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For better or verse

Compelled to express your feelings but don’t care about the money? A career in poetry is right up your alley, reports Pankaj Mullick

education Updated: May 26, 2010 10:40 IST
Pankaj Mullick

The small café on the first floor of a bakery was solemn only in its silence. Else, the smiles on the faces of the people filling up the tables told of a joy that one finds only among like-minded people. The lectern was taken by a young man and as he recited his piece, young and old sat in rapt attention. When the applause came, it was evident it was from the heart. Whoever said no one has time for poetry these days mustn’t have heard of this group.

Sure, it’s still popular among certain circles but does petry pay? “Reading your poetry to live audiences, private poetry readings, sale of published poetry, and reading at large Hindustani poetry platforms where it is tradition to pay invited poets,” are some of the ways to earn, says Amit Dahiyabadshah, the founder of Delhi Poetree, under whose aegis regular poetry reading sessions are held. He is also a well-known poet, who has collections such as Last Will of the Tiger, Bhiksha, American Face, Mitti, Chidiya and Script Arabic to his credit.

He adds that earnings can range from just travel expenses plus Rs 1,000, to Rs 2.5 lakh per reading. Poets have been known to make decent money by writing for cinema and television too, Javed Akhtar and Gulzar, for example.

However, such cases are few. Before gaining any amount of recognition, leave alone money, one has to first work very hard to establish oneself. Take it from Anindita Sengupta, whose collection of poems, City of Water, was published by Sahitya Akademi in February. “One sends (one’s poems) to credible journals and gets rejected. After enough rejections, there may be acceptance notes, which send one into deliriums of joy. At some point, there may be enough poems and enough reason to make a book,” she says.

Sengupta is among the fresh crop of poets to have achieved reasonable success. Before City of Water, her work was published in several journals, including Eclectica, NthPosition, Yellow Medicine Review, Origami Condom, Kritya, and Muse India. In 2008, she received the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing, annually given to two writers under thirty in India.

Like many other poets and writers in our age, Sengupta is a freelance writer and journalist. “(Earnings from poetry are) not enough to live off. Most poets do something as a ‘day job’. Poets have been policemen, lawyers, librarians, clerks, doctors, teachers, film-makers, journalists and so on,” says Sengupta.

Apart from investing copious amounts of time in reading, one can develop one’s talent in certain focused ways. Sengupta says, “A sensibility one should try to explore (is) the love of words. The love of their sound and sense, the way they look on a page, the way they feel in the mouth, the knowledge of where they come from.”

For some though, society and its vagaries are the drivers to write poetry. “If you are not always on good terms with your society and its values, and you want to say something about it, want to change things, you should try writing poetry,” says Ramkumar Chetankranti, who has Shoknach, a collection of Hindi poems, to his credit and has been awarded the Bharatbhushan Agrawal Smriti Samman.

To get published one has to pick at least 50 of one’s best poems, prepare a manuscript to send to publishers who already carry some collections of poetry.

Then the waiting game begins. But there are other ways.

“I hear that you can get an agent like Siyahi to look at your work. Or if you know someone in a publishing house, you can show them your work directly.

Internationally, there are some prizes for book-length collections which reward you with money and publication if you win,” advises Sengupta.
Asked what drives her to write, Sengupta has a simple answer: “I don’t think I have a choice. I am very unhappy when I don’t write.”

What’s it about?
Poets are compelled by their inner workings to express and do so by stringing words in such a way that they have maximum impact. Poets aspire to be recognised though many never find the courage to publish their work. Those who do are rarely driven by the lure of monetary gain. Instead, it is the urge that drives most artists — a desire to express to the best of one’s ability, and to be heard and appreciated

The Payoff
The poet’s poverty is stuff of legends. Think Ghalib and Shakespeare who were almost entirely dependent on the kindness of patrons. Even nowadays, published authors do not count on royalties to support themselves. However, readings at various private and public gatherings can grant some vitality to the wallet.

