Wednesday, July 29, 2009

So I'm not the only one

"I'm pretty sure I stopped growing up in my teens and have been faking ever since."

Randall Munroe nails it. Again.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Gift

Sometimes he wonders whether the gift is worth it.

Nights alone in his apartment, three thousand miles and three time zones away from home, staring at a blank computer screen, waiting for the words to come.

Once upon a time...

Once upon a time there was a story, a plot, an outline for a novel. Once upon a time there was a purpose to all this, the loneliness, the booze, the long hours spent in a daze in front of the computer turning out paragraph after paragraph to be torn apart the next day. Once upon a time he was still capable of putting word after word, the way a workman puts brick against brick, building something solid, something with a shape.

That was long ago.

Nowadays the best he can do is string phrases together, stray arrangements of words that drift across the page like clouds in a colorless sky. They mean nothing, these sentences of his, connect to nothing. They are unpublishable. They are a way of filling up the page.

But they are beautiful.

Sometimes he wonders whether it's a gift at all.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Neither bread to flesh nor wine to blood. But pain to forgiveness, agony as redemption. The seductive idea that suffering may have a point.

A miracle we all wish we could believe in.

Saturday, July 25, 2009



The mirror is broken, broken, broken.
Look at your face this once,
See how it's changed.
Do your eyes still blaze with color?
Or are they timid, afraid?

I saw such beauty in this mirror once,
It seems hard to believe;
And asked, proudly,
Could anyone be fairer?

It wasn't the magic of the mirror.
You were beautiful, and it showed.
And so the world discovered you
Before you found yourself.

And when you found yourself:
Why did you break the mirror?
More (for this alone was no loss)
Why did you lose sight of yourself?

Look at your face this once,
See how it's changed.

- Kaifi Azmi (translation mine)

Cross-posted from Lost and Found, the new translation wiki in response to this (thanks to Binu for setting it all up). You can see alternate translations and the transliterated original, as well as my comments on the wikipage.

P.S. Bonus Azmi translation (plus audio) here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Public Investigation

(or: keeping your wits about you)

The case is everything that is the world.

If only you could be sure a crime has been committed. That your suspects really exist. You stand by the window, dusting the rain for fingerprints. Your partner insists on the facts, the facts, but you have your own suspicions. An old man in a white beard tells you the grass is evidence, though he dare not say of what. You arrest him on the spot and hand him to the executioners. They singe his body electric. Later, it turns out that History had an alibi. When you wake up in the morning the sky has been cleared.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why 'Indian' poetry?

Just wanted to add my two-bits to Vivek Narayanan's piece on Indian Poetry in English and its quest for an audience (hat tip: Space Bar).

Overall, I agree with almost everything Vivek says in his piece, including his criticism of anthologies [1]. The one thing Vivek doesn't say, though, is that a "thriving, vigorous poetry community" needs not only a deep awareness of its own poetic history but also, and (I would argue) more importantly, a stronger engagement with contemporary poetry elsewhere in the world.

I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that the Indian poetry community at large is fairly limited in its reading, with a fairly sketchy awareness of what poets in the US or the UK are doing. Certainly the work I read in the few Indian journals I know of seems extremely narrow in its influences. Much of that is availability, of course; I'm keenly aware of how difficult it is to get access to contemporary poetry in Indian book stores (or, for that matter, in book stores anywhere). Still, I can't help thinking that the Indian poetry scene would be richer if a lot of the enthusiasm people seem to put into writing poetry (and trying to find an audience for it) were spent in reading more [2].

Greater engagement with *other* contemporary poetry communities is important for three reasons. First, it would help broaden the ideas and influences Indian poets bring to their writing, setting the stage for greater debate and conflict. If Indian poetry in English lacks "ferocious, voracious arguments, unending discussions, even intellectual fist fights or several rival aesthetic camps" (and I agree that it does, and I agree that this is a lack) I have to think that's in part because there aren't enough rival aesthetics to go around. Second, more links with the outside world would mean that the Indian poetry community would be less cloistered and less incestuous, and that would help set the stage for more frank and open criticism. And third, greater engagement with the international poetry scene would help keep Indian poetry more honest, because it would bring a set of external standards by which the poetry we produce would be judged, rather than just the standards we choose to establish for ourselves.

