"Poetry gives us permission to dream" - Interview with Nandini Varma and Shantanu Anand

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"Poetry gives us permission to dream" - Interview with Nandini Varma and Shantanu Anand

Airplane Poetry Movement founders discuss the importance of community among poets, and an anthology they have been working on.

Nandini Varma and Shantanu Anand are poets and educators who co-founded the Airplane Poetry Movement (APM). Now having mentored and produced shows with thousands of poets across India, Nandini and Shantanu have a lot to share. In an exclusive interview with Poornima Laxmeshwar, Bengaluru Review’s Editor, the duo discusses their experience with communities of young poets they have worked with over the past seven years. They also shed light on the process behind the publication of 'A Letter A Poem A Home', an anthology of poems and essays they have recently edited.

Credit: Aditya Sinha
Credit: Aditya Sinha

I have heard about APM. But tell us what started you to begin this initiative and how has it evolved over the years. Also, how and why did you arrive with the idea of this anthology of poems.

APM started as an initiative to train young poets and guide them as we too learnt along the way. Apart from this, we wanted to open spaces for poets to share their work with an audience and celebrate the joy of poetry. When we started seven years ago, we had been watching performance poetry, through the works of some American and British contemporary poets. It excited us to see poetry come so alive on stage. Inspired by that, we started APM to explore such possibilities in poetry, and share that with people who were as excited about it as we. In 2016, we co-organised the National Youth Poetry Slam (NYPS) for young poets from schools and colleges to come together and perform their poems. Hundreds of students were a part of it. We really believe growth happens through communities and that’s something that grew after NYPS. In 2018, to continue working with poets, we conducted the 100-poem challenge to encourage writing as a discipline and thousands of poets participated in it. It was one of our most favourite years, it was a real celebration of poetry. The number of people we got to read poems of and saw grow was unreal. The anthology is then a sort of a culmination of all that and the passion for poetry that we’ve experienced over these years through a glimpse of the kind of poetry that the last few years has seen, especially in India.

What makes good poetry? In today’s time where we see poems (or whatever is written in the poetry) overwhelmingly penetrating and present in social media, how do we define good poetry?

There is poetry everywhere, yes, but the more one reads it, the more one finds out for themselves what they like and what they don’t. When it comes to an objectively good poem, we’re probably going to quote Tishani Doshi who said something really beautiful in our conversation with her in the anthology, that poetry is in the ear/heart/eye of the beholder. And we agree and truly believe that. Our personal definition of good might change each time something unexpected comes our way through poetry that blows our mind away. That’s the thing about poetry, you keep expecting something from it, and it finds ways to surprise you. Today especially, there’s a lot of experimentation that can be seen happening within poetry and to try to define good or bad is only closing doors for what may arrive from it.

If you want this anthology to be remembered for, what would that be?

That no one needs to feel like they can’t dream of being poets. We hope people can remember through the anthology that there is a soft corner for anyone who wants to be a poet but is afraid to call themselves one. It’s why there are a wide range of poems in it and spaces for people to write their own poems as well, it’s why there are letters to young poets from those who are on their writing journey too.

How did you categorise the poems in themes/sections or did they fall in on their own? The categories have unique names. How did you guys decide on them?

The names of the categories come from a line or a phrase from a poem from each section. For instance, Chapter 1 is called “A Duck’s Quack”, which is from Fathima Zahra’s poem, Chapter 4 is called “Digging Rainbows out of Rubble”, taken from Rishitha Shetty’s poem etc. We didn’t plan this but when we were reading the poems it felt like while none of them were directly connected to each other, there were some poems that carried similar mood, or similar sensibility, or similar theme, yet had quite a different universe inside them. We tried to put them next to each other and see what came out of it. We didn’t want to plan this kind of things in advance because until you get the poems, you don’t quite know of the possibilities and this one offered so much because the poems that came in were beautiful. Chapters were things that sort of felt interesting additions only once we began reading and selecting the poems.

Since you interact with a lot of young voices out there, what is it about them that you find good, bad and ugly?

Judging them through the good-bad-ugly parameter would not be right, especially when they’re young. It’s what stops most poets from writing sometimes at a very young age. We feel the good is that there seems to be quite a bit of excitement around poetry and many ways that many of us are fortunate to have access to literature online or through amazon (many still don’t have that privilege). And maybe that’s something that is what we need to acknowledge more and think about. What are the other ways that poetry is being written away from urban centres.

As editors, what is it about this entire anthology that will remain with you?

The experience of getting to read so much poetry. While some poems that came in were still in their early stages, there was some genuinely interesting work that came up which missed making it to the anthology by a very thin margin. But it’s hopeful to think that there is real effort and heart going behind digging deeper into the process of writing, into thinking from a place of wonder, into thinking from a place of one’s truth.

Being poets yourselves, what makes you pursue poetry personally?

The permission it gives to be ourselves, but also to dream. Additionally, the space and language it offers to keep growing as individuals, to keep thinking deeply, and to continue to look for light behind black skies.

How did you go about selecting these poems?

The first level was seeing - did it move us, did it not. In the emotional and reaching that emotional, there lies a great amount of craft too. That’s how some poems make us cry, make us laugh, make us love. The next level was really looking for the ones that worked for the book to be able to come together as one unit while showing different universes.

Do you think poetry can change anything at all?

Most of the time, poetry comes from a place of trying to make sense yourself of things around you, so maybe in that way it changes something inside you, makes you more sensitive to a particular feeling you’re grappling with and your own relationship with the world. There are a few times when a poem might be polemical or more radical and in that sense it may attempt to shift something in others at a more deeper level. But it’s an attempt. Poets have tried to open conversations through poetry or house a truth that may open larger narratives that aren’t out there otherwise. Poets have tried to question forms, bring their own voices, push for tolerance linguistically. No one knows if it can change anything in a big way, but you keep writing anyway, right?

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