Last Monday, Airplane Poetry Movement and Papercup’s Poetry Slam took place at The Doodle Room, organized by- you guessed it- Papercup and Airplane Poetry Movement. Emceeing at the event was Somrwita Guha of Papercup, and Shantanu Anand, one-half of the founding duo of Airplane Poetry Movement.
Much to my grief, Shantanu and I couldn’t actually work out a time to meet and sit and talk.
(In his defence, I just sort of popped out of nowhere and bugged him until he agreed to the interviewing part). So, over the next week and a bunch of emails, Whatsapp messages and panicked Facebook inboxing, we held a conversation of sorts about slam poetry, the beginning of Airplane Poetry Movement and performance in the time of social media.
- Waiting for the Slam to Begin
Here’s what we talked about:
This was your first Slam in Kolkata, right? How was the experience of organising it?
Well, all I can say about organising the slam is that it wouldn’t have been possible without the team at Papercup. They played a huge role in making the slam what it is, from decorating the space beautifully to communicating with all the poets in the build-up to the event. Also, Ananyaa Bhowmik also played a huge, huge role, because she’s the person I spoke to first about holding a workshop and slam in Kolkata, and she’s the one who connected me to The Doodle Room. It’s a great venue, so I’m very thankful to her for that!
How was the evening? Did you like the crowd?
It was a fantastic evening. There was a super crowd at the venue, who were happy to really get into the event and not just be passive listeners. It’s always great for poets to perform for an audience like that! I genuinely feel like each city has its own, unique energy when it comes to slam poetry – its own atmosphere, it’s own vibe. Which is why I always love experiencing a slam in a new city for the first time, and it was no different with Kolkata.
My only source of grief about the evening is that we didn’t witness any Bengali poetry. We’d had 2 poets who’d registered and submitted Bengali poems, but they couldn’t make it to the event because of other commitments. I’d been brushing up on my Bengali with my grandmother, so I was hoping that, by chance, someone would perform in Bengali, but it didn’t happen!
My Bangla still sucks, though!
- Proud parents Somrwita and Shantanu
How were the performers?
The best thing about the evening were the poets. My favourite thing about poetry slams and open mics is that you never know what you’re going to get – the next performance might be terrible, or it may be the best thing you’ve ever seen. You just don’t know.
At this one, the quality was almost uniformly high, right from the first poem to the last one. So it was surprising, refreshing, and just fun to watch. Some poets were better than others, of course, but the key thing was that they all brought their own personality to the stage, so it didn’t feel like I was watching 20 versions of the same performance.
More importantly, they MUST keep working on their craft, because I feel like they’ve probably reached only 10% of their potential, and if they don’t keep pushing themselves, they’ll never know how good they could be!
Which performance was your personal favourite?
I am going to choose not to answer this question, mainly because picking a favourite poem is an exercise in futility at events like these. However, I’m just going to talk about some poems that I really liked –
I liked Damayanti Saha’s poem a lot – she really brought a lot of defiance into it, without being gratuitously loud or aggressive. Mehnaz Zareen was also good, I loved the sass she brought in her poem. Kinnera Priya also brought a lot of skill to the table with her writing, and delivered a strong performance – and I really enjoyed the experience of watching her perform!
Madhura Banerjee lived up to my expectations (I’d heard a lot about her!) and delivered a powerful performance. And of course, I think Ananyaa Bhowmik killed it. I just loved the rawness, honesty and energy of her performance. These are a few poets that really stood out for me, but they certainly weren’t the only good ones at the slam!
On a more personal note, tell me about the first time you became interested in performance poetry. Do you remember the first poem you wrote? What was it about?
How did I become interested in slam poetry? First – Rives (the performance poet). But the tipping point was a poet named Anis Mojgani, and specifically, this video. Incidentally, the first poem I performed in Kolkata is just a remix of the poem in this video. It’s the same poem with different words, that’s all. Every time I perform that poem, it’s me paying tribute to Anis Mojgani – so check his poetry out!
The performance poem I wrote was called “This Is Not A Joke” and it’s basically a very primitive, basic example of a spoken word poem. But I got a few laughs when I performed it, so that gave me the confidence to continue performing!
