Portrait of an Artist as a Queer Poet: Four poets share their verses on love, sexuality
Whether spoken word or written, trash or not, poetry is doing to queer what we should be doing to poetry — giving it wings.
It is examination season at the Delhi University and so whatever men and women roam the North Campus, they do so with scribbled note-papers or books in hands, cowering over and into their own shadows, sitting wherever they can find a place, in groups of three and four.
At the Delhi School of Economics the crowds are scantier, the sweaters are out and so are the many plastic cups of tea. Rajorshi Das meets me on the lawns of the Delhi School of Economics. Before we speak a word to each other, famished, we feast on the toast-to-college-life plates of rajma-chawal. Das has just completed his M Phil and now teaches undergraduates in the University. He is also a poet, but a poet whose writing is still travelling between closets, one that he stepped out of some time ago. “My friends were supportive of me. So was everyone who was close to me,” he says.
Das joined the University more than two years ago. Though the rajma-chawal has remained the same, he has witnessed a lot of changes in the environment. “Of course there has been change. When I first arrived here we wanted to start a Queer discussion group, for which we needed a room. We were initially turned away or asked to change the name of the group to Gender Studies, or something. Eventually, all the space we could get was the college lawns. This year, however, we got nothing. And I don’t think it will happen either,” he says. Das, even in his studies deals with works that can be called queer, one way or the other. He compiled his dissertation on Aubrey Menen’s works. As for poetry, he believes, it is not just an escape for those trying to confront the reality, but also a way articulating dissent.
“What you need to understand is that it is not just sexual choice that queer is limited to. I mean, queer perhaps relates to all the margins, from refugees to people suppressed by people. It is not a binary of sexuality alone. And that is why it is not easy being queer. I mean, I would love to wear a sari to college someday, because I love the clothing, but I cannot without being mocked or even threatened. Masculinity rules in this country, more than ever in our educational spaces,” he says. Das fears for the future of Queer studies and the concern for the marginalised in general. His poems reflect this concern, undercut by a waking sense of a reality that refuses to change, more than ever, perhaps.
The Pride That Wasn’t
When red becomes the colour of oppression
The Queer lies on the street
Holding the graveyard of spirited souls alive
They pass by in a huff
Dancing to dhol-beats; flashy mob
Stepping on a Queer life that didn’t matter
A Walk of Erasure and violence
From Delhi to Chennai –
Indifference and ignorance
To abuse and murder.
A Pride of mourning and rage,
No losses restored. No sorrows end.
Das’ concern only begs the question that is there a space for discourse on Queers outside of an academic setup? To which, according to writer and activist Akhil Katyal, the answer is a resounding yes. Katyal is now a well-known name both in the space of poetry and queer activism. Currently in the US on a fellowship, Katyal is also the editor’s choice winner of this year’s Great Indian Poetry Collective competition. His collection of poetry, will come out next year.
“One of the most outstandingly inspiring struggles for LGBT equality in this country has been waged by Hijra, Aravani and Trans-Men communities, and that has primarily, if not exclusively, happened outside the academia. Outside academia, over the last decades, there are also NGOs working on issues of HIV-AIDS which have changed the terrain for LGBT communities in our cities and small towns,” he says.
Katyal says he is happy to see more and more queer writings turn up in academia, which is the only way to hold on to topics like queer studies amidst syllabuses that are fast preparing to get rid of them. As for the way poetry engages Queer pride, Katyal says, “To write even an intimate poem about your boyfriend or about one's body can be political in our times when the law books deem same-sex acts criminal or transgender bills being proposed have a very blunted understanding of how people actually live their genders. At Pride when I read these poems, I get the electric feeling of being part of a large community with a shared passion for justice, not just for LGBT folks but for creating the world which is anti-caste, anti-communal and stands for equality among us all. Katyal has a unique way of writing poetry. It is direct, light in its usage of hyperbole and fairly subject-driven.
