Pen, poem and personhood
(An edited version of this piece was first published in The Hindu Business Line.)
It is rare in India to come across a poetry workshop designed for queer, trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people to feel safe and understood in a supportive environment where they can be vulnerable with each other and also create art out of the pain they carry. That is why I signed up immediately when I learnt that the Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai was going to host one called ‘The Queering’ on 16th February 2020, and it would be facilitated by Berlin-based Sailesh Naidu, a gender non-conforming poet and artist born in the United States with roots in India. It was exciting to know that this former Alexander Von Humboldt German Chancellor’s Fellow would steer us in the direction of imagining what a queer future would look like through group activities and individual coaching.
We were a group of six, and it turned out to be the perfect number for the kind of intimate sharing we were about to engage in. It started with a round of introductions; we were invited to say our names, pronouns, interests, and expectations from the workshop. The ritual of stating pronouns makes it possible for individuals to define themselves on their own terms with reference to a gender identity that might not be acknowledged, respected or affirmed outside queer spaces. One cannot guess a queer person’s pronouns by the way they look, dress or speak. Using the pronouns they choose for themselves is a way of demonstrating allyship in a world where their existence is erased not only through language but through structural violence in families, workplaces and public life.
During the 20-minute freewriting exercise that followed, we could write anything that came to mind. It was an excellent outlet for all that was simmering inside, making me feel unseen, unloved and undesired. It occurred to me that we rarely have queer spaces for this kind of community-based therapeutic work because people prefer to meet at parties, film festivals, pride marches or in activist spaces. The warmth and connection palpable in the workshop room owed much to the energy, intention and care with which Naidu held that space together. They communicated respect for individual differences, kept their instructions clear and to the bare minimum, and gave participants time to breathe between workshop activities. Their presence as a facilitator was friendly, non-intrusive and calming.
“I piloted this poetry workshop with queer people in Berlin, and it mainly came out of my disappointment with the lack of queer voices within the poetry scene. Queerness pushes our notions about what is true, our imaginations of what the world can be beyond the structures that constrain our bodies, minds, sexualities and genders. Poetry seems like the best way to explore that because it plays with meaning, and our understanding of words and of ourselves,” said Naidu.
During another exercise, Naidu placed printouts of queer poems at a few different spots in the room. Some of these were: Blythe Baird’s ‘The Kindest Thing She Almost Did’, Akhil Katyal’s ‘Spring 2016’, Ocean Vuong’s ‘Ode to Masturbation’, Danez Smith’s ‘The 17-Year-Old and the Gay Bar’, Kaveh Akbar’s ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus’, and Audre Lorde’s ‘A Litany for Survival’. We were asked to read each poem carefully, and note all the phrases or lines that resonated with us. These were to later serve as prompts for the poems we would write. The politics of that selection felt crucial to recognize. Naidu had mostly picked out work created by queer poets of colour living and writing in a racist, heteronormative and Islamophobic American society. Katyal was the only Indian in that selection.
The ancestors invoked in any queer space provide a good indication of how queerness is understood. Does it refer only to non-normative identities built around gender and sexuality or is the space also invested in the struggles of other marginalized identities based on race, ethnicity, class, religion, and caste? Naidu’s workshop falls into the second category. We watched poetry videos featuring Lucille Clifton and Angelique Palmer, both African American women who fought discriminatory social structures through language that was restorative. Vuong, mentioned earlier, is of Vietnamese heritage while Akbar is of Iranian heritage. White poets never have to qualify where they came from. Since whiteness is the standard, there are no question marks about whether they are insiders or outsiders. In a country built on the history of colonization and slavery, whiteness is synonymous with belonging. Naidu, incidentally, has been working on issues of social exclusion faced by migrants and asylum seekers.
I ended up writing a poem about a person who once occupied a significant place in my heart. The relationship was complicated not only because we wanted different things from life and from each other but also because of racial and cultural differences. As the words took shape on the page, I felt a lightness in my chest. I felt grateful for the opportunity to be immersed in poetry, a medium and practice that is meaningful and healing for me. As I heard the other participants read out their poetry, and speak of their time at the workshop, it appeared that they too felt nourished by the enabling environment Naidu had created for us.
When I met Naidu for dinner the following evening, they said, “I am trying to understand my own queer identity as a desi who grew up in New Jersey, and now lives in Berlin. My mother is from Karnataka and father is from Andhra Pradesh, so I know that a long tradition of poetry thrives here. India is also going through its own queer revolution. I wanted to know what queer voices look and sound like when given the space to be heard. Society has programmed us for self-destruction, and to love ourselves is an extremely radical act.”