Wednesday, December 01, 5666

Almost Island: Issue 4

Issue 4 of Almost Island feels like such an embarrassment of riches to me, I’m not exactly sure where to start.

For one, we’re thrilled to present a generous selection of poems from Shrikant Verma’s Magadh, one of the most highly regarded books of Hindi poetry from the 1980s, in Rahul Soni’s sharp and invisibly dexterous translations. I have to say that this ranks among the best books of poetry I have ever read. Verma’s ambiguous invocations of half-mythical South Asian cities bring Borges and Cavafy automatically to mind, but there is also a canny and even bitter political outrage here that sets him apart. Bizarrely, Verma was a senior Congress Party functionary under Indira Gandhi in the late 70s and early 80s—it’s hard, for me at least, to resist reading Magadh as his way of speaking about some aspects of that close-up experience in the only way he could.

We’re also equally thrilled to present a set of unpublished poems by Adil Jussawalla. He has long been, for many of us, a real and original hero of the Indian English poetry scene; his distinct approach to tone, sound and form has been a crucial influence. Moreover, I feel the new poems in this selection, like “An American Professor from the 1970s” or “Government Country”, could easily be included among Adil’s best poems.

Then we have some younger writers.

We have a goodly excerpt from Bhanu Kapil’s latest book of experimental fiction, Humanimal [ A Project for Future Children] (Kelsey Street Press, 2009). It’s an account—in more ways than one—of the “wolf girls of Midnapore”: two young girls found living with wolves in the 1920s who were brutally broken into civilized life. Searing, sinous, sometimes painful, it is itself a brave enactment of the body.

We have selections from two manuscripts of poems by Mani Rao: the tough, intense and elliptical lyrics of Ghostmasters and the very different, lovely and erotic mytho-contemporary sketches of Gods 'R Us.

We have two sets of poems from Zimbabwe-based Togara Muzanenhamo, one a selection from Spirit Brides, his luminous first collection (Carcanet, 2006) and, another, new, unpublished poems from a new manuscript. I’ve been struck by the subtle way in which Togara’s poems are arranged, but also—subjectively—how time and time again, through the unsaid, they create a sense of a doubled voice, a ghostly aftershadow. I’ve also been moved—in the poems that are set in Zimbabwe, for example—by how intently he draws us into inner and outer worlds beyond the simplistic trappings of “culture” or “place” on one hand, and, on the other, a country we think we know from the news.

Then, we have texts from the Chinese writers who were in Delhi last March for the Almost Island Dialogues.

We're excited to have new poems from Bei Dao, including some that he read at the Dialogues, in Eliot Weinberger’s characteristically distinctive translations.

We also have work from two other leading (and very different) Chinese poets also associated with the journal Jintian —Ouyang Jianghe and Yongming Zhai— as well as a startling short story by Ge Fei, “Remembering Mr. Wu You”.

Then, we reprint an amazing narrative essay, “1985”—required reading, I would say—by the influential critic Li Tuo, which addresses the spirit of the mid-1980s in Chinese art and literature in a remarkably direct way.

Finally, we round out the issue with an essay by Ashis Nandy (a transcript of the talk he gave at the conference) and, “editorial sutras” by Sharmistha Mohanty, initiator and editor of Almost Island, which partly collage fragments of speech from the conference.

I hope you find some or all of this valuable. Tell us what you think.

Monday, March 15, 5666

Almost Island: Issue 3

This time round Almost Island is all poetry, whatever that means. We have a long spanking hot preview from I. Allan Sealy's new verse novel, Zelaldinus. We have some very cool translations (by Michelle Gil-Monteiro) of the hyper-contemporary Argentine poet Maria Negroni. We have translations from the seminal and dizzyingly versatile Malayalam poet, K. Satchidanandan, including the first canto of his autobiography. We have selections from Meena Alexander's most recent (and I thought very intriguing) collection, Quickly Changing River, and a new cycle of poems by her. We have two sets of poems from Trinidad-born true original Vahni Capildeo who I'm sure many of you will not have heard of, but you really should--I've been very excited by her work lately. We have brand new poems from that young American master of discursive daydreaming, Ravi Shankar (please do check out the poem "Course of Empire", available only in the pdf). And some assorted Subramanians.

Wednesday, February 03, 5666

In the Interstices of the New World - a review of 2666

My review of Bolaño's 2666, from the Literary Review over at The Hindu, February 1, 2009. I give the piece here as I have it on my computer (although the title, "In the Interstices of the New World" is from the Literary Review's editors, and I quite like it):

Roberto Bolaño, 2666. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 912 pages

If he had somehow managed to live past the age of fifty, would Roberto Bolaño, the late Chilean/Mexican/Spanish novelist and poet have been bemused by the current stratospheric heights of his fame? Would he have calmly cashed in further on it, wryly incorporating and recycling it into his plots? Bolaño’s books have become—as I think one bemused editor recently put it—something like a must-follow Harry Potter-type series for adult intellectuals. Here, I will not bother to trot out the Bolaño biography and myth that any internet search will return you to. Instead, I want to ask, what explains his wide appeal across continents?

The most charming, immediate aspect of Bolaño, evident in the sharp gestures of his short stories and the tight economy of his novellas as much as in the expansiveness of his long novels is, of course, his easy knack of mixing together colloquialisms and street knowledge with an erudite and experimental poetics. However, to go further to understand his appeal, we might locate him in relation to the writer he is very often counterpoised against, the slightly earlier phenomenon of world literature, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez represents the culmination of an effort, centuries old, to give a distinctive and sometimes parochial cultural identity and pride to the Latin American novel. Bolaño’s worlds are, by contrast, relentlessly urban, naturally cosmopolitan, broadly contemporary and even futuristic. Cultural identity is still present here, but it has been shorn of any simplistic reliance on cultural authenticity, folk tales learned at your grandmother’s knee and other such saws; if Bolaño is still talking, say, about what it might mean to be Mexican (he was not quite Mexican himself), he knows well that this question cannot be addressed without a wink, a certain degree of irony and distance. Bolaño is transparently both a victim and a subject of globalisation. At the same time, the special appeal and excitement of his work is that it does not reflect the total dominance of a homogenising Anglophone North American culture. Instead, it stakes its claim at a peculiar, stubborn and complicated angle.

