Poetry Session Books

Verse therapy: The Sealey Challenge has been a respite from the monotony of the pandemic life

It was my 20th birthday and it promised to be like any other day. I was still reeling under the shock of my father’s sudden death two years ago. While my mother struggled to make ends meet, I was coping by filling up notebooks with verse. I had not written poetry before; his death at 46 shook something loose and the words would just not stop.

My friends in college indulged my frantic scribblings in classrooms under cover of textbooks, on crowded benches when everyone else was gossiping, in smelly Mumbai local trains on the way home. They also gave me a beautiful set of four hardcover books of haiku for my 20th birthday — a thoughtful gift that changed my life, setting me firmly on the path of poetry.

Laughter and music

Over the years, reading and writing poetry have offered me solace and joy. This year, I signed up for The Sealey Challenge, where participants aim to read a book of poems on each day of August. The books can be of any size but ideally under 100 pages, to keep it manageable.

The challenge was started by poet and educator Nicole Sealey as a way of getting herself to read more. It’s a wonderful way to incorporate poetry in your life and although 31 books in 31 days sounds daunting, you can easily finish one in a couple of hours or snack on poems throughout the day.

I began with old friends — my beloved books of haiku, their jackets slightly flaky and the pages beginning to yellow now. But the verses still give me a jolt and make me sigh at their genius. Speaking of geniuses, you can always rely on Wendy Cope for a good laugh and on Vikram Seth for poems that trigger memories and music.

My son and I read poetry together. He’s always peering over my shoulder, curious about what I’m reading. He enjoys Cope’s dry humour and sarcasm. When I read Marigolds Grow Wild on Platforms, an anthology of railway poetry edited by Peggy Poole, he scanned the index and was intrigued to see two poems, side by side, called ‘Adlestrop’ (by Edward Thomas) and ‘Not Adlestrop’ (by Dannie Abse). He read them aloud to me and we discussed them — what each captured, what the poets were trying to say, the cheekiness of the latter as a response to the first.

One thing this challenge has shown me is how few books of poetry I actually own. Several books of children’s verse notwithstanding, it is a collection that needs replenishing. I also went by recommendations from other participants in the challenge: many shared links to their own chapbooks or books. Others, like Pakistani poet Rakhshan Rizwan, I discovered through Poetry.com.

Writer, poet and artist Rohini Kejriwal has also taken up the Sealey Challenge, describing it as “the most intensive way I’ve ever consumed poetry.” Kejriwal has been curating poems since 2015: her popular newsletter, The Alipore Post, brings unexpected art and poetry into your inbox.

Precious gift

Kejriwal’s favourite so far has been Fióna Bolger’s debut collection, A Compound of Words. “It’s an extraordinary set of poems about scenes from India as witnessed by Fióna, who spends her time between Dublin and India. Her poems explore the outsider’s gaze, belonging, people and places in India and her style of witnessing and documenting a different culture is just so refreshing to read,” she says.

Reading a book a day has been a respite from the monotony of the pandemic life. I read snatches of poetry during the day, stealing a moment here or there in between emails, online lessons and the seemingly endless cooking. Some books are thin enough to be gulped down in one sitting; others need a more careful savouring.

Reading so much verse does something to you. It jostles something in your soul; the cadence of the words stays with you long after the page is closed. Kejriwal says she has gone back to writing poetry after many months of abstinence. So have I.

There are no prizes for completing the challenge, but for us readers, this has been a precious gift — one that will hopefully carry us through the rest of the year.

The writer is an independent journalist and closet poet based in Goa.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 12:16:34 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/verse-therapy-the-sealey-challenge-has-been-a-respite-from-the-monotony-of-the-pandemic-life/article36132190.ece

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