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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

06 March, 2008

Poetry audiences - a discussion [Part 6]

Annie Zaidi:


Most of my thoughts on the subject have been put down. Before I said anything more on the subject, I'd wanted to hear others' views too, but none seem to be forthcoming quickly. So will just respond to some of the things said so far.

"Each one of us, individually, must give not merely as good as we receive, but better. This commitment also comes into play. Irrespective of those who stand alongside."

Perhaps, we should give more than we get. I don't know if that idea will appeal to many, but it would be nice if writers at least start confronting themselves about what it is they want. And then agree to do what it takes to make it happen. If we want attendance and ears, we should agree to lend ears.

"Perhaps a later start time. And I would definitely say not a weekday. That said, this won't guarantee larger audiences, but it certainly makes it easier to attend. I don't work fullt-time now, but, thinking back, I would have find it very doable to get to a short event at around 7 p.m. or a little later."

I'd say even 7pm is a bit early. For Bombay, especially. I can think back to my schedules in the city and 7 would have been very difficult. (That was one reason I never seemed to have a cultural life there.) You could start at 7.30pm and end at 8.30 pm, which is not at all late by city standards. Don't know about locations, because there are probably all sorts of concerns there, and you've got to pick something that's cheap and quiet. It would help if it is at a cultural hub. Prithvi is an excellent space, that way. So is the NCPA area.

"Definitely more audience building. More awareness generation. More education. (I remember someone saying at a poetry event that the way our education system brings poetry to us is bad. But then, if we agree, what are we doing to help people rise beyond that?"

Suggestion: Those of us who know people in schools or colleges - can we initiate one class a month 'living poets' kind of series? Can PEN do it? Colleges are better. Each college has hundreds of English Lit students. (My college had 170-odd in my batch alone). If the principals or HoDs can be spoken to. They just need to schedule some time, a mic, and would be nice if they could pay the poet a teeny bit, taxi fare at least. I do know things are changing a wee bit. Spoke to a college teacher yesterday and she said that Manju Kapur had come to speak at the college. No reason why poets can't reach out and build connections too.

"How about, for a start, including notes on why you selected the poems that are on the site? Why not have the poets write about the genesis of the works featured?"

We can, though I am not convinced that that would help. We're talking here about building audience, and building a sense of community. And I personally don't remember being particularly interested in the genesis of a poem, unless the facts are integral to understanding it.

"Attention spans are dropping, and there is so much more competition for those diminishing slices of attention. Films, news, opinions, everything's getting shorter, more concise, in an attempt to fit in. (And, y'know, there is more opportunity there. Good poets manage to fit things into beautifully carved nutshells.)"

If that's a suggestion that poetry needs to be shorter, or that it needs to be tailored to the tastes of people, I'd beg to differ. Several times on the Caferati board, I have encouraged poets to expand their piece since it begins to say something interesting and stops abruptly.
Attention spans are something we need to worry about only if the craft isn't that great. Or if the way we present our craft isn't that great. The fact that news is getting shorter just makes it more unreadable/unwatchable. And Indians continue to watch 3-hour long films. In which nothing happens. And soaps. In which nothing happens again.

I'm just nudging this discussion into a slightly different track, but since both Sampurna and Peter have brought up the fact that our audience has a dozen other alternatives to entertainment and culture, we need to change track somewhat, I think.

I follow popular media with great (detached) interest. Many of the popular songs, for instance, do have something different about them - their sound, their words, their context. Something 'hat ke'. It is that which captures attention. (And I digress a little here, but does anyone remember this Hindi poet called Maya Govind? She wrote the song 'gutar gutar' which became a national (out)rage, about a decade ago. I mention her now because she was a poet, not a full-time Bollywood lyricist, and she wrote an overtly suggestive song about pigeons... since we are on the subject of capturing attention.) Mere beauty rarely captures the attention of wide swathes of people, or the imagination of a nation. I find a lot of modern poetry is predictable and I like being surprised, whether it is in theme or metaphor.

"The wisdom of crowds does work, and it the mob is powerful and fickle. Fifteen minutes, fifteen seconds even, of fame? That's not the future; it's already happening."

Democracy in poetry is welcome, and creation should not be the preserve of a few. Which is why open mics are catching on so well. It is great if everybody is indeed participating in poetry and giving back to it. That's not the problem. The opposite is.

