Against Contrivance

Foreword

About once a month, a group I really adore called Subcontinental Drift Boston puts on an open mic. Last (October? September?) year, I started making a regular appearance, reading my poetry at their open mics. It’s become, above all, a way to engage with the South Asian community in the Greater Boston Area. Every meet feels like a little homecoming. Somewhat less importantly, it’s become a great exercise in writing poetry to a bit of a schedule. I’m self-learning discipline as regards writing poetry, but I’m also unlearning a lot of my own behaviors around obligation and the commodification of artistic spaces and artistic output.

This essay is the result of realizing that discipline is an active endeavor. Discipline is not muscle memory. I made the mistake of thinking it could become muscle memory. I wrote this essay the night before I was due to perform at the open mic. I planned on reading this in lieu of a poem. Then the Christchurch mosque attack happened. I found myself processing my desperate sadness through a poem I wrote the same day I was slated to perform. This essay was not relevant anymore; but I wanted to publish it here as a reminder to myself that contrivance is the downfall of art.

**

March 14, 2019

I’ve been taking liberties with my own fonts of inspiration. Usually, when I haven’t written a poem in a while, I feel the loss of it in my body like hunger. I find myself looking around at the world aimlessly, hollow-eyed, a child who hasn’t fully grasped the meaning of Ramadan.

I think I’m misrepresenting that loss; the loss isn’t hunger, it’s just forgetting you’re fasting. In going without, you understand what it means to have. When I do finally come upon a poem, it’s like sinking my teeth into a date. In my house, we break our fasts with dates smothered in freshly whipped heavy cream. The first taste is that of coolness. The second taste is that of the date, but it’s the coolness that always stays with me, the way I feel it first in the back of my eyes, spreading out to my stomach, soothing the heat I didn’t know I had there.

I have not been so graceful in my asceticism lately. On the contrary, I’ve flaunted my hunger, my loss. I’ve worn it like a badge of honor, lifting up my shirt to showcase the hollows of my ribs, like a monk on a soapbox. Cocky enough to mix metaphors – cocky enough to call irony into my life.

It’s not nazar. As much as I like invoking nazar for every minor inconvenience, I know when the universe is just trying to knock me down a peg. “Look at me, look at my misfortune, look at this hunger – I will pull a poem out of this hunger, a miracle out of the dark, a bunny out of a hat. I am without now, but I know there is inspiration beneath the surface.” Enter: irony.

Still, I’m sure infuriatingly to anyone watching, I have always been able to pull off writing a poem in the nick of time. I have rarely had a reason to believe otherwise. I always find poems, lurking around corners. It’s just a matter of finding the right time to initiate the hunt.

At some point last week, though, I realized I was in trouble. I realized I was in trouble two days ago, when I started reading Ursula K. LeGuin. Something she wrote stirred the hunger in me, and I put the words to paper. After a stanza, I was stumped. I reread what I wrote: there was no rhythm, no instinctive meter, no reason to keep writing.

“That’s okay,” I thought. “I’ve had a lot of duds before,” I thought. “Maybe this one wasn’t meant to be,” I thought.

A couple of weeks before that, I had had another idea. I put it to paper. I have forgotten about it since, and it has been relegated to my Google Drive folder as “Untitled, February 28, 2019.”

I’ve collected two more “Untitleds,” since then. “Untitled, March 13, 2019,” was the one I wrote after Ursula K. LeGuin. The third Untitled, “Untitled, March 14, 2019,” seemed promising. But, while I was trying on glasses at Warby Parker, I got the sinking feeling that I was in trouble once again. I had been nursing an emotional breakdown over an album I’d been relistening to. I was convinced: if not Ursula, this album would do justice to my monkhood. I would write in a fury. I was near tears – what’s the point of crying over a song if you’re not going to write a GD poem after it?

Friends, I’m here to tell you today: there has been no GD poem after any song. I had relegated myself to thinking, “Well, if not a poem-poem, maybe a prose-poem?” After all, where is there more freedom than in unstructure?