This is never more true than in 2666, Bolaño’s last and greatest book, translated by Natasha Wimmer and released in English late last year. In 2666, the main character is, arguably, the city of Santa Teresa, a fictional reconstruction of Ciudad Juarez, the sprawling Mexican city that lies along the US border. In Bolaño’s rendering, Santa Teresa is a city with a view of the desert kept in the green by drug brokering, cut-rate American tourists and complexes of maquiladoras—outsourced, “duty free” assembly plants for US corporations with lax labour laws and a largely female workforce. Santa Teresa, depicted as thoroughly as possible, as much for its somewhat stifling provincial university and its overexcitable and mediocre reporters as for its brothel bars and vast illegal dumping grounds, stands for Bolaño as the emblem of a troubled and lost city that is, on first sight, at the far periphery of the global system. Yet, interestingly, Bolaño also sets out to present Santa Teresa as the centre of this system and even as its future, as the novel’s mysterious title suggests. Santa Teresa, like the real-life Ciudad Juarez, is somehow one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Bolaño’s earlier novel, The Savage Detectives, wandered from Europe to the Middle East to Africa but ended back near Santa Teresa. Similarly, in 2666, both tragic and lightly comic characters converge on Santa Teresa from everywhere: a quartet of trendy European academic literary critics; a philosophy professor at the University of Santa Teresa who is recreating an experiment of Duchamp’s in his back yard and slowly coming unstuck; a hard-boiled African American reporter covering a boxing match and thinking about his mother’s death; a small town US sheriff; a major world novelist who writes in the German language. These characters in turn circle the heart of the novel—in its longest, most difficult, most painful and also most brilliant section—where lies a “police procedural” case of more than two hundred serially murdered women, many of them prostitutes, migrants and maquiladora workers. A local computer store owner with an intense, almost superhuman presence is arrested as a suspect, but the murders seem impossible to solve or even understand, perhaps because of the intricate complicity of mafias, police and the local elite. At the great risk of being repetitive, Bolaño sets out to narrate the parallel stories of each and every one of these forgotten women, to recover, humanise and mourn them.

Is 2666, indeed, a classic, like all the other reviewers are saying? One is wary and embarrassed to admit as much only four years after the book’s original release in Spanish, but—yes, I think so. It is both unlike any other book I have read and, in significant ways, unlike anything else that Bolaño himself had managed to write before it. The writing itself makes for a quick and accessible read— seemingly raw and unpolished (though Bolaño’s effects are calculated), in the style of someone who accosts you in a bar and yabbers away— and it is by this very velocity that you are plunged into an epic and thoroughly unpredictable roller-coaster ride, with single sentences that dog on for pages and pages, dream sequences, lectures, rants from unreliable and sometimes insane narrators on a range of subjects from multiplex theatres to mass murder to etymology to German literature, daringly improvised plots and subplots that might twist and turn and suddenly run into violent blind alleys, picking up somewhere else altogether, with the language veering all the while from violence to irony to metaphysics.

By the time you reach the last section of the book, in which a writer weighs his life and legacy, you begin to see that 2666 is one author’s way of literally writing himself to death—almost in the same way a typical Spanish lover in an earlier, comic section of the book might try to screw himself to death— pushing as far and as hard as he can, taking each sentence as far as possible into the unrelenting shadow of failure, making use of everything that he knows and is, squeezing in every atom of what he is. Naturally in such a work there are boring passages, irrelevant passages, highly indulgent passages, places where you can clearly see Bolaño pushing his fiction writer’s confidence game too far; yet, the whole of 2666 is such a masterly and awe-inspiring performance that the reader settles into and clings to it as one settles for the world.

Wednesday, April 16, 5000

Thinking Toward the Event

This is a blog-to-blog note to Don Share, who posts two items I discuss here—

1) A typically exacting (and brutal) quote from Geoffrey Hill on the uses of poetry;

2) Some sly questions about being heard and being seen, in response to the usual round of reflections on readings.

Don—the more and more I think about it (and I have been thinking about it a lot) the more some of the current “for or against” discourse on performance (good? bad? more or less effective? with paper or without? whatever) and readings (here? there? warm fuzzy feel of community? nasty backhanded po-biz?) leaves me thoroughly dissatisfied and with the sense that all of this is really getting at the issues involved in an extremely superficial way. Firstly, the use of recording devices and the ability to archive/ and or broadcast should seriously complicate the questions of what is the location of a performance, what is the community of a performance, what is live, etc. Secondly, how do we relate and re-entangle performance on a page and oral performance (not to mention a whole range of performances like those at Quickmuse which, in effect, are somewhere in between), and might such a re-entanglement begin serve our purposes better?

I found myself trying to get to this in a blog post / performance from last year, “Five Easy Steps to Becoming a Better Performer of Poetry”. Of course, a lot of what I said there might seem obvious for poets, who will already know the readings. It was my irritable response to being asked to do a “performance poetry” workshop, was meant more for a lay audience / slam poetry types aspirants, etc., and was meant to peel back some assumptions and myths about poetry in performance. In many ways I feel unhappy with my formulations there now; but perhaps the most relevant point is the idea of a “shadow voice”, the central contradiction of a voice that is and is not there, which gets created in a poem and can never be completely fulfilled in performance.

A line of questioning I feel could take us deeper (I can’t yet articulate how yet) struck me on reading your magnificent and profound Geoffrey Hill quote from a couple of days ago. How might public performances (let’s call them “activations” for a second, to go beyond the question of orality, to think about the points at which the machine of the poem is switched on in public) and events, yes, including small readings of poetry be located as events and interventions in historical time? (Since an event, eventually, is about time?) And how might we reframe the debate on readings in terms of Hill’s intolerable, but essential contradiction between a poem’s repeated historical uses and its fundamental alienation from—transcendence of— history?

That’s about as much as I can wing right now. (Don’t ask me yet how to read Mary Oliver’s sold out stadium as an historical spectre—some things are better left mysteries.) With hopes of greater clarity—

Sunday, April 07, 4080

Some further thoughts on I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities

[To read the poem "I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities", go here.]

I had grown tired of doing too many performances where I only did my own poems and wanted to try something different. I went to Sophea Lerner, with whom I’d worked on one previous occasion, where we’d used mobile telephony to start the reading on the street outside and enact the entry into the theatre in a way that all of the audience would be able to identify with and think about. I knew that although Sophea works in interesting ways with sound and with technology, she also tends to find the simplest technological solutions possible, suggesting to participants “things they might try at home”. (This emphasis on low-tech turned out to be relevant when, half way through the March 28 performance, we had a power cut of the kind that is more frequent in Delhi in the summer—and we continued the performance.)

My original idea to Sophea was that the audience itself should be used to generate poetry, as a kind of surprise. In hindsight I remember that I had also been a part of a discussion at the Caferati site — concerning questions of audience, community, and growing numbers of poets— and this was lurking somewhere in the back of my mind. Sophea added that she wanted to do a performance that was site-specific while, at the same time, addressing dislocations of time and place. I knew that a) I wanted the result to be an enjoyable and entertaining, and not merely instructive or boringly demonstrative in the way that much contemporary art can be and that b) that despite being generated by the audience, it should somehow assert the existence of poetry, given that much of my audience, like many intellectuals and anti-intellectuals alike, especially some prose writers and readers, might not really believe in the contemporary existence of poetry at all. I wasn’t sure if this would be possible, but the only way I knew how was to put the audience through one or more formal constraints and/or procedures, producing a result that I could then somehow mix or assemble into a convincing poem. Sophea noted that, since I wanted to include as many people as possible, there should be a very low threshold for participation.

One initial idea, which unfortunately remained only in a vestigial way, was working with smses, but this was cut down a bit because we could not use a screen in the outdoor space during the day, and because we didn’t have time to build and fine tune an appropriate SMS internet gateway that would make the idea properly interactive. But what did remain from this was the notion that we should include, through the internet, people who were not necessarily attending the performance.

