A profile in the Sri Lankan newspaper Sunday Observer. Read it here.
Note: This was written during the Poetry With Prakriti Festival, December 2010, and was meant to be published in The New Indian Express’ “Sexualities” column, which was discontinued shortly afterward. This year’s Festival reminded me of the article. Some of the information may be out of date, but I hope that as a profile of an interesting, emerging Indian poet it may still be relevant.
When Joshua Muyiwa confesses that he was recently, embarrassingly, called “Bangalore’s gay icon” in a profile, it’s clear why this information cannot be taken unsalted. It isn’t that he is gloating. Neither is it that the mantle is necessarily untrue. It’s just that, like many things about the 24 year old writer, it’s a descriptor that might come too easily. Openly queer, over six feet tall, handsome, dreadlocked, with a forearm’s length of silver bangles, huge quirky glasses and his father’s distinctly Nigerian features, Muyiwa’s identities – self-created and otherwise – demand attention, and get it.
Yet it would also be wrong to say that Muyiwa is a celebrity because of a mere semiotic effect, and not what he does. His poems about the urban queer experience, specifically his own, bring an anomalous voice to the Indian confessional poetry landscape. If that voice is anomalous because the man is, then so be it. “I’m most grateful that the word ‘poet’ is used,” he says. “Any adjective before it is a great marking tool, it gets you asked to do readings, gets you published, lets you travel, but beyond that what more does it do?”
Aside from two blogs’ worth of poetry, Muyiwa doesn’t publish, preferring performance. In Chennai for Poetry With Prakriti, he has also been featured at the Nigah Queer Fest (Delhi) and Bangalore Queer Film Festival. “I wouldn’t be a poet if it wasn’t for Youtube,” he says. His initial influences were the Def Jam videos and “angry black poets, like Stacey Ann Chin”, yet his reading style is casual and natural, without any sense of rehearsal or affectation.
“I don’t think that poetry needs the theatrics that go with theatre,” he says. “I don’t want that illusion. I travel with a set of poems, but don’t decide what to read. For me, the shock value of the poem is when I get reacquainted with it at the time of reading. I’m a different person each time I go to the poem”.
Joshua Muyiwa writes on love, sex, the city and all else in between. His current work includes an autobiographical collaboration, I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, with the photographer Akshay Mahajan. “In a lot of my poems, the lover is absent but people assume it’s about a man,” he says thoughtfully. “Believe it or not, there’s nothing harder than a male-male relationship. It’s two people who’ve been taught their whole life to be dominant and secretive and then they’re in a relationship and forced to talk.” He laughs. “Women relate to my poems because sometimes I say men are pigs.”
Muyiwa moved to India with his half-Malayali, half-Nepali mother when he was less than four years old, after the deaths of his twin and younger brother. When his mother also passed away suddenly and soon after, he was raised by his grandparents, and credits his dramatic, chain-smoking Nepali grandmother as a big influence. He never had to come out of the closet. He has lived in Bangalore most of his life, and when he says “marijuana” in a poem, he pronounces it “maaruvana”, sincerely South Indian.
He is a hipster in a country where the word still refers to a style of jeans – “the Williamsburg crowd” he says offhandedly, listing his musical influences. His Bangalore is Koshy’s, Temptations Wines and Richmond Town; they are parts of his persona, absorbed with the deliberation of all poets who mythologize their love and loathing of any place. “Being in a city is like being with a lover,” he explains. “You have to constantly seduce it. There’s no other way to negotiate a city”.
But the charm is in how open he is about his fascination with artifice. “It’s like, why do gay men like old Bollywood? It’s the melodrama. You know it’s artificial but you know it comes from an honest place.” This is exactly how Muyiwa comes across: aware of his baggage but unburdened by it. There’s an absence of pretense – when asked how he would contextualize his poems to Shiva in relation to the homoerotic subtext of the paeans of all male poet-saints past, he shrugs off the opportunity to place himself into a lineage, simply saying “It was in those poems that I first read about a certain sexualness, but I don’t know if I have the same structure or deep faith that they came from”.
He also chooses to be consciously non-political in his work. “My views on [Penal Code Section] 377 or gay rights activism are not in my poetry. I’m talking about love and things which may be antithetical to the ‘rights language’. Even when I do write political poetry, it’s askance, it’s not coming from a statement-making intention. I’m not sitting down to do it, but if you read activism into it, who am I to take that away from you?”
You won the 2010 Srinivas Rayaprol Prize, one of the very few accolades available for English poetry in India today, and it catapulted you out of obscurity. In some ways, this is a comment on the “low ceilings” of the Indian poetry scene, in which it’s difficult to get published, but relatively easy to ascend to celebrity. Can you say a little about this landscape itself, and the trajectories available to poets in India?
