8 Spoken Word Poets Blurring the Thick Divide Between the Stage and the Page

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Linda Ashok

Do you have any guess for this deep seated aversion for the “spoken word” in general? Why literary critics and practitioners exclude the spoken word from the scope of their literary pursuit? When the paper wasn’t invented and writing was yet to become a norm on paper but limited to etching on stones, humans engaged in oral narratives of everyday life. Historically, folklores are rich accounts of social evolution that contributed to every major literary text that critics devour with such love. Interestingly, not only literary critics fail to see that literature can manifest in “spoken-word” as well, some poets popularly known for their performances do not feel comfortable on being addressed as “spoken word” poets. You see, how complex is the premise of this discourse already?

If critics are of the opinion that the “spoken word” is not an adequate justice to literature but the “written” is, then that’s literary blasphemy. Literature is always in the context of the inner and the outer environment. It is not an isolated practice for either the spoken-word-poet or the written-word-poet and they both in tranquility undergo the process of committing their experiences on paper before performing them to an audience via print or stage. They differ in medium as per their comfort. In fact if you have ever heard Arundhati Subramanium or Tishani Doshi perform their poetry on stage, you would know that this gap between the page and the stage is just too puritanical and should be filed for extinction.

If like Harold Bloom you are pedantic about aesthetics and unwilling to accept the “spoken-word” for any literary merit, please do not forget the huge number of miserable “written-word-poets” debasing literature every day. Perhaps this deep-rooted bias has to do with the fact that the “spoken-word” is not only a poetry event, but a catalyst for socio-political change that can accommodate a crowd that is otherwise irresolute about literature. The only thing that the “spoken word” is probably defeating itself at is the formation of canons if there is no lasting record of one’s performance in form of text delineation, or for that matter where the poem at some event ends with music, somewhere not. This also includes recording of the reception from the audience.

Poetry as a discipline in totality is putting on a lot of weight and that is for good given the times when oppression is undermining the health of civility. Instead of focusing on the medium, intellectuals should invest in assessing the merit of the content delivered keeping in mind the attention span each delivery is entitled to. This means, you cannot expect content rich with ambiguous metaphor and imagery if it is a stage performance. And the same time, I wouldn’t love text doodle in a book that I expect to arouse my intellect.

In India, spoken word has flourished only in the last couple of years and indeed the form has made laudable impact on young people. In fact, the act of seeing and being seen that the spoken word poets experience on stage is a definitive lure for those who have been limiting themselves to the page so far. But true, like I implied earlier, I am a sucker for content and I am aware of my expectations except for poets like Danez Smith, Malika Booker, Safia Elhilo, Saul Williams and the likes, who blur the page and the stage like magicians. Minutes after you have heard them, if you shake up yourself, their spirits will be knocking inside.

In this essay, I would like to introduce you to 8 female spoken-word poets, rooted in India, whose content is alluring, blurring the so-called “aesthetic divide,” and always politically charged in relevance with time and audience that they address in schools, colleges, and literary festivals.

For Harnidh Kaur, I quote from a report in the The New Indian Express, “Kaur, a social analyst working in the field of sanitation with a private firm in Mumbai, is an alumna of St Xavier’s College and holds a Masters in Public Policy. Also a poet, whose work is popular, especially on social media, Kaur is a self-avowed feminist, and appreciates that her parents helped her and her younger sister see themselves as individuals.” Jubilant and conscious of her status as a young influencer, Harnidh makes no compromise with her art. I present the below two pieces by her that’ll confirm the kind of spoken word content that delights me so much.

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why didn’t you say anything?

she did. she undid the healing
for you to inspect the knife marks.

she did. you chose to wash them
with bleach and called her clean.

she did. you stuffed her mouth with
twigs from the trees she ran through.

she did. you poured salt on the burns
and told her ghosts can’t enter anymore.

she did. you gouged through open wounds
and didn’t find blood on your stained hands.

she did. you didn’t listen. you didn’t hear.

2
there will be people after her,

just like there were before.
you are not an exhaustible source
of energy. you can feel more than once.
you will learn how to touch better,
to hold him in kinder ways.
you will know how to forgive yourself
for the times you couldn’t love
in ways she needed you to. this is not
the last time you love. this was not
the first. there is learning to be had,
hurt to be savoured, wonder to be found.
there is so much you haven’t tasted yet.
so many mistakes you are yet to make.
imagine how bland it would be, a world
where you knew just one kind of love.
a world where you didn’t have a tapestry
to chart your journey on because
you never stumbled onto a path
you weren’t guided to. there are
so many universes you don’t know
the names to yet. why would you limit
the miracles your palms can hold?