Eventually, we settled for the idea of a kind of questionnaire given in advance, as opposed to something that would put pressure on the audience to generate lines during the performance itself. Asking people to complete a sentence with a common beginning (or ending) would be a simple formal constraint that (unlike asking people to write a sonnet or complete rhyming couplets or a lipogram) would be almost invisible and produce the least amount of anxiety while, at the same time, it would guarantee a certain minimum amount of music.

I Heard the Google Gong vs. I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities

Having come up with a form though, I was unsure of what kind of results it would deliver and of whether they could be combined to deliver something that I considered a good, or even a decent, poem. On one hand, I knew that the more I took authorial control and edited a final version, the more it would undermine my argument that the poem was largely being generated by the audience, through a particular procedure; on the other hand, I knew that I had to make a convincing and entertaining poem for that very same skeptical audience. As a trial, I attempted to compose a poem using sentences returned for the google search string “I heard * .”, then selecting lines from the search results. I soon began to restrict my searches to the “.in” domain so as to make the poem more relevant for an Indian audience. Finally, after collecting some sentences, I set about arranging them.

The result was called, “I Heard the Google Gong”. I think it’s an interesting poem that in parts points to some peculiarly Indian contemporary neuroses and anxieties, but in the end, nowhere as interesting (in my opinion) as what emerged in “I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities”. The reasons for this are probably many:

-- the poem based on google searches extracts sentences out of a larger context, while the sentences specifically composed by contributors are aware that, in a sense, the sentence must contain everything the reader will ever know about the writer;

--the writers of “I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities” are aware of performing specifically for one time-bound event, aware of being part of a larger collective effort and, “disappearing into the occasion of it”;

--very importantly, I think, my own relationship to the texts as arranger was very different. I would like to go into this last point a little more.

A google search yields what everyone knows are unreliable results. One tries to figure out how one is supposed to feel about the truth of the statements. Sophea notes that the idea of better or worse microphones, for instance, is almost something of a joke in the audio-savvy community, since no microphone can be the best across the board, only best suited to one purpose or another. Zainab crying, “Papa, Papa, I am cold” seems to be part of some standard genre narrative; one’s relationship to it changes drastically when one learns it is part of an eye-witness accounts by Iraq war survivors. Other statements inevitably provoke laughter, even derisive laughter. Thus, a large part of negotiating a google poem involves the issue of how to negotiate one’s distance from google and the world wide web. I wonder if there is something about google as a dominating compositional tool that actually primes one to write an ironic, even mocking poem—that’s a point for discussion. By contrast, in working with lines specifically requested and contributed graciously, I feel a certain responsibility to the contributors, to the human subjects of the poem. A line like “I heard that you can be successful if you try hard” presents a particular dilemma, since I consider it a cliché, and I don’t know if it is true. The “I heard…” format helped here, since it ensured that all statements that were not sounds had to be indirect and not assertive. But even beyond this, I had to use this line and contextualize it in such a way that my larger poem did not belittle the writer of the line.

Thus, this experiment, the way we have conducted it, and the result it has produced, is also meant to be a kind of friendly argument with (even as it relates to the work of) the Flarf poets, and writers like Kenneth Goldsmith and Christian Bok, whose theoretical formulations and stances I find interesting, but have differences with. I appreciate that Bok, for instance, seems to keep his theory and practice a little separate— like everyone else, I have found things like the “I” chapter of Eunoia quite triumphantly amazing, but I feel that Bok’s poetic practice is more playful, uncertain, tentative and exploratory in comparison to his manifestoes and accounts of his own and his friends’ work—which can be programmatic and absolutist, even defensively promotional, and which try to push a certain theory. In a series of postings about poetics and human-machine interactions (“poetic machines, 1- 8”), over at Harriet, Bok argues:

“We can already begin to see here the embryonic inception of a robotic culture—one where writing does not necessarily emanate from the lyric voice of a human agent, so much as it might arise on its own from the uncanny actions of a machine, working on our behalf….”

What I see Bok as trying to do here, essentially, is to argue in favour of “machinic” as opposed to “organic” processes of poetry, the transfer from human to automated labour (although the word “uncanny” raises the question of—uncanny to whom?); but what this provocative position rests invisibly on is merely a continuation of a particular tradition within philosophy and science that seeks to figure the human body as a machine (the wheezing pistons of the lungs, the throbbing engine of the heart, the programmatic software of the mind, and so on). What if, instead, we began to investigate the organic, contingent, even willed, nature of machines, to conceive of machines as composed of and animated by humans, to find ways to humanize mechanical processes instead of the other way around? This project thus attempts to take human agents seriously as part of mechanical processes and forms and treat their utterances with a sense of responsibility.

I never felt that tension of responsibility more than when I walked around with a clipboard, handing people the form and trying to convince them to spare two minutes of their time to complete it. There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety that people connect with the act of writing—anxiety that they would no doubt negotiate more easily if they were writing smses with their thumbs on their mobiles. I worried that people would give me “poetic” lines. I thought about it and decided against specifically telling them not to be poetic. At the same time, what no one realizes, and what I didn’t realize myself at the time, is that, at the rate of a single line, the self can only express itself as a flicker, at best. Things get equalized; it would be quite hard to tell whether the composer of a given line were an “amateur” or a “professional” poet even if, I suspect, in more obscure ways, the larger poem was helped along by the participation of experienced writers of poetry. I’m embarrassed to think that at one point I worried if I could collect “enough good lines” for the poem I would arrange to work. Although there were a few lovely lines—“I heard the best minds of my generation blame the silence so offered” being my favourite— the larger poem, and all poems, must obviously depend on relationships between lines, and not good lines, to carry weight.

For these relationships to emerge and be clear, there has to be a larger form to carry the lines too, I believe. The listing of all the lines by itself falls flat. The formal constraint or challenge here would be to use as many of the lines as possible in a coherent poem, and coherence, I think, is a partly musical question. This was the question I tried to answer tentatively, using many but not all the lines in I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities. In that poem, I removed one or two specific references (they are restored in the full listing of lines) and corrected any grammatical errors in the lines. (The form’s low threshold meant that anyone with even a little English could participate; although one trial at Sarai showed that this game could be much richer if it incorporated several languages, certain technical problems prevented us from making it a multilingual exercise this time; and I didn’t want this poem to be even unintentionally comic in making fun of anyone’s English.) I used up almost all of the “I Heard”s and some of the “It Is”s – the latter in a second movement of the poem. To answer a question from Falstaff in the comments section of my blog, then, I do think that arranging the lines makes a big difference, allows the lines to come out and speak in a certain way. A random, computer generated ordering would be a useful tool for rapidly going through all the possible ways in which the lines could be arranged, but an audience –even if it is the audience of one writer— is necessary in order to make it a poem.

I would insist, by the way, that the formal trigger here is more important than any thematic unity the poem must have; I think if poets had been restricted by a particular theme rather than by a formal device, then the results would be less interesting. I’m thinking, for instance, of the precedent for this exercise (that I only discovered yesterday) in the collective world trade center poems which, for me, don’t hold together because they put the pressure of a specific theme and a given relationship to that theme (one of mourning) but don’t build any formal relationships that might help to make unexpected and subversive connections. I am grateful to my colleague at Sarai, Kamal Kumar Mishra, who is a literary translator and an historian of the Hindi public sphere, who points out a precedence for this exercise in the competitive traditions of the Tarahi Mushaira in Urdu and the Samasya Purti (lit., “problem solving”) in Braj bhasha where practicing poets (highly skilled poets, of course) would offer improvised, competing versions of how a line and its requisite formal requirements of rhyme or metre could be fulfilled. What is interesting, I learn from Kamal (if I'm not distorting his point greatly), is how the emphasis on form and style by these groupings (especially the latter) was considered decadent and transgressive and eventually suppressed by the early 20th century nationalist / reformist critics in favour of an emphasis on themes…

Finally, this project emerges out of thinking through the startling work and insistent provocation of writers such as Kent Johnson relating to authorship, and on a formal level, Ron Silliman’s “New Sentence” and related histories of form. I’ve also been shifted quite a bit in the time I’ve worked at Sarai-CSDS; I’ve learned from the ongoing discussions around copyright, piracy, open source culture, and so on that have been happening at Sarai and with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore.

For some time I’ve wanted to find formal structures and procedures that would address the question of ownership and authorship in poetry and find ways to admit writers of poetry into this discussion. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, “poets” have been, of all creative producers, among the most anxious about copyright and ownership. Part of this is the (sometimes healthy, sometimes not) skepticism and aesthetic / ahistorical conservatism that often instinctively reigns in poetic circles. Of course, part of this anxiety also has to do with wanting to be credited for the immense amount of hidden labour that poetry sometimes requires, and it may be that a single line requires so little labour that writers are more willing to give it up. At any rate, poetry’s position at the margins of capitalism means that we probably would have the least to lose and the most to gain by cutting our lines loose; anyway, the history of poetry is a long history of derivation, quotation, remix and replay. (As I write this, the bpNichol website has just gone live and makes me deliriously happy and, among other revelations, shows this great poet’s lifelong engagement with the question of ownership.)

And there was also another hidden but very obvious trigger here that I’d completely forgotten about, and was reminded of by Michael Creighton: Kenneth Koch’s brilliant poetry games for children, first articulated in Wishes, Lies and Dreams. I’d played similar games with kids here and there, but it was not clear at all whether what works so well for children was also going to work for adults. I believe now that it does work for adults, and I hope we can continue to evolve various kinds of formal structures that help us to do such mass collaborative performances--


Friday, February 07, 4070

An Interview with Amadou Lamine Sall

[A slightly shorter version of this piece appeared in The Hindu's Sunday magazine supplement; to those already familiar with the poetry of negritude, I apologise for the quick gloss--]

Amadou Lamine Sall (b. 1951) is the best known Senegalese poet after Leopold Senghor, who was both the legendary first president of Senegal, a key African leader, and one of a handful of central and inescapable“father figures” for African and African diasporic poetry.

Senghor’s own poems—as well as his polemic essays on poetry—attempted to make a new visionary and liberatory poetics (dubbed negritude) by fusing together various influences: the surrealist figures in 20th century French poetry (themselves, in turn, influenced by the African art brought to Paris museums) as well as the earlier Parnassians and imagists, in-between figures like the wonderful Malagasy poet Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo and African folktales and traditions of oral performance. The poetry of negritude, perhaps most famously and impressively in Senghor’s Martiniquan close collaborator Aime Césaire’s brilliant and monumental long poem, Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (“Notebook of the Return to my Native Land” – 1939), brought together the rawest of polemic chants with an intense and sometimes moody and obscure lyricism, a sharp-toothed and erudite modernism.

Senghor’s legacy has clearly ensured that poetry continues to be a central, very highly respected, and deeply well-funded part of the lifeblood of the Senegalese nation. At the same time, successive generations of Senegalese (and other African) poets have had to struggle to emerge from out of Senghor’s shadow. Sometimes this has meant an outright and forceful rejection of Senghor’s poetics. At other times, as in Amadou Lamine Sall’s five volumes of poetry so far, this has meant a more subtle modulation outward, an extension of Senghor’s tone and rhythms into a late post-colonial African era where race has become a much less central anxiety and where all ideologies, to one extent or another, have begun to ring hollow. To some degree like both Senghor and Cesaire (not to mention another of his key influences—Neruda), Lamine Sall has been anointed part of a national political machinery, working at a senior level in the Ministry of Culture; yet, at the same time, his poems frequently seem to insist on a profound ambivalence about and mistrust of official politics. Or further— they try to find a more intimate, tentative politics for the self. Despite this, Lamine Sall’s voice as a poet is still a collective voice, grand and large in its address, very far from the small, autobiographical voice, confessional in the Anglo-American sense. It relies less on observed particulars than on intense lyric and parabolic gestures, recurring images and euphonies; this also means it does not translate so easily into no-nonsense English. Given that the poetry takes these particular risks and makes them compelling, it still seems to belong uniquely to Francophone Africa and further, it builds a bridge to the currently emerging more diverse scenario populated by a wide range of poets, novelists, rappers and song lyricists, facing up to the troubled Africa of today. Some excerpts from a recent extended conversation with Lamine Sall, in Chennai for the Prakriti Poetry Festival, co-sponsored by the Alliance Française and Landmark bookstores:

Can you tell us a little about your childhood and school years, your introduction to poetry?

My mother was a poet; that is, she was a well-known oral poet, she never went to school. Among her duties during the day was to look after the cattle, so she composed songs about nature, about cattle, about her family, and so on. As a child, I looked after the cows as well, in a village in the north of Senegal; my early years were spent here with my mother. By this time, my father had already migrated to Kaolack, the second largest city in Senegal. He worked a number of different jobs and eventually became the chauffeur to the governor. At the age of five, I was sent to the Koranic school, which was a good education for a poet— you’re forced to memorise many verses quickly, and you are rapped hard on the knuckles if you don’t! Later, I was sent to school in the city for a French education, and I became a citizen; I read Chateaubriand, Alphonse Daudet, Victor Hugo, Rimbaud. This was crucial because I finally had in my hands a language with which I could express myself in writing. In the 1960s, at university in Dakar, I encountered the new African literature for the first time.

What are your memories of Senegalese independence (in 1960)?

Actually, I don’t really remember independence at all. In the particular case of Senegal, it eventually happened very smoothly, without much of a struggle, in ten minutes or so, partly because Senghor had already been a member of the French national assembly. My mother told me a story that when she was in labour with me (in 1951) that she had heard some loud sounds from the street outside. Risking censure by the nurse, she put a stool under a window and climbed up to look through it—to see a long procession in support of home rule, and Senghor’s election as president. It was then that my mother had a vision, that I too would become a famous man, like him.