On mobs... But the mob watches Ekta Kapoor's soaps! (And is reasonably loyal, actually, if you'd follow soap TRPs, you'd know). It has been centuries since poetry has been a mob's delight. Not unless you include songs. Is the market of songs open to poets? I don't know. Have heard a few rock bands in Bombay who do sing in English. The lyrics are awfully derivative... maybe we should explore that audience.

"Poets need to compete for attention the same as anyone else. They need to compete with films, books, news, reality TV, the latest web phenom."

Sure. And poets are doing so, using these very tools. People are making poetry films. HBO runs a performance poetry series (not in India, unfortunately). SAB TV had a program on Hindi poetry, especially funny poetry. And we are all using the web. We need to use more of it. If I can access the right computer and net connection, I do go poem-hunting on the web. I like watching videos too, and I go looking for poetry videos. Can't find any Indian ones.

"Why is it that a poetry-loving community--specifically, English poetry, because there are far larger turnouts for poetry events in other Indian languages--is difficult to find in the real world in this country?"

That's easy. A tiny percentage of our country speaks English. Most of them speak it or read it only to further their professional interests. If they did have poetic leanings, they're likely to read poems in any of many other languages. We ARE a very, very tiny community here, proportion-wise. It is no point trying to compete with Hindi or Urdu or Marathi audiences.

"Why are the better-known poets not able to grow audiences? Why aren't they embracing the technology that's available? Things like podcasts, posting poetry online, writing about poetry, about the appreciation and understanding of poetry, for instance."

It would help a lot if the better-known poets began to do cool stuff with technology. However putting poetry up on the web is a concern for many. Copyright issues. But one way out is to put up stuff on your own websites which doesn't allow the 'copy-paste' function. That alone would be a great step forward. (Would help if techno-savvy poet-people advise techno-unsavvy ones like myself on this)

There's also that can be done by just reaching out to poets in other languages and that way, build little networks of communities with some overlap.

"We, as people who believe that the work of certain poets is special, should do more to publicise it, sell it, make it easy to relate to, make sure the people that it speaks to hear about it, and convince people to attend, to read them."

True. And I can think of ways. It will take time and a little money to begin, but of course, there are ways. Which we will discuss elsewhere, maybe. This is getting too long for the moment.

[Priya Chabria's original mail, Annie Zaidi's reply, a short reply from Priya C, in which your correspondent drones on and on and on., Sampurna Chattarji's take, some more thoughts from Annie, Vivek Narayanan's view.]

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Blogger Dilip D'Souza said...

Let me confess, I would not have turned up here had it not been for Petey's gentle urging. Let me also confess, with truly no offence to the people I know here, that poetry has never done much for me. Let me suggest that those two confessions are not unrelated to each other, and to the discussion you people are trying to have, the questions you are trying to answer.

Put another way: how do you reach out to someone like me, how do you make poetry meaningful to someone like me? (Clearly Pete's not going to be around all the time to do his gentle urging).

The only way, it seems to me, is for the poet to do what every other kind of writer tries to do: give her readers something to think about. Priya says that poets are "practical people", "embedded in reality". Well, then there must be some way of communicating that practicality and reality. You can't write in the hope that people read what you write, or come listen to you. Instead, you must write with the constant aim of drawing people to what you write. To me, that's the practicality and reality that Priya refers to: i.e. not hope, but reality.

Whether that drives the subjects you choose, or the way you treat those subjects, is immaterial. It should be the aim, that's all. And if you do that, they will eventually come: whether 6pm or 830 or weekday or weekend.

This is hardly stuff that people here need to be hearing from me, of course. But I find it good to remind myself of it every now and then. We all write for ourselves, true. But we all also want to be read. Thus every writer, every poet, has got to keep asking himself: How do I write so I get read?

It's almost a job description, as far as I'm concerned.

07 March, 2008 13:26  
Blogger CP said...

poetry aidiences are low because poetry has a bad name. and most practioners hold forth as if they are something special. drop the persona.put some blood and shoulder into the words. connect. it will help if a cricket star or bollywood hero makes an appearance at the readings. you need a poetry ambassador!


07 March, 2008 15:06  

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