If you are still in the groove of the above poems, I ask you come out and debate with me on the works of Ankita Shah. Yes, Ankita felt quite embarrassed when I solicited her spoken word poems. But then I knew in my heart the obvious reason for her to feel bad and that is nothing but the general impression the page poets have of their work. I first met her at the 100 Thousand Poets, Mumbai Edition in 2017 and she was definitely a stunner, in fact the first one to help me recalibrate my impression of the lot that glorifies rants for art.

1
Crow

And there came a year

when the January morning dragged itself out of bed,
The weariness of yesterday still stuck to its eyelids,

When my sister’s half awoken, broken dream of a cheating lover
dissolved into her consciousness,

When Father insisted that Government jobs
can lighten the weight of concrete and space,

When Mother drew the curtains at half past eight,
acceding to the death of a creeper she had long tried to save,

When Father and I, did not crave
for kheer made every year until this one,

When before us was a Monday, and a window pane
where a crow cawed, undisturbed by food.

On other years, he was mistaken for grandfather.
In this one, his memory had left us too.

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Vulture

Do you remember the poem
where house was a metaphor to mean you
and I, was determined to burn it?

That poem, when it set out, was a sunbird,
yellow-bellied, purple-rumped,
upside down on a flower, hung
with a mouth that yearned to swallow the sky.
But on the page, when it perched, it preyed
for a cold and bitter July.
It wanted words thinned out
to the last layer of their skin, holding within
a meaning fermented to putrid perfection.

Do you remember that poem?
The anatomy of our past,
dismembered by a bird
with a taste for decay?
That poem is not over.
That vulture still shows up on the page.
When I set out to draw spring
I spill outside the circles and shapes
of who we are,
into what we’ve been.

The words I know are always becoming
and the poems,
they come from history.

The sunbird does not rest on the page yet.
I’ve heard,
we learn words long after
we’ve felt what they mean.

“we learn words long after/we’ve felt what they mean.” Tell me if I were wrong in my evaluation of Ankita Shah as a stunner. She hails from Nepal and so does her poetry; deep and affectionate. There is groundedness in Ankita’s poetry and given that her language is so simple, it helps her cast a spell on her intellectual and lay audience in equal measures.

With a Master’s degree in Public Health, Ishmeet Nagpal is a feminist since childhood as reported in Feminism in India. Ishmeet spearheads a constellation of 160 (if I am not wrong) non-male spoken word poets in Mumbai. So basically, Ishmeet is not only serious about her craft as a spoken word poet, she is equally concerned about the representation of the 160 odds stars who are subdued by the male dominating performance courtyard. And it is this energy that makes her poems so felt. Of course while savouring the below poems, do look up “Revenge Porn” by Ishmeet Nagpal on UnErase Poetry’s Youtube channel.

1
Yellow Bedroom

I tell you that therapy didn’t work out, that the hour long sessions set off time bombs
I tell you my sleep patterns help me heal, that my eyes are heavy after 14 hours in bed and that’s my normal
I tell you I am happy to help with your art and your life, but I will not go out for coffee or a run
I tell you I won’t harm anyone or myself while I bang the doors when no one’s around
I tell you I don’t fit into any list of diagnoses, my depression is unique

It’s the pile of clothes on my chair refusing to fold themselves
It’s the empty packets of potato chips stacked in the drawer that you don’t open
It’s the money I stole from my mother’s purse once and hid under my mattress
It’s cutting off half my hair because it feels good to have a lighter head
It’s the messages I refuse to send to my friends because group chats are my cushion

I say the word I too much and then feel guilty about the universe revolving around me
I say “I’m sorry” like I pour sugar syrup on bread pudding that’s been in the fridge too long
I say “I love you” only once, when you’re asleep in another room
I say “I want to die” until my voice is crying wolf under the bite marks on my wrists
And then I say “I’m busy” because this mess is not yours to clean, this room will stay in my head

2
Lithium

You know I was on lithium for a while
Made me feel like a superhero movie
It’s amazing-
Being on metal
I imagined if I got too cold my bones would freeze up
I let myself burn so I would just melt away
I am so scared of bringing a lithium stained life into this world
That is a continuous firework parade in an ice box
I am so afraid of passing on this gene of
Unliveable, unloveable, metal hungry uncertainty
The kind that makes you wish you had a romantic fatal illness
Until you remember you already have one
Only it doesn’t dissolve you as fast or as completely
Leaving little crumbs of you crying out to be saved

After Ishmeet, I would like to introduce to you another fledging yet fiery spoken word poet, Megha Rao. It is interesting how I meet poets and probably someday I will have a complete book on those experiences. Thanks to film-director and poet Devashish Makhija for drawing my attention to Megha’s poems on her Facebook timeline. Soon I looked up for her and landed on a YouTube video where she performs, “I’m in love with this world.” You can guess what happened next, I just decided to include her here. So, for more, dig in the spread—

1
My Mother’s English

My mother’s English is a dying country;
a jellyfish that has forgotten its sting.
She doesn’t know how to say I love you
and that’s okay, because neither do I.
So sometimes, she points at the gas stove
and tells me, ‘milk boil’. Sometimes, she doesn’t
wake for days and says, ‘I is sick.’