I am not a very prolific writer — I write in spurts, and take time with my pieces. I also publish very infrequently, but I don’t think it is difficult to get good poetry published in India, what with so many online and print magazines sprouting everywhere. Publishing a full-length book is another story I hear – no personal experience here either. The situation isn’t unique to the Indian literary scene, but poetry is especially marginalized in India (who can recall 5 contemporary Hindi poets under the age of 40?). Moreover, established literary journals are very risk-averse; I see the same 20-30 names whichever Indian lit-magazine I choose to read. Given this limited crowd, the path to ‘celebrity’ is short, and perhaps not as satisfying. We cannot expect to see these trajectories expand and diversify till we are ready to bring poetry into the mainstream academic curriculum.
Has your recent notability within India had an effect on your reception abroad?
Not really. Somehow, the Indian poetry scene seems disconnected from the rest of the world, though I’d like to see this change in my lifetime, and also participate in that process.
Can you comment about poetry in public spaces, and what role readings play in increasing the public appeal of poetry? On that note, is the public appeal of poetry important, or is it best left to flourish as a niche artform?
My goal, with my poetry, has always been to demystify the craft, and poetry in public places may play a role there. I don’t fully grasp the necessity of poetry readings, but I can appreciate the curiosity of a reader to hear the poet’s take on his/her own piece. There is a need we all have to connect personally with artists that inspire us, and poetry readings achieve that.
Public appeal of poetry? Absolutely, but there is too much formalization, too much abstraction in much of modern poetry. Sure, a well-crafted, clever poem could be a thing of beauty, but if it doesn’t change me in any way then I am not interested. Poems are not puzzles to be solved; they work with insight, not cognition. As long as this is done right, whether poetry stays as a niche artform or not is of little concern to me.
I noticed that you rarely look up from your text, at the audience, when you read. Is the performative aspect of readings something you think about?
I am hardly the performance poet, preferring to focus on what I express on paper rather than on the stage. I read a lot of poetry to myself, out loud, but that is because I enjoy how a piece tightens or releases my breath; I am interested in exploring that. My early readings likely had a performance aspect: I would look at an audience member at just the right turn of phrase, at just the right moment and make her feel exactly what I wanted to. That sort of attitude can easily corrupt, so I backed off. I want to vanish and be unimportant during a reading, so if the audience stays engaged it is due to the poem not the poet.
You’re originally from Orissa, and are now based in Texas. You’ve also lived or travelled in a variety of other places, including Russia, South America and South East Asia? What impact has travel and geographic movement had on your poetry?
I am some sort of a ‘reverse traveler’. I don’t move around to get inspired, but the other way round. I hear or read about a particular place and that stays with me. A year or two later, if that memory hasn’t left, I start making plans. The sort of poetry I prefer to write cannot be written on a tourist visa, so I much prefer to stay at a place for a month or two at a time. It helps me find stories I would miss otherwise.
One of your significant poetic sequences is called “Letters From Exile”. Can you comment on exile as a concept – what does it mean to you, and in what sense do you approach this word?
I started writing the ‘Exile’ series in the early winter of 2005 at the end of a significant phase of my life. For me, it was an attempt to be inspired by absences and that attempt has spanned over 5 years. By exile, I do not mean just the physical but also the emotional distance I had to put between myself and my life to be able to write about things that interested me in a dispassionate, non-sentimental way. The distance was important to gain that vantage, that perspective.
As a pianist, what influence does music – composing, playing and listening – have on your poems?
Music is just another form of expression, another method of self-exploration. There are things I cannot express with poetry alone, so there is certainly an opportunity to merge both media — I haven’t been very successful at it so far, but I am trying. For example, right now I am working on a set of poems that will read in sync with a few Chopin nocturnes, the narrative, the punctuations, and line-breaks allowing the poems to ascend and descend with the music.
What about your day job as an engineer – does your job or your training have an influence as well?
Absolutely. I find what I do as an engineer very challenging and enjoyable. Also, it pays the bills, allows me to travel on whim, and to take creative risks. I know there are writers who are inspired by poverty, but not me.
You’ve said that as a confessional poet, you feel as if you are running out of material. But all artists, even those who don’t work in autobiographical modes, are limited by their experience and knowledge. What do you do you keep being inspired? Do you see yourself writing beyond the scope of your own life in future?
I don’t want poetry (or the writing of it) to interfere in the living of my life. I don’t do anything to ‘find’ inspiration, although poetry does present a very real and measurable way for me to assess myself. If I am uninspired, it shows. What I do with that knowledge is not always straight-forward. Writing fictional stories is not important to me, so I don’t think I will ever write beyond what I have known, felt, possessed, or lost.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Hindu Literary Review.
