(It’s enough of a struggle to write a structured story about the literary festival for the newspaper, so I’m keeping these posts episodic. Will update them when I have the time.)
There was an element of gimmickry at the start of Vivek Narayanan’s poetry reading – he was sitting among the audience in a corner at the back (something none of us was aware of) and after he was introduced he simply began his recital from there, eventually getting up and moving to the front of the hall. “In recent times I’ve developed this little thing about being anonymous at the start of these readings,” he told me later, “When there are people present who know me, I ask then not to tell others in the audience. It helps me build my performance the way I’d like to.”
“Performance” is the right word – Narayanan didn’t just recite his poems, he acted them out, complete with strong vocal inflexions, some chanting and hand gestures. There was some interesting work in there, including an “ode to prose and prose-writers” (“you take our money/but we love you anyway”), a tribute to Silk Smitha, the south Indian sex symbol who killed herself a few years ago, and a tongue-in-cheek poem about the actor-politician MGR, who had described himself as an angel. But what I found more interesting was the way Narayanan performed them.
I had a rewarding little discussion with him the next day about the concept of performance poetry. He’s been writing poems seriously since he was 13 (he’s 34 now) but he first became interested in performance poetry in a club in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. “However, some of the work there started to veer towards slapstick,” he says, “and I became uncertain about practicing it.” Then, he says, he began listening to rap music. “The rap underground is fascinating. Ten-year-olds living in black districts in the US have a better understanding of rhythm and meter than many self-anointed poets do. It’s no surprise that poets like Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney have such high regard for rap music.”
Around that time Narayanan also discovered some old recordings of readings by poets. “Did you know that Eliot was the first to record on LP? And that there are still extant recordings of Yeats, Tennyson and Browning performing their work? Edison made those early recordings – maybe he thought he’d be able to make money off them at some point!”
Many of those early recordings, Narayanan says, were very inventive, with the poets paying careful attention to tempo and meter. But subsequently, the idea that poetry reading should be “natural” took over. “As a result, people have become disconnected from one of the essential things about poetry – that its meaning lies as much in the performance as in the words. These days it’s become habitual to simply analyse the words for meaning, thereby turning poetry appreciation into an academic exercise. In actual fact, each line needs to be tested for sound. This is one of the things that differentiates poetry from prose.”
How then do you differentiate poetry from songwriting, I ask, since one of the things we are repeatedly told is that the great modern songwriters – Dylan, Simon, Joni Mitchell – mustn’t be called “poets”; that the music, vocals and words have to be given equal importance in an appreciation of their work. “There’s a fine line,” Narayanan admits, “but you have to think of it as a continuum. Poetry is closer to speech. The same way the writing of a business letter is an exaggerated, formalised branch of prose, songwriting is an extension of poetry.” His own influences include both poets and songwriters: from underground rappers like Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Common to singer-songwriters Bob Marley, Leonard Cohen and Mark Knopfler.
[Narayanan has taught history in South Africa (“while doing research for a PhD I never completed!”) and now coordinates the fellowship programme at Sarai. He has a book of poetry, Universal Beach, coming out in a couple of months. You can read some of his poems on this link.]