Tag Archives: spoken word

The Venus Flytrap: Take Them At Their Word

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Last week, a young male spoken word poet based in Mumbai was alleged to have sexually harassed teenage girls. Two things happened in the immediate aftermath: in an act of concerted schadenfreude, another poet, a young woman formerly associated with him, became the target of a smear campaign that completely detracted from the accused himself. Less visibly, a detailed, anonymously sourced list of predators in the poetry scene was created.

When the first such List was created in India last year by Raya Sarkar, exposing academics, it brought a backlash from several established feminist thinkers, most of whom hypocritically showed how they enable their associates’ exploitations by obstructing disclosure. The jargon used was “due process”, without acknowledgment of how due process has historically failed those who do not have structural privileges. But there were also many people who felt a deep discomfort about such exposure, but who did not resort to victim-blaming to articulate it. I personally wasn’t made uncomfortable, but I did note something significant in my own response: I would not expand such a list, even though I could. Each of us could probably come up with a whole List ourselves (and some have).

It’s worth making a distinction between those who think these Lists are unethical and those whose feelings about them are more imprecise. There’s a reason why the methodology seems so shocking, even if one doesn’t disagree with it. Older or more experienced women (me included) have a mixture of higher thresholds, thanks to being forced to grit our teeth, and complex trauma that keep us from divulging what we know. It hurts terribly to have come so far but be unable to move beyond certain incidents, or to realise that one had been in love with a perpetrator, or to jeopardise one’s career by outing power players.

It’s very telling that this short list of sexually predatory Indian poets is full of young men, presumably being reported by young women. A comprehensive list, especially if it includes all artistic genres, will topple so many giants off their pedestals. That list doesn’t exist because we haven’t made it. We’ve stuck to our whispers. Let’s not even get as far as physical assault or artistic erasure, itself a form of violence. I haven’t even named the misogynist who came to an open mic with a theme of violence against women, told the host to introduce him as my friend, and took the stage as though he didn’t harass women. I haven’t named the many sleazebags who’ve asked me to have a drink in their hotel rooms instead of meeting me at the restaurant downstairs. I haven’t named those who’ve met me in the restaurant but took no interest in my writing, yet thought it acceptable to ask prurient questions about my private life.

I haven’t named anyone, not even the young spoken word poets mentioned above. That’s my own conditioning. And look again: I’ve chosen to mention only the most negligible of stories. That doesn’t give me the higher ground; it only means I’m maintaining my own territory. More power to the young, who are risking theirs in service of justice.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Beyoncé And The Badass Ancestral Self

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This week, I mulled over a divination card I came across in an interview with the queer indigenous healer Lettie Laughter. It said: “Your future ancestral self is a badass magician of the heart who will never stop loving you.” The conflation of time in the line was what intrigued me. One becomes an ancestor regardless of whether one has progeny, just as one reaches for ancestors, blood-kin and guiding lights both, from the braided branches of the tree of life. One can go back in time to love one’s known younger self, to unsnag that self from something that doesn’t heal. But the idea of being healer-ancestor and unbegotten-beloved at once was so richly textured that I turned it over and over in my mind.

The following day, giving in to sheer curiousity (the kind where the analysis you’ve read is so powerful that you wonder if the real thing will hold water), I watched Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Here, too, what stood out for me was ancestry. The proverbial sins of the father are only set scenery. The real story is the suffering of the mothers. We mother ourselves – a line you can read as profane or as protective. In this rendering, Beyoncé counts among her mothers the young poet Warsan Shire and the late radical Malcolm X. There is plenty of amazing black feminist political and spiritualist writing already out there about how she consciously channels the goddesses Oshun and Erzulie Red-Eyes, among other mothers.

“Mother dearest, let me inherit the earth,” Beyoncé enunciates slowly, right before the work moves back into the theme of sexual humiliation in a shattering marriage.

I don’t think that speculating about Beyoncé’s marriage to Jay-Z is any of our business. An artist exposes her vulnerability not to have it dissected; her real life is not a circus act. Judging by the ecstatic reactions to it, Lemonade might be the kind of work that mirrors anything the viewer brings to it, which is why the infidelity and betrayal in it have been so resonant for so many.

Is the work personal? Who cares, when it is personal for so many. Truthfully, the spoken word and cinematography were more interesting to me than the music – one needs no embellishment for lines as stark as “[I] plugged my menses with pages from the holy book, but still inside me, coiled deep, was the need to know…” But Beyoncé’s willingness to be a conduit for collective pain, regardless of whether or not her own is a basis for that exploration, is what I admire.

I must not have brought a particularly wounded self of mine to my viewing of Lemonade. Because what I saw was the artist clearly cast in the mode of Lettie Laughter’s divination card: simultaneously archetypal and in need of healing. This was one way to be a badass ancestral self, for sure. Every creative day of my life, I write mainly so as to make amends for ancestral silencing, and mostly only to console myself. It was glorious to watch another artist do the same, to step into that liminal space and chant to her sistren.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

A Few Reviews

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A few articles about the reading at Spaces last week.

Here’s one in The New Indian Express – the scan, and the text link.

Here’s a very thoughtful one at myLaw.net.

Thank you, everybody, who came or sent good wishes.

A Reading of New Work, In Chennai

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Sharanya Manivannan’s first book of poetry, Witchcraft, was released in 2008. It was acclaimed in The Straits Times as “sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife”. Since then, Sharanya has been working on two different manuscripts of poems. Bulletproof Offering, explores the impossible loves of Sita and Lucifer, the earth and the earthbound angel. Cadaver Exquisito takes as its central motifs dismemberment, grief and the sights, smells and scenes of the city of Chennai.

While some of the poems in these manuscripts have found homes in journals including Drunken Boat, Pratilipi, Dark Sky Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown and Superstition Review, many are yet unpublished — and most have never been shared with an audience.

You are warmly invited to an intimate evening of listening to new poems by Sharanya Manivannan.

“First Language” – Two Videos

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Here are two videos of me reading my  poem “First Language”, which appeared in Witchcraft (and before that in the journals Ego Magazine and Istanbul Literary Review).

At How Pedestrian, a website that brings poetry to random places, a simple single-shot video of me reading the poem while sitting inside a cycle-rickshaw, early one morning in Chintadripet, Chennai.

And here, a longer companion piece of me reading the same poem — this time from within both a cycle-rickshaw and an autorickshaw — which captures more of the sights and sounds of the city, and includes one of my other favourite things to do here: buying flowers from the curbside.

Both videos were directed by R. Rathindran Prasad.

For Those Who Have Asked

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There is only one video of me in the entire universe that I like. It was shot, handheld and without me noticing it, in April 2007 at No Black Tie, Kuala Lumpur. Some people lose count of their lovers — I lose count of the places I’ve read at, but count I did recently, and realised that in the past eight years or so, I have read at an approximate fifty venues. No Black Tie remains the one closest to my heart.

Now, in the years of the drought — I feel like a jaded thing, but once, I read in jazz bars. I could only afford rhinestones, but there were stars in my eyes.

(About the poem – here.)

Special Video For Doppelganger KL Christmas Gig

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Jasmine Low, who has run the gig series Doppelganger KL since 2002, asked me recently if I would take part in their Christmas gig on December 13. Of course, there was only one way to do it – and thanks to technology, I did.

So here it is – shot on webcam and gloriously amateurish, but as I am wont to do, I put a big flower on my head to make it all better. :)

Mayda del Valle on Grandmothers, Spirituality, and Faith

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Some of you know that I lost my grandmother last October. Fewer of you, I think, know what kind of rocky ride the almost-year since has been. What you’ve probably noticed either way is that I no longer blog unless it’s to archive my journalism work, link to press about me or to poems published, or to publicize my (very few) events. I’m not going to go into my disengagement with the online life any further right now, except to say that today I came across that most rare thing: something that makes me want to blog, that I simply must share.

I’d never heard of Mayda del Valle before, but I won’t forget her name now. Here she is at the White House with a  searingly powerful performance of a poem that made me cry both times I watched it, for reasons too private and too sacred to discuss now.

If you’d like to read the poem, it’s here.

On Cancellations And The Importance of the RSVP

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At 10pm last night I was beginning to worry about whether or not I would be able to make it to the reading scheduled for this morning. I was feeling unwell, on top of which it looked like there would be only a couple of readers, and with a handful more attending. I opened up a search engine to look for pieces that fit the theme, to be distributed to random members of the audience to read in the event that there wasn’t enough original work. Immediately, I felt frustrated — spoken word organizer? Try schoolteacher. We’ve had a dozen readings so far and if I’m still going to have to beg/bully people into reading, I would rather do it in a workshop setting than at an open mic. I messaged my co-organiser to ask if they could carry on with the reading if I couldn’t make it.

By 2am, I knew for sure I could not make it. When I messaged Chandrachoodan again, he replied that he was still stuck with office work at that time. The reading had to be off.

So we got in touch with people who had rsvp-ed and let them know.

It seems that a few people messaged Chandrachoodan in the morning to ask about the reading, messages he didn’t see till late afternoon.

All this brings up something very important. These are very small events. There is no reader/audience divide because nearly everyone who comes winds up reading. They are not events to go to if one is simply interested in being entertained — we have not come to a large enough rate of attendance for that to happen. These events happen only if there is interest and support in them. Interest and support means a variety of things: it begins with rsvp-ing. This is to let the organisers know that there are sufficient numbers to hold the event. It is also so that in case of cancellation (this is the first time this has happened) or change of plans, there’s a list of people who should be notified.

This is a fledgling scene and it will fail without support. Every open mic is a struggle (at least, for me. You can ask around about the forehead vein I sported all through Madras Week). Yet, they are fun and rewarding — they are worth having.

Let’s say that all the people who wanted to come had rsvped. It would mean there would have been that many people to disappoint. Grief arrests you in moments you don’t expect it to; if I had known so many people cared about the open mic, I would have pulled myself together and not given in to it. But you can’t disappoint people if you aren’t aware that they have expectations.

I apologise for the fact that the reading did not go on as scheduled. I would like to promise that there will be many more. That, however, will depend on you.

Open Mic! On Wheels!

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When: Sunday December 7th, 8.30am

Where: Meeting point at Mylapore train station.

Who: You and your poems/short prose on the theme below.

What: It’s difficult to organise open mics in a city that doesn’t have venues very kind toward poetry, a point I have beaten to death often in this blog. Which is why we’ve done the outdoors thing most of the time in the past. This is a late announcement, because Chandrachoodan and I were looking at certain other venues, but with the current security issues, those were not viable choices.

You may have heard that the Chennai airport is on high alert, along with Bangalore’s and Delhi’s, for a terrorist attack. We are, of course, deeply concerned about this turn of events. We are not inspired by it, but in solidarity with all efforts taken by individuals, organizations and the government to keep ordinary citizens safe, we think it would be to good to have a reading on the theme of… .Public Transportation.  Interpret as you will. :)

Seeing as Chandroo doesn’t have a private jet  yet (not that I would want to fly in it anyway) we’ll be open mic-ing on a moving train.

Those who went to the first Photowalk will recall that on Sundays at this time, the train in this part of town is completely deserted. Or at least, very quiet. So don’t be shy.

We’ll meet at the station, start the reading there, and then board. Will it work? Hopefully. Who can make it work? You.

Please RSVP to sharanya dot manivannan at gmail dot com or to chandrachoodan at gmail dot com.

The Venus Flytrap: In Defense Of The Open Mic

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In the late 90’s, the singer Jewel told a reporter that singing in a studio is “like faking an orgasm”. The quote came to mind a couple of months ago during what had been presented to me as a collaborative meeting with a theatre practitioner, who chose to take the opportunity to rip to shreds the work I do as a spoken word artist and organiser.

Let me explain. Spoken word is a performance genre that focuses predominantly but not exclusively on poetry. A related, sometimes interchangeable, term is “live literature”. Performers either read off the page, with a focus on strong vocal delivery, or recite from memory.

Why “spoken word” and not simply “readings”? Because spoken word is a legitimate genre of performance – not everybody is able to read, even their own work, with panache. Those gifted in their delivery, however, are able to have careers with or without the presence of a publishing history. Whereas poetry publishing is a difficult and drawn-out process, performance allows immediate, often intimate, access to an audience. Several professionals I know establish their names through tours, CDs and chapbooks (often self-published). A book, for some, is only icing on the cake.

I knew for a fact that the theatre practitioner I was speaking to had tried to bring poetry to the stage in the past, and planned to in future – only, I couldn’t remember what poetry that had been. I remembered the stage sets, spotlights and the general dramatics of proceedings. But I could not remember a single poem. The poetry itself had been drowned out by the production.

He claimed that his events had crowds of 200, to the dozen average mine have seen in the past six months. Strangely, these crowds seem to have evaporated. Forget my little efforts – where were they during the fortnight-long poetry festival last year that saw attendances of five and six? An audience whose imagination was genuinely captured would continue to be curious and supportive.

Most events I organise follow an open mic format, which allows anybody to read. I like its democratic nature, its value in uncovering hidden talents who may not otherwise have been given the chance to share their writing or their flair for delivery, and its spontaneity. In a city like Chennai, where curiously enough a successful English-centric poetry movement has never taken off, it is also a necessary format: very few people have the confidence or experience to be crowd-drawing professionals.

The bad taste left in my mouth from my exchange with the theatre practitioner was because of his remark that in eschewing rehearsals and encouraging spontaneity, I “disrespect the audience”. His way of doing it would be to select pieces, have selected people rehearse them, and then put on a show.

I’ve been on stage since I was four years old, first as a dancer, then an actor, and finally in the skin I wear the closest: as poet-performer. I’m a professional, just as the theatre practitioner is. Unlike him, however, I am committed to building community. My open mics are intended to seduce potential performers first, and then the audience. I do not believe in the elitism of the stage.

There is one more thing. Remember what Jewel said? I don’t put the Word in the hands and mouths of novices because I don’t see it as sacred. Rather, I do so because I, unequivocally, do. I love to watch it come alive, surprised into bloom, in the unlikeliest people as they tap into that immense power – what in flamenco is known as the duende. And no amount of theory or rehearsal can help you fake that convincingly.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

P.S. PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING POST ON TEMPORARY COMMENTING SHUTDOWN