Thus, it seemed my fate was linked to Senghor’s at birth. But it was only later that I was to meet him, and Césaire, and all the other writers. That happened in the 1970s, after my first collection of poems was published. Senghor liked the collection very much. He called me to the presidential palace and more or less announced me as his successor—as a poet, that is. He was especially enthusiastic that I wrote poems, since many of our generation’s best writers preferred to write novels. But being so close by his side for many years also handicapped me. Senghor was such a strong and charismatic personality that for many years I stopped writing myself. Eventually, I had to be able to listen to him without obeying him, and find my own, separate voice.

You mentioned that perhaps the largest readership for poetry in Senegal comes from people who work in the customs and in the military. Is this a legacy of Senghor having been the president of the republic?

It’s possible—but I really can’t explain this strange phenomenon! Often I am stopped in Dakar by a member of the police or military who refuses to let me go until I part with a signed copy of my book. So many people in the armed forces read poetry that eventually some are tempted to publish collections of their own—and the first page of these collections inevitably contains a long series of dedications to various army personnel.

How do you see the evolving relationship between poetry and politics in Africa?

There is no such thing as “political poetry”, although politics might be one of the many subjects that poetry engages with. Contemporary African writing has become more intimate. Nevertheless, it is hard for African writers to ignore politics the way French writers might be able to do. For instance, the current generation of Rwandan writers all end up coming back to the genocide in some way; it’s hard for them not to do so.

Who are some of the Senegalese writers, poets and rappers that you would recommend?

I would suggest the rap group, Daara-ji. Also the writers, Boubacar Boris Diop, Marouba Fall, Aminata Sow Fall, Sokhna Benga and Cheick Hamidou Kane, whose most famous novel is L’Aventure Ambiguë (“Ambiguous Adventure”).

Have you ever wanted to write a novel yourself?

Never. Most novels are very boring. I’m incapable of following all those characters and stories for thousands of pages. Poetry quickly distills a sensibility and a sense of the world.

Vivek Narayanan

Sunday, January 04, 4065

MG Vassanji's The Assassin's Song

This is a slightly longer version of a review that appeared in Time Out Mumbai / Delhi.

MG Vassanji, The Assassin’s Song
Viking Penguin 2007: 371 pp.

This is a novel that investigates the idea of tradition as responsibility, asking the question, how might such a debt be fulfilled? Karsan Dargawalla, the narrator of The Assassin’s Song is the direct descendant of a mysterious 12th century pir but is doubtful of his powers. The sufi shrine his father presides over is destroyed and ransacked in 2002, his revered father murdered. At this time, where the book begins, Karsan has long renounced his right to be the Saheb of Pirbaag and is living an alternate life half way across the world, but he has to return.

Vassanji is an author who deserves to be better known. If his first (lovely) novel, The Gunny Sack (“Africa’s answer to Midnight’s Children”) in 1990 was, in many ways imitative of Rushdie, he has developed, over the course of eight books of fiction, a very different style all his own. This late prose style is more mature, subtle, tender and dexterous in Assasin’s Song than ever before. Nevertheless, the new novel seems to lack the depth and complexity of insight, not to mention the dark and disturbing tones, that one found in his best book, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. Vikram Lall appeared to draw deeply if obliquely on Vassanji’s memory of his growing up years in Africa, and spoke with searing honesty and deep contradictions.

By contrast, the pegging of The Assassin’s Song on the Gujarat riots is a device that, in its very topicality, threatens at every turn to be the novel’s downfall. The first half is full of cutout characters, representatives of every community—Karsan’s brother who later turns a bitter, narrow-minded Islamist, the Siddhi sports teacher converted to Christianity, the Jew—all playing out some pre-Godhra-like version of communal interdependence, even if violence does always shadow this delicate cultural ecology. The plot feels willfully stitched together; the interleaved sections of medieval mythic sufi history do not seem deeply felt and end up reading like “history lite”. Nevertheless, it is a testament to Vassanji’s skill, empathies and patient working through that he slowly turns this potentially epic disaster around, into a good book that one begins to care about. He does this by attention to intimate detail, and by returning to what, for him, is familiar territory: the insecure, mildly heartbreaking and sometimes epiphanic growing-up years of a sensitive, slightly confused young man. This is a story that, in some ways, Vassanji has been telling over and over again, but he can do it extremely well.

Vivek Narayanan

Saturday, March 20, 4060

Major Web Resource of the Month

The pairing of Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton-- how much sense it makes, how obvious, how essential, how glad I am that it happened, and happens again, here and free for all to see. (Not to mention a brooding and dizzy Boris Kaufman --Dziga Vertov's brother and the camera on L'Atalante and On the Waterfront, as it turns out-- as Sam Beckett's points of view.)

Also, this nice essay on the film, and this fascinating memoir by the film's then young director, Alan Schneider. But please do yourselves a favour and watch the film first, if you haven't seen it-- spoiler alert!

Tuesday, April 05, 4050

I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities

See invitation here. Taken from a myriad lines graciously contributed to the public domain by a number of contributors and available for use here. Lines were written by people who would describe themselves as poets and people who wouldn't. Age group: 8 - 78yrs of age.


I heard cycles.

I heard a chirp.
I heard a foghorn.
I heard love letters.
I heard boom-boom!
I heard the fan whirl.
I heard the tube-light.

I heard a message beep.

I heard there was a house.
I heard the crackling fire.
I heard he drunk it dry.
I heard it just the other day.
I heard what you didn’t hear.
I heard a mosquito buzzing in my ear.

I heard the jackhammer late at night.
I heard the silence fall and shatter.

I heard new-sense (nonsense).
I heard mathematical tables.
I heard the songs of my past.
I heard it through the grapevine.
I heard that heaven is a beautiful place.
I heard it will be the great performance.
I heard I should come and watch, so I did.
I heard it all but it wasn’t true after all.

I heard the bulbul fart on the neem tree.
I heard a woodpecker hammering at an oak.
I heard a flower pot crash on your head.
I heard somebody knocking at the door.
I heard an argument on the second floor.
I heard the pressure cooker on the first floor.
I heard entropy is winding down.
I heard percussion coming out of a speaker.

I heard that I can be successful if I work hard.
I heard that Delhi Belly knocks you out.
I heard it was ok to be gay if you don’t say.
I heard you should never cut your toenails in a public toilet.
I heard the world sticks to maiden answers.

I heard the unhindered turning of the world.

I heard a siren, then someone called my name.

I heard, three days: taptap TAP TAP TAP taptap.

I heard the tape dispenser crashing to the floor.
I heard that being on time didn’t matter in
I heard tigers growling in the empyrean drainpipe.
I heard the shriek of elipses colliding into a full stop.

I heard Eric Clapton streaming from Fillmore East, 1970.
I heard that life can be beautiful with a positive mind.

I heard that air travel isn't the main cause of global warming.

I heard paper being collated and then stapled; people laughing.

I heard her say she was bored and that it was a deep kind of thing.

I heard everyone is in their 30s or early 40s who were kids in the 80s.

I heard that it’s slightly difficult and yet quite fulfilling at the same time.

I heard of us in the forgotten village, the one past the last railway stop.

I heard the best minds of my generation blame the silence so offered.


