Six months ago, if I had to choose, I would have called myself a page poet. I’ve written for a long time but it is only recently that I have fully been able to explore performance poetry, for a variety of reasons. Moving to Bombay is definitely one of them.
I was vaguely aware of the performance poetry scene in London, which is a big pulsing beast of its own, but it always intimidated me. I felt the poets who dominated the scene always had something big and political to say. They could hush a room with their razor-sharp observations of our dystopian Conservative government, or allude to the same thing in the most minuscule of everyday details. I had poems of unconsummated desire, my dad’s old records, mindfucks, elderly ladies in full-on nostalgia mode. Poems that see a stage and run, full-pelt, in the opposite direction.
But when I moved to Delhi, I chanced upon a book that made me question this insurmountable barbed-wire fence between page and performance in my mind. Jeet Thayil’s 60 Indian poets. There are other anthologies to Indian poetry in English, but I don’t know of one that makes poetry so accessible.
The places and characters evoked jump out from the pages, in striking use of language and jiving rhythm. My first interest in India had been born of its literature. You know, your Kiran Desais, your Arundhati Roys, your Salman Rushdies, Rohinton Mistrys. Mainstream and diaspora, yes, but no less important for their capacity to paint vivid portraits of India that foreigners may not discover otherwise.
I was attracted to the fluid and sensual nature of their prose, their description of particular Indian settings which, in all their complexities, can lend so much to the written word. And the language of these poets were no different. Rich and sparse, lovely and shocking, raw and ironic. Often in a single sentence.
While reading 60 Indian poets, however, one thing struck me, above all. Bombay emerges as the centre of it all, the pinnacle around which all these poets seem to orbit. I haven’t yet concluded as to why that should be, but it is undeniable. Some of the famous Indian poets, Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawala, Kamala Das, have all made Bombay their home at some point, if not settled here till the end of the days. I was soon to move to Bombay and basked in my new life through these poets’ words.
This would be me on my daily commute:
46, Andheri Local, by Arundhathi Subramaniam
In the women’s compartment
of a Bombay local
no personal epiphanies.
Like metal licked by relentless acetylene
we are welded –
flesh and organza,
odours and ovaries.
Kali on wheels.
When I descend
I could choose
to dice carrots
or dice a lover.
I postpone the latter.
And I’d ponder all the city’s injustices while walking down Bandra Bandstand in a manner not too different to this:
Bombay, by Melanie Sigardo
you breathe like an animal
Your islands grained and joined
are flanks you kicked apart
when some dark god
waved diverse men into your crotch.
your concrete-toothed skyline
with kicks and dedications
to their gods.
They stuck a paper moon
into your carbon sky.
Your future scrawled ten storeys high
and inside sewage pipes.
Some lives unwarranted,
their carpets thicker than their lawns.
Their children suck at pacifiers,
and other children suck their thumbs
And Bombay, with your sluggish shore
reclaim your cunt from time to time,
then let the sea rush into you.
And don’t even get me started on Arun Kolatkar. If ever you want the streets of Kala Ghoda of the 70s to fly through your mind like a cinema screen on speed, you need only turn to the last few pages of 60 Indian Poets.
Arun Kolatkar’s poems are written to be read out loud. They just scream for performance. Read this, and it is almost impossible that David Sassoon won’t be shouting down at you from his perch next time you walk past his Memorial Library.
Oh, that’s no sweat,
Not having a body, I mean;
Most of the time I don’t even miss it.
In fact it’s rather nice.
No coughs, no colds, no doctor’s bills;
No running costs at all.
I can buy the Bank of England,
If I want to,
With my savings on toilet soap alone.
But the thing that bothers me is
– I daresay I’ll get used to it
by the time the lease
on the library expires,
which is to say
in nine hundred and ninety-nine years –
that although I don’t have a body,
much less a cock,
I sometimes get this phantom hard-on
And feel as horny
As a rhino.
I’ve no idea if these poems have ever been performed in a Button Poetry kind of way. That is to say, memorized and delivered in a theatrical style. But I don’t much care. You can more than imagine them existing in that way.
These poems really got me thinking about performance poetry and the place where page and performance intersect. The indomitable barbed wire fence started shrinking in my mind. I started going to poetry nights in Bombay and clocking the times I was alive to the performer, or just nodding off, and figuring out why that was.
A lot of poems don’t work on stage purely because the sequence of ideas or imagery is too dense. I am all for the slow sip, the multiple intoxications of delicately crafted verse, but rarely do these work for stage. The audience just doesn’t have the time to unravel the themes.
I believe the opposite is true too. Sometimes stage cannot assume the page. I’ve watched videos of performance poems that could never be held within the confines of a book or on a computer screen. They are chameleon-like, ever-shifting and responsive to their diverse audiences. I have also seen many videos that just come across as rants, with almost zero regard for the creative use of language. These, I feel are pretty boring on stage, let alone on the page. For me, the creative use of language should be at the top when attempting that elusive task of defining poetry.
Some might argue that in an arena such as poetry where there are no rules, it is pointless trying to find overlaps between page and stage. The exercise is, of course, entirely subjective too. But for someone like me, who’s always written for the page and is now exploring the stage, it is really useful and comforting to explore these intersects. And I’ve come to realise, from watching and listening more and more, that the moments I enjoy most are those where the images slice your mind like a techni-colour scythe, the blade a weapon of innovative and original language.
You might know exactly what I’m talking about, but if you don’t, I’ll leave you with a good old Venn diagram to show you what I mean.
You may disagree, but for me, it is these moments that make performance poetry such an addictive drug.