“The Poet Offers Discord”

“When the imagination is given sight by passion, it sees darkness as well as light. To feel so ferociously is to feel contempt as well as pride, hatred as well as love. These proud contempts, this hating love, often earn the writer a nation’s wrath. The nation requires anthems, flags. The poet offers discord. Rags.”

— Salman Rushdie, from “Notes on Writing and the Nation”

Read the rest. The essay appears in the brilliant Step Across This Line. I recommend reading the first piece, and then the others out of order. Reading his dispatches from the fatwa years before the essay I quote from, readings deepened by my own recent demonization from blogger among millions to enemy of the state, leaves me with an immense renewed respect for Rushdie. The person as much as the genius.

Poetry? In Madras?

My post, Audiences, below has generated some interesting discussion on poetry (performance poetry, to be precise) in Madras in the comments section. Do join in! In the absence of the pre-existing is unlimited possibility. (Turning comments on this post off so there is some continuity to the discussion.)

“Tonight I Can Write…”

This is one of my favourite poems (favourite translation of, also). I am in love with this reader’s voice. And haunted by the effect in total. (Via Lainie)


What’s with the all-male (or nearly) audiences?

My reading yesterday evening hosted by the Rotary Club of Madras South had four women (not including me) and somewhere under forty members of the audience in total. My reading at Apparao Galleries as part of the Prakriti Festival, which was a sort of official Chennai debut, was exclusively male. So was the one at Landmark Spencer’s, with the exception of one Prakriti volunteer. That makes three out of five. The other two had mixed crowds.

I was nervous about Chennai audiences from the start, so you can imagine my trepidation at being confronted by a group of men at my first “proper” reading here (previous ones, organised by and for friends and without publicity, don’t count). My poetry is very, very female. We can get into a long discussion about what I mean by this and the general semantics of such a label, but the point is, it is. I’ve heard that right from when I began to do readings, but had never had to think about it until now.

What does it mean to be a poet who writes out of her femaleness, consciously or subconsciously, and to present this work to male audiences?

From the little experience I’ve had with the three readings I’ve mentioned, I can tell you right off the bat that it changes things. It did for me, anyway. I’ve never apologised for the darkness or explicitness of my work before. But I did, even as I heard myself saying “I don’t feel the need to justify what I write about or how I write about it”, I could feel the “but” creeping up. And it did.

But could the reason why I did that just be a Chennai thing, perhaps? Audiences known for their hostility to young women upstarts were what I anticipated, but the testosterone overload totally surprised me the first time, made me start wondering the second time, and had me somewhat bemused by the third. That being said, the only reading at which I felt truly in my element was my last one with the Prakriti Festival, which was at Distil. I warmed up so much I even read “Poem” and “A Horse Named Notoriety”, which were strictly off-limits otherwise. This had much to do with the audience, and I always feed off the audience’s energy (hmm… interesting, perhaps that would explain why someone told me he felt exhausted after yesterday’s reading. In a good way, though — he said he felt the same after hearing a recording of The Iliad). Plus, bars are always my favourite places to read in. Even off-hours ones.

Still, that doesn’t explain why so many more men than women have been coming to my readings. Sadly, I didn’t get the sense that the faghag thing entered the picture at all. I love gay men, and they generally like me. But that didn’t really seem to be the case. I think.

I have to admit I don’t know if I want the trend to continue. I haven’t enjoyed these few readings as much as I usually enjoy performance, as grateful as I am for the opportunity to have done them. But again, is it just a Chennai thing? Maybe what I used to enjoy so much before was not the readings themselves as much as the during and after-partying, something noticeably absent so far.

Three Poets: Amirthanayagam, Nansi & Ng

One of the privileges of being a poet is getting to know the poets whose work you love as people. These are connections formed on many layers: how you know them as poets, as friends, as lovers, as contemporaries, as critics, as travel companions and sometimes as foes.

Two of these three friends of mine who are poets (or maybe poets who are friends of mine) have new books out. The third has a not-so-new book going into its second printing shortly. I’m one of those people who just rave about the things they love (you may have noticed, if you’ve been following my blogavatars for some time). So here are some favours for them as a friend, and some word-of-mouth as a fan.

