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From One Poet To Another: Medha Singh

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Editor’s Note: In an interview for the Danish journal POV International, Claus Ankersen speaks to Indian poet Medha Singh, India Editor at The Charles River Journal, and Editorial Board member of the Freigeist Verlag. Here, she discusses her journey through poetry and its place in contemporary times:

Your own practice of poetry.

Poets should be mysterious, I think, and leave the discussion of craft and process to those for whom the former is paramount, and the latter only incidental. You may deduce, that I favour beauty (and meaning), and know that its appropriate understanding is not without mystery. And my sympathies lie there. Sure, I can tell an alexandrine from a tercet, a dactyl from a trochee (though not without recognising that these things are markers of enormous privilege), but that’s useful when one is caught in a sensory nightmare i.e. social occasions abuzz with philistines and charlatans, who can’t roll a joint to save their life.

When I write, I like good stationary, silence and staring out of the window.

Photo taken at the poet’s home.

Young females’ and poetry.

It’s good they’re here. Finally. Although I’m not comfortable with the idea of ‘young’ females. One may refer to them as ‘new voices’, because the space is quite large and youth is a gendered concept, whether you like it or not. A man can stay young till he’s 39-40, and apparently I’m in my prime right now (at 25).

It’s been a good few decades that we’ve had men’s clubs ‘paving the way’ for us, simultaneously keeping us out, not reviewing women’s books (unless we have a foreign degree or are dating them, or their friends). I don’t know if it’s because we (Indians, English speaking India) are simply a culture of subordination given our feudal past, or our minds are still colonised given our colonial one (or both)— fear festering within us; how to break old paradigms, and come into light, not have our peace or integrity chafed along the way.

Although, between us women, at home base, we have to grow away from the politics of mere naming, the move has to be emancipatory, transformative. It’s not enough to say we’re coming out, we’re pointing problems out, this or that needs fixing. What is the point? What happens the day after you come out?

One prefers brazen aestheticism, as opposed to the covert appropriation of women’s emancipation and feminist values, used as a marketing tool, to sell books. If you don’t have the politics, stay out of it, do what you do best. We are as easily corruptible by the promise of power as men are. It’s strange how our struggle has been commercialised, the movement seduced by capital, by pro globalisation and pro liberal values. It’s not helping the larger mass of women as such, especially poets/writers who happen to be women. Even the term ‘woman poet’ sounds akin to ‘poetess’ to my ears. Wildly condescending.

It’s better to be responsible, than a disgrace, better to think of who our poems liberate and exalt, than to think of how to sell books and network. However, the problem really is competing with that old chestnut: the vanguard male poet, kissed by immortality, regardless of his essential character or attitude towards women. Maybe we don’t need to be all that upright (to some degree), yet we need to be incorruptible at the same time. Toeing the line always.

Our poetry is doing well, but the politics is stuttering, caught between the noise of mainstream publishing houses and the sense of fear towards being disproportionately offensive (to the watchful eye of male gatekeepers).

It’s enough sometimes, to be a purveyor of beauty and experience (and perforce, your work becomes a valid expression of female subjectivity, whether or not you want to call yourself a feminist or lay claim to an authentic value) than a call of arms undergirded by facetiousness, and cringeworthy vanity projects.

It’s quite another thing to challenge it substantially, with one’s integrity intact. The thing is, when we make it a point to say, everything we create is us, it’s harder for people to separate Picasso’s or Rodin’s or Woody Allen’s or Roman Polanski’s or Allen Ginsberg’s crimes, from who they were. This is fundamental, a welcome change. I am my work. There you are.

Poetry as democratization, emancipation and empowerment tool.

I don’t think of that as the telos of poetry. Politics, emancipation, freedom and equality struggles reside in the worldly conscience of the individual, where she situated in her place within the hierarchy of the capitalist order, this constitutes her/the subjectivity that confidently moves and absorbs things, and, our intellectual capacity that assimilates the surrounding politics.

Though it plays only a role in and of itself, within the formation of a poetic consciousness.

All that this worldly awareness comprises of, finds its way in poetry, if it needs to. Poetry is entirely futile when it comes to all this, and poetry’s achievements far exceed what is worldly, so it may incidentally flout and challenge varieties of oppression, unless it is consciously trying to do that (especially with regard to LGBTQ issues, or revolutionary poetry, for example), but the larger achievement of poetry is not worldly, or is incidentally so; not at all to me, at any rate. I learnt this from Akhmatova, from Tsvetaeva.

#MeToo poetry in India?

You’ve come to the wrong person to ask for this. I don’t agree with the movement, for the reasons that the focus has to turn away from the survivor to the perpetrator of the violence, survivors should not have to out themselves, the spotlight needs to be on the men who need to be held accountable.

The fact that it took place on social media itself— the nature of that medium is consumptive, we hear rape and molestation stories on the same platforms I’m being sold shoes, cosmetics and penis enlargement schemes. I don’t want to be complicit in the objectification of my own trauma, for others to voyueristically consume it. I don’t think others should either, but really it is their choice.

I wrote a full article on this.