i want to 377 you so bad
till even the sheets hurt i want to
ache your knees singe your skin
line you brown breathe you in i want to
mouth you in words neck you in red
i want to beg your body insane into sepals
i want to 377 you like a star falling off the brown
i want to feel you till my nails turn water
i want to suck you seven different skies
i want to be a squatter in your head when
it sleeps when its dark i want to break laws
with you in bed and in streets and in parks
While for queer men it is the toxic masculinity they often find themselves standing against, for queer women, the systems of oppression are far more layered and complex. Aditi Angiras feels the world is just not ready for queer women. “I feel the world is more difficult for queer women, it never seems to be ready for us. Especially, trans-women and other women-identifying folks. How many queer WOC writers do we know of (especially Indian)? How many women writers? When I began to frequent literary circuits, this became more conspicuous. Every time I was invited to a panel, I’d count how many women are gonna share tables with me?” she says. Aditi is now a spoken-word poet, something that has been a journey from the book-tiled world of Indian literature, both a cause of concern and reason for her personal disillusionment.
Through her initiative Bring Back the Poets, she is trying to reclaim public spaces for poetry that addresses the margins and suppressed classes. “Bring Back The Poets started as a response to the lack of inclusive cultural spaces for the youth, for women, for queer folks in Delhi. That’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last about three years — reading out our poems in streets, colleges and cafes — because we know we ought to be heard too. But this initiative is more than just about being queer and gender non-conforming; it finds solidarity in various other protest movements and in anti-capitalist activism,” she says. But everything leading from a women-driven discourse runs the risk of being labelled as the femininazying of art, something that Aditi is well aware of. “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit seems to be a good line to check your own activism," she says. “A lot of homosexual couples get asked, once we’ve come past the initial homophobia — so who’s the man, who’s the woman. These assumptions are a by-product of hetero-patriarchal power relations.”
Aditi’s poems, converge on an emotional, more personal quotient that returns Queer relationships its humanity, something that has been grossly amiss from the discourse on LGBT politics in the country.
If you'd told me this then when we were on that couch, with the stars between us, too awkward to kiss, hands too nervous to touch the night that you think beds must never be lonely should be a neon sign outside houses that have never known homes and that you believe that they turn into quicksand when you're alone maybe on a day like this when the skies are waking up and saying it can't take it no more maybe we wouldn't have come out alive and sometimes that's all you can ask of love.
Spoken word poetry has, in a way, given lift-off to many such conversations about and around LGBT rights. Divya Dureja, a spoken word poet who has performed on stages both home and abroad talks about why this change may have come about.
“Storytelling in my performance pieces taps on various affective states of the listeners, holding their attention and making them develop mental imagery of their own while listening to my rhyming words,” she says. Of this slam/stage poetry culture, the queer expression has taken a kind of precedence and power that it has seldom occupied other channels. While it is impossible to pinpoint why that is — maybe the spontaneity or just the value of experiencing poetry rather than simply reading it — there are broad indicators that account for this shift. “The slam is a grand family of poetry lovers from all walks of life, getting along and sharing their experiences - school and college students, college professors, middle-aged button-down office types, stay-at-home mothers, you name it. There is a sincere desire to perform poetry and give voice to your identity and experiences.”
“The slam is a grand family of poetry lovers from all walks of life, getting along and sharing their experiences — school and college students, college professors, middle-aged button-down office types, stay-at-home mothers, you name it. There is a sincere desire to perform poetry and give voice to your identity and experiences,” Dureja says.
But writing about same-sex relationships is one thing, speaking about them another, especially if you are a woman. There is a risk of gratification, rather than sensitisation because women-women relationships are cast in glossy, titillating titles. “The sensuality between two women in love is sold as a consumable good in movies and books as a means to excite the male and satiate his desires. The union between two women is still regarded as incomplete by a large section of the society, because of their own restricted imagination and understanding of how the act of love can be consummated,” Dureja says.
That said, there remains a status quo between queer activism and the art it practices that is often prodded; in the sense that one is used to furthering the other, eventually doing neither to an honest degree. To which Katyal agrees. “It will result in either very insincere activism or really trashy poetry,” he says. Whether spoken word or written, trash or not, poetry is doing to queer what we should be doing to poetry — giving it wings.
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