Once, after school, I found her reading my poems
secretly and crying. I swear she translated every word
to her native language with the dictionary in hand.
I asked her if she understood any of them.
She said. ‘I am pray for you.’

Last week, Abba walked out of the house
and never returned.

My mother’s English is a love-hate relationship
with her tongue; she doesn’t know how to say
don’t leave and that’s okay, because neither do I.

Now there are two things that are broken
in this house—her English and her heart.

One day, when I got back from school, I found
her burning all my poems in the front yard.
I asked her why and she said, ‘no more English.’
My mother always said angrezi
had the most ‘difficult-est’ words.
She wasn’t too wrong about that.

You see, there’s no word for goodbye in our
mother tongue and my poems were full of them.

My mother always said angrezi
was a wrong language.
And no matter how many times I asked her why,
she said she just couldn’t put ‘good’
and ‘bye’ together.

2
Oleander

Our hands can only try, but they’re not bombproof.
He’s in love with me because I’m a beautiful civil war.
It’s nothing new, every man I’ve ever loved
looked like a WW1 camp after I touched him.
Their mothers hate me now, guess I hate myself too.
They had to lay me down like a city of devastation
because he was such a damned heartbreaker.
My god, my beloved ran the length of an enemy’s battle line
when he kissed my mouth, I was dying;
when he left me, I was crying.
Nothing is the same now, they’ve had to dig me out
of the earth like a Western front Trench.
The aftermath of him was not beautiful, it was ugly.
But they say that the oleander was the first
flower to bloom after the 1945 explosion in Hiroshima,
and I’ve been thinking there’s life after death.
It’s just that the oleander is also
one of the most poisonous plants on the planet,
and now I don’t know what I’ve become.

English. I am sure this dilemma that Megha spoke of about here Mother’s English is not limited to India alone but it is so everywhere. Ocean Vuong’s Vietnamese mother had similar challenges with the language and Ocean delightfully encapsulated those experiences in so many of their poems. In fact, you must read Meena Kandaswamy’s My Kind of English. Stellar. Well, enough deviation, my next poet is Ankita Anand.

Ankita Anand’s poetry is well-travelled through India, Pakistan, Singapore, South Africa, Ireland, the US and the UK. That’s incredible already, right? A writer-poet-performer, Ankita is from Delhi and is also widely published—like she is not a lazy poet and values every medium of expression. Well the trick is DO take things (read: POETRY) personally. In “Unsold” (shared below), Ankita grabs capitalism by the neck and questions “Who writes your copy?” I mean, yes, bring it on; I too am curious about the bottomless of commerce of things.

1
Whatsapp Blues

There are friends who get upset
If they learn you’ve seen their messages
But did not respond.

One would think they must have gotten used it to it by now.

After all
There’s so much we witness,
So little we respond to.

The trick is not to take these things personally.

2
Unsold

Dear capitalism,
I am a woman
And for quite some time now
You’ve been trying to convince me
That you’re on my side.

You say you respect me
Because you believe in me:
No, not so much in my ability
But in my capacity,
My “purchasing capacity”
To buy your products
Without having to depend on men.

Then you go ahead and tell me
How those products
Would make me a more lucrative product
For those men.
Who writes your copy?

Next up is a little doll and yes you cannot play with her hair, or just crop them in whim. Her stage command is that of a skilled nurse who’ll give you the injection in a way you’ll feel no pain. She talks of love and assurance that has a ready acceptance. Do not forget to visit her YouTube videos because you must trust your ears to believe me when I say she is no shortcut. Meghna Prakash, for you—

1
Our Bodies

1. I wanted us to ebb and flow inside of each other, not spiral from naked thighs to untold goodbyes.

2. Has our house collapsed because of the storms we whip with our hips pressed against each other? Our bodies can unsettle cities. Our bodies are unapologetic thunderstorms that can electrify the darkest of nights.

3. You can sketch paintings on my bare back and my supple skin will remind you of why your colours bleed on the palette of any other body except of mine.

4. I want you to burn inside of me and unleash the Phoenix hiding inside of my orifice.

5. I want to hold your blood in my mouth, destroy your rib cage with my thighs pressed against your chest, imprint my claws on your skin. If our bodies are at war, yours is going to have to learn to surrender. I’ve never learnt to climax in isolated defeat.

