The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry
Edited by Sudeep Sen
Rs 599 PP 541
It isn't often that anthologies of Indian English poetry land on your desk. It's even rarer for the collection to be a whopping 541 pages and include the work of 85 poets. You're intrigued too that the tome is called The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry though it features the work of writers like Vijay Nambisan, Amitava Kumar and Menka Shivdasani who do not, typically, conjure up visions of the Lake District or the London Tube.
"Why is it called English poetry? Why not?" asks poet Sudeep Sen, who edited the anthology, when you meet him at his book-lined home office in a sylvan lane in CR Park, New Delhi. "If a publisher did a book of translations of Bengali poetry, you wouldn't say it's Bengali poetry by Indians. It's the same logic. You're an Indian; you write in English; so you write in English poetry as far as I'm concerned. And English is an Indian language as any other," says Sen revealing that the book, which was originally intended to coincide with India's fiftieth year of independence, includes the work of poets born in and after 1950.
The 1950 cut off has meant that Sen didn't "have to worry about the Jussawallas and the Ezekiels and the Moraeses - all that generation which people know of as Indian poetry!" The cut off, sadly, also meant some exemplary poets had to be left out. "The only person I regret not having in the book is Agha Shahid Ali who was born, unfortunately, in 1949. But if I broke that rule then I'd have to break a lot of rules," he says adding that the book has many previously unpublished poems.
"90% of the poems are brand new. Some poets genuinely did not have new work and in those few cases, I chose recent works from their books," he says. Apart from poets from his own generation like Vikram Seth, Jeet Thayil and Jerry Pinto whose work he is familiar with, Sen scoured online magazines, followed up on recommendations from young people whose work he had judged at competitions, and sent out an open letter asking for submissions. The result is a collection that's surprisingly varied. Indeed, free verse, samples of performance poetry that work as well on the page, experiments with visual structure and traditional sonnets all feature."I've been very open about the styles. The only thing that mattered was good writing, so there's prose poetry, rap, Creole and documentary feeds," he says maintaining that any of these styles "if done well" is legitimate art. Not everyone has been enthused by the effort. Some senior poets who had early access to the book wondered if the experimental work by younger poets qualified as poetry. "I respect them but their breadth of reading is limited to Victorian poetry, early English poetry, the poetry that stopped with the Ramanujans, and very few follow the Post-postmodernism of very young writers," Sen says adding that dismissing linguistic innovation is like saying "Oh God, is Kindle a good medium of literature?" No fuddy-duddy, Sen isn't averse to popular open mic nights and poetry slams either. "I'm not saying everything that's spurted out is a gem, but open mic nights have democratised poetry," he says crediting Youtube with making poetry more accessible and, for a generation that's always online, more hip.
So did he insist, like the organisers of some literary awards, that poets be in possession of a valid Indian passport? "I didn't ask for passport photocopies attested in triplicate, no," he laughs. "I wouldn't leave out a poet saying, 'My god she has a British passport!' A passport is such a bureaucratic thing far removed from the good poetry that's being written," he says. Sen believes part of the volume's allure comes from the inclusion of Indians from across the world. You aren't sure Daljit Nagra and David Dabydeen can be labelled "Indian" but, given the strength of their work, you aren't complaining. "They just have to be Indian in the way that they are Indian. I did not want to give that too much thought," Sen says and we, happily, leave it at that.