When Vidur Kapur emerges from behind the curtain at Museum Theatre in his silver-studded Louboutin sneakers, the audience’s unruffled response seems to unnerve him. He attempts a second entrance, and this one goes a little better – still, the New York-based, Delhi-raised openly gay comedian doesn’t disguise his apprehension. He tests the waters with a couple of tepidly polite Tambrahm jokes, and gingerly eases his way into an oeuvre of material revolving mostly around his sexuality, family and ethnicity… and warms up when he realises that contrary to what he had been led to expect, in Chennai, the audience was already on his side.
In conversation the day after the show, he admits that Chennai surprised him: “I was actually quite impressed with the openness here because everybody was like ‘Chennai’s so conservative, Chennai’s so conservative’. I realized the moment I got on stage that this audience was cold, I wouldn’t hit the ground running with them. They were reserved – ‘let’s see how you’re going to win us over’. But even the really edgy jokes got an enormous response. They were willing to go with it if it was funny.” Furthermore – in the audience were numerous members of the LGBT community, and the evening concluded with a special fashion show by transgendered models. This was also the only Indian city (Kapur has toured Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata in the past few weeks as part of The Park’s New Festival) in which members of the audience responded in the affirmative when he asked if anyone gay was present.
His amazement is understandable, given his difficult history with this country. Kapur’s honours now include a nomination for a “NewNowNext” award from MTV networks, being named one of India Tribune’s “Top 31 Personalities of Indian Americans”, and appearances in a variety of major American TV networks, including NBC, FOX, MTV and VH1. But when he first left India to pursue tertiary studies, he did so having been deeply traumatised by his experience of being a gay teenager in India. “When I began to comprehend my sexuality, it had a horribly depressing effect on me. I communicated it to my parents and they were very disapproving. I was extremely flamboyant in school and it created a lot of hostility and hatred toward me. So when I got a scholarship to go to Wales, I left very battered, and at that young age, I made the decision to never never return to India.”
He survived at least two suicide attempts during this time.
Still, moving to the West did not solve all his problems. “Because of my experience in India, I decided to go back into the closet, and buried myself in academia so as to get all the approval that I had been denied while growing up,” he continues. He went to LSE and the University of Chicago, then threw himself into the corporate world for many years, again suffering a series of emotional breakdowns. “You have people who are closeted artists and photographers and so on,” he says. For this reason, he sees “coming-out” not as a one-time thing, but as a process by which one emerges as an individual, regardless of sexual orientation. In his case, this meant acceptance of himself first as a gay man, and then as a performer.
The turning point came for Kapur when he saw famed comedian Margaret Cho’s show, I’m The One That I Want. Cho, like him, struggled with various issues, including her sexuality, body dysmorphia and being from a racial minority in America. “It was really about her owning who she is and reclaiming herself as a person,” says Kapur of his inspiration. “It moved me. It was what made me want to do stand-up comedy. It was funny but it was also more.”
Almost in pattern with the pain out of which his individuality emerged, his career also began on a double-edged note. The first comedy class he took was on the day before 9/11 – “and there was this strange experience of New York being in shambles and nobody being able to laugh the next day”.
But this surreal scenario dovetails quite perfectly into Kapur’s life story, for this a comedian who isn’t afraid to be very serious in person, who doesn’t mind letting an audience see his trepidation, and whose own path has been marked with severe depression, about which he is unblinkingly open. Regardless of how one takes his comedy routine – which has its highs and lows, and a fluctuating energy – it’s difficult not to admire his courage.
Kapur’s experiences of alienation, struggle and eventual success seemed tailor-made for sex columnist Dan Savage’s new “It Gets Better” campaign, which endeavours to reach despairing gay teens lacking support within their own communities via the wonders of Youtube. Young people are also one of his primary audience demographics – he is one of the most popular comedians on the American college circuit, and has performed at over 150 campuses around the USA. Asked what he would say if he was a contributor to Savage’s campaign, he acknowledged, “It definitely is true that it gets better. As you get older, you realize that nothing is permanent. Rejection from family and from friends is not permanent. You can get past it. You have the power to create your own life.”
“I was born in India as one of the ‘haves’,” admits Kapur. “So I had the luxury to go abroad. Those who don’t have the wherewithal to do that will have a much harder struggle. But if you hang in there and have hope and faith you can get through it. Pain and joy are a part of life. But there is also joy, and great things to be attained.”
Now happily settled in New York City with his longtime partner, fully ensconced in an entertainment career that takes him all over the world, Vidur Kapur is not just one face of a changing diaspora – a diaspora that has permeated the American media in such a way as to also give us the likes of Russell Peters, Mindy Kaling, Vijai Nathan and Kal Penn – but also a reflection of a changing India. The teenaged Kapur might never have been able to imagine the laughs and warm reception that his performance in Chennai received last week, but the fact that it did is both evidence of our increasingly more open hearts and minds, and a portent of hope for all the closeted people out there – gay or otherwise.
An edited version appeared in today’s Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express.