It is a house that grew around a tree.
It is near the faux-green
Chicago River.
It is the same place over and over again.
It is early morning, and the light is turning.
It is as if I might catch some fish for you.
It is as if you might reel me in when I needed some safety.

I heard a squirrel nibbling on my window this morning.
I heard contented cooing, and walked in to find pigeons in the room.
I heard what the Zen master said to the hot dog salesman: make me one with everything.
I heard the reel swishing in the wind and the crunch of my crispy French fries.
I heard my soul sing in the breeze just like the rustling of leaves casting shadows as I write.

It is important to love nature whether inside or outside.
It is turquoise, glass, and film strips flapping in the wind.
It is a flowing wall of images blowing in the breeze.
It is the kind of garden you never want to leave.
It is our job to break laws if they’re blocking the doors.
It is a particular reality rescued to fit their anecdotes.
It is nevertheless never too bright to say hello to the sun.

I heard the train - the invisible train - that people think is a train only because they can hear it.

It is tenuous.
It is eclectic.

It is what it is.
It is what they say it is.
It is addictive.
It needs staples.
It is quite a feat.
It is crowded.
It is crowded.
It is totally theatrical activity.
It is dry, warm, lit simply beautiful.
It is an attractive distraction to hear your ring tone.
It is my favourite time of day when the sleep starts from my legs.
It is crowded, sweaty and a bit dark.
It is a small room full of bewildered chatty people driven by beer and boredom.
It is a madhouse of form-filling, need and endurance.
It is a room too small for two.
It is good that we are not friends.
It is to be done today.

I heard about the Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at the Khasi Jaintia Christian Fellowship.
I heard him through the night and it was exquisite and painful and I wept for two out of five hours.
I heard the nubile girls of the then metropolis muffle their pain of tattoos with warm starch water.
I heard the man on his cellphone say, don't worry, soon they'll figure out you're gay, and then you'll be out of the army.

It is so fun to play with the baby.
It is an educated animal.
It is never just peaceful.
It is plastic, yellow, circular.
It is a gaudy yellow toy submarine.
It is better that we will never be.
It is not what it was just two weeks ago.
It is trying to be something that actually does not need to be tackled in the first place.
It is the quintessence of the abstractability in the fungibility of the creative nature of art.

I heard the cling clang clack of pots being washed in the alley below and I strained to hear dust falling on curtains.

It is an announcement of a concert, the blank side of which I have used to take notes.

I heard the seed pods rattle against each other, or maybe I was just remembering walking in past times in quiet places.

It is a cigarette butt between an acoustic piano with several broken notes and an electric keyboard with little action and too much tint.

I heard the trucks grinding down the hill out front slowing before the road crew filling potholes their orange cones, green vests, surest sign of spring.

It is a sound that pulls out the underskin from under the skin till it is over, overt, overdetermined.
It is the sound of a child reading aloud, voice splintering and cracking, a child growing by himself in light and forlorn love.

I heard my Dean yelling at his wife, berating her over the phone, something about their child, this really just happened, I am serious.

It is the only brown dry tree between the hospital and the taxi rank but I watch it the most.
It is grey outside my window but if I turn I know the light behind me will be dusty yellow.

I heard whatshisname is in London, I wonder for what, the tabloids don't tell you such things, it looks like he's showing off his new wife Carla Bruni.

I heard about the Lacanian lack today, that forever-propelling nothingness which consumes us and without which we are simply voids.

It is a room lit dimly in the mid-afternoon by light filtering through the overcast sky: only the red table cloth seems to shimmer, sending rays up to the ceiling, coloring it pink with its glow.

I heard a loud instrumental (a new Nine Inch Nails piece called "Ghost 32") through the warehouse PA System; it's not the kind of music I usually play, but, singing along with it, I got to feel a part of it.

It is the hot sun that burns my shoulders now.

I heard my name on the phone spoken by someone I wasn’t calling, sounding as surprised as me, and then, on this rain-soaked cloudy day when nothing seems to connect, the line went dead and I checked the number-- no way had I got it wrong, and no way could the woman I heard have picked up the line and spoken my name.

It is a blinking bright face that hums and ticks that I'm staring into.
It is eerily early as sirens compete with stories from around the world.
It is the smell of nothing arriving, nothing moving; the smell of suffocation.
It is time the ice around my mailbox melted; write me a proper letter, why don't you?

I heard many things, and believed few, heard wonderful sounds, and understood little, I heard you were right nearby, or that you were tragically distant, I heard everything slowly, in a prolonged torpor of dreaming.

Sunday, April 07, 4047

I Heard the Google Gong

[Based on a google search for the string, "I heard * .", some of it in the .in domain. Compare with this poem, doing the same with lines specifically composed for the purpose. And an essay that, among other things, compares the two poems.]

I heard Shalini say, "Row one, hang up your coats."

I heard the voices of legendary poets as a teenager.

I heard footsteps approaching, and closed the shutter hastily.

I heard racism.

I heard bang, bang, bang.

I heard voices, loud voices, men's voices, laughter. Forgive me for saying that I hope and believe it was English laughter.

I heard fruits like grapes and oranges are fattening.

I heard nothing.

I heard rumors that she was a lesbian (personally, I don't think she is, what do you think)?

I heard that helium comes from the middle of the earth and it’s running out.

I heard Condoleezza say: "There are contacts between al-Qaeda and Hussein that can be documented."

I heard Yoweri Museveni. describe foreign aid as ‘a life-support system for brain-dead regimes’.

I heard Zainab crying: "Papa, Papa, I am cold, I am cold," before she went silent.

I heard Mr. Jenkins say. "Get that lift running. Those poor miners are trapped down there."

I heard a growly motor sound, and then some squeaky groaning noises.

I heard cicadas buzzing as if for the first time.

I heard bears are afraid of lights and music.

I heard screams, hoarse screams as if from utter terror.

I heard Bugha. -. say to them, “Villains! You are all dead men without escape; at least. die with honor.”

I heard carnatic music on the double bass.

I heard growly blues, reminiscent.

I heard, in between laboured breaths.

I heard ingenious arrangements, gorgeous background parts, and seamless audio engineering.

I heard Kahu's high treble voice shouting something to the sea, she was singing to the whale.

I heard moissanite could look just like a diamond.

I heard Asha's classic mod 60's number "Dum Maro Dum".

I Heard a Petey, Petey, Petey Bird Today. I never paid much attention to the voices of birds, but now I do.

I heard Shure SM 58 is a very good microphone and I suggested it to some people.

I heard Swami's enchanting voice. He was saying, "Take this Vibhuti Prasadam for three days, and everything will be alright.”

I heard that cash accounting cannot be certified by a Chartered Accountant.

I heard Allah's Apostle (p.b.u.h) saying, "We (Muslims) are the last (to come) but (will be) the foremost on the Day of Resurrection though the former nations were given the Holy Scriptures before us.”

I heard airtel 's speeds fluctuate ......esp if u dont use download managers.

I heard Daddy's footsteps coming up the stairs, and my heart began to beat faster.

I heard Narendra Modi boasting that his policemen killed a man in cold blood because they suspected he was a terrorist.

I thought I had heard wrong.