What makes this interesting and relevant is that the spread of online journals and an increase in paperless submissions provides Indian poets with an opportunity they never really had before. Ten years ago, the logistics of trying to publish in US or UK poetry journals (especially if you were just starting out) seemed staggering. Postage costs of mailing paper submissions to US journals were prohibitive, and access to leading journals was often hard to come by. Today there are dozens of exciting online journals publishing cutting edge work that are freely available to anyone with an Internet connection (some of them bookmarked in the sidebar of this blog) and most journals (even those that still print paper versions) have moved to some form of electronic submission. Which means that there's really no reason why poets living in India can't actively participate in a larger poetry community, reading the work of their peers across the world and trying to publish in a wide array of international journals. Yet somehow, I don't see very much of that happening. And I have to wonder why. If poets in India feel they don't have enough of an audience domestically, what's stopping them from reaching out to a wider audience across the globe [3]?

In his article, Vivek says that "there is no question at all that today, it is far easier to make your way in the world as an emerging poet than it was for figures like Jussawalla and Mehrotra in the 1960s and 1970s." I agree, but I can't help wondering if this is entirely a good thing. Obviously more opportunities for high quality work are always welcome, but if the greater ease of publication comes at the cost of lower standards, then the net effect is negative.

Look, publishing poetry is hard. But to an extent, the fact that it's hard is a good thing, because a) it winnows out those who are genuinely interested in poetry from those who just want to be 'poets' and b) it means that poets are constantly challenged, and therefore constantly growing. In the last 2-3 years I've collected dozens upon dozens of rejection slips. It's been brutal, depressing and frustrating. But it's also meant that I've been forced to revisit and question my own writing, and I have to believe that's made me a better poet than I was three years ago. And it's meant that when I've finally managed to get a poem accepted at a journal I value and care about, it's been a source of real satisfaction and pride.

None of which is to say that we should look exclusively elsewhere in our quest for a community. On the contrary, my point is that it's only by engaging more aggressively with contemporary poetry elsewhere that we'll be able to develop a vibrant community of our own. By focusing too much on 'Indian' poetry, we risk creating a community that is insulated, complacent and nepotistic.

As for the problem of readership - I think the problem is less the lack of an audience for Indian poetry but the lack of an audience for poetry in India. The real victims of poor readership are not, to my mind, the poets who can't get people to come to their book readings [4], but the potential readers who are missing out on all that poetry, as an art form, has to offer. But that's a whole other problem, and one that Indian poetry is a long way away from taking on. Our more immediate priority, as Vivek suggests, should be to make a more productive community available to our poets, and reaching out to a wider international audience for poetry is, I would argue, the way to get there.

[1] In general, I'm for anthologies - I think they serve a useful purpose, problems of unrepresentative selection notwithstanding, by making one aware of poets one may not otherwise know of. That said, I agree entirely that anthologies should not be the primary repository of poetry. Anthologies are good complements to individual collections, but poor substitutes for them. And the situation that Vivek describes - where anthologies become the only available source of a poet's work - is a troubling one. It's a bit like living in a world where cinema theaters show only trailers and no actual movies.

[2] Interestingly, my sense is that this was actually true for the generation of poets from the 1970's that Vivek discusses in his piece.

[3] Not that there's a massive audience for poetry anywhere else, but an audience of a few hundred, even a few thousand is better than an audience of a few dozen.

[4] Ironically, I suspect that if Indian readers did have a better understanding of poetry and were capable of closer reading, that would work against a subset of Indian poets.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Watching you read

The way you tilt your head to let the light over your shoulder. As though inviting the lamp to read with you.

Still reading, the book balanced on your thighs, you reach both hands behind your head to do up your hair.

A single strand stays free, resting against your nape like the line of a poem you read over and over, savoring the sound of the words until it no longer matters what they mean.


Two days after he moves into his new apartment, before the furniture arrives, he sets up the screen by the west wall, plugs his laptop into an LCD projector, plays his favorite DVD.

