Poetry, Aesthetics and the Indian Spoken Word Milieu with Aditya Vikram
Poetry is the heart of human expression. It was there when our civilization was still in cradle and it has molded itself to the demands of the time for centuries now. In the digital age, poetry is more prevalent than ever, with new voices moving people in many different mediums, like spoken word poetry, short poems on Instagram to various anthologies. Forms like slam poetry break the elitist image of the art and echo the social value that recitations had back in the days of Homer.
In India, of late, this renewed oral tradition is gaining more and more cultural value as we have seen many great voices spring up in recent years thanks to events organized by various groups. One such voice is that of Aditya Vikram. They were India’s national poetry slam champion last year in a competition organized by Kommune. Their works have a distinct Indianness empathy which is scanty in many contemporary poems.
We got the chance to ask them some questions about their work and the art of poetry in general. The conversation turned out to be a thought provoking experience with them dealing with very relevant things like the contemporary poetry scene, how injustices of the world seep into the arts and more.
Your poem “Boys” was inspired from Kinciad’s poem “Girl,” where else do you get your inspiration from?
I can't write without inspiration. But it always comes to me quietly, like a breath. Most often, I don't recognize it. I think it is a poet's declaration of a self-importance - not knowing where or who they borrowed from. In a sea of thoughts and air, it might sometimes be impossible to know whose breath I am remaking. I am slowly trying to be more conscious of it. When I pry my pieces apart, I see the countless poets who have touched me. Dead or alive. I also see those who never tried to write, but simply helped me live. My grandmother and her ferocity, mother and her staging, father and his wisdom, sister and her wit. All my friends and kins, their offerings that never cease. One always forgets strangers in such a hierarchical thank-you note, but they have the first place in mine.
Inspiration as an unconscious offering is such a beautiful idea, makes us wonder how our self itself owes to so many people and poems. Perhaps, we are indeed composed of what we read and who we meet.
How did you get into poetry? Which poets do you look up to?
I think it is the other way around. Poetry got into me. It made me something else. I am not sure if I am able to produce the best poems, but I have been cradling myself to sleep in the language of poets for several years now. I began to read poetry in school. My out-of-syllabus trysts with poetry began in 11th standard. I wrote for the first time when I was in college. I don't remember the first poem I wrote, but I think I had translated a Hindi poem I loved, into English. I consider that my first poem because writing is also an act of translation, you churn your inner worlds and turn their image into something readable. That's where it began, and I have been writing for a few years now. Poetry is the most intimate language I have learnt, and therefore I don't speak a lot of it. I write slowly. As I read more, I wanted to read even more - only for the silence that descends over my world every time I read something beautiful. Writing comes a close second. I look up to - well this is not an exhaustive list, but right now I'm thinking of - Audre Lorde, Rainer Maria Rilke, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ocean Vuong, Agha Shahid Ali, Amrita Pritam, Dilip Chitre, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Tishani Doshi, and others. Also, Kabir Das affected me a lot as a child and I'm returning to him now.
How do you feel your poetry has evolved after you better understood your identity?
I think answering this question is fraught with danger. There is no singular response to it, and I wonder if a complex and self-contradictory answer will do. Yes, my poetry has been a hazy reflection of my identity. But I don't think that ‘realizing’ my identity, whatever that means, has helped me write. It might be the other way around – poetry has helped me heal from all that was inflicted upon me because of my queerness, even before it was a self-defined identity. Sometimes, identity is the dog that barks outside my house all day and night. I don't want it but I have to feed it to return to my quietness and my writing. When I am nothing but my identity in the eyes of the world, I struggle to be seen as someone who also writes about other things. I can’t give my identity up, the queerness in my work is always magnified and seen as the theme. But when someone writes a heterosexual love poem it is simply a ‘love poem’. Most people who come from non-normative identities have different journeys in this respect. I can’t chart mine so clearly, for I don’t know yet if I write despite identity or because of it. Coming back to your question again - If there is one thing queerness has taught me, it is to dream of other worlds, and douse myself in that possibility. Poetry was the ‘other world’ in my household, and I have somehow managed to write alongside all the utilitarian work I was doing. I have more answers to this question, but I would like to move on.