I heard Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and I wasn't convinced with what all he said on the subject.

I heard from my telugu friends that he is an excellent teacher and a good-natured person.

I heard Azim Premji describe in a talk, the challenge of building a. world-class enterprise in India and the lessons that could be learnt.

I heard in IIT Bombay many of the suicides are guys from privileged sections who got in entirely through merit.

I heard they tend to need some work to feed reliably.

I heard TVS RTR 300cc is coming up, can I get photo of it?

I heard Sue's instruction through my aroused senses.

I heard Shannon's voice call out into the haze as I passed out from the blow that rained down on my head.

I heard Dawn moving around in the living room, so I dressed and kissed the fullness of its emerging light.

I heard this poem and I changed my mind as it says little time remains and this will also pass.

I heard it (my defeat).

I heard her footsteps coming near.

I heard her gasp in disbelief.

Saturday, October 08, 2061

I, Too, Dislike Anthologies

Don Share is the author of a very intense and cutting new book of poems, angry and cerebral, perverse, blunt and far reaching, completely different from most of the current American poetry that's out there. He completely nails the problem with reading poetry anthologies, and why, I have to admit, I haven't read one for a while (and yes there is a sometimes a place there for the genuine in them, but...):

"I was conveying that I don't have much admiration for anthologies, either. It's one thing to discover a Sitwell (or a Graves or a Riding (Jackson) in just the way this thread describes, another to be beset with set pieces! The discussion here actually illustrates the value of real reading and exploration as against the artificial elevation of a poem or poet here or there."

The mention of Robert Graves and Laura Riding here is a reference to the subversive power duo's 1928 Pamphlet Against Anthologies. DS elaborates a little further on his blog.

That's exactly it, Don. And would you believe the work of most Indian English poets is available to the general public, including in India, only as a small set of set pieces in anthologies? What kind of writing would such reading encourage?

I'm thinking, for instance, of Eunice De Souza's first collection, Fix, which I only recently came across in someone's house and read, which I think is an innovative, pretty much flawless and ultimately very dark, ambitious and serious book that, for years, I knew and remembered only by its "funnier" set pieces in anthologies. They were nice, typically sharp and inventive in their language, but didn't necessarily show the larger scope of her work. So often anthologies privilege funnier and more accessible aspects of a poet, presumably to pull a wider public in, but often leaving the anthology as a kind of replacement for the writing itself.

The quote from Don Share above comes itself from a discussion thread at Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog, notable and exciting for its clash of different (and unpredictable) points of view. Requoted in a piece by Ange Mlinko about the poet as detective.

Thursday, October 07, 2060

Almost Island: Issue 1

Dear friends,

Please find the first issue of ALMOST ISLAND now online at:

Almost Island is a new literary magazine, edited by Sharmistha Mohanty, with Vivek Narayanan as consulting editor. Based in India, we are resolutely international in scope and conception. We are dedicated to distinctive, essential, innovative, exploratory writing, with special emphasis on the internal and the philosophical. Each new issue will endeavour to publish a substantial selection of work as an introduction to a small number of writers. There will also be shorter updates to the issue each month. All texts are available both on screen and as pdf downloads.


The inaugural issue of Almost Island is all PROSE, but this includes poems in prose, and a wide variety of styles, forms and approaches. Find here a range of alternatives to what your average mass-marketed prose machines are serving up:

[Contributors listed in alphabetical order]

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, from Madeleine Is Sleeping :
Excerpts from one of the most unusual novels to be shortlisted for the National Book Award: a darkly sexual and even perverse fable written in rich, distinctive and ringing language.

Cybermohalla, What Is It that Flows Between Us :
Three texts by members of Ankur / Sarai-CSDS's Cybermohalla labs. True views of Delhi from the inside, intense, navigating steadily and intently away from categories and easy narratives of heroism and victimhood, and from the cliched seductions of traditional narratives altogether--explorations without "the weight of presentation within".

Mikhail Epstein , from Cries in the New Wilderness
Excerpts from the "cult classic" by one of Russia's quirkiest and most original contemporary philosophers: an ethnographic catalogue of shadowy religious cults that may or may not have existed, hidden in the folds of the former Soviet Union--purportedly taken from the files of Moscow's erstwhile "Institute of Atheism".

David Herd, from Mandelson! Mandelson! and The Hut
Is it actually possible to keep it real in the age of manipulative images, compulsive consumption and panacea-peddlers? What is the price we pay for our cynicism? In the most contemporary language, with a light touch but one completely free of easy sentimentalism, these poems and fictions ask the ancientest of questions, and make a strong case, despite despair, for the return of enthusiasm. David Herd's writings somehow make you feel happier: a rare effect in literature.

Kent Johnson, I Once Met and 33 Rules for Poets Under 23
Two works from one of the most subversive and, in fact, serious writers: a warm, various and often naughty encyclopaedic embrace of poets famous and obscure; and unflinching advice for young poets, after the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.

James Alan McPherson, Going Up to Atlanta
A relentlessly honest and searching improvisatory memoir, that explores uncertain recollections of racial discrimination and the rise and fall and rise of a family, that seeks to answer the question, "Can the offspring ennoble the ancestor?" From one of America's most important writers of short stories and literary non-fiction, and a past winner of the Putlitzer Prize.

Tosa Motokiyu, The Strange Account of 'A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island'
A fascinating and ambiguous "critical fiction", curiously fusing together elements of literary criticism, memoir and detective parody, proposing, with disturbing, factual and convincing circumstantial evidence, that Frank O'Hara was not quite the author you thought he was. It does make you wonder.

Srikanth Reddy, Voyager
In this long excerpt from his current project, a book length poem composed of sentences, Srikanth Reddy continues to consider our world and its total history as if through some kind of new, intensified lens, both passionate and estranged, both lyrical and aphoristic by turns, working from first principles, asking, it would seem to us, what is world, what is looking, what is representation, what is time, what is sequence?

Rodrigo Rey Rosa, The Proof and The Truth
Simple, violent, ruthless, and deeply disturbing philosophical tales, inevitable and irrefutable, by one of Guatemala's most respected writers. Translated by Paul Bowles.

George Szirtes, 6 Prose Poems
New work from the major Hungarian-British poet and translator, winner of the TS Eliot prize for his luminous Reel-- varied, typically understated, and patient but insistently, methodically, weird. Suddenly things are not so solid, or so clear. Suddenly you no longer know where you are.

Eliot Weinberger, The Rhinoceros
A rare and carefully modulated elegy for the rhinoceros, collaging images, hearsay, myth and history, starting with the arrival of the first rhinoceros in Europe 1300 years after the fall of Rome. Weinberger is, among many other things, well known as the translator of Octavio Paz and Borges; his innovative essays read like hidden, empirical poems. The Rhinoceros is from his new book of "serial essays", An Elemental Thing.

For questions, suggestions, comments and errata, and
to join this, our occasional newsletter
(which will appear sporadically, never more than once a month),
please write to: editor [at-sign] almostisland [dot] com

Happy Reading!
The Almost Island Team

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Five Easy Steps to Becoming a Better Performer of Poetry

Some of you have been asking for the "didactic text" that I did to launch the Kitab and then Sarai open mikes, so here it is (scroll to the bottom of this post). It's a prose piece for performance with a bell.

