Reviewed and Interviewed by Nikita Parik (Editor)
Making Love to The Shape of a Poem in The Year of The Plague
It’s a weekday in the month of July in the second year of the plague. A book has just arrived at my doorstep via a masked delivery man, followed by a text message (“Thank you for cooperating in the contactless delivery of your shpt….”). I sanitise the parcel thoroughly, then hold the book in my hands like a rare artefact. There is a certain je ne saisquoi about the smooth cover page that draws me in. Pastel shades- nudes graduating into pink, pink into mauve, mauve into maroon, maroon into a velvety darkness that engulfs everything. I keep staring. I am now thinking of lipsticks.There is a little black comma somewhere, swimming close to the womb of language, hinting at the nature of creation, a sigh, an enigma, the pause between finish and unfinish. It takes me to a certain Ocean Vuong poem titled “The Gift”:
She doesn’t know what comes after.
So we begin again:
a b c a b c a b c
But I can see the fourth letter:
A strand of black hair- unraveled
From the alphabet
&written on her cheek.
I turn the cover over- the book opens with a man who is in the process of blooming. Surely, the essence of erotic has that kind of a power over one. I flip more pages at random- more line drawings- two characters kissing and blossoming. People morphing into flowers, flowers into people, until one doesn’t know which is which. Two flowers camouflaging into the symmetry of a woman, or a woman diffusing intoflowers. The instinct of the erotic seems to blur all distinctions, all boundaries.
And so begins the actual reading. In a little over two hours, I manage to consume the book from cover to cover. We begin with geometry (“This chin is a diagonal/ fishing through your square mouth”- Aakriti Kuntal), end with geology (“Me the fertile soil. You, the drenching rain”). In between, linguistics, philosophy, biology and all other disciplines dance to the all-consuming fire of cosmic creation. The poems themselves are never crass, never vulgar, but often like diffused soft light in a moment of clarity.
The most interesting part about the book is how the readers talk about their take on the erotic. It isjust as beautiful- sometimes more so- as the poems themselves. For Ammar Aziz, erotic is “essentially about the impossibility of a desire’s fulfilment- an impossibility that entails an inherent loneliness”. For Arundhati Subramaniam, it is “where sensuality meets suggestion, and ardour meets art. A language of desire, inflection, mystery. Where flesh is made word, and where, to borrow the biblical phrase, word is ‘made flesh’.” This reminds me of Rattle’s little notes. It adds a character, a whole new dimension to the anthology.
There is a beauty with which all the different elements in the book come together: How it all meshes together- the cover, the line drawings,the language, the images- until it’s a complete organic whole and you cannot take anything apart without disrupting this unity.
Here’s a little tête-à-tête with the editors of the book, Dr. Srividya Sivakumar and Mr. Paresh Tiwari.
Congratulations! The book has turned out very well. I want to know what the process of editing this book- from reading all the poems to cherry-picking the ones that have made it to the anthology- done for you? Has it in any way broadened your personal understanding around the aesthetics of the erotic?
Srividya: Thank you so much, Nikita.
While every experience broadens one’s understanding of the world, this anthology, partly because of my direct involvement, brought many lessons in its wake. For example, creating the dossier of iconic erotic poems, to go with the call-out, was a huge learning experience. In the quest for more woman poets, more Indian poets, I read even more on the erotic, and more erotic poetry than I ever have.
And then the actual process of editing the book has been nothing short of revelatory. More than the aesthetics of the erotic, the sheer breadth of what the word or the idea means to poets has been an exciting trip. Each time we’d receive a poem, we were offered something new to think about, a different way of seeing. That has been a powerful experience, to be a witness to this, to know that we get to share it with the world.
I think Paresh and I have a shared sensibility in the kind of poetry we are drawn to, as love poets and erotic poets. So for me, the new aesthetics, so to speak, was to also be welcoming of those poems I would not write, and not necessarily read. To acknowledge, question and then move away from my own discomfort with certain ideas.
Paresh: When I look back, I feel that my understanding of the erotic was pretty unidimensional. It wasn’t just reading all the poems, debating their merits – poetic as well thematic – but also the meandering conversations I have had with Srividya and other poets that helped me see beyond the obvious, beyond the clichéd.
One of the most rewarding experiences for me when I come across words I know to be deeply truthful – happens with everyone, I guess, you know it your bones and yet have failed to articulate or even acknowledge it. Reading the 450-odd works submitted to us, time and again brought me this feeling. It was a trip alright, in every sense of the word.
From the point of view of the craft, what was the criteria behind choosing the poems? For instance, was the focus on the familiarity of metaphors, or the non-familiarity, the newness of language?
Srividya: We actually discussed this before we embarked on The Shape of a Poem. Paresh’s prior experience as an editor has been invaluable to me, personally. Sorting poems, creating reference documents, cross-references and so on was a time-consuming, albeit essential activity. (My Shape of a Poem folder on the laptop has 49 documents from the process, not to mention the countless emails and texts)
There is that visceral response to a poem, isn’t it? The way it makes us feel; whether we sit there with our jaw to the floor, amazed at what we’ve just read, or shake our head in utter disgust or disbelief, or just close our eyes, as though reluctant to let the magic leave us. That intuitive response was a good guide for the book as well.
I wanted poems that challenged the way I thought of the erotic. Those non-obvious ones. Those that enfold the erotic into the everyday-ness. That spoke of desire, of intimacy without tropes. Basically, a departure from the norm.
Of course there is comfort in familiarity, familiar themes, and that is precisely why we debated a great deal on choosing a wide variety of themes, and poems pertaining to that. To an extent where we had to take the painful decision of letting go of some lovely poems that spoke of similar themes as others.