Apparently at a Warby Parker, because between writing that paragraph and putting money down on a pair of cherry blossom Madeleines (medium-framed), I had completely lost any interest in “Untitled March 14, 2019.” When I tried to read that poem again, I was taken aback by my own hubris. I couldn’t recognize the voice in the spaces between that poem as my own. The contrivance seemed even more vivid in unstructure, and trust me, I have no pretensions about my own pretensions when it comes to my poetry. Again: what’s the point of feeling a song so deeply that you cry every time you listen to it if it’s not going to inspire you to write a GD poem after it?

I felt betrayed. I’ve come to realize that I made up the loss I felt – I’m not hungry, so much as a little peckish. I want a snack. Munchies. I don’t need the food, I just want it. And therein lies the arrogance, the mistake: when I write a poem, it’s out of a need. There’s a twisting in my stomach so ferociously painful that if I don’t write down the meter in my head, I will carry that pain for the rest of my life.

Here, there’s no such primal desire. Here, there is no hunger. There is only an assumption of deserving: I need to write a poem so I can read it at Subdrift. That’s why there was so much contrivance in every poem I tried to write. There was no authenticity or engagement – just expectation.

The danger of a stage, a platform, is that you lose yourself to that platform. I parsed away a part of myself to the Subdrift stage every time I read a poem there. The feeling is electric. Every time I’ve come off that stage, I’ve felt freshly exorcised. I find myself going to the adjoining kitchen to shake in silence. Each poem is a possession; a commitment, an oath made in blood, and the stage comes to collect. I love that feeling more than I can say, and perhaps more than is responsible. I love expectation; I rise to it. But I cannot write poetry to Pavlov. There is nothing in writing poetry that needs to be conditioned, just nurtured when the opportunity offers itself. The hunger comes and goes as it pleases. My job is to wait; feel the twisting; breathe in the possession; and, as quickly as it comes upon me, release it. Beyond that, I have no control over the matter. It’s time to stop pretending that I do.

Poetrygrams, privacy and setbacks

I hate calling myself a poet, in the way I always struggled with calling myself an artist (I still don’t like calling myself an artist). To be a “poet” or an “artist” means you have received a degree of instruction, or self-taught prowess, of a calibre that it can be disseminated. I don’t think I have that distinction at all. I can barely call myself a writer. It’s easier to create some space between myself and the act: I write poetry, I make art, both are more palatable in that they aren’t claims, they aren’t identities, but they are easily identifyable actions.

At some point, I had forgone this cautionary practice and – kind of arrogantly – started calling myself a poet. For what reason? I got a handful of likes on some poetry I threw onto my Instagram feed, and it fed my ego. I wrote more stuff, and threw it on my Insta feed, and got more affirmation. Don’t get me wrong – I cared about the poetry I wrote, and I took care in the writing process. I sat on poems until I was happy with them, for weeks and months at times. But at the back of my mind, I knew the medium I was writing for. I had a formula – no more lines than can fit the length of my phone, linebreaks so that there were no run-on sentences past the width of my phone, and squat enough that the poem could be easily squared and put up on Instagram. I was immediately limited to short bursts of prettily strung together sentences that, sure enough, were poems but by no means the best poems I could write. At some point, I had accrued enough poems that I could dedicate a separate poetrygram to my work, and I did. I felt wonderful about that – maybe I could find a poetry community for myself on Instagram. I could cultivate followers, get feedback, learn from the feedback. It would be a form of workshopping that I didn’t have access to.

A few months passed. Feeling somewhat dissatisfied still, after a few months of playing around with the poetrygram, I created a poetry WordPress blog. I felt wonderful about that again, but in a slightly wiser way. That was my first inkling of understanding. Once I started writing poetry specifically for the WordPress blog, I found that I became more experimental. I started playing with formats and styles, wrote longer poems, I created room for myself to expand into. All the little lessons I had stored away in the back of my mind in my miserliness after years of reading diverse poetry finally had a space to come out in. I was Silas Marner, and this endless space for growth and writing was my Eppie. I was a surprised at how different my poetry had become, within days – I wasn’t writing for a specific medium anymore, and, honestly, I wasn’t writing for the easy validation either. I hate admitting that the influx of likes made me feel better, more talented, but it did. But I never got the poetry community, the access to the world that I wanted.

But the WordPress blog brought to light a whole other issue. With the advent of the WordPress blog, I found the courage to submit poetry to various publications and reviews, and – well – I was knocked back onto my butt with an important realization: the poetry world rewards privacy. That is to say, you can’t publish stuff that has appeared online before in any form.