We loved the line “Courage means the audacity to seek joy in the saddest of places” could you explore that a bit more for us?
There is a reason I haven’t published that line/excerpt, and it has stayed only on my Instagram. I’m not sure if it is mine. Borrowed from where, I don’t know – but I do know that when I wrote it I felt like I was speaking in a different voice, someone wiser than I was. I believe in it very deeply. Joy has come to me from the gravest of grief, and it is less ironical than it sounds. I think we are all living in different wars, and hence different totalities. As Levinas would say, one can never be completely outside the totality of war. In such a world, marked everywhere by loss, we have to reach for the comprehension of something beyond the totality, a place that exists within us but doesn’t derive its meaning from the totality. We have to steal ourselves back from the definition these wars have given us. That is an act of joy. This isn’t the general ‘be positive’ mantra that hustle gurus advertise. It is a recognition of violence that engulfs us. It is saying, here is what I am beyond this. I am reminded of Baby Suggs from Beloved, her sermon in the clearing. How everyone who gathered there would later return to the totality of being black but the clearing made it possible for them to imagine themselves. Toni Morrison writes, “She did not tell them to clean up their lives or go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glory-bound pure. She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard’”
Do you think the aesthetic value of poetry is sacrificed for politics?
There is no general answer to that – different poets write differently, whether they are writing a political poem or not. What is the aesthetic value we are talking about here? Something that pleases the eye, or matches the cultural standards of beautiful? If that is the criteria we are going by, I really like the literature that goes against it. Most of our aesthetics are defined by power and prejudice, and the feeling of discomfort that literature generates for establishments like caste and gender is extremely important. As far as textual aesthetics like style, form etc. are concerned, they go hand in hand with the content of the piece. They depend on several specificities of the poem, but I don’t think that is being talked about in your question. Literature is in tension with politics, as much as it is with aesthetics. Most works that never leave me are those that complicate the popular in both respects. To add to that, all political poems are not good poems, even if the underlying cause is something I believe in. But I have a special dislike for the representation of aesthetics and politics as antagonistic to each other. They work in tandem with each other, and even the seemingly aesthetic poem has some politics (that might be of conformity, and hence not overtly visible). Read ‘How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This’ by Hanif Aburraquib, if you want to understand more of that.
They have given such a nuanced answer, dealing in part with the constructed aspect of aesthetics (something we discussed in our article on Rupi Kaur) and in part with the political responsibility of those involved with aesthetic concerns. Again, the answer is more than an opinion, it is a whole assessment of art and aesthetics.
You wrote in a very beautiful piece that “ if our stories got out of our world, my joy would be stolen.” Since then you have won a national competition and gained a lot of following, do you still relate to that sentiment?
I still relate to that sentiment. It feels surreal and strange to have so many people reading my work. I want to write more, and also be read by more people. But the idea of being perceived by so many isn’t all that pleasing. It is said that a poet always shapes their own narrative. That illusion of control helps sometimes. As time has passed, I have become acutely aware of how stories are used to drive narratives, how trauma and even dejection has become part of the economy of attention that drives social media. If you fit into a schema, you are consumed more. I want to opt out of that but it seems impossible in today’s age. The story that I performed at the national storytelling competition, that won me a championship, is a very intimate one. Even though it is out there for everyone to see, I still shudder at the thought of performing it again. The only time I felt safe reading it out to a crowd was when I performed at a closed gathering of queer people at the Queer Support Group Lucknow. There was no gaze that felt piercing or fetishizing. All eyes were pregnant with kind recognition. And embraces. Sharing is an act of vulnerability. I’m mindful of where I’m putting out my work, who I am performing it for. You must have seen how inactive I am on my Instagram, of course that is part lethargy, hahahaha. But it is also the anxiety of being constantly perceived and slotted – I want to be free of that by disconnecting with my audience for small periods of time. And there will always be stories that I will refuse to share. But that is not all that a readership means to me. I cherish and value being read. It is like I suddenly have a voice of my own.