I must also add here that our one criterion was that we had to choose those poems on which we both agreed! So, there were those we both loved from the get-go which were relatively easy to select. We then presented our case- with extensive notes- for those poems that one of us liked but the other hadn’t. And then decided on a final list.
Paresh: As far as craft goes, I believe Srividya and have taken different paths to arrive at similar destinations. I started my journey into the lush green world of poetry through the most sparse of the forms – haiku, I migrated to haibun and tanka soon after and then mostly to prose poetry. This journey has awakened me to the joy of the unexpected, a turn of phrase, an unconventional pairing of images and words, even surrealism. I like it when things don’t make sense until they do with an ‘Aha’. In fact the philosophy of haikai is steeped deeply in this ‘aha’ moment.
I was fortunate to have Srividya as my co-editor, our conversations over the years were instrumental in how we went about choosing the poems for this anthology; it was mostly instinctive and organic. As Srividya has already mentioned, there were works that we didn’t see quite in the same way. Those were in fact the most enriching works for us as editors and lifelong students of poetry.We had to dig in deep, question our own understanding of the poem – its art and craft included – before making our case, and then of course the ensuing discussions, often over long mails or voice messages that we both cherished and learned immensely from.
You mention that the act of speaking the body is an act of courage. The politics of this book, to me, is in its attachment of a sense of worth to the body, to the act of the erotic in our digital age of crippling self-doubt in one’s own body image and pornographised and limiting notions of sexuality. How important was this sense of reclamation to you when you had started out, and how successful do you think the book is in that regard?
Srividya: Like we’ve said in the Foreword, the reaction to the theme has been extremely revelatory. This pong of superciliousness, the sanctimonious responses- there’s so much judgment! As if people don’t think about desire and sex at all! The hypocrisy that we’ve seen just validates how The Shape looks at the erotic.
We received poems that we classified as problematic. For example, there was one that objectified a woman’s body, reducing her to body parts. One more spoke about a scenario where the lover refuses, only to be ‘coaxed’ by the man, into agreement. Poems where certain terrible terminology was used to speak of the act- we did not want them in the anthology.
For me, to go beyond what the ready reference of the erotic is in today’s world absolutely comes from my being a woman. I’ve had my fair share of gossip flung at me because I am an erotic poet, as though women cannot and should not write about desire. More importantly, how can I reconcile to a poem that is not respectful of any gender?
The body is a political, social statement. It can speak of privilege and struggle, it can speak of freedom and liberation, shackles and taboos. It is important to move away from the air-dusted, super filtered notion of what kind of bodies can enjoy and act upon desire.
Whether we’ve been successful is a question best answered by the readers. We’ve certainly taken every pain to ensure a wide variety or voices and ideas. I personally love the idea that we have newcomers (no pun intended) in the book, right there with huge names. That the anthology serves as a safe space is a matter of great pride for me-we’ve received poems from poets who haven’t written about the erotic before- really gorgeous stuff. It is wonderful to know that we inspire that confidence.
What the erotic is,is subjective, isn’t it? I’ve already seen some questions on social media asking how so-and-so- poem can be erotic. So while I’d like to think that we have been successful in our attempt that remains to be seen.
Paresh: The erotic has been and continues to be taboo. Even before we made our intent public, we knew that at least from some quarters, we will receive a passive or even aggressive pushback. From a suppressed giggle, a raised eyebrow, to downright disbelief, to unfettered enthusiasm and support, I have seen a range of responses to this anthology. I believe it stems from our deep-rooted insecurity with our bodies. The idea of an ‘ideal’ body has been so skewed lately that it is an act of courage even to look into the mirror without flinching. Then of course, the issues of gender sensitivity, place of consent, the validity of treating the sensual as essential and more.
Have we managed to make a dent, however small in the armour of these ironclad beliefs, prejudices, and preconceptions? I believe so. But the test of time is the one that matters.Though I must add that buying and displaying The Shape in your bookshelf can be an act of courage and defiance as well.
Lastly, there are two poems from the anthology that I cannot stop thinking about. The first one is the one-lined haiku by Kala Ramesh, especially the double colon she employs, and the palpable sense of pause it evokes:
in each cell :: your touch still breathing
The second one is the first half of Black Oestrus by Arundhati Subramaniam, because of the way she put something into words that I have maybe felt but never knew could be put into words so perfectly.
Do you have any favourite pieces or images from the collection that come to you at odd, unassuming times?
Srividya: This is an easy one for me, and not the easy way out. I had goose bumps the first time I read the piece by Paresh that became a part of the book. It is lyrical, unusual and beautifully ties into The Shape of a Poem. It is a beloved facet of the anthology, for me, better known as Confession by the Editors.
Paresh: As it is said, a parent shouldn’t play favourites. And yet who will we be if not imperfect? I won’t go into the why, instead allowing our readers to interpret these lines the way they wish to, but here are few of my favourites –
Because of the way he chose a peach —
the gentle, testing press;
because of the way his eyes closed
with that first mouthed bite;
because he didn’t wipe juice
from lips, from chin —
this is why I chose him,
From Peach Stone by Carole MacRury
That hard nugget of pain, I would suck it,
cradling it on my tongue like the slick
seed of pomegranate. I would lift it
tenderly, as a great animal might
carry a small one in the private
cave of the mouth.
From Basket of Figs by Ellen Bass
It is raining a small rain
A gentle rain over all the world
Gentle like that love which is so hard
To sustain or to receive or to reciprocate
Because men are greedy: they bite and tear
From Scent of Love by Hoshang Merchant