Books of contemporary American poetry aren’t easy to find in India; I have frequently been starved for new books that my favorite authors have published in the last ten years. At times, friends and small presses have been kind enough to send their new work to me. I like to take on editorial projects and read and/or judge for poetry prizes or awards so I can get to see what’s new in international poetry. There are also many small presses publishing poetry by Indian writers living in India and abroad (Almost Island, Great Indian Poetry Collective), which is great!
I have found some gems in India: a hard-bound copy of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens the day I was desperately searching for some Stevens—I didn’t expect to come across this old library copy at a secondhand bookstore in Bangalore. Recently, a student of mine procured a hardbound Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, and I spent a few good hours drooling over it.
Digital books have also helped keep me in touch with my interests, and I feel like I am reading many different kinds of books all at once. Something old, something new, a novel, something from India, and maybe something about India, all at the same time. Here’s how that particular constellation looks like right now:
How I Became A Tree, Sumana Roy: This book came out last year, and though it is prose, you cannot help but relate it to poetry—maybe because Roy is also a poet. She draws connections between her self, nature, and literary history. I love when a book changes the way I see the outside world and this book did that. The trees are greener on my walk now.
There are all sorts of information and observations in this book, about the lives of trees and poets, patterns in nature and daily life. About my own home-state she says, “Men from Orissa who have been widowed twice are often married to a tree in belief that it will ‘absorb’ the bad luck.” Now there’s something to try!
The kindle version of this book is available for readers in America.
Slow Startle, Rohan Chetri: I’ve never been to the AWP Book Fair and have heard stories about how wonderful it is, so I was THRILLED when I saw book stalls, albeit at a much smaller scale, at the Bangalore Poetry Festival (held in a very posh hotel, nonetheless) and I found this book there, published by the new Great Indian Poetry Collective. Poems are stories in this book; they are strange but I relate to them; there are stories of displacement without a felt need to map geography. Identity in these poems never belong solely to one individual. I’ve been reading Slow, Startle alongside Arjun Rajendran’s new The Astronaut in Herge’s Rocket, published by Paperwalla, another indie press in India.
Detroit Detroit, Anna Vitale: I love good writing about pop music (I’ve also been reading a lot of Bjork interviews, in preparation for her new album) and Anna’s book is about her relationship with music—hip-hop—and through it (?) identity. Its setting is the backdrop of city neighborhoods, and there are scenes in which music blends with the everyday to create poetry. She quotes Tupac and Drake; refers to movies, music bands, her friends, and yet there is a curious rhythm, a repetition and unfolding of one form, one genre into another. It is part poetry and part non-fiction, just like the best rap music.
On Walking On, Cole Swensen: I am always reading some Cole Swensen, and I love her newest book, which she was kind enough to send me, along with GAVE by Omnidawn. I love poems that are titled with the date they were written and both books are studded with historical information, dates and events. I greatly admire what Cole does with historical material and research, and with each of her new books she manages to push the boundaries of what poetry is and can do a little further, so I also greatly look forward to her next book!
Man Years, Sandra Doller: I like to pass a book or two around a table full of friends when we are at my home, drinking. It is a ritual of sorts: back in Iowa I passed around books by Rosmarie Waldrop and Leslie Scalapino, and in India I pass around all those friends whom I miss and who, thankfully, are poets, and I get to share their voice with my friends here, who don’t read much poetry.
Last night, with my brother and some friends, I passed around Man Years by Sandra Doller. An excellent collection, from a few years ago, with the line we read out loud to each other—one of my favorites ever:
“Will you watch t.v. with me for the rest of life?
Will you watch me watching t.v.?”