Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Notes from the fest: Vivek Narayanan, performance poetry

(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.]


  1. It's so heartening to read a report about Vivek's performance. Have known him for son long but never got the opportunity...

  2. never got the opportunity to do what? :)

  3. to witness a 'performance'

  4. Very interesting. Although for those who wax eloquent about rap lyrics, I'm never able to figure out if they truly "get" it or are merely attracted by the "coolness" of the subculture. I guess I'm a bit biased here, because I've seen way too many affluent non-Blacks get excited over rap as urban poetry, who have almost no clue what is being referenced in them, because they've never ever even driven down to a Black neighbourhood.

    For the record, it's amazing how the culture of rap is so strongly visually imprinted in Black neighbourhoods, there are kids in every street corner rapping away, sounding off each other, never just walking, but always grooving to a rhythm. I wish someday I gain enough familiarity with the neighbourhoods to do a photo-essay on the hood rappers.

    About the Eliot piece, Vivek is right, and for your listening pleasure, here's Eliot reciting one of my favourite poems.

  5. Shades of the first few lines of Emily Dickenson's "Death" in VN's poem "Learning to Drown"? He writes "I kindly stopped for time because by then he could not stop for me".
    Once I read VN's lines quoted above, I could not get Emily Dickenson's work out of my head, and so went back to read it again. Don't know if that was his intention!

  6. Oops, make that Dickinson!

  7. Thanks for sharing this report about Vivek Narayanan's poetry. Have read many of his poems before on several literary magazines, including Agni, and found him to be quite inventive in his technique.

    Wish I was in Delhi too, to be able to attend sessions on poetry!

  8. To thalassa: the appropriation of rap by the suburban middle class is an important issue, for sure, and it is also perhaps something that may have really been stifling the growth of rap as an art form: the majority of actual sales are to suburbia, and they clearly like the thrill of the gun-talk; which means more experimental rappers (also check out Aceyalone, one of my absolute favourites) are short-shrifted by the record companies. But think back to the history of jazz, just before Charlie Parker, say-- at that time, in the popular white / mainstream imagination, it is a music associated with degeneracy, with gangsters, dark places and crudity, heard by the guardians of culture only as noise; but all over the world from caracas to calcutta, teenagers are taking to it like crazy(including a young Eric Hobsbawm, who will later write about jazz but sees rap, in his old age, as degenerate). It starts to sell big in the middle class, especially when given a less threatening, sometimes watered down white face (Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra). Slowly people realize that it is a new and profoundly thoughtful music, and then it takes a metaphysical leap into a complex modernism, loved by intellectuals. Alas, then it is disconnected from the masses by the market. I think rap is poised at that point: mainstream rap is thematically still limited for the most part, though full of verbal, rhythmic and stylistic inventiveness-- but it is growing and expanding its horizons at an exponential rate.

    To sk: yah, that was my intention, to let the reader hear the echo of the deep dickinson line and play around with it, perhaps be taken back to the original. Of course, it should be possible to like those lines without hearing their reference. And there are a couple more "remixed" lines hidden in that poem too...

    Thanks for all the thought,

  9. great post thanks