INDRAN AMIRTHANAYAGAM’s The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems

Indran is a mentor, in some ways. He’s writing the foreword for my forthcoming book, after all. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust my opinion of his work: you only have to ask him to know that I have disagreed with some of his word choices, syntax, punctuation, whole poems — just as he has with mine.

What most struck me about this book of poems, written in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami of 2004 and focusing on its impact on Sri Lanka, was the attention to detail. Not just circumstancial description, but mainly emotional mapping of a subtle yet distinct variety. A substantial number of the poems adopt a persona, an eyewitness view, and there are moments at which the poet convinces the reader totally of having had the experience. The poet himself was in the United States at the time of the disaster, but you would never be able to tell, were it not for this admission in his introduction to the book.

These are far-ranging poems of much thought and great insight. Granted, their topic is one of pathos by default, but the true success of this book lies in the fact that the maudlin is a sentiment that occurs rarely. Amirthanayagam’s style is spare, his lines pared down, their enjambments numerous (I have wondered about this before — perhaps it is the poet as performer who dictates this style). My favourite lines from the collection are those that form this striking image, from the poem “Bosched”: “the city, machan,/like a virgin delivered/to her husband/on the wedding day.”

The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems was published by Hanging Loose Press, New York in January 2008. You can buy it online from Amazon, among other places, as well as from the publisher itself.

PoojaThe Splintered Face

I scoured the newspapers
and Web this morning
but did not find the 76th day
anniversary of the tsunami
cited. Difficult to keep
daily pooja, cut
jasmine flowers
and break coconuts
at the temple doors.

In these mountains,
coconuts are a specialty
item at the HEB, and
Catholic churches
do not encourage
heaping servings
of rice, plantains
and yogurt at the feet
of their images.

If I could take India
into my hands like
a ball of rice and curry
and eat in front
of everybody, pierce
the billion names
of god into one god
ring rattling
from my nose

that would make
my neighbors swoon
and me feel at home
in the silence of canyons,
church naves open
only on feast days,
Sundays, where the ablution
of holy water has been
removed for questions of hygiene.

POOJA NANSIStiletto Scars‘s Stiletto Scars

I first met Pooja at the KL Literary Festival in March 2007, where we “sparred” at a poetry slam. I was captured by her warmth and her gutsiness. We spent some time together when I was in Singapore last month, and I am hugely proud that she’s brought out this honest, sassy book. I’m not the first person to say it, but she’s a ray of sunshine amidst the generally excellent but rather sombre contemporary poetry of Singapore. Stilleto Scars was published by WordForward, Singapore in December 2007.

How To Be A Stiletto

Give the gift of power.

Not just by rising up to heights but by knowing
that pain can be overcome with
stubborn audacity.

Show that appearances are more important than reality.

That the blistered, chaffed parts of you
must at all times be covered in
sequins, so that even if you feel battered,
you look invincible in all your glory.

Reveal all that has been hidden deep inside.

Expose the seduction, spunk, spirit that’s been
quashed by the lazy wandering of easy flat planes.

Remind everyone that safe
is not wondrous.

Gratification is not the same as contentment

and that gracefulness has
to do with

Recognise that red is your best colour,
that you are a tool and a weapon all at once.

Harness your ability to keep someone
under your heel and grant freedom
from the same point
of your existence.

Walk low self esteem enlightened
into the night.
Make sure they wince
only once the music dies,
when they are saf
from the public eye.

Lead hearts on to dance floors.
Lift them into the promise
of the music to the understanding that

a life lived afraid
and in comfort,

is no life at all.


