully, INDIAN POETRY has constructed a group archive that stores significant information on topics such as “Favorite Indian English Poets,” “The Truth of Poetry,” and “On Rabindranath Tagore’s Untranslatability Into English,” to name a few.

I can see the novice poet jumping with joy on this forum. It is not every day that you come across the likes of Koyamparambath  Satchidanandan giving his valuable opinion on poems and topics, Minal Hajratwala posting about the Hungryalist movement, Larissa Shmailo quoting from Akka Mahadevi, and Jeet Thayil triumphing the group’s rules thus: “To be carved in stone…”!

The beauty of poetry in the age of social networking on this forum is such that, “Indian” does not hold as the sole epithet here. The very nature of the virtual space allows it to fly in all directions, soar and seek. And this member post from a Bangladeshi writer reverberates in that metaphor:

“Homa-bird

Once I fall, how much must I drop down before I can rise up again? 

As this thought crosses my mind I am reminded of the Homa bird found high in the sky. It even lays its eggs there. The eggs then fall down. But because the bird lives so high in the sky its eggs take ages to fall. Its chicks hatch even as the eggs descend. And then it’s time for the chicks to fall. As they begin to fall the chicks sprout eyes and feathers and wings. And one day they discover that they are falling down and down. It is then that they begin to fly to their mothers high up in the sky. They fly so high now that they emerge as specks scattered all along the spread-out body of the sky.

We are of the breed of these birds. We procreate, raise children; we drop down and rise up again!” 


--*Translated from the Bengali ("Homa Pakhi" by Masud Khan) by Fakrul Alam; writer, editor, and Professor of English, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.*

--Poems used by permission of the authors.


Nabina Das, an MFA (Poetry) from Rutgers University, US, and an MA (Linguistics) from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, has a debut poetry collection Blue Vessel and a novel Footprints in the Bajra, which was longlisted in the prestigious Indian prize "Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2011". Her poetry collection Into the Migrant City is forthcoming soon. Nabina’s poetry and prose have been published in several international journals and anthologies, and she is in the peer review committee of The Four Quarters Magazine literary journal published from Northeast India. Winner of several writing residencies and fellowships, Nabina has won prizes in major Indian poetry contests and has worked in journalism and media for about 10 years. Trained in Indian classical music, she has performed in radio/TV programs and performed in street theater. Nabina blogs at http://nabinadas13.wordpress.com/ when not writing, teaches creative writing classes and workshops, and dabbles in unschooled art on paper and broken objects.

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