I reeled. I should have known this. Somehow, I thought a blog – an Instagram feed – I thought they didn’t really count as having appeared online before. What a weird combination of arrogance and self-deprecation. In the process of years of writing dozens and dozens of poems and subsequently uploading all of them to Instagram and WordPress, I had completely nullified 80% of the opportunities available to me; I had stunted my own ability to access a poetry community. (I say 80% here because there are definitely publications out there that take work that has previously appeared online.) All this in pursuit of the instant affirmation I got from one-click uploads and Instagram-savvy/SEO-friendly (hash)tagging. All because of my inability to appreciate poetry as a private pursuit.

I felt like crap. But it was a moment of much needed clarity. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for being humbled like that. The poetry I’ve written to this point matters to me. I parsed away little pieces of myself in everything I’ve written thus far, and I’m grateful that people got to see what they did – but I need to start from scratch now. I need to keep my work close to my chest, learn to actively workshop, learn to actually utilize the lessons I take away from the poets and poetry I read, to not cater to easy validation anymore. More generally, I need to care for my privacy. I’ve received a few harsh lessons in the part regarding privacy, and I don’t seem to have learnt anything. If not for my own safety, I should at least learn from the blow my ego – my ambition – has been dealt because of my own lack of diligance and easy susceptibility to memetically engineered cultures of art.

I’ve already taken down my poetry blog. I won’t be taking down my poetrygram. I think it’s important to face the physical manifestation of my arrogance head-on and learn from it. Removing the poems I’ve written so far from the face of the internet won’t help me much anyway. It’s also way too easy to pretend I never made a mistake. But, so help me God, I won’t be putting more content on there that hasn’t already been published elsewhere. I’m also going to stop making excuses and actually go to poetry workshops from now on.

I feel wonderful.


PS: I have…more feelings about Instapoetry than I’ve let myself disclose/discuss in this blogpost. There is a whole discussion about accessibility and democratizing poetry that I haven’t really touched on. This is not a commentary on making poetry accessible, just my experience with Instapoetry culture and the adverse impact it had on me as someone trying to be better at poetry.

A post written in poem

​as a child i listened to The Cranberries

singing anthems i could not grasp 

for Salvation & for Zombies, 

as Odes to my Family & to Saving Grace;

i am 21 & my heart aches as it connects

the dots a five year old in her father’s car

could not.

i cry for the Warchild, 

for Ridiculous Thoughts,

& sing my Daffodil Laments

(my anthem for Zombies is much the same). 

as a child my mother found me

watching the news with the grimness of 

a newly minted tween.  

i had tears in my eyes & what felt like 

a noose in my fists  

& an anger so new to my 4 foot 5 frame. 

“how do i fix it?” “you don’t.” “why?”

“you talk to others about fixing it. you trust 

others to help you do what you can’t do 

alone.”

mamma bade me speak with the softness 

of water & watch the ripples flow from me. 

with their tanks 

and their bombs  

and their bombs  

and their guns,  

watch them die in a treacherous mind’s eye. 

& spill forth water from open arms.

Divining

some cooking tips:

1. when you cook chicken (breast, thigh or fillet)

make three thin nicks with a serrated knife
(okay, it’s more for bread than poultry
but it was the only knife within reach).
stuff rosemary in each pocket
& smell the divinity in your kitchen.


2. most things are better crushed.
take garlic, mint, ice, an empty can:
press down on the flat of your knife (or)
smush up leaves, admire your green thumb (or)
take your blender/hammer: now pulse/smash (or)
bring your foot down hard on the can
(extra points for panache)
& smell the divinity – and beer – in your kitchen.


3. don’t take offense if people ask
for salt or pepper with their food.
everyone has a different palette,
and besides, you always ask for hot sauce,
so why hold others to an unfair standard?
just bite your tongue,
nurse your ego in a separate room,
& smell the divinity of food shared in your kitchen.


4. they say that food cooked with more than five ingredients

is not as good as food cooked with three ingredients.
i’m not sure what the significance of three is,
but look: rice, meat and yogurt.
that’s three, but that does not biryani make.
now toss in the garam masala, saffron, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, fennel, bay leaves, salt, cardamom, cumin and peppercorn
& smell the divinity of your grandmother in your kitchen.


