India is experiencing a burst of incredible new poetry in English. Yet its poets have few opportunities to share, improve, and publish their work, and readers have few opportunities to discover them. Imagine a country with 1.2 billion people, 300 million of whom are literate in English — yet without a single Creative Writing MFA program. New poets in India lack pathways to learn from established writers or to receive editing and mentorship to make their work shine. Big publishers stay away from poetry, while some of the most respected small presses even ask poets to pay to publish their own books. Published poets see their books go out of print quickly and never reach their natural audiences within India, let alone readers outside India.
The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective is the coming together of poets who believe words can transform lives. Founded in 2013 in Bangalore, India, as a not-for-profit press, by Minal Hajratwala, Ellen Kombiyil and Shikha Malaviya (poets with roots in both India and the United States), The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective is on a mission to bring Indian poetry to the world. Through high-quality publishing, workshops, and the power of digital media, they are building a much-needed infrastructure for poetry from India and the Indian diaspora. The Collective specializes in new poetry (first and second books), discovering and bringing forth new voices that are innovative and diverse.
Since 2013, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective has released four titles, ‘Geography of Tongues’ by Shikha Malaviya (2013), ‘Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment’ by Minal Hajratwala (2014), ‘Histories of the Future Perfect’ by Ellen Kombiyil (2015), and ‘The Trouble with Humpadori’ by Vidhu Aggarwal, (2016). The Collective also recently launched inPoetry: The (Great) Indian Poetry App, currently available at the GooglePlay store. In addition to the three founding members, The Collective also includes Rohan Chhetri (winner of the Emerging Poets Prize, 2015), Vidhu Aggarwal (Editor’s Choice Award, 2015), Jennifer Robertson (Editor’s Choice Award, 2015) as well as ten poetry fellows.
Here, in a candid roundtable conversation, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective reveals how passion and collaboration can elevate an art form and empower a community.
When you say poetry collective, you mean…
Ellen: And what a response the Collective has seen. I have to give a shout out to the wonderful, engaged audiences of Bangalore who attend poetry events and truly listen and ask questions. We couldn’t have asked for a better birthplace for the Collective.
Minal: It’s been really beautiful to see readers, poets, and donors from all over the world step up and join us!
Shikha: Yes, it’s been an amazing experience so far! We’ve been embraced by a very eager community of poetry lovers and sincere learners. For me, personally, this poetry collective means a synergy of art, craft and community. It also means a haven for poets who are developing their craft and for those whose poems need a home. We could have chosen to just focus on publishing, but on reflecting on how we three founders were lucky enough to have writing classes and mentorship readily available to us in the U.S., we wanted to bring these opportunities to India. The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective is about nurturing new poetic voices from India and the diaspora while paying homage to and learning from the voices that came before us. It’s about community beyond borders.
How is a collective different from a traditional publisher?
Minal: I have published my work via a large commercial publisher, a small press, and now through this Collective, and I’ve worked in a lot of different roles in various parts of the world of writing. Each way of publishing has advantages and disadvantages. There is very little room for poetry in the big presses; almost none for unknown poets. Most poetry in the world is published through tiny presses. In a traditional press, the poet sends in the words, and the publisher does all the rest: cover, design, printing, selling, etc. In a Collective enterprise, the poet learns about and is engaged in every part of the process. What size is the book? What’s the font? Who’s the cover artist? Where is the launch event? Who is the audience and how will we reach them? Each of our poets gets to make those decisions for themselves, which is an amazing level of empowerment and ensures an aesthetic continuity with the work itself.
The Collective way might seem like more work, but since authors are increasingly the main marketers of our own books even in ‘traditional’ publishing models, it’s actually not very different, workload wise — but the poet gets a lot more control.
Shikha: Being part of a poetry collective means more participation and more creative control. Which means more responsibility and more work. With the right people, this can produce wonderful results! In our latest book, ‘The Trouble with Humpadori’, Vidhu Aggarwal not only designed her own book cover (which is gorgeous!), but also made her own book trailer. In a traditional publishing environment, this would not have been possible.