Do you think the pandemic changed something for you or your art?
The pandemic brought me closer to my art. I began recognizing poetry not as a hobby but as something I needed to stay alive for. It also threw me into a turmoil of what I should write about. There was my personal world, that was closing in on me. There were a lot of things to deal with, going back home as a queer person who was now out. But outside was also cruel, every morning brought terrible news - it shook me up, made me want to write scathing, angry poems. I ended up writing only about what I experienced first-hand, inside or outside. The best thing that happened to me during the pandemic was the Poetry Plant Project, where I applied and got in. I was able to experiment with not only technique, but also see new possibilities of what a poem could do. The online world made faraway places accessible from my home in Lucknow. I participated in the Kommune National Story Slam, something I wouldn’t be able to do in an offline world, while working from Hyderabad. I was invited to several poetry fundraisers, where I performed to raise money for relief work. I became associated with the local queer movement in Lucknow, and it has shaped my thinking and hence writing in so many ways. All these things helped me grow as a poet and reinstated my faith in the what poems could do.
What do you have to say about the contemporary Indian spoken poetry landscape?
The Indian spoken poetry scene is still in its infancy. I haven’t really been an active part of a lot of prominent spoken word circles because I haven’t lived in Tier 1 cities. Most of the offline spoken events I attended and performed at, were in Jaipur, where I completed my bachelor’s degree in electronics. It was a close knit circle with very few brilliant poets and mostly learners. I learnt a lot from there, especially because there were no ‘icons’ who were praised for whatever they wrote. It was a collaborative space.
About the events that an online coming-together made possible for me to attend, some poets really blew my mind. But I also saw how fame and prestige worked in these spaces – they drove who was chosen to perform, and the standards by which their poetry could be judged had fallen down. The line-ups were an eclectic mix of famous, respectable people who could bring crowds, with the audience snapping away at the most unpoetic of lines.
Most spoken poems in India reproduce the same aesthetics, along with some guitar music in the background. You not only write and perform in a certain way, but also look a certain way, in order to be seen more. The audience simply wants someone to look gorgeous on stage and recite the cute experience of finding a girlfriend. Their words don’t matter as long as they are saying something the audience can digest. Craft doesn’t matter as long as it is relatable. I think the past year has reinstated my faith in page poetry. I am returning to it. I do wonder if that will remain a thing in the future, with the advent of easier-to-understand, so-relatable, her-jhumkas-stuck-in-my-shirt poems. I hope the future is brighter.
Do you think there are any gaps in the online poetry milieu?
The online poetry milieu has shifted focus from poetry to relatability. Everyone has to produce ‘content’ and their work is judged by the number of people who comment/like them on social media. You need to cater to shorter attention spans, and therefore most of these are two to five line poems. Many of them are simply broken sentences pasted on good graphics. I don’t need to reiterate for the thousandth time what has already been said.
But all is not lost in this shift to online poetry. I have discovered some of the most beautiful, fierce, heart wrenching poems written by people I wouldn’t meet or listen to otherwise. This is especially true for Dalit and queer people in India, those who live in remote areas, women who aren’t allowed to go out as much, or other people who don’t have access to more elite performance spaces or magazines. This phenomenon has a lot of potential and I would love to see more of it unfold.
What do you hope to achieve in the coming years?
Something I can’t imagine.
Do you have any advice for budding poets?
Write, write, write. Write on fresh bus tickets, at the half-ploughed farm, over fancy napkins, at the noisy terrace, beside lecture notes, while you walk to the shop, at the back of manuals, and during office meetings. And have a small community of well-read people who review your work. Even two people would do. People who like to read poems, and preferably also write. Read a LOT of poems yourself. Remember that no one can teach you how to write. The most someone can do is help you read, tell you their own writing process, and give feedback.
Our conversation with Aditya summed up much of what is going on in the contemporary scene, from the consumerist dilution of the art to the debate over the ideological underpinnings of our aesthetic standards. It is not often that we come across a poet with such a grasp over their art and the world around it, when a poet with deep sympathy and understanding like them gains attention, it is a gain for the world itself.