The Festival That Was Matwaala: South Asian Poets Celebrating Poetry and Love

It is rare indeed to walk into a community that feels like one's ideal collective of listeners and readers, fellow poets who value the art above all and have each lived through the experience of making sacrifices to get to the point where we feel that the designation of "poet" is not entirely unearned.
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Something extraordinary, even magical, happened in Austin, Texas over the weekend of Aug. 1-2. South Asian poets from different nations and around the country--and many local ones too--came at the invitation of Usha Akella--an indefatigable presence on the Austin poetry scene--to the inaugural South Asian Poets in the Diaspora Festival (aka Matwaala) without quite knowing what to expect. As the weekend progressed it went beyond a formal convocation to listen to poetry and became instead a celebration of the rarefied stuff that goes into making poetry.

Matwaala is an appropriate name for the festival. I found this definition online: "Matwaala is literally Hindi for someone who is drunk, inebriated. But more than that the word is used in a transferred sense for someone who is a free spirit, someone who doesn't care for things, someone who does what he/she wishes to do."

The word "junoon" is a close parallel in Urdu, implying delirium. And indeed, this was the tone dominating the festival, a spirit of freedom and liberation, sheer joy in the adventure that is poetry rather than worrying about its business aspects or feeling like one had to put on any kind of front. If you already feel accepted, then there is no need to put pressure on yourself.

We started off Saturday morning--in a get-acquainted poetry jam session--at Austin Community College's delightful Rio Grande campus, under the auspices of Lyman Grant, who has taught there for close to forty years. We moved on to Usha's dream house--if you have a fantasy about a spacious abode that functions as a retreat, a safe haven, an artist's home par excellence with enormous wide-open sky blue space inside, then Usha's house is the one.

Ravi Shankar reading at Austin Community College

Here the Matwaala poets were made to feel very special--and I understood at last that this was not the typical conference where writers remain in their shell, straining to be heard above the din, but that we had already been heard, and were to be recognized and celebrated, which defined the complexion of the get-together not as competitive but relaxing. A number of poets and guests sang, performed poetry, and danced, making it the perfect tone-setter for our collective visit that evening to the very hospitable Raindrop Turkish House, where under the aegis of the Dialogue Institute we had another round of memorable poetry readings.


Guner Arslan of the Austin Raindrop Turkish Center introducing the concept behind the Dialogue Institute

Phinder Dulai reading at Raindrop Turkish House

The next day's packed schedule took place at Casa de Luz, the quintessential Southwestern retreat/healing center, in the shadow of downtown--though it felt a million miles away. Here we presented a diverse range of papers (I'll get to the protagonists in a minute): Keki Daruwalla's on the distinction between a poetry of commitment versus a poetry of playfulness, Sasha Pramasad's on silence, Saleem Piradina's on the Bombay poetry revolution of the 1970s, Pramila Venkateswaran's on the representation of South Asians in the top journals and presses, and Ravi Shankar's on the concept of Bhakti in his forthcoming book.


Some of the audience at Casa de Luz

Each presenter was hilariously introduced by Usha's lovely daughter Anannya and her friend Rehana in hysterical limericks--Keki's went: "Too much easy rhyme we confess: Akella, Matwaala, Daruwaala, / While coming to the point, we'll mention he is an Oxford wallah, / Let's learn to do it better with Keki, / God forbid we mention that Englishman Shelley, / But it's cool to toast the Persians and Greeks in Fire Alta!"--and the sense of celebration and high spirits never left us, all the way through the violin recitation by the twelve-year-old virtuoso Kai Cole, to the rigorous exertions of the Natyalaya dance, presented by Vinitha Subramaniam, and concluding with Lebanese-American singer Julie Slim-Nassif's sweet Arabic and French songs.

Anannya and Rehana introducing Sasha Parmasad at Casa de Luz

As for the people of delirium, or matwaalas, let me briefly describe some of them, beginning with our keynote speaker and chief guest of honor.

Keki Daruwalla is a Delhi-based author of many books of poetry and fiction. He is a Parsi (Zoroastrian), a member of a highly accomplished community that embodies a cosmopolitan outlook and traditions of tolerance and peacefulness because of their mercantile inheritance. Keki was an officer with the Indian Police Service, a director of India's RAW (Research and Intelligence Wing), and special adviser to the prime minister. He is worldly and gentlemanly, and kind and generous, in the way only larger-than-life figures who've earned their stateliness and grace can be: his is the meaningful life experience from which poets and writers ought to be made, and Keki has it--that charisma--in abundance. Yet this charisma is employed not in the service of making people think of him or his talent as something other than what it is, but to bring out the best in others. I've noted this characteristic in many great writers.

Keki Daruwalla reading at Casa de Luz

There was Saleem Peeradina who has taught at Sienna Heights University in Michigan for almost three decades, since he moved from Bombay. He was one of the figures responsible for bringing about the Bombay revolution: the rejection of outmoded romantic/sentimental tropes for a more realist, modernist poetry, of which Saleem--and others he mentioned in his talk--was one of the avatars. On the way to the airport on Monday, Keki and Pramila were talking about some of the important moments in the rise of Indian English poetry over the course of 45 years, since around 1970, a movement in which Keki was a central figure. Like Saleem, he mentioned poets like Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolatkar who are not familiar to me but about whom I now have an intense curiosity.

Saleem Peeradina at Casa de Luz

Saleem regaled us with his singing of ghazals and classic Indian songs at Usha's home after lunch on the first day, and we also heard Thom Worldpoet (now that I've heard this magnificent Austin bard, I understand why this appellation perfectly suits him).

