A Poetic High

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Spoken-word poetry is gaining a festive momentum in India

EIGHT YEARS AGO, an accidental turn in the YouTube maze led me to Speakeasy NYC, a channel showcasing spoken-word poets from across the country. One blurry video here featured a pixellated, bespectacled young woman perform an enchanting, raw piece addressed to her future daughter. The poem was B, by Sarah Kay. I decided to reproduce the piece entirely for a college festival: hand gestures, voice intonations, and all, memorised down to the last syllable. It was a disaster: I forgot the words halfway through, stumbled to the finish and hurried out, my spoken-word hobby consigned to the trash bin.

At the National Youth Poetry Slam (NYPS), held in the massive Lotus Convention Centre in Bengaluru on 17-18 September, the stakes are much higher: colleges and schools compete in rounds—or ‘bouts’—to make it to the finals and win the title of India’s best slam poetry team; the material is all original; performers, having passed an initial audition, perform both solo and in teams. As I walk in, a single figure stands at the centre of a massive stage, flanked on either side by giant screens. Gladiator-style music booms as each participant enters and exits the stage. It is an atmosphere befitting a concert and a reality show at once.

Sarah Kay is the constant. In the years since, she’s become the poster-girl for spoken word poetry, especially after a video of her performing the same poem at a TED talk went viral. Between performances, the host only has to mention her name for cheers to erupt from the hundreds of enthusiasts in the audience. But they aren’t here just for Sarah Kay: each performer is warmly encouraged, with snaps in the air and cheers or gasps for the especially hard-hitting verses.

In the television show Parks and Recreation, the effusive government employee Leslie Knope dismiss slam poetry as a cultural-intellectual pursuit. “Anything/can be/a slam poem/if you say it/like this,” she quips.

It’s hilarious because it’s a commonly- held view, but she’s wrong, of course. Between the expression of raw emotion, wordplay, repetition and rhyme, and on- point cultural references (‘Mummy, Take away that Emami/I don’t need to be fair and handsome’), there’s a dazzling display of talent to be found. Slam poetry— the competitive art of performing poetry—is said to have emerged from Chicago in the 80s, and spread quickly from there across the US.

At the Grand Slam, individual poets battle it out in rounds and then in a team-based final. Subjects range from the prosaic to the uncomfortable: there are poems about hair, mothers, fathers, family, nature, and books, but also about sexuality, queerness, body-shaming, menstruation, religious discrimination, and abuse. There’s something thrilling about seeing these themes addressed so head-on, unblinkingly. Performers step up to the mic and there’s usually a moment of awkwardness, a quick giggle as they introduce themselves: but then their persona slips in; they gesture boldly, speak deeply, look you in the eye.

Much of the popularity enjoyed by spoken-word poetry in India is thanks to the Airplane Poetry Movement, a Bengaluru-based project that organised the NYPS along with Campus Diaries. Airplane Poetry Movement—set up by Shantanu Anand and Nandini Verma— was founded in 2013. They’ve since established themselves through a regular schedule of workshops, spotlight events, and poetry slams in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune, and Delhi. City-based organisations such as Pune Poetry Slam and Delhi Poetry Slam and venues such as The Poetry Club in Mumbai bolster the scene.

Part of the allure, according to the many enthusiastic participants at the NYPS, is the opportunity to express yourself, and to encourage rawness and authenticity; spoken-word poetry is a far cry from the elocution contests some of us have grown up with.

There’s a word that comes up repeatedly in discussions around slam poetry—authenticity. So there’s plenty of angst to be had: from a diligently-rhymed laundry list of heartbreak-related woes to anguish at having to conform to the rules of school. There’s an oversupply of earnestness, too, and plenty of poems called ‘Home’. But with their perfectly- coordinated solos and choruses, it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about the team events. The school team that wins does so on the back of a punchy poem about climate change: the planet never needed saving, they counter-intuitively declare. One poet in the open mic section uses his lisp as a poetic device (‘searing’ pain becomes ‘fearing’ pain).

The other poems address subjects such as rape culture, moral policing and navigate multiple languages and cultures. Interlude music from the Eminem- starrer 8 Mile plays between performances, and more than one American accent is discernible. The poems, nevertheless, are distinctly homegrown, unimitative: intonations and words borrowed from Bengali, familiar themes included arguing with parents who tell the poet she must never “marry a Muslim”.