The thing is, when it comes to something like ‘Nanette’, it’s a brilliantly done work of art and profoundly necessary and pertinent, globally! Yet, at the same time, it really serves the demographic of comparably more emancipated women in first world countries (this is not to say that first world countries are better off than us, we have somethings down, like abortion is legal, and women have always had the right to vote in India) but not everyone has that stage, not everyone is on social media, and not everyone is an American or knows who Alyssa Milano is.

While it masquerades as an all inclusive movement, in India you’d find the handful of english speaking, upwardly mobile men and women, happy to jump on the bandwagon, but what is really happening? Their narratives are now invisiblizing the ones of those who cannot even seek recourse, those whom the movement should really serve, the real disenfranchised people: the dalits, tribals, working class men and women. Who will hear them? Who does?

The development of spoken word?

It’s just another one of those things that first belonged to black people, is now appropriated by white liberals, has become fashionable, and is marketed to the rest of the world as the next radical thing that can challenge the status quo. But it’s futile if it serves capital as opposed to resisting it. Spoken word, by itself can be used to refer to anything: comedy skits, long monologues, rap, poems included.

‘Slam poetry’, in this context, is where the problem is: it started as an angry voice, trembling with indignation, in Harlem as a response to the (mainly white and male) publishing industry, which was, even earlier, a borrowed form, from the Negritude poets of the Carribean.

The Nuyorican jazz club where Mark Smith started to host these evenings, was an avowed socialist, and a construction worker ie a member of the working class. Slam poetry carried with itself a desperation, an angst, pathos and pain, an outcome of, relevant and pertinent to, those that emerge from grossly marginalized groups. Like everything else, it became appropriated by a bunch of white liberals.

Look up Saul Williams and compare him to any (even ‘the best’ people like Sarah Kay), and tell me what you feel about it then.

All art is political. Art expresses what politics doesn’t allow you to. I can’t separate your identity from your parents. You can’t separate India from it’s struggle for Independence. My mother will always be my mother. You won’t feel very nice if white people started pretending tomorrow that ghazals belong to them.

Barring Eminem, most of white rap is A grade garbage. He had an edge because he did something no one had done before in his time ie render the violence of poverty on human life, when you’re white, in rap. Even then, a rap revival only took place with Kendrick in the last decade. The agenda had become grossly materialist, and capitalist, might still possibly be. Like spoken word, it has largely lost sight of what it started out as. In principle, I can’t dignify rap music any further because of how fundamentally sexist it is. In India, it is too new to be considered for debate.

Spoken word is spoken, it can signify rap, comedy skits, monologues, and up till that point it’s fine. When you start with the poetry nonsense it gets to me. Mumbai rap works fine, because it does not deviate from the political purpose of hip hop and speaks truth to power, it is not power appropriating something it does not have a legitimate claim over.

More than poetry being spoken, it’s been sung for much longer in India. We have our own traditions of mushairas, shayiri, hasya kavi, and so on. Liberals talking about make-up and beauty standards does not make me feel anything other than cringe at how badly it’s (normally) written.

When a dominant group takes something from a marginal one, we have a serious problem. Especially if the proprietors, being in positions of power, can’t be faithful to the agenda for which the form was built. The politics is in the very structure of the thing.

Or in the very least be faithful to the agenda: giving marginal narratives, personal or cultural, the visibility they deserve.

Competition is the governing logic of capitalism/neoliberalism. Poetry does not belong there. Some contest that art forms don’t belong to groups, and they might be right to some degree, but they’re definitely privileged to an even greater one, that they can afford this ignorance. But methods and aesthetics do belong to groups, you can’t take that away from them, if you’re not going to do something better to it, while acknowledging its roots at the same time.

Let me put it this way, Blake, Yeats, Keats, Wordsworth, Heaney, Szymborska, Atwood, Rimbaud, Eliot, Pound, Simic, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, or Akhmatova weren’t outcomes of rap battles and slam poetry, and my skin crawls to type those things out in the same sentence. Poetry has a very deep relationship with politics, and often, the form has helped in parsing out what belongs to who.

Regional poetry and languages.

Most people writing in English can’t give you a good answer, some can speak about the languages they themselves work between, a lot of us are bilingual poets, and multilingual in general, but India is a very particular situation. We have 24 official languages. No one knows that many, so you have to interview quite a few of us to get a full picture. I was born into a household of two very loved Hindi poets, my father was a Marxist poet named Pankaj Singh (1948-2015), and my mother, still very much alive and writing, is Dr. Savita Singh, so my exposure to that world of writing has informed my own writing in English, certainly.

I’d say there is a greater awareness and a better sense of location and situation in poetry being written in Hindi than in English, but it’s all market, economy, neoliberalism and what these forces do to our identities in the end, right? There are writers who choose to leave the country and think it’s fair to call that exile, play the brown card abroad when they do nothing, not even bother to stay, in the country and engage with the space, except maybe with mainstream publishing houses. They pander to global capital, and network very well. So yeah, poets writing in English definitely lack the sense of responsibility that those writing in regional languages possess.

