By Chandramohan S
Aditi Angiras is a Delhi poet and queer activist, who believes that poetry is politics. She founded a spoken word poetry collective called Bring Back the Poets that engages with gender, sexuality, and politics in the city and the country.
In this interview, Aditi Angiras speaks to poet, Chandramohan S.
Chandramohan S: The recent TS Eliot Prize winner is queer, isn’t it?
Aditi Angiras: Queer in the sense that non-whites and half-somethingelses are being awarded prizes? The 2016 TS Eliot winner was a more queer win I guess, as seen with the #derangedpoetess Twitter hashtag. Always more shocking to see beautiful, young women do something great.
In Ocean Vuong’s own words, a poem is gay when a gay reader can relate to it to some degree. And, I guess his poetry speaks to me in many tongues, calls out to me from my own corners. Hear them:
“The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.”
(Ocean Vuong, Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong)
CS: How has Indian English poetry evolved from the times of Vikram Seth to Akhil Katyal?
AA: One it’s out of the poco pile now. The contemporary Indian poets who write in English are writing in their own language, inventing and reinventing it. Like a pair of worn out jeans that fits you better with time. Akhil Katyal’s poetry is flavorful in that it does not add a desi tadka or require chutnification, it’s a cuisine in itself. I haven’t read a lot Vikram Seth poems but I guess Agha Shahid Ali gave us a good head start.
We are crafting poems that aren’t trying too hard to appease an overseas reader, who needs a spicy snack to go with their chai tea. And, that’s a great day for poetry.
CS: Do you feel a tinge of alienation from the “mainstream” of Indian English poetry?
AA: I don’t know if I feel the alienation as a tinge, it’s more like an aftertaste. The mainstream is bureaucratic; it loves its paperwork.
I’ve always looked at poetry as doing and less as done. But if you’re still doing things, it means you haven’t done it yet. Right? A done deal needs a seal and a stamp, it needs a date and damn launch party. Which is great and I get it.
But do you only become a poet when you get published? Why do performance poets and spoken word artists only get called to fringe festivals, to the live entertainment events? The poets tell them – you can’t sit with us, ‘cause you ain’t us. That’s what I don’t like, this superciliousness.
Now, I am no performer. I don’t follow spoken word industry rules so I’m a little on neither sides. Let’s say I like it underground, and you gotta feel disconnected with the uptown/downtown then. With Bring Back The Poets, we throw the city poetry parties, where everyone is welcome, to sing and toast – hot in the streets and in the sheets.
CS: Often, poets striving to push a sense of cultural justice are derided for making a travesty of the “form”. How do you look at it?
AA: Or, what they call playing the minority/identity card. I’ve heard that one before. Anything that’s dealing with “otherness” appears to be secondary.
But there are two sides to it. One is when they reduce you to your identity, so you sit on a special-interest shelf, the exotic sold as a commodity to help the buyers appear more cultured and progressive. The other is where they shun you for using art as activism, for turning poems into propaganda. The literary community is very neoliberal like that, it’s a market, they’ll sell whatever can get sold. For everything else, there’s the master card. Then they tell you what qualifies as poetry and what doesn’t, and if they’re gonna let you in to the academy or not.
CS: Have you or the strand of poetry that you represent ever been a victim of tokenism by anthologists?
AA: I am sure. But I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing. Many a times anthologies, actually most times, are like birthday parties. You send out an invitation to those you know and those you think you wanna hang out with. It becomes a bubble; the possibility of striking conversations with strangers gets rare. That also means the same kinda work, the same kinda people. If tokenism means mixing things up, then yes. Like a scholarship. Because I know the reverse happens. Where who I identify as might be met with prejudice.
CS: Has the current saffron regime reset decades of progress painstakingly achieved by queer activism?
AA: It has made a lot of things more difficult and dangerous, not just for the queer folks. But then “In the dark times/ Will there also be singing?/ Yes, there will also be singing./ About the dark times.” (Bertolt Brecht)
CS: Who are the young voices in contemporary English Poetry in India and abroad whom you think we should BE reading? From across the spectrum?
AA: Urvashi Bahuguna and Tishani Doshi, they’re my go-to poets this season. Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib and Maggie Nelson. And, of course, Akhil Katyal, Michael Creighton, and you.
Chandramohan S is an Indian English Dalit poet based in Trivandrum, Kerala. His poems were shortlisted for Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize 2016. His second collection of poems titled “Letters to Namdeo Dhasal” was a runner up at M.HARISH GOVIND memorial prize instituted by POETRY CHAIN. A few of his poems have been used at many protest in addition to being anthologized in LAND: An Anthology of Indo-Australian Poetry (edited by Rob Harle) and 40 poets under 40 (edited by Nabina Das and Semeen Ali). He was instrumental in organising literary meets of English poets of Kerala for the Ayyappa Panicker Foundation.
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