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Of Text and Its Temerity

Nabina Das on The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (by Indians)

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts by guest contributor Nabina Das, who writes about Indian books and authors.

"Roll roti! roll roti! roll roti! roll roti!"
— David Dabydeen, ‘For Ma’

The just released HarperCollins Book of English Poetry--a 550-page anthology--is a product of several years of reading, research, immersion, collection, collation and editing by poet Sudeep Sen. Sudeep’s own poetry and translations are a marriage of the lyrical and the realistic. What to me was largely reflected in this collection, therefore, was a curious mix of poems steeped in the romantic as well as modernist traditions, simultaneously blending the scintillating Indian folk and Western sensibilities. I won’t be attempting a review of the book here. Instead, I shall present a short commentary to understand whether this anthology helps us render Indian poetry in English as a staple alongside the usual canonical work we the “English-educated” have grown up with or if this collection appears as one of the many anthologies that punctuate the Indian writing scene, especially poetry.

The book’s title itself is worth examining. There is no such premise of it being "Indian English poetry" or "English poetry by Indians." It’s simply a Book of English Poetry. There’s something definitive about this. In fact, I see this as a counterpoint to Sudeep’s own confession that only “a handful of contemporary English-language Indian poets command an international and national status.” Reading the anthology, one can surmise that contemporary Indian poets writing in English are a confident bunch hardballing their imagination in all directions and wielding their own diverse idioms effortlessly. Hence, the editor is not inclined to add premises to the nomenclature, often an exercise in apology.

It’s pertinent that the range of poets never fails to astonish and please in this collection. There is much to love, wonder at and even debate. I catch hold of Sudeep via email and hurl a few questions about elements in the book that strike me most. While there are names I read--I confess--for the first time, some known names make me curious. Indian poets from India and abroad as well as those that are the part of the well-defined Diaspora make up a solid smorgasbord of poetic traditions in this anthology. Let me commend Sudeep on that.

My attention does waver a bit when I read David Dabydeen in the collection (as I say, "the well-defined Diaspora"). Not because he takes away my attention from the bulk of the poets who reside in India, but because his lines are somewhat precursor to what has greatly moved on in Indian poetry in English over the decades.

Sudeep points out that not only Dabydeen--“definitely Indo-Caribbean and a lot of his early poetry has marked Indian influences”--but there are others like “Sudesh Mishra who is Indo-Fijian-Australian, etc.” Would the HarperCollins book then have us expect that inclusion of poets of Diaspora was a contiguous process in the selection?

”It was not a conscious decision to seek out the Diaspora per se,” says Sudeep. “But I wanted all good Indian practitioners of poetry (both at home and abroad) to have a voice and valid presence in the book. Only the text of poems and its quality mattered, not political or topographical allegiances.”

Little surprise then that the international readership today has a gift that rises merely above the "local" and the "ethnic" in The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry. As the editor of this bulky collection, Sudeep has made sure the post-50s poets are represented well in their estrangements, oddities and fecklessness about the world around them, and bereft of any anxiety about their chosen medium.

As I read through the collection, it becomes amply clear that the book stands strong on mainland and mainstream Indian poets, quite a few of them up and coming. For an editor to conceive a poetry compendium of such a wide spectrum is heartening. A quick glance through the contents confirms it.

“Though the major bulk of poets live in India, I wanted the anthology to be both Indian and international in scope,” adds Sudeep.

Given there is a strong prose tradition in India that almost overshadows poetry pursuits of this nature, the HC Book of English Poetry flies high in full confidence. Lines such as these stand tall in almost-prophetic conviction:

“Everything he looks at turns story:
He makes a tale of all he touches.”
--"War Reporter," by Tabish Khair

Some of the voices in the book are fresh in their use of imageries and in the blend of unabashed wonder in idioms that ring out confidently:

“With surprise, weeks
later, next to the sole blushing leaf, I watch green
shoots emerge from the split stems, like shiny
lipstick swiveling out from the tube or hesitant
well-wishers with gifts peeking round the hospital door.”
--"After Life," by Purvi Shah

While there is a lot to savor in this book for the reader and the critic alike, my attention went quickly to the poets from the North Eastern part of India where I hail from. The absence of a few names was just mildly puzzling. Having met and read with Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, it was delightful to see his work, as was Robin Ngangom, Ananya Guha, Desmond Kharmawphlang, and Anjum Hasan’s from the North East. The amount of writing the North East produces, I believe, is largely untapped. Poet after poet, writer after writer, emerges every year to add to the rich pool. When I don’t see some post-50s poets who are seen to be active in print and web forums--Nitoo Das, Janice Pariat, Nabanita Kanungo, Uddipana Goswami, etc., to name a few--I wonder if any specific criteria were employed in choosing the North East poets. Also, the absence of some of my favorite writers from the “chicken’s neck” (North Bengal) region, as opposed to those from the rest of Bengal, leads me to goad Sudeep. Of course, the editor’s task is vast and tough. He points out that “quite a few of (North East and other) poets did not respond on time or did not have unpublished poems to send during the general call for submission”.

“In general, I only looked at the text, not personalities or how well the poets are known or not known,” says Sudeep, further elaborating.

It is also not difficult to understand that some of the poets--not specifically the North East, but also from elsewhere in India and abroad--did not make the cut. At the same time, the editor’s decision to have poets--those that he is not acquainted with personally--solely on the basis of their work, because their work justifies their presence, plays out as fair bias.

“Only the text of poem and its quality mattered, and absolutely nothing else,” Sudeep emphasizes.

And this is reflected in the folklorish diction that a well-loved Shillong poet employs to render the text lucid and local at the same time:

“In another lifetime, I would
dream of becoming a sperm in
the womb of poetry.”
--"Last Night I Dreamed," by Desmond Kharmawphlang

To be fair, the HarperCollins book’s problem could be a problem that any publication of this size and scope has. Published and known within the hallowed circles--“visible,” as the editor puts it--the poets in India are usually troglodytes (and I want to use this term!) belonging to close and poorly attended poetry circles, seasonal university reading circuits, and mutually fawning literary festivals. In the introduction, Sudeep says, “Beyond the initiated groups, not many follow or read contemporary English poetry, though ironically a great number write it.”

So will more people read English poetry (by Indians) now that we have the HarperCollins book? I personally hope so. The history of 60-plus years of writing poetry in English is not to be lightly dismissed. Even as we take the birth of the Indian republic as a starting point, the HarperCollins book is a reminder that much has been already in the works to act as a hearty dish for the recipe that is English poetry (by Indians).

And a recipe it is, an intricate and flavorful one, for I gather that it took 15 years for the book--“from the incipient idea to the final conception and publication”--to finally see the light of the day. Sudeep says this anthology could have appeared 10 years ago, but then certain things happen always for a good reason.

“I’m glad it was not out then--it is a better book because I have been able to include many more fine newer younger poets. Also, as I provocatively say in my introductory essay that--now, as a whole, the English-language Indian poetry scene is far superior than its prose counterpart (which tends to be better known).”

As I read new poets, old ones, as well as a few personal friends in this collection, it does appear to me that the book assumes life in a line from one of its best-known Diaspora writers while remaining a poetry collection of Indian writers. The work represented in this publication is literally Dabydeen’s “roti”--it gets stretched and rolled and cooked over an assertive flame. It conforms to Mark Strand’s quote from “Eating Poetry” in Sudeep Sen’s introductory essay to the book. It has the temerity to be the main course, to not get served anymore as a side dish, prefixed or suffixed by “Indian English” and the like with any (pre)text.