Interview: Hemant Divate, co-founder, Poetrywala

BySuhit Kelkar
Jul 23, 2021 06:14 PM IST

Through their publishing imprint Poetrywala, Hemant and Smruti Divate have brought out over 130 collections of poetry in many languages and from different countries since 2003. The Divates with other Indian writers have recently formed the Poetrywala Foundation, a public charitable trust, to enrich poetry and encourage its translation, archiving and research. Hemant Divate talks to Suhit Kelkar about the initiative.

What is the origin of the idea behind the newly-formed Poetrywala Foundation?

Hemant Divate, co-founder Poetrywala (Courtesy Hemant Divate)
Hemant Divate, co-founder Poetrywala (Courtesy Hemant Divate)

Poetry publishing in India is a non-profit activity. It is a movement. That is the perspective with which I and Smruti became publishers. In Marathi, we used to bring out the magazines Abhidha (1992) and then Abhidha Nantar (1998-2008). Abhidha Nantar especially curated poetry in Marathi about the impact of globalization on life and literature, and how globalization was changing culture and society here, because the subject needed to be aired. When we felt we had done that, we shut down the magazine. Poetry needs to change with the times, or else we will write the same things over and over again.

Along the way, we found that older publishers were not willing to bring out new kinds of poems. Their view was ancient. So, in 2001, we started publishing poetry in Marathi. We expanded to publishing poetry in translation – for which we started Poetrywala (2003). Through it, we also began to publish poetry in English. The books we publish are important. And we embrace various kinds of poetry, not just the kind that we are used to writing.

Poetrywala, which we have funded ourselves, is now on autopilot. This means that book sales fund new releases. But much more can be done. This realization led us to create the foundation. But some things won’t change. For instance, our belief that only quality matters. This is our old practice, we don’t just publish our friends. We have published poets whom we have never even met. We will continue this.

What is the strategy behind making Poetrywala Foundation a non-profit?

As a foundation, we can accept donations and offer 80G tax exemption. So we can do a number of initiatives -- support poets, translators and researchers, create a poetry and translation archive, give awards to poets and translators, offer workshops on creative writing and translation, organize litfests.

What are your plans for translation projects?

We will select good young poets and offer workshops on various practical aspects of translation. The workshops can be online or offline. We will also launch a magazine with poetry, original and translated – it will be online for free viewing, as well as print-on-demand for a price.

What about poetry exchanges with other countries?

We are thinking of one project. A Spanish publisher wants to translate and publish three Poetrywala books and have us publish three Spanish poets in English translation here. Another project, maybe for this year if the situation is favourable, is having three Slovenian poets to visit Mumbai for a few days. We will match them up with poet-translators and translate their work into Marathi. We will host them and organize readings. Similarly, a foundation there, funded by the Slovenian government, will invite three Marathi language poets to visit Slovenia. If it works, we will explore more such initiatives.

What will the foundation do about the way poetry is taught in India?

The school curriculum teaches poetry in such a way as to turn people away from it! The flowers in 200-year-old poems are not found here, nor the animals. Most of the poems taught are by non-Indians. The syllabus has not changed much for many years. When will new Indian poets enter the textbooks? When will our children also know more about Indian poetry and poets? Can the foundation do something to change the way poetry is taught in schools? We will engage in advocacy to change the poetry curriculums here.

The foundation will also sponsor annual awards for poetry and translation. What are the criteria for the awards?

There are few awards for poetry in India, and the existing ones are small. There is no body with transparent functioning and a great panel. We will announce in advance our judges for translation and poetry prizes. One award for poetry and one for translation will be given annually. We are working out the criteria. The awards can only take place if funding is available, however. For instance, if we give a token amount as a translation prize, and publicize it on social media, the awardee will feel good, especially if the judges are good poets, critics, translators themselves. The money is not the most important thing, of course. The idea is to bring poetry and translations into the mainstream.

The foundation intends to organize litfests in India and abroad. Litfests are costly. Will you take on sponsors, and to what extent will they control the litfest’s themes?

We are not going to do big litfests, with big money and big sponsors. We will do focused and small festivals. We will curate them well. Ten poets from India, and ten poets from abroad, for instance, maybe fewer, in a roundtable and readings for two-three days. People will donate the venue space and food. The main thing is to foster interaction and dialogue.

Besides you and Smruti Divate, the other co-founder, who are the other people in the foundation?

There are Sampurna Chattarji, Mustansir Dalvi, Subhro Bandopadhyay, Ranjit Hoskote, Sachin Ketkar, Sanjeev Khandekar and Manya Joshi at the core. The Poetrywala poets too are an important part of this foundation. They will take part in varying capacities. But we are open to ideas from anywhere.

What role does the foundation aspire to play in Indian poetry, translation and research?

To deepen the links between poetry and readers.

How will the foundation finance its work?

We are looking at both crowd funding and at corporate donations. Since we are a public foundation, everything will be audited, and there will be full transparency.

What’s coming up first?

We will launch our website and a little magazine shortly.

Suhit Kelkar is an independent journalist. He lives in Mumbai.

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