An interview with the Editors of Poetry at Sangam

    1)  Taking down Poetry at Sangam must have generated a plethora of flashbacks of memory for you. Perhaps some of those memories stem from the very initial days at Poetry at Sangam. Days when the project was conceived, launched and became a reality. Could you take us through those days that throw light on how and why Poetry at Sangam came into existence?

    PRIYA: We haven’t taken down Poetry at Sangam! It exists as an archive and poetry resource on our independent website www.poetryatsangam.com with its load of 3,000 + poems and poems in translation, contextualized by Editors’ Notes and Translators’ Reflections, audio files and of course Editorial Introduction for every issue, over the past ten years.
    Recently, the thought struck me that for over a decade we’ve put out the choices of our guest editors, or Mrinalini Harchandrai’s, besides mine.  But what if the contributors themselves select two fellow poets and/or translators they most resonate with on the day?  We then share their choices on our social media pages, with links to each one’s page on Poetry at Sangam. The invitation is open to all our contributors. I’m overwhelmed by their responses to this literary game — enthusiastic, heartening and often, surprising. Some who I haven’t been in touch with for years have mailed back.
                  Poetry at Sangam to me is about sharing creativity and craft, beauty, the wonder of ideas and its expressions, explorations in language and forms. Of course it cost – and continues to draw on my creative time, effort and money but I’ve always wanted to give back to literature that has given me so much, and build an international community of poets, translators and readers. 

    I’m particularly pleased  because we’ve constantly tried to be more inclusive and avoid a monolithic editorship. The practise of introducing guest editors, who brought their unique angles and perceptions to the storehouse was one way. This enhance the diversity at Poetry at Sangam, I too found this personally elevating. You’ll notice the results—our curations of poets and translators are heterogeneous in terms of practice, philosophy, country, and even ideas of what poetry should be. Our journal is an exploratory pathway into poetry—fluid, forking, living.  

    Some eight years on, as each issue grew in size, I needed someone to work shoulder-to-shoulder with me, someone who could expand the journal’s vision without cramping its breadth or compromising on the principles. I pondered it, and asked poet and novelist Mrinalini Harchandrai to join as Deputy Editor. I admire her experiments with language, forms and range for her generosity, wacky sense of humour and unflinching honesty. She agreed with my aim: to promote the work of fellow poets. I trusted her ideation and execution; she isn’t afraid of hard work, doesn’t drop the ball and is an excellent editor. In short, Mrinalini is a terrific team player. Our issues grew more voluminous; she undertook editing issues alone, bringing in her concerns and interests, spiking up our social media profile, offering calm, sage advice when I tended to go overboard on issues; and she made working on Poetry at Sangam a larger quest, and fun. If I’m asked what I first remember about our teamwork it would be hearing Mrinalini crack up when we faced a particularly irksome problem. Laughing in its face was contagious.

    Over ten years Poetry at Sangam grew organically, as a tree of poetry branching in many directions.  

    MRINALINI: When Priya and I—as Eunice d’Souza would say—met in poetry at a reading, she was a senior poet, at the height of her game while I was at the initial stages of finding my own voice. And yet, she was caring and open-hearted, offering her encouragement and positive criticism—both valuable in their own ways for any writer, especially a newer one. In Poetry at Sangam, she sought out the unconventional without compromising on beauty and sophistication. I especially valued her vision for inclusivity at the journal by bringing in guest editors as well as offering every translator a space for their notes on craft. Priya, and by extension, the journal, was as precise as she/it is magnanimous. So working together sounded like a curve of discovery and enrichment. It has been all that and more, and I think this is possible since Priya’s vision is less about someone’s status and more about their poetry. More than featuring a well-known contributor, which was always exciting of course, it was thrillingly sublime to discover a relatively unknown name that brought a surprising brilliance to the page. It helps in our teamwork that Priya and I are mutual admirers of each other’s writing as well as each other’s ways of working. The interesting part is that Priya is very open to boundary-flouting and then I’d tend to compensate by being more risk-averse, and so in this dual-generational collegial relationship she is the badass. 

    2) Most journals have an underlying vision behind their existence. What was Poetry at Sangam’s raison d’etre and in hindsight, do you feel that vision was fulfilled?

    PRIYA: I was, and am, keen to showcase work that is experimental, immersive and intense, brave with beauty and mystery, daring with language and form. