Well-known poet MEENA KANDASAMY looks at our deeply ambivalent attitudes to poetry, both as words on a page and as public performance...

Celebrated British poet and performer Lemn Sissay pinpoints the exact nature of our problematic relationship with poetry: As a society we don't know where to place poetry: On the one hand, we accuse poetry of being elitist and out of bounds for the masses. On the other, we are rudely dismissive of finding poetry anywhere but on the page. When we see it in advertising, or in Bollywood songs — like Gulzar's work in “Slumdog Millionaire” — we refuse to even recognise that it is poetry.

It is in this climate of confounding divides that Poetry with Prakriti has completed the fourth edition of its annual poetry festival — converting public spaces in the city into venues of poetry performance, and successfully bringing poetry closer to the public of Chennai.

The format employed by the festival — poets reading their work, multilingual/multimedia presentations, dance-dramas based on contemporary poems, poetry films — quite literally has poems spilling off the page, on to the stage and metamorphosing into newer forms.

How does the performance of poetry affect its reception? How does poetry find its foothold in public spaces? Does poetry appeal to the public?

Poetry as performance

Australian poet Jayne Fenton Keane (JFK) points out the notorious division in the English poetry scene: between “page poets” who see themselves as separate from “performance poets”. She says that poets have been drawn into these oppositional corners “as a result of different aesthetics, not only about how a poem is written, but also about what a poem should contain or do.”

As a poet whose powerhouse performances make liberal use of theatrical conceptions of voice, space and movement to enthrall audiences, JFK is quick to point out that those like her who dare to “experiment with the way they read their poems in public are often confronted with condescension and disdain from poets who have a strictly page-oriented passion, some of whom believe that a poet's body should not be seen, heard or experienced anywhere.”

Lemn Sissay, disagrees with this dichotomy between “page” poets and “performance” poets, and attributes this divide to the inherent nature of categorisation that sets things apart. “Possibly, there is a frightened canon enforcing this!”

He also refutes the charge of style over substance, saying that it is not exclusive to “performance” poetry alone. Laughing, he adds, “There are terrible ‘performance' poets. Just as there are terrible ‘page' poets.” When asked to address the criticism that performance poetry is “new-fangled” and therefore “suspect”, he cites examples from history to prove the contrary: “All the great stories, myths and ballads were carried in our poems which were performed all the time. That is how legends stayed alive in the mind of a community.”

Poetry and public spaces

Lemn Sissay has the distinction of being the first poet to be commissioned to contribute a poem for the 2012 London Olympic Games Park. “The poem I have written is about women workers who rallied for their rights at a match factory by the Olympic site. A poem is born out of its environment.”

Over Skype, he directs me to Global Poetry System, modelled after Global Positioning System, a website where users are asked to take a fresh look at the poetry around them, record it digitally and map the poetry of the world. “Poetry in the public sphere should be celebrated and encouraged,” he says.

JFK is more blatant. “To offer an antidote to the currently irrational space of most of society's economic foundries and their toxic by-products, public space needs more poetry and poetics to enable other aspects of the human spirit. This shall provide breathing space, dreaming space and being space,” she says.

Bill Herbert, who has spent nearly a decade working on cross-media installations and public art in the UK says, “Text is all around us in cities — we can read it or ignore it as we please. If it's always there, we can pick it up incrementally. So it operates as poetry does, slowly, but in an accessible space. It offers the possibility that people can treat a poem as a normal part of their environment in exactly the same way as I think poetry is a normal part of their ordinary thinking.”

For the people

Ezra Pound envisioned a revolutionary role for poetry: Go, my songs, to the lonely and the unsatisfied/ Go also to the nerve-racked, go to the enslaved-by-convention/ Bear to them my contempt for their oppressors./Speak against unconscious oppression/ Speak against the tyranny of the unimaginative/ Speak against bonds.

Poets of today might shy away from such a direct declaration, even as they seek to engage with the lives of the communities they live in. South African poet Ronelda Kamfer, who writes about the legendary gang culture of Cape Flats and the discrimination plaguing South Africa's “browns”, says that it is imperative for a poet of today to be relevant to the times she is living in. “I write about everyday things, about normal people, people whose stories will otherwise be lost. I believe that literature plays a strong part in documenting history.”

Lemn Sissay quotes Bob Marley — “The stone that the builder refuse/ will always be the head cornerstone” — to highlight the centrality of the disenfranchised to poetry. He says, “Poetry is the language of the heart. When the heart needs to speak, it is poetry that gives voice. Encouraging political consciousness and celebrating the birth of a child, require poems because they both speak the language of the heart. Because we need our hearts to speak, poetry is at the heart of our communities, not the periphery.”

But it is not only the staccato cries of the poetry of the marginalised that have escaped the attention of the public. With his unsettling poems of love and debauchery, dedicated to women and wine, Swiss poet and musician Raphael Urweider stormed into the German poetry scene, sweeping every available award. In his verse, he conjures up the notion of a poem to describe a tender moment of intimacy: norma and i that is a poem/ a mesh a thicket in which there / is room only for norma and me./ norma and i slash our way through/ the poem and pitch a tent in the clearing./ norma and i sleep close our/ tent is of words that mean us. But, when asked to comment on the importance of poetry, he speaks with the candour of youth and the angst of a poet who continuously confronts the devaluation of poetry: “Poetry is better than sex because it ain't over when it is over. Coz it lasts longer. Coz it is not nobody's business.”

Shock value of his statement aside, does he suggest everybody should relate to poetry?

“Poetry is out there,” Urweider elaborates, “Everyone should go out there and fetch it.”

Indian poet and novelist Priya Sarukkai Chabria too, agrees about this far-reaching universality of poetry. “Poetry mauls one out of comfort zones into a temporary lucidity and perhaps even transformation,” she says, “I don't believe anyone is outside its purview.”

Lemn Sissay is determined to have the last word in this debate: “Everywhere around us, we are being told what to buy and what to aspire for. That's not what we were born for. We are here to seek truth, find peace and enjoy community — and poetry, even sad poetry, takes us closer to attaining all of this.”

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