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‘There is a quiet rebellion in the poems’

The annual Bengaluru Poetry Festival will be held this year too, but in a fresh format and without dreaded panel discussions

Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna performing a musical rendition of Perumal Murugan's poetry at last year's festival
Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna performing a musical rendition of Perumal Murugan's poetry at last year's festival

“The world always needs verse, and now more than ever," says author Shinie Antony, director of the Bengaluru Poetry Festival, which will be held online on 9 August this year.

A number of poets from across India and the world will be presenting their work at the festival, a mix of veteran and young writers: among them Tabish Khair, K Satchitanandan, Raena Shirali, Hussain Hydari, Kirun Kapur, Amit Majmudar, Soniah Kamal, Shikha Malaviya, Pratibha Nandakumar and Maaz Bin Bilal.

Like most literary festivals who have been forced to move their programming online this year, the annual poetry fest also struggled with the question of format. Antony worried that poetry, especially, would be difficult to carry over seamlessly to the digital medium with its staccato pauses and inadvertent technical glitches. “BPF in its usual form, we knew, was not possible this year. Since online fatigue is a real thing, the team thought hard about the format—to keep it simple so that the walls between viewers and verse are as thin as can be. Live events with audience interactions are viable for fiction and current affairs, but poetry is a more delicate medium," says Antony.

Finally, the team behind the festival, which includes Subodh and Lakshmi Sankar, founders of Indian-language bookstore Atta Galatta, decided to pre-record the festival and stitch it together to unveil it at one shot on 9 August. “We went for a mix of text and readings, performances and pictures, all on a web scaffolding," says Antony.

The recording will be uploaded on YouTube and linked to the festival website in such a way that viewers can jump directly from a particular poet’s profile on the website to their reading in the YouTube video.

The online format has allowed the festival organisers to include many poets who live outside India, since their readings will be pre-recorded. In fact, this year’s literary festivals—which will all perforce be held online—may open the doors to a new kind of hybrid, no-borders literary festival where it doesn’t matter who is physically present at the venue and who isn’t. Some of the poets living outside India who will be part of BPF are American poets Venus Jones, Annie Finch and Marilyn Hacker, and Aussie poet Gregory Kan. “Our team member in the US, Shikha Malaviya, a poet herself, put in a lot of work this year. Because of her, we have some really magical American voices," says Antony.

The festival is youth-focused, and the works of two 16-year-old poets will be part of it: Meera Dasgupta, Youth Poet Laureate for the Northeastern United States, and the late Rudrakshi Bhattacharjee, a talented young Bengaluru writer who passed away in 2016.

There are some exciting collaborations in the works: Marilyn Hacker and well-known Indian poet Karthika Nair (author of Until the Lions, a retelling of the Mahabharata in verse) will create a renga, literally “linked poem", an ancient Japanese form of collaborative poetry at the legendary Shakespeare and Co bookstore in Paris; while Swiss spoken word poet Roland Jurczok will perform a percussive form of poetry with a drum-kit and a minimal techno set. Poet and actor Venus Jones will touch upon #BlackLivesMatter, in which hers was a prominent voice, with her spoken word performance, while Annie Finch will read from the anthology Choice Words: Writers on Abortion.

Talking about why we need poetry more than ever now, Antony says, “A poetry festival at first seemed beside the point. But then sense prevailed…And surprisingly, it was the poets themselves who set the mood. There is a quiet rebellion in the readings, a deliberate scattering of serious issues, and gentleness of spirit. If poets do their thing, we just may come up for air."

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