5. don’t be disheartened when you realize that english is

all you can write any poetry in.
your mother sings a silken tongue, but no good chef is the sum
of a single ingredient, however rich (or organic).
persian, arabic, turkish all threw in their loans,
but english lends itself nicely to being spun so soft
it can melt in your mouth like the best of them.
so forgive your insecurities,
& smell the divinity of poetry in your kitchen.

Five years & another damn poetry dump

According to WordPress, this blog turned five years old on Sunday. I don’t really know how much I believe that, but then I refuse to believe five years ago was 2010. Seriously, don’t correct me on that, five years ago was 2005.

Regardless of whether or not this is entirely accurate, five years is still one hell of a milestone and I’m honestly surprised I kept up a blog that received its baptismal blessing in the form of a Year 11 English teacher (it was an assignment for my IGCSE First Language English class). I don’t like going back through this blog all that much – I have enough of retrospect as is without having to parse through my own words – but it’s reassuring to know it’s out there. Far more reassuring than the existence of 75% of my other social media platforms.

I’ve been reading a lot of Kierkegaard lately in the form of a little anthology comprising his journals and essays and seminal works; I love reading journals and letters written by my favorite thinkers because I’m that pompous ass and because it explores what is a distinct beauty in their very musing, a grace in the core of their self. Allow me to indulge my fantasy: in an ideal future, I’d love to be the kind of person whose “journal” and correspondence inspires and is widely circulated because it’s believed that I have something of value to say, and that there’s merit to my first draft thoughts so to speak. Now I doubt that that would be the case. And there’s very little romance to sharing links. And I think I’m the only idiot who still writes letters out of sentimental value on occasion.

(To my future publisher: I do have a journal. It’s not worth it except for scribbled down poems and maybe a proper entry here and there. And a few of half-decent drawings. Ask for it at your own discretion. I’ll probably have thrown it away though. Also, my handwriting isn’t all that pretty so it’s not even worth it for the aesthetic value.)

Now that I’m done destroying any chance I might ever have of being a published fauxlosopher, here’s some poetry. Continue reading “Five years & another damn poetry dump”

the universe is ever-expanding

My heart is not so small that

it cannot ache for the many;

my conscience is not so limited as

the number of words on my tongue;

and my attentions do not only bend with

the curve of my lover’s spine.

i am human and

we

have an uncanny knack

for feeling with every star in the sky

and since when has Andromeda glowed

with the light of a Facebook post shared?

(but skin, i’ve heard, can be scorched and broken,

and even nature needs time to process calamity.)


There are a lot of afterthoughts in my poems, and this one I felt like I needed to add in light of the AME Church massacre last night. Ramadan Kareem to all, and I hope you find peace in prayer and community. I had a whole post planned out but my Ramadan zen has given way to a lot of hunger and wooziness.

poetry dump, take one

a fun fact about bruises;
the throb lasts about as long
as the memory that accompanied the blow;
and as far as battle-scars go,
registering bluepurpleblack
with vague surprise
Feels like a posthumous victory
Sounds like a retroactive yield
& Looks like my own smile reflected back
in a blade, diamond-sharp;
a will that cuts.

She slips into her abode
(mantled in sea foam
water lapping her hands
salt inching up her hair)
And her legion of guardians,
her friends of the water,
greet her with rigid salutes.
Their faces stony in loving obedience –
and Oh, What A Scene!
Mermaid, her heroes,
a dance to hail the sea!
But a bliss broken
By a knock, an intruder;

Scatter! says Mermaid
to her erstwhile heroes,
their bravado chastened –
The Harbinger is come!
Ships, one and all, sink into
maritime security;
a final salute to the Officer-at-Arms.
The Portent, she smiles,
and reaches into blue,
in a swirl, in a tempest.

The aftermath is sudsy,
stony faces of little green men,
and the smile of the Mermaid
“Is it time for lunch yet?”

I rose with the birds

And let myself fly through wind

To kiss morning light

–. — -..-. — -.

My skin crawls fervent;

horrified —

and the sound it makes

is Morse.

The code intones

the following words:

“It’s over, it happened —

It’s Done.”

Some say comfort is

luxury

And my flesh?

Derelict.

But if will truly comes from

ones heart,

then the braille on my breast says

“Go on.”