I would also like to dispel the myth that collective publishing is the same as self-publishing or vanity publishing. Each of our manuscripts goes through a very rigorous process in terms of selection, content, editing and design. Last year we selected three manuscripts, two of which were editor’s choice and one which was chosen by a judge who is not part of the collective. All of these manuscripts were read blind. We were thrilled to receive over ninety manuscripts! Each incoming poet is assigned a mentor who works with them on their manuscript. All new members of the collective assist in the production of their book, but in no way are they compelled to pay for any of these services. Our goal is to have The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective be a self-sustaining non-profit press, much in the same vein as Alice James Books.
What do you enjoy about the collective process the most?
Vidhu: The collective model for GIPC was very seductive to me — as a way of thinking diasporic practice across nations. For me it was a way to think out a transnational modality around publishing and where so often the conversations are within the confines of nation (for me the U.S.) — connecting with writers in India and across the diaspora, which may include (for instance) Caribbean nations, Europe, Africa, and South Asian seems most exciting for me.
Minal: I agree, Vidhu, and for me a lot of the excitement of the Collective is also about not having to buy the idea of being a marginal voice, but really centring our own voices. In the U.S. as a queer woman of colour etc. etc., it’s easy to feel like a non-entity in the publishing world which is still dominated by cishet white men (though some aspects are changing). In India, what I’ve experienced is almost the opposite, a lot of openness and welcoming of new ideas in publishing. As a Collective we’ve become a known part of the poetry ecosystem and we’ve been very fortunate to have wonderful, much more established poets work with us and welcome us. So there is power in shifting the centre and opening up to the possibility of many centres.
Ellen: I agree so much with what the others have said, about the Collective as empowering. I want to add a piece to this that was the real sparkle of the Collective for me, and that was the mentorship model of the press. I began a writing workshop in Bangalore a few years before the Collective was born — it was out of a need to write in community and not in isolation at home. This writing workshop grew and I realized there was a thirst for mentorship in writing here, where there are no structured MFA programs and only a few (but growing!) options for writers to improve their craft. It seemed to me the work of the Collective would be about growing the skills of poets outward, by mentoring the new voices and asking them, in turn, to mentor as well. Helping to edit and work with poets on their manuscripts in process is one of my deep loves.
What books are on your nightstand? Which Indian/diaspora poets should we be reading?
Shikha: I get asked this question a lot. Until 6-7 years ago, it was very hard to find books by Indian poets in bookstores or online. I think ‘60 Indian Poets’ by Jeet Thayil is a great introduction to Contemporary Indian poetry in English. It’s a beautiful mix of emerging and established poets and shows how multifarious Indian poetry in English is. It was a landmark book in bringing so many poets together, many of them out of print, along with their biographies. It was where I first discovered the work of Gopal Honnalgere and Srinivas Rayaprol. Jeet’s essay in the beginning captures the struggles and triumphs of Indian poetry in English and is a must read to understand how Indian poetry has claimed English as their own. I think it’s very important for those aspiring to be part of the Indian poetry scene to understand India’s poetic history and the growth and migration of Indian poetry in English.
My nightstand is a chaotic mix of genres including ‘The English Patient’ by Michael Ondaatje (a very poetic novel), ‘Seam’ by Tarfia Faizullah, ‘Citizen’ by Claudia Rankine, Jeet Thayil’s ‘Collected Poems’ as well as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s ‘Collected Poems’.
Minal: Poetry-wise, I am reading ‘Bodymap’ by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Living in India for the past five years, it has felt important to me to try to understand the politics and specific forms of disenfranchisement and oppression that are present here. To that end I’m reading two powerful nonfiction works: an anthology from Zubaan press called ‘Landscapes of Fear: Understanding Impunity in India’, and B. R. Ambedkar’s classic ‘Annihilation of Caste’.