Part of its allure is the chance to express yourself, and the way the form encourages authenticity

One Pune-based poet has the audience on its feet with her erotic poem, The Sextet, a tale of sexual self-discovery and exploration which features the memorable phrase ‘bloom like Georgia O’Keeffe on cannabis’. Later, when I step up to talk to her, we’re interrupted by swarms of listeners who ecstatically congratulate and thank her for her poem. Priyanka Sutaria is a 21-year-old student of Philosophy and Literature at Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts, Pune. She doesn’t take to performing on stage naturally, thanks to “massive stage fright”, but is eager to explore the spoken word as a medium for sex education.

But not everyone is enthused. “Ek mein toh mere ko neend aa raha thha, ek mein toh intentionally so gaya,” says a young man, complaining of being put to sleep.

The atmosphere on day two seems more relaxed; college finalists have been announced, and the venue is filled with participants congratulating each other and offering generous, swinging hugs. Inside, EDM remixes of Linkin Park’s Numb blare out while participants mill about. A mentor advises a group of uniform-clad schoolboys: “Make it internal, not external.” I mistake this to be a philosophical maxim, but he’s talking about the rhyme structure they should use: “Don’t use abab, use internal rhymes.” The NYPS system includes an array of mentors, including poets Daniel Sukumar, Janet Orlene, and KC Vlaine.

Also performing are Shantanu and Nandini, the co-founders of Airplane Poetry Movement. Shantanu jogs onto stage, and speaks with a deliberate, slowness while he weaves an intricate tale of hope and community in the face of violence. Nandini’s powerful piece takes on menstruation: ‘We were monsters in the kitchen.’ My plastic cup vibrates with the cheers of the audience.

Women dominate the field, a fact that does not go unnoticed. “We need more straight guys,” one participant says during a panel discussion. “That’s how we make it more popular.” I couldn’t help wondering whether the popularity of slam poetry might not have something in common with that other form currently having a moment—the first- person essay. They share formal similarities: the punchy ending, the epiphany, the quick fix of a feel-good connection. But it’s worth considering why both forms are dominated by women and thrive on a particular form of packaged vulnerability.

The day also features Spoken Stage, a poetry group from Pakistan who take on many of the same subjects: queerness (‘I came out of the closet and left the house’) inequality, freedom, body- policing, and a crowd favourite in Urdu, ‘Laal lipstick’. The best spoken-word poets use every tool they have at their disposal—gesture, space, silence, breath, intonation, language—and manipulate these skilfully. In Gynecomastia, one poet turns the word around in his mouth, breaks it up to explore the medicalisation of his body: ‘I find my sickness beautiful,’ he says, to loud cheers.

If it all feels elitist and English- restricted, it isn’t: separate showcases for Hindi and Kannada poets are scheduled in, and one session features 12 children from Slam Out Loud, an organisation which takes spoken-word poetry to underserved schools in India. Jigyasa Labroo, who founded the organisation in December 2014, felt there was need for a space where children could talk and speak about what they wanted to. So Slam Out Loud started conducting workshops to provide them with a platform. “When we held a workshop in Sikkim, children wrote about joy, music, curiosity—most children generally write about similar subjects. But when we went to a conflict- ridden zone such as Kashmir, children wrote about anger and sadness. These were the emotions they connected to the most; we never specifically asked them to connect the poem to their environment.”

NEVERTHELESS, AS WITH any genre, the seeming mainstreaming of the spoken word as a genre in India isn’t without its attendant worries. “How do you keep it real, and vulnerable, and organic? How do you avoid it just turning into another system?” wonders Syed Sultan Ahmed, an educator and entrepreneur, during a panel discussion. “Maybe you get rid of all poverty and dispossession,” responds Lynette Jackson, a professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She points out that the history of spoken-word poetry as an art form in the US has been closely tied to dispossessed communities. “It’s important to note that spoken word came up as a vehicle for the subaltern to speak and be heard, to feel powerful and to enunciate the world from their perspective. Once something becomes commercialised and branded, there will be that tension, but there will always be the impetus for people to speak.”

After two days drenched in spoken- word poetry, I go back to YouTube to dig up the old poem that, started it all. After some scrolling down, i found the video at SpeakeasyNYC—the channel where I first found it—the video is still up. I take in Sarah Kay before her stardom, performing with a shaky rawness that carries its own charm. As someone said during the weekend, so much learning is unlearning: whether it’s learning that rhyme isn’t necessary, or, as in my case, unlearning the desire to compete but learning an appreciation for the form.