NG YI-SHENG’s Last Boy

Yi-Sheng and I met last month at the Singapore Writers’ FestLast Boyival. I was blown away by his performance poetry, and flattered that he remembered having seen a copy of my chapbook at Books Actually some months before. Yi-Sheng is really something to behold onstage. He brings across both quiet, emotive poems and loud, performative ones so convincingly — and is equally impressive on the page. I was so enamoured of the copy of Last Boy that he gave me that when we met for supper (crocodile meat in Geylang — and sad to say, it does taste just like chicken), I kept associating things he said with the poems in it. Only later did I think that in his place, I would have been weirded out. Most impressive about this book is Ng’s wide range of inspirations and images: from history to anatomy to mathematics and more, his poems are layered with knowledge — meaningfully. Last Boy was published by Firstfruits, Singapore in 2006, and will be reprinted soon. You can buy it online from the publisher.

for QX

Sometimes the reason the girl will not speak
is that she is weaving shirts out of nettles
for eleven swan-brothers. This is why midnight
calls her to the churchyard, a sickle in her hand
as she sleeps in the bedchamber. People will call her
a witch, but really, she was stitching them long
before you found her, ragged-haired, swollen of hand
at the lake, waiting for rescue.

Sometimes the shirts are spun badly
and will not save her, even when flames lick her thighs.
Sometimes the brothers are not yet born
and the swans are inside her.
Sometimes she is a witch indeed,
and has had her eye on you since daybreak
and you need only lift the shutters
to break out in feathers, stiff as paper.


I fell into one of the blessings in my life, journalism, by accident six years ago. It happened nine months after high school, a period in which I did nothing but dance, write, co-edit a special edition of a poetry zine, attend readings and other randomly boho things of little satisfaction to the many wing-clippers around me, one of whom took me to several university fairs. Nothing came out of the fairs themselves; I would make a decision about college a few months later, motivated by entirely different developments. But it so happened that there was a booth at one of them run by the youth supplement of a national newspaper. The office was near my house, it would give me a great opportunity to get out of the house most frequently, and oh, I could write. So I joined them. One thing led to another and before I knew it, although I would carry on with some academic vocation or another, college slowly became redundant.

Today, under similarly serendipitious circumstances, I joined an ad agency as a copywriter. I hadn’t wanted the job even when I agreed to meet with them. But something made me go, and something made me decide to do it.

I looked up “copywriting” on the net for kicks. Was surprised and glad to see that I join enviable ranks. All of these fine writers were one-time copywriters too: Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, Ogden Nash, Indra Sinha, Fay Weldon, Don DeLillo, Joseph Heller and F. Scott Fitzgerald. There’s some trivia for today. :)

“The Invitation”


(Picflicked from Postsecret)

The Invitation

by Oriah Mountain Dreamer
It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon…
I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.

(Via Natasha)

From Chennai To Madras

A few weeks ago, I joined Chandrachoodan and a small crew of people armed with cameras on the first Chennai Photowalk. Ambling from Chennai as we know it to Madras as it was, to paraphrase how Chandrachoodan put it recently, the photowalk covered locations including the Armenian Church, St Mary’s Church, an uncharacteristically deserted couple of train stations and Mylapore.







And a few I found on my father’s hard drive, from when I visited my folks in February. I recall taking several more I liked, but can’t seem to find the rest of the pictures.



The pics don’t enlarge even when you click them, something I realised only a moment ago. Saved them at 148×111 pixels because of the WordPress space limit. Get in touch if you want, for some reason, to see larger versions.

Poetry With Prakriti Readings

Since mid-month, I’ve finally been given a glimpse of a Chennai that bears some resemblance to the lifestyle I used to lead before I moved here three months ago, thanks to the Prakriti Foundation’s ambitious Poetry With Prakriti Festival.

There are only a few days left of the festival, but for the full schedule of what you can still catch, go here. The website may not have the latest schedule, so it’s best to double check by getting in touch with Prakriti Foundation.

My readings are scheduled as follows, although the website has it differently:

Dec 25 – 11 am – Apparao Galleries

Dec 25 – 6pm – Landmark Nungambakkam

Dec 26 – 6pm – Landmark Spencer’s

Dec 27 – 11am – Distil, Taj Connemara


And now, I’m here.

After quite some time of being unhappy with the bugs in the old template, wanting a more website-like format and a few other issues, I’ve finally made the move. I like the cleaner look, more user-friendly layout, and not least of all the security options.

So am migrating slowly. Slowly.

I do miss that yellow ochre, though.