At first he just sits there, squatting on the floor, watching. His computer is set to mute, so there is no sound, only the repetition of the familiar gestures, life-sized and a little blurred.

After a while he rises, walks closer to the screen, and then, on an impulse, steps into the cone of light from the projector. Behind him, his shadow blacks out half the screen, but he doesn't care, doesn't want to care. He feels transcended, absorbed. The images flicker across his skin, and the light blinds him.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Withered Flowers

There is a man riding the rush hour bus with a satchel full of withered flowers.

Are they a symbol? Of failing romance, promises betrayed? Is he carrying them to someone as a message? Will she understand? Has he been sent?

Is he rescuing them perhaps? Does he feel for these creatures, once so loved, and now cast aside? Does he relate?

Are they a treat for a pet?

Are they ingredients for some secret potion, some special drug? Preparations for some satanic rite?

Is he just bad at judging flowers? Has someone sold them to him, pretending they're fresh? Is he on his way to present them to someone, imagining how thrilled they will be, not realizing?

Were they fresh when he bought them? Has he been carrying them around for days, trying to build up his courage?

Does he plan to sell them, maybe make a little cash? Not really sell them, of course, but use them to ask for alms - a reason, an excuse.

There's fennel for you, and columbines; there's rue for you; and here's some for me

And so I come back to you, Ophelia, trapped in the flow of the traffic and the smell of dying flowers.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

You know you've hit writer's block when... consume a pint of Guinness and six Barthelme short stories for lunch, and you still can't find the inspiration to write.

In other news, can I just say that I feel personally betrayed by Capitalism. What's the point of free enterprise if you can't get proper service even if you're willing to pay for it? Thrice in the last week I've ordered things on 'expedited' delivery, only to receive apologies and a refund when they didn't arrive by the agreed deadline (NOTE to vendors: I don't want a @#%&!ng refund, I want my shipment!!).

I don't understand why Capitalism is doing this to me, after all that we've been through the years. Can it be she finally found out about by affair with Marxism in college? Is this her way of taking revenge?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Joblessness redefined

is gone
but the con
goes on

- placard at Anti-Scientology demonstration outside the Church of Scientology, Minneapolis.

Personally, I have no use for scientology (or any other organized system of faith), but I can't help thinking that organizing a demonstration against it, complete with placards and masks and loudspeaker and soap bubbles (don't ask!) is overkill. One protests evil, not silliness.

Oh, and as the more lynx-eyed among you have already noticed, I've bid farewell to Philadelphia and moved to Minneapolis, where I'm currently busy assembling furniture (correction: trying to assemble furniture) and stocking my kitchen and generally being depressingly domestic. Will return to blogging once I've managed to wrestle myself back to civilization.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


He would have been dismayed by the betrayal if he hadn't suspected it all along. Which is not to say it didn't surprise him, but only in the way that one is surprised by the inevitable arrival of a long-lost brother bearing an unexpected gift. Not that the traitor in this instance was his brother, or indeed, a relation of any sort, which is what made the betrayal so puzzling, because why pretend allegiance to someone whom you owe nothing? So perhaps there was something the traitor owed, or thought he owed. Had he helped the traitor in some way, done him some unconscious kindness, the burden of which had now caused him to snap? It was possible. And should he then forgive him, or choose reprisal, even vengeance, as a way of balancing things out? Would it be more of a penalty to betray him in turn, or to ensure his guilt by refusing to betray him? And wasn't this calculation itself a betrayal? What were the ethics of mirrors? Was it possible to observe oneself in a moral stance?


The fear that cannot face itself.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Amazon has copies of etudes for sale.

Just so you know.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


Measure the magnitude of an injustice by the smallness of what counts as a triumph.

Not a victory, then, but an achievement, a giving way.

How obscene to have to celebrate this; to have to celebrate the fact that having sex with someone you love no longer makes you a criminal.

And for that reason alone, how necessary to celebrate it.

It's good to know that India has finally arrived in the 20th century. Here's hoping it doesn't take till 2109 to get to the 21st.