Thom Worldpoet at Usha's house

Saleem's own student from the mid-1970s in Bombay, Pramila Venkateswaran (now poet laureate of Suffolk County, New York, and professor at Nassau Community College), whom Pramila credits with her own development as a poet, was present as well. Pramila came to the U.S. to do her PhD in literature in 1982, and in the last decade has published a spate of books. Pramila and I got a chance to interview each other for television--thanks, Farid Mohammadi!--and talk about the different phases of our writing over the years. Pramila is also an astute critic and her migration from one culture to another is surely responsible in large part for her ability to have a macro view of literature, to understand how things fit in context.

Pramila Venkateswaran at Casa de Luz

Ravi Shankar was also part of the festivities. He teaches at Central Connecticut State University and is founding editor of one of the earliest and best online literary journals, Drunken Boat. Ravi is a poet of well-developed aesthetic sensibilities, steeped in the canon, responding to the sound and flavor of others' investigations of art and poetry. He read mostly from his new book of ekphrastic and collaborationist poetry, What Else Could It Be, from Carolina Wren Press. Ravi is what we call a poet's poet, who takes the art very seriously.

Then there was Phinder Dulai from Vancouver, British Columbia, an accomplished poet whose third book, dream/arteries, caused a stir at the festival. The book is about the fate of marooned Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu migrants on board the Japanese ship Komagata Maru, stranded in Vancouver harbor for two months in 1914 and eventually forced to return to India because exclusionary laws wouldn't permit their entry. The book is evocative of the statelessness many experience in the current iteration of globalization. Phinder's ability to give voice to the forgotten group of people on board that ship struck a chord in me, because I've had a similar project in mind, and I recognized that Phinder had totally nailed the voice(s) a book like this needs, he'd got the tone just right. It's exciting to see a poet take on, so successfully, some of the overdue challenges from the poetry that Ezra Pound instigated a hundred years ago.

We all loved Sasha Parmasad, originally from Trinidad, who studied in New York and now teaches Transcendental Meditation in Iowa. Sasha's poems, and her paper at Casa de Luz, were about poetry and silence. Silence in poetry, or silence and poetry, have for me emerged in recent months as a recurrent issue in conversations with other poets. We all admired Sasha's honest vulnerability, her gentle soul, because if poetry cannot produce a soul one wants to be near to, then what is it for?

Sasha Parmasad reading at Raindrop Turkish House

I gave a talk on whether or not I think of myself as an immigrant poet (the answer, in the essay I'd originally written for an anthology just out from Black Lawrence Press, was largely no), and I was delighted to find that it was very much in tune with the preoccupations of many others at the festival. I admire immigrant writing that reaches for utopian ideals of justice and equality--as has been true of many Jewish writers of the diaspora--but I'm also aware of the trap the neoliberal culture industry sets by segregating different branches of writing into insular ghettos, cultural zones cordoned off from economic concerns.

Anis Shivani reading at Casa de Luz

We heard from rising poets like Shubh Bala Schiesser, Archana Vemulapalli, Debangana Banerjee, and Mamata Misra, full of confidence, each with their distinct, sweet presence, their pure expression of joy.

Certain themes kept coming up again and again, as they are bound to during an event as intimate and provocative as this one. What is South Asian poetry, what is distinctive about it, and what does it mean to be a poet of the diaspora today? How do we write, who do we write for, how do we make our presence felt, and what are the compromises and reconciliations necessary to get established as a poet? What makes us happiest as poets, what experiences and what immersions, and how can we protect the flickering candle, always in danger of being smothered, that is poetry? What did it mean for us to get together in this way, and could we rise above our immediate interests to preserve something of lasting beauty?

The release of Usha Akella's new book at Casa de Luz

Dustin Pickering of Transcendent Zero Press introducing Usha Akella's new book at Casa de Luz

This event felt important. I'm trying to understand why the feeling is so strong. Perhaps it was the sense of intimacy and kinship, and freedom from cant and one-upmanship. It is rare indeed to walk into a community that feels like one's ideal collective of listeners and readers, fellow poets who value the art above all and have each lived through the experience of making sacrifices to get to the point where we feel that the designation of "poet" is not entirely unearned.


The Julie Slim band delighting the audience at Casa de Luz

These poets were fun to be with, full of positive energy and vitality, immersed in the life of the mind, precisely the shape one hopes a new intellectual community will take.

A lot of us read different kinds of love poetry during the course of the festival. Sometimes we spontaneously broke out in songs or recitations of classical poetry (for example, Keki reciting Faiz or Faraz, along with his own translations, or Ghalib), and this was apt, because it was a festival as much about love as about poetry, or rather, the foundations of poetry in love. That's what made it so different and possibly unrepeatable, though we will surely try to recapture some of the magic in the coming years. This was an event celebrating poetry for itself, and we understood, even as it was unfolding, how precious and rare this emphasis is.

Anannya Akella reading at Casa de Luz

Many of us are familiar with the exhaustion and loss of inspiration that are often part and parcel of writing conferences. We've all experienced it and promised ourselves not to go through it again. Well, this festival was the antithesis of all those feelings. I came away full of hope and energy and a certain confidence that my trials and tribulations hadn't been wasted, that they were necessary, indeed inevitable.


The Matwaala poets after the conclusion of the festival at Usha's house

Thank you, Matwaalas everywhere, whether or not you came to this festival, we are full of spirit, intuiting songs about to set us free. Many circles were tied and many circles let loose here, in a whirl whose beginning and end we don't know and don't want to know.

Part of the Natyalaya dance to conclude the proceedings at Casa de Luz

You can listen to complete audio of the second day's events here, courtesy of Hemant Bhagawatula, and view more pictures of the festival here and here, and watch more videos here.

Anis Shivani is the author of several books of poetry, fiction, and criticism, the most recent of which is the novel Karachi Raj, released this summer.

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