It's interesting to think about what kinds of bells could be used. Anne Waldman's book, Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble, has poems with gong sounds in them that are marked in the text by gong symbols of different sizes, indicating volume. At Kitab I used a bicycle bell that I'd bought at Chor Bazaar for Rs. 20; because it's an instrument I've often used while riding my bicycle, somehow I felt there would be a lot of room for variety of expression with it. At Sarai, because I'd lost the bell at Kitab, I used a spoon against an ugly glass ashtray with cigarette butts in it. Actually, this was fine, since the bicycle bell was a very strong sound which worked well in the open air of the Prithvi Cafe, and the glass ashtray produced a smaller sound for the Sarai basement. What seems important to me for this particular piece is that it NOT be a temple bell, or gong, or anything reminiscent of ritual or organised religion, since that should be a secret / unpretentious purpose here. I've tightened the text slightly based on how it went in performance and I've added three last bell sounds at the end. How to mark the ending of the piece was a bit of a problem, and I think this solves that problem-- will try it if I ever perform the piece again.

About the Lorca essay that I mention in the piece-- it's really a very strange and intense essay and-- I can say this with confidence since I've given it to others to read-- it has an extraordinary effect on the reader who gives it close attention. The clearest translation I have is by J.L. Gili, in this somewhat obscure penguin selected with prose translations of the poems. There's an online version which is interesting since (I'm guessing) it preserves the weirdness of language in the original, but many find it less accessible.

And here is the late Auden poem, On the Circuit (with Auden reading) that I also mention.

Incidentally this poem is also in the ballad metre (loosely, 4 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats, 3 beats) that Koch and Ginsberg improvised their Popeye and Blake poem in, that I played at the Sarai open mike. (You can find the amazing recording at Jacket Magazine. I've also made a transcript of the session after some repeated listening; if you're having trouble following everything I'll email it to you.)

I always chuckle about the last couple of stanzas of Auden's On the Circuit:

Another morning comes: I see,
Dwindling below me on the plane,
The roofs of one more audience
I shall not see again.

God bless the lot of them, although
I don't remember which was which:
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.

Don't get jaded!

Vivek Narayanan’s


First lesson: do away with the term “performance poetry”. Poetry can travel back and forth between the page and oral performance; that’s one of the things that almost all poems do, that is the transaction that poems are very often born out of. When you read a poem on the page, it carries the ghost of a sound, a voice, a music; and in that longing lies its mystery. It is a longing that is opened up, but never quite fulfilled by performance.

To separate two kinds of poetry, as is sometimes still done in the UK and the US, is to separate activities that thrive on, and live in, interaction. This is a need felt now more and more in the “performance poetry” scene of those two countries also—for there is a debate, that one hears from the more searching and serious poets in those scenes, about whether the “performance poetry” scene discourages complexity and depth, whether it has become too commercial, with recording contracts involved, whether what we should all be turning towards now is something more, something beyond.

Truth is, there’s a trade off. What you get from performance is a very palpable sense of an audience, a community, a situation that pushes you to write, keep writing, get better. Auden famously said that poetry makes nothing happen—and this is true in a larger geo-political sense, but in a small way, in this way (pause)

in this way (pause)

poetry can make something happen. But although performance is immersion and direct dialogue, it is usually on the performer’s terms, not the audience’s. When a poem has to be read on the page, by contrast, the reader has a lot more work to do, but at the same time, the reader is completely in control, and this too is an immeasurable, different, gift. Why forsake it?

So with that caveat, here, just as you have five easy steps to becoming a better manager, here are my five easy steps to becoming a better performer of poetry.

Step One (bell)

READ what I think is the most important text for poetry in performance, which is the famous essay by Federico Garcia Lorca sometimes translated as “Theory and Play of the Duende”. You’ll find that the possibilities of poetry in performance can go deep. The duende, a concept taken from gipsy singing, is a life force and a death force, a gravitational pull. “All the arts are capable of having duende, but naturally the field is widest in music, in dance, and in spoken poetry, because they require a living body as interpreter.” Moreover both the composition (which could be a poem) and the performance are both capable of having duende; and although he says that it is possible for a composition that doesn’t have duende (say, an ordinary pop song) to be given duende by the performer, it is very clear that the real answer lies where both the composition and the performance possess duende. Lorca

was a performance poet, in the sense that he was intense in performance of his work, and the story goes that editors had to chase him around and convince him publish his work. He felt that people would not be able to hear his poems on the page, that they would become vulnerable to—in his words—“idiots, dilettantes, and the complacent, pat-on-the-back smile”; which is to say that a different kind of complacency can set in when poems are circulating only in print.

Step Two (bell)

The most obvious choice for those starting out tends to be the route of the proscenium stage, of theatre, or more precisely, of drama. And while I admire and respect a great actor who understands poetry well enough to perform it, poetry has its own different traditions of performance and recitation that have evolved, and continue to evolve, for centuries, which depends on the solo voice, on the strength of one’s conviction, one’s willingness to stand behind one’s words and give it straight. I am not saying that there can be no overlap or dialogue between poetry performance and drama, but to recognise and PERCEIVE this distinction is the second step (the first step, really).

Step Three (bell)

BE yourself, and not an unintentional caricature of yourself. Be natural, if that’s who you are, but beware of naturalism. Restraint and understatement is all very well, but restraint and understatement can itself be a trap, a pose, a mask to hide a lack of courage or conviction. Forget about pretending naturalism, but follow only the intensities that are already in you as far as they will go. Auden, of course, was very against any kind of high energy, intensified performance, but this was also because he was concerned to work against the power of performance to move and control an audience, about poetry working in service of propagandists and orator-politicians in his time. Hitler

was a great performance poet. George Bush is a gawkier and more understated performance poet, but I suspect he knows what he is doing. I think Auden’s dogma about how to do a poem is at least partly a reflection of his well-mannered English public schoolboy upbringing—but I think it is important to keep the question of control alive. And don’t forget that at the height of his powers Auden was On The Circuit, booked by his agents called (if the poem is to be believed) Columbia-Giesen management. He recited poetry from memory to audiences of two thousand or more, and people remember his readings vividly; which suggests that Auden

was a public poet, he had duende.

Step Four (bell)

STAND with your feet slightly apart, ground yourself. If you stand, it is easier to draw the poem, and your breath, from your whole body and not merely from your mouth. Later you will perform from a wheelchair, or from somewhere in the air.

Step Five (bell)

TALK to the audience, not at them. Before you start look at them, and without a word tell them, with your body and your eyes: thank you

and fuck you. Read the poem for yourself as well as for them, conscious of every word. Weigh the words as you read, perform to discover your words as if anew, find new false notes not visible otherwise. Use performance to defend and stand behind your words, and to defend yourself against your own private self-enchantment.

(end with three bells one after the other, played clearly but much softer than above, with a one second pause between each bell; the last bell should be played to linger and echo slightly.)