Monday, October 22, 2012

English Poetry

The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry By Sudeep Sen

ISBN: 9789350290415
Cover Price: Rs. 599.00
Format: Demy Paper Back
Extent: 544 pages
Category: Poetry
On Sale: July 2012

‘Among the 60 essential English-language works of Modern Indian Literature. An important literary marker’–World Literature Today

The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry by Indians is a major landmark international book that reflects the vibrant contemporary poetry culture of India and the broader Indian diaspora – the United States and Canada, The United Kingdom and Europe, Africa and Asia, Australia and the Pacific. The featured poets are born post 1950, after India became a republic, and showcase the best English poetry by Indians over the last sixty years. A unique feature of this discerning anthology is that over 90 per cent of the poems are new and unpublished in individual author volumes. Expertly edited by Sudeep Sen, this significant book is a must-have for literature and poetry lovers – an essential compendium for academics, students, librarians and interested lay readers who want to sample the vibrant cultural and intellectual milieu of India, at home and in the world.
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"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 But if I broke that rule then I'd have to break a lot of rules," he says adding that the book has many previously unpublished poems.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.
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The book, while not the first of its kind, is certainly an important step forward for Indian poetry. Bringing together the works of 85 Indian poets, the book showcases and reflects the vibrant contemporary poetry culture of India as well as the broader Indian diaspora. Some of the prominent names include Vikram Seth, Amit Chaudhuri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Meena Alexander, David Dabydeen, Sujata Bhatt, Daljit Nagra, Tabish Khair and Priya Sarukkai Chabria.

A sort of celebration of contemporary English language poetry in India — the history of which is inevitably tied up with India’s history as a republic — the book charts out and showcases the best of the last 60 years. All the authors included in the volume were born post-1950 and have been a vital part of the Indian poetry scene.

Perhaps the noteworthy and unique feature of this anthology, one that distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that 90 per cent of the contributors have contributed new work. This means that the majority of poems are previously unpublished. This is a significant departure from other anthologies of poetry that usually bring together famous published works.

Every poem is a glimpse into the consciousness of the poet as well as the cultural milieu of his/her time, and the almost 400 poems in the book provide a fascinatingly wide spectrum that displays a broad and strikingly varied range of form, technique, style and preoccupation.
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The book’s title itself is worth examining. There is no such premise of it being "Indian English poetry" or "English poetry by Indians." It’s simply a Book of English Poetry. There’s something definitive about this. In fact, I see this as a counterpoint to Sudeep’s own confession that only “a handful of contemporary English-language Indian poets command an international and national status.” Reading the anthology, one can surmise that contemporary Indian poets writing in English are a confident bunch hardballing their imagination in all directions and wielding their own diverse idioms effortlessly. Hence, the editor is not inclined to add premises to the nomenclature, often an exercise in apology.

It’s pertinent that the range of poets never fails to astonish and please in this collection. There is much to love, wonder at and even debate. I catch hold of Sudeep via email and hurl a few questions about elements in the book that strike me most. While there are names I read--I confess--for the first time, some known names make me curious. Indian poets from India and abroad as well as those that are the part of the well-defined Diaspora make up a solid smorgasbord of poetic traditions in this anthology. Let me commend Sudeep on that.
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