6. Why did I write my first poem about you when you came home to me with her scent enveloping your scrawny limbs?

7. I think I fell in love with you the day you told me you were done chasing (me, never them).

2
5 steps to a healthy heart

Step 1: love yourself
Step 2: love yourself
Step 3: love yourself
Step 4: love yourself
Step 5: love yourself
If only someone would’ve told me
what to do with all of this love
pouring from my chest
to not contain it to a foreign body of bones
To take my love in my palms
and caress my brokenness
and feel safe in my own arms
You see, since I was a child,
I was taught to find love
in the blossom of cherry trees
in the silent surrender of the moon to the skies
Of the sea turtle to the ocean
In Amma’s gentle tug at Appa’s shirt.
But today, I ask you to find love
in the crooked of your smile,
the gap between your yellow teeth
the love handles of your waist
In between the spaces
of your fingers holding a cigarette
In your subliminal thoughts
about your childhood
where they wouldn’t stop hurting you
or telling you that you’re not good enough
to ever make it big
But I promise you, there is someone
who looked at you and your dreams
and swore that he’d make it all come true
This someone held you close and whispered
to you that your kindness can tame
this wretched universe, that you’re
so fucking beautiful.
And they lied when they hit you
and hurt you again and again
because they’re only taught to taint not heal
And I promise you that someday,
this magic, this miracle (you)
will come undone on a quiet, well-lit street
and the world won’t wake up the same.
And I know that this night you’re still
not that somebody that you’re dying
to meet, to pour all this love
that you’ve caged in your heart
But I promise you,
Someday,
you will be that
somebody.

Shivani Gupta. A poet featured in Forbes. And that’s some statement, a status quo not easily achievable. In that feature, Shivani is lauded for her spoken word piece, “Dear Girl from Pakistan” that went viral on the internet. I then invited her to co-judge a spoken word competition at IIT Kharagpur’s annual Spring Fest, and asked her to pay for it with her performance. What a delight to see the poet in her element. Wait, let me take you straight to her poems and not delay the moment.

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Untitled

My body is both
molehill and mountain
needle and hay

Your hands are treasure maps
on a journey
looking for home to stay

2
Letters and Things
(earlier appeared in Kitaab)

I traced outlines of words I didn’t let myself say to you
On spaces you would never see
You drew lines on my skin
There to here and there again
You always were fond of constellations.
Ink blotches and smudges
Crumpled paper
Sheets, tearing sheets
My sheets, your hands
My hands, these pages
Rough edges,
Was I writing this right?
You didn’t care, there was no wrong place to go
Not enough space, no
No space now
Not between words,
Not between us

So Shivani is the @thegirlbehindthoseglasses on Instagram dividing between intense heartfelt emotions and anxious apology that nurses old injuries.

Deborah Emmanuel is a poet from Singapore. Her paternal grandparents were Malayalee and came from Nagercoli now Tamil Nadu. Deborah’s work is deeply informed of her personal experiences. They are fraught with anti-establishment tendencies, feminism, and spiritual practices. Her work is born from the deep currents within her that help her heal and observe the truth of her stories and emotions. I am personally very proud to have known this poet and I would highly recommend looking her up on the internet. With this, I let you drift away taking her poems in your fold.

1
Skinless

you tell me that i’m beautiful
but I want to be a skinless thing

shredded pig hanging from a hook

raw and truthful like a final squeal
maddened and lost and welcoming the dark

make me an abattoir instead
the slaughterhouse for ugliness

I am where ugly goes to die

compare me in the wet market
like i’m selling this flesh

watch my thighs in the night
smile at me in the elevator

look at me like i’m on a hook
look at me like i was made for you.

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Twisted Roots
(commissioned and first published by the commonwealth writers ADDA Stories website)

The twisted root of my heart
is sprouting fern,
uncoiling; palms opening in surrender.

The knots are still there underneath,
falling apart, keeping together.

The dirt in my belly stirs,
fertile and full of worms
though I am not of this earth.

Shake me from sleep
into a quiet glasshouse.

Take me away from my
self, to a nameless garden.

There I will forgive
every time your eyes saw me

but I was not there.

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Author of whorelight (Hawakal, Aug 2017), Linda Ashok is the 2017 Charles Wallace India Fellow in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Chichester, UK. Her poems and reviews have appeared in several publications, online and in print, including The Common, Crab Orchard Review, The Pointed Circle by Portland Community College, Contemporary Verses 2, The McNeese Review, Friends Journal, Axolotl, Expound, among others. Linda is the Founder/President of RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts and sponsors the annual RL Poetry Award (since 2013). More at lindaashok.com

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