Though, if I am to be completely honest, Hindi and Urdu can’t really be called regional languages as such, they are spoken in wide swathes of Northern India, and serve as a bridge between people from different states. They’re really very young, compared to the rest, and so it goes.

Poetry as community building artform.

I don’t have a right to answer that question, because there are people like Abhijit Khandkar who are doing some great work in Delhi around Dalits, Manjiri Indurkar and Scherezade Siobhan in Mumbai, work on mental health issues, poets like Suvir Kaul have familiarised us with Kashmir and brought us closer to its environs; there are numerous people who can give you an amazing account of how all this is unfolding in India. I’m mainly involved with literary presses, and as such, my stint with Coldnoon, was extremely rewarding and I got to interact with a slew of poets, and writers, even lay audiences I had never known before. Philip Nikolayev, a Russo-American, our most beloved Sanskrit speaking Indophile, has set up very large communities on social media, which have facilitated conversations among the takers and participants of poetry.

The most impressive space today, however, is the Indian Cultural Forum run by Githa Hariharan. I recommend any and everyone to have a go at it.

A few recommendations of contemporary female Indian poets.

I’ll tell you who I like to read these days: Nandini Dhar, Manjiri Indurkar, Gertrude Lamare, Rukmini Bhaya Nair (not a new or young voice at any rate, but she deserves a mention, she broke the ground for us to walk on), Sohini Basak, Anindita Sengupta, Ranjani Murali, Mona Zote, Sampurna Chattarji, Mani Rao, Sridala Swami, Urvashi Bahuguna, Aditi Angiras (Angiras is working with Akhil Katyal on the first queer anthology to come out of the south asian region, be on the lookout for that).

Tell me about being a woman in india? About being a female poet? How do you see the state of affairs? Where is it going? What are the most important challenges?

Rape-culture? Harassment-culture – and the patriarchal system.

It’s everywhere, in Bollywood, in the tradition of arranged marriage, in the clear demarcation of what women can study (liberal arts) and what men ought to (Engineering, business), in our religious discourses, in catcalling, eve teasing, in the state refusing to punish the eight men who kidnapped, brutally raped and murdered an 8 year old girl on her way to school, in a Hindu temple in Kashmir this year, because she belonged to a muslim, tribal community. It’s in our state rhetoric, it’s in

mainstream politics, it’s in the workplace, on the street, you know, regular stuff. Same things that happen in Ireland, America.

Photo taken at the poet’s home. Courtesy of Medha Singh.

Young population – where is it going? Do you envision change? What will the roles of poets be in this? The next century will be female, it is said.

No, it won’t be. Though, I think the rise of socialism among milennials in the US is ever so pleasing, and when that kind of unrest emerges from the heart of the erstwhile empire, there is hope. You now how revolutions spread, and I hope they work the same way here. Though, to be honest, I live in a place crawling with Delhi’s Nazi youth. There is literally no hope for us. While there is a highly commendable resistance from the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, all other universities are in great peril. The state is wrecking our institutions, our bureaucracy, everything.

People, millennials my age, actually believe we need a dictatorship, which is frightening, seeing as to how fascist rhetoric is flying around everywhere, and the rumours, that the current party might impose emergency rule, would clear off any possibility for the next elections to even be held. Hindutva has been around since 1925, they’ve always wanted a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (a hindu nation), as opposed to the constitutionally secular state we have today, and Gandhi himself was assassinated by a member of the fascist party, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). We’re actually under the sway of a proto-fascist leader, and there is an enormous pressure on the youth to bail us out, as we are the largest demographic in the country. Our struggle is vastly different from the global struggle towards emancipation in the western world, whether as women, or millennials.

Mind you, this party that I mention, the BJP, has an elected chief minister in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, who publicly declared that Muslim women could and should be dug out of their graves and raped to be taught a lesson. It’s led by a man, our prime minister, who was found responsible for a a Muslim genocide in 2002, by a sting operation conducted by Thelma Magazine.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m not one to be swayed by soundbites like ‘the future is female’. I like to look at facts, and ground reality.

No one emancipated until working class, tribal, and muslim women are. That is where the true reflection of any society is. First world countries like to show off to us, as to how many opportunities women have, but I don’t know how much they know about how muslim women lead a life in their societies, that are so grotesquely and historically islamphobic.

I want change, but you’re talking to a socialist, who is an anomaly and a disgrace in the current times, and if we are to believe the hooligans who run our government, I’m very much ‘anti-national’.

How will this play out in India, do you think?

It is playing out. There is bloodshed. I have severe anxiety, and social discomfort because I read the news everyday. I’ve stopped going out, and meeting people, because they seem unfazed by everything that troubles me. I have few friends. And I think, any sensitive person who lives in India has become this way. Others, are being subjected to severe oppression, and those that don’t care are waiting for the day, albeit begrudgingly, when they might have to shake hands with a fascist state for personal survival. No one is safe. And we all know it. Too much depends on the next election.

Please offer the danish readership a favourite stanza or two-liner.

With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse,

Sing of human unsuccess

In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start,

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.”

—W.H. Auden

The interview was first published here, in POV International. Featured image courtesy of Medha Singh.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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