Vidhu: I want to mention Rajiv Mohabir who is a U.S. based poet — and who addresses in his work the complications of identifying as “Indian,” if your family has lived in the Caribbean for generations — coming over as “coolies” during the Raj era. Rajiv also translates the work of Lalbihari Sharma, an indentured worker in the cane fields of Guyana whose book of poems ‘Holi Songs of Demerara’ came out in 1916. ‘Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture’ is a non-fiction book on my nightstand in which Gaiutra Bahadur traces the story of her grandmother and other “coolie” women in Guyana.
I also have been reading and rereading the work of Bhanu Kapil — ‘Ban and Banlieue’ and ‘Humanimal’. Kapil has a wild and expansive transnational diasporic consciousness. In her work, not only do national borders break down but also the borders between poetry and prose, human and animal — all types of fantastic and painful interspeciations. I also love the interspeciation between her latest work, ‘Ban and Banlieue’ and her blog. She has an ongoing, non-corrective sense of writing —accumulative like the architecture of an old city.
I’m also astounded by the grief-language of Prageeta Sharma.
Ellen: It’s my last day in India tomorrow and I’m visiting a bookstore where on my buy list is ‘The Autobiography of a Goddess’ translated by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar, Jeet Thayil’s ‘Collected Poems’ and Meena Alexander’s ‘Atmospheric Embroidery’.
What advice would you give to a poet who wants to join your collective or start one of their own?
Minal: I think it’s really important for writers and especially poets to find ways to seize the reins and this is one way. Becoming an editor or a publisher is much better than constantly complaining about or worrying about the gatekeepers in some perceived literary ‘establishment.’ I’m definitely in favour of everybody starting their own thing with a team of like-minded people and whatever resources you can scrounge together. It doesn’t take a lot, except time and passion and commitment and one or two great collaborators. So my advice is know what you want from it, dream big, seek advice, and go for it.
You’re about to give a nuts & bolts workshop is Bangalore. In a country that has no formal writing program, what are the basics an emerging poet should know? How does one deepen their craft without easy access to mentors and books on craft that are specific to the region?
Ellen: We are teaching about line breaks and the choices we as poets make about them (how long to make each line — is there a benefit to a particular poem for having lines of roughly the same length or what happens if we vary line length? What are the benefits of ending a line on a particular word and how does it strengthen or weaken a line to end it differently?), rhythm (including a boot camp on scansion and meter), syntax and the limitless possibilities poets have with our palettes of words, and some common figurative language elements and how they relate to the sound of a poem. We also pay particular attention to how to place the poem on the page, including the use of white space.
To deepen one’s craft, it’s so essential to read great poetry. Part of this workshop is not only how to write and use these tools effectively, but also how to read a poem with a trained eye and really take away from the reading some of the elements the poet has used to great effect.
There are some wonderful anthologies of contemporary Indian poets that should be on every emerging poet’s bookshelf. It’s also part of the work of this Collective to bring these poems into the world in an easily accessible way. We have recently launched inPoetry, an app available on Android, which brings a new poem to your phone every week. This same content is also available on our brand new website. Over time, this searchable database will begin to house hundreds of poems and poets from India and the diaspora and will become a virtual archive on Indian poetry. In other words, we as a Collective, aim to make Indian poetry easily accessible to the masses. It’s my firm belief that the more great writing is out there, the more it will generate and inspire emerging poets to their finest potential.
Minal: Just tonight, Ellen and I met with an American poet who is here in India to study the way poetry is taught here, and one thing she has uncovered in her school visits is that schoolteachers in India often use English-language poetry to have students memorize, recite, and practice English pronunciation. This was fascinating to me since it’s so different from my public school education in the United States, where we rarely studied poetry formally, and certainly never recited it. One of the poems we’re teaching in the Poet’s Toolkit workshop is Ravi Shankar’s ‘Pankti’, where he adapts a Vedic form to give structure to very contemporary material. As an American poet in India, I feel like there’s so much for me to learn, not only to teach. So I approach the teaching as a collaborative adventure where we may be able to teach about iambs and anapaests, and in return we can learn about concepts to which there is no English equivalent, like the navarasa. Opening the literary theory stream to flow both ways is one of the most exciting things about creating a Collective learning environment around poetry here.