Working for film and television, if you can break into these mediums, can change that dismal picture

Clock Work
There is no set schedule for a poet. However, one must adopt a regimen if one is to churn out anything substantial. A typical day in the life of Anindita
Sengupta would look like this:
8.30 am: Rise and prepare breakfast
9 am: Start reading
12 pm: Take care of chores
3 pm: Continue reading and maybe catch a nap
7 pm: Prepare dinner and spend time with family
9.30 pm: Start with writing exercises
11.30 pm: Edit previously drafted poems
3 am: Read and drop off to sleep

Skills
. A sense of words and the ability to feel them, their sound, meaning and where they come from
. Discipline, otherwise no writing would ever get done
. A compulsion to write
. Ability to take criticism
. One has to strive to be relevant to the times
. The modern poet must learn to market him/herself
. Self-doubt can also help because if one is positive towards it, it helps one hone one’s skill
. At the same time one has to tap into reserves of self-confidence, else one would lose the drive to write

Institutes & urls
. University of Iowa in Iowa City
www.uiowa.edu
. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
www.umich.edu
. University of Virginia, Charlottesville -
www.virginia.edu
. University of Massachusetts, Amherst
www.umass.edu
. Oxford at Ole Miss
www.olemiss.edu/depts/english/mfa/home.htm

How do i get there?
Nothing can train you better to write poetry than your innate need to write. However, if you want to hone your skills to any respectable level, read whatever you can lay your hands on. As far as formal training goes, Sengupta says, “I know some people who are looking to go to the US to do their Master of Fine Arts, a degree in creative writing”

Pros & Cons


.

Having the musings of one’s inner life heard


.

Fulfilment that comes only from having expressed oneself


.

Mostly doesn’t pay, especially when starting out


.

Admiration and awe of fans/ patrons

‘I think writer’s block is hugely overrated’

Jeet Thayil poet of repute gets candid about the nuances of this literary craft

What according to you is the essence of poetry?
Its power comes from the unadorned nature of the utterance. It is speech at its cleanest, which is why the best way to experience a poem is to have it read to you.

Poets you are inspired by?
As a young writer I was interested in the way the poets I knew conducted themselves in the world. I didn’t know how to do it, how to think seriously about poetry and live in a city like Bombay. Not to put too much of a gloss on it. There’s nothing romantic about the writing of poetry: “We poets in our youth begin in gladness, / whereof in the end comes despondency and madness”.

How does one go about getting published?
Keep in mind that there are senior poets among us who are finding it difficult to place their new manuscripts. You publish poems in journals and on websites.

Then, when you have enough for a collection you send it to publishers and hope for the best.

Do you sit and think through every word of every stanza or do you just write freely, allowing the words to flow?
First drafts are usually fairly free but then comes the rewrite, at which point, I do examine every word and punctuation mark.

When did you first start writing, what made you take up writing as a career?
I was 13 when I made my first translation from French to English: a poem by Baudelaire. As with most people I started by writing imitations of the poets I admired. There was no question at that point of a career. And there was no question of doing anything else.

Do you ever get writer’s block? How can one get over it?
If you work every day there’s no prospect of writer’s block. I think writer’s block is hugely overrated as an excuse for not working.

Any advice on how to deal with failure in this profession?
Take Samuel Beckett’s advice: try, fail, try again, fail better.

What are the basics you need to establish yourself as a poet? What worked for you?
Doggedness. Cussedness. Bloody-mindedness. And of course: silence and cunning.

Do you need a particular setting to write in?
If you need a particular setting to write in you might as well get another job. It’s a question of vocation, when you are in, when a poem lets you in, it doesn’t matter where you are.

Do you think it’s fashionable to be a poet today?
If it is fashionable it may be because poetry is the least marketable of skills and there’s always someone crazy enough to try it. This is why we revere poets, we know their value systems are different.

How do you choose topics? Is it best to write from personal experiences or topics that are popular? Any tips for beginners?
Forget topic, aim for form.