Of ‘everyday poetry’

Ratnakar Valmiki

The problem with Abhimanyu Kumar as a poet is that he is painfully humble, to a fault. In this day and age of insta-poets, celebrity poets, and different other varieties of poets, readers have come to expect a poet to promote his/her work. But Kumar seems reticent to go all out (he says, he understands the demands of the time, but has found it difficult to follow the rules).
Frankly, this has proven to be a hindrance in promoting his debut collection, Milan & the Sea (Red River, New Delhi, 2018), and it’s a shame really because the book deserves all the attention it can get. The book is a breath of fresh air in the current landscape of Indian English poetry, where the main concerns among the young poets seem to be either to wax eloquence about their own erudition or to complain against the world around them.
Kumar does neither. As is the concerns of a first collection of poems, Kumar’s poetry is essentially a means to understand himself, within the bounds of his personal connections, his father and his son, and the others he meets. What I find most remarkable in these poems is how Kumar refuses to wallow in self-pity, though there are ample opportunities to do so. Neither does he launch on irate triads. Instead, he is a clinical observer of his world, including himself. Perhaps this detachment of tone was acquired from the poet’s experience as a journalist. This may also explain why he uses a plain, spoken idiom. There is trickery of language, no show of erudition, but a sincere attempt to observe and report.
The poet Indran Amirthanayagam is on point when he writes in the afterword of the book: “Abhimanyu comes from, consists of, and writes for you and me, and, in particular, for the betel leaf seller, the rickshaw-wallahs, the bucolic visitor from the country at the elite South Delhi party, the misfit, the ill-mannered, the shy. He orients his passion towards the great majority, the dilemmas of the ordinary.”
Of course, Allen Ginsberg is a major influence. The first section of the book is called ‘Chasing Ginsberg’. Kumar is also the co-founder of the popular poetry blog, ‘The Sunflower Collective’ that celebrates dilettantism in Poetry and aims at showcasing poets who have not necessarily been trained formally.
Perhaps the not-so-flattering-epithet, ‘poets who have not necessarily been trained formally’, applies to Kumar as well, and believe you in me, it’s a good thing. This frees Kumar to be himself and this gives his poetry a hitherto unheard cadence — ‘the everyday poetry’.

In this brief interlocution,

Abhimanyu Kumar talks about his art

and the place that fuels it.

On writing

It’s difficult to map a journey that is more interior than exterior. Being more self-aware is how one can improve as a poet. This self-awareness does not come easy and it is a continuous process. While external markers are also important – like publication, for example – they should never overshadow the main project. Poetry, ultimately, is not a career booster or a way to network or a pump to inflate the self. It is subservient to the cause of liberating the self from ignorance, to bring comfort to the sad, the desperate, the weak and the meek. I would like to add, however, that discovering the Beat writers helped me find a way to write in the manner I wanted to, to evaluate my concerns and expectations about and from my work.

On personal poetry

The Political is all around us so naturally, it impacts the Personal. I see it as trying to put your money where your mouth is. It is important to minimise the internal contradictions between what we say and what we do, for our words to have the desired effect.
The nature of poetry as an art, at least of the kind which I like, is such that it abhors material riches and worldly success/ celebrity-hood, as well as blind hatred based on discriminatory criteria. It follows that predatory capitalism or fascism will never have the support of poets in the world. As Ginsberg as written somewhere, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Of course, exceptions like Ezra Pound exist.

On Delhi

Delhi is a very politically charged space. At any time, there are protests going on; the Parliament is here. So certainly that has an effect – but there are also limitations to both the nature of politics on display here as we all as its reception. There are different social milieus in Delhi. There is the posh South Delhi which has the pubs and cafes where we read our poems, the inspiration for which we sometimes find in less prosperous parts of the city like Old Delhi or the seedier parts of CP. So that contradiction too exists and I know poets who, unable to reconcile themselves to it, have chosen to be more reclusive.

Three Poems 
from Abhimanyu Kumar’s 
Milan & the Sea

Son returning home 
(For Father)

I thought we have had
our final showdown
but the curtain hasn’t
fallen on our act yet.

We speak on the phone; your voice is distant
and holding back, as usual, the emotions that
undercut it; it’s embarrassing for you, I know,
to own up to them. I craved for you

like a withered tree for rain all these years.
I’m afraid I shall have to hurt you again
(Of course, my heart shall echo the hollow
strains of your heart afterwards.).

I see you in my mind’s eye: old and
irritable, like a deposed king in exile,
able to see only shapes — vague, without details —
the pleasure of reading gone,

just a montage of sounds from the TV
fills your evenings. I have inherited your
temper, sharp and sudden, your small
princely hands and feet, your cynicism

and bitterness.
And a love
of letters: all that is
written and printed.

Milan & the sea

Today I took my son
to the beach at Thalassery.

Before making it near the sea
I crossed a couple of men
packing freshly caught fish in chunks of ice —
I asked one if he was with the Party —
but he said no, a little startled
at my question and somewhat disdainfully,
ignoring the hammer and sickle flag
hovering on a pole behind him
like one ignores a gatecrasher at a wedding reception.

The air smelt of salt, fish and piss.
The sea was a beast,
wounded but not hurt irredeemably.
It had the sun caught between its teeth,
bleeding slightly over the waters. It whispered to me
if lived with enough conviction,
even a lie turns into a truth.

Milan, daunted by the awesome spectacle,
clung to Aletta and started to nap —

I was reminded of another poem
I had written about the sea many years ago which
I sent to several fancy literary journals; they all rejected it.
I felt, like me, my son too must have felt immortal
before the sea, like all men do
but too small to contain the feeling
he chose to sublimate it in sleep.

(Maybe if I had written about feeling mortal instead of immortal in that poem, it would have had a better chance at publication for that would have pleased the editors with its humility. 
But I do not do humility. Just like the sea.)

The party

I went to a party last night. There was a guy;
a film director. His film had opened
a European festival recently. He talked on
and on about not liking epic acting, Leonardo
Dicaprio, and the Iraq War. He spoke in a
falsetto sometimes. And his wrist went limp
from time to time. He was an artiste and he
wanted it to be known. He told a lot of stories,
featuring a lot of famous names and cracked
a lot of jokes with sexual innuendos. It was all
great fun. I had a lot of Biryani, and thought of
the Intelligence Bureau. They are sinister, I tell you.