- Avhinandan Chakraborty performing at the Slam
You mentioned that performance poetry is a democratic art. Could you explain further?
I think that performance poetry needs to be a democratic art-form, in the sense that performance poets should not be placed on a pedestal, and the audience should be allowed to express their opinions on the poetry and really be active participants in poetry events.
Additionally, I think we, as poetry audiences, should be open to listening to poetry in new languages, in new styles, in new forms. This will enable more people to get into performance poetry.
The most beautiful thing about performance poetry, for me, is that the barrier to entry is so low. You don’t need instruments, you don’t need costumes, you don’t even necessarily need a stage. All you need are 3 poets and 3 poems, and you can hold a slam.
I feel like we need to preserve this spirit of freedom, this spirit of inclusivity, and if we can do that, then performance poetry can be meaningful democratic.
Why do you think performance poetry has a greater representation of women and queer artists, as well as people of colour and other minority groups?
Because it gives people a chance to step on stage and say things they’re otherwise not allowed to – it’s as simple as that. Privileged people need slam poetry less then non-privileged people do. Simply because for a person of privilege, getting their voice heard is very easy. But for others, well, most people live their whole lives without ever getting heard. Performance poetry has the chance to change that.
However, in India, the major criticism of the slam poetry movement (or, to rephrase that, the only the criticism that I care about) is that the scene is not truly inclusive, and is mostly limited to urban middle-class people. This is a valid criticism, and one that I agree with, and one that we are working to change.
So to answer your question, performance poetry is at its most powerful when it used as a platform for people to talk about things which they are otherwise stopped from saying (as often happens in the US) and this is why, inevitably, you will see the participation of minority communities in performance poetry.
- Damayanti Saha performing at the Slam
What was the experience of starting out in India with performance poetry like?
When Nandini (Varma, co-founder) and I started out, things were so, so different from how they are now. Most people didn’t know what “slam poetry” or “performance poetry” was. Most people thought they could simply whip out poems they’d written earlier and read them out, and that would count as a performance. They didn’t actually see it as a separate, unique art-form.
And there were much fewer platforms for performers, so for poets at that time, getting to perform for an audience of 20-25 was a big deal! Now, of course, things are very different (and much better!) but there’s still a long, long way to go.
What do you think the future of slam poetry is like in India?
It’s hard to say – but I think the next big step for all of us is diversifying the languages in which spoken word is practised in. We need to give larger platforms to poets who write in vernacular languages and lend more support to them. The other big thing is, of course, in enabling poets to build sustainable careers.
And lastly – making training in spoken word poetry available to a larger and more diverse audience. These three things will always dominate any conversation I have about the future of slam poetry in India!
Do you think social media can result in poets with talent struggling to find a footing, because they’re not good at the online game? (this is a very leading question, sorry, but I had to ask it!)
Okay, okay – hold up. Rant alert. I’ll be honest – I think that’s an unnecessarily negative way of looking at it. I think social media has helped performance poets immensely, and I think it’s a really backwards way of looking at it, to say that social media can be detrimental to performance poets.
I think, instead of trying to fight social media, poets should embrace it. Create great poetry, put it out online, market it, and work to make it successful. Of course, some poetry that you and I find bad might become immensely popular, but hey, just because we think it’s bad doesn’t mean it is, universally, bad. It just means that we don’t like it.
Here’s how I think people should deal with the question of social media, as poets –
a. Understand that just because you’re not popular, it doesn’t mean you’re not good. Justin Bieber is more popular on social media that Mozart is. Go figure.b. Understand that just because you think (and your friends tell you) that your poetry is good, it doesn’t mean that it has a divine right to be popular.c. Embrace social media. Figure out ways to use it to your advantage.
Here’s the truth – 2017 is the best year, ever, to be a performance poet. I’ve written about this before – if you’re a performance poet who is alive in the time of Facebook and Youtube and Instagram, and you think you’re unlucky, then you’re doing it wrong. This is the best time to reach people with your poetry, make use of it!
It’s such an exciting time, don’t get lost in it. Instead, push yourself, and embrace it.
An interview of Somrwita, founder of Papercup and poet-performer extraordinaire, is coming up soon! Stay tuned.