In December 2013, on an absolute chilly winter evening in Pune, we watch a video like no other. A tall, black extraordinarily powerful woman who goes by the name of Patricia Smith, stands in front of an audience at a show called Def Poetry Jam, regularly aired a few years ago on HBO. She begins, “They call me skinhead and I got my own beauty,” and performs this poem, written as a persona, from the point of view of a skinhead.
She performs, “I like to say, listen to this, I like to say/Hey nigger, Abe Lincoln’s been dead a long time,” We’re freezing in our chairs, watching this poem for the first time. The feeling is of an aftermath, an image of the streets, all over the world, crying their eyes out, as Patricia performs.
“I’m your baby, America, your boy/drunk on my own spit/I am goddamned fuckin’ beautiful/And I was born/and raised/right here.”
There is nothing that distracts us from making mental notes of the strength of the voice of Patricia speaking up. A voice that carries the weight of history, but that holds this burden with grace and poise, with the understanding that it is the responsibility of poets to speak their story. Not as the world sees it. Not as the media tells it. But as they experience it.
Over the years, we, along with other poets, try to translate the responsibility of a poet to classrooms and measure the impact of slam poetry across the country. Three years later, we decide to finally put together a nation-wide slam – National Youth Poetry Slam, along with Campus Diaries. National Youth Poetry Slam, 2016, is an inter-collegiate slam, and after a 3-month auditions process, the country’s top 25 college teams get together to fight it out for the title of India’s first NYPS champions.
When one thinks of the national stage, one thinks of young, energetic, vibrant poets dreaming themselves a world where their voices are loud and distinct, and the only thing that can stop them is if their dream breaks and they wake up, forgetting. Poetry is the power that’s gifted to us, and we have to catch it in time, to use it as a tool to find what we know of ourselves, what we believe in and what we look at when we look at the world through our reflection in the ocean.
Tanushree Baijal, a student of Symbiosis School For Liberal Arts, begins her poem with the lines, “You are 11 years old when you realize that uttering the word ‘Muslim’/ In your upper-caste, Hindu household can lead to some big problems.” Her incredibly brave poem is a recurring flashback into the partition of India and Pakistan, and an unflinching look at the ghosts of our country’s past. In ‘I Am Beautiful’, Avleen Kaur Lamba, a student of MCM DAV College, demands textbooks be changed and fights the definition of ugly, of beautiful, in most of them. In yet another enchanting poem, called ‘Vulgar’, Priyanka Sutaria writes about body positivity through the lines, “our voices are political/our bodies are weapons/and our movement will crash/against the wall of patriarchy in waves.”
We’re immensely grateful to the team at The Bombay Review for giving some of the finalists from National Youth Poetry Slam a wider audience through this issue, and for giving us a chance to showcase some extremely important poems of 21st century India.
We hope you have a wonderful time reading all the poems, understanding the contexts where they come from, and breathing your own life into them.
Warm regards and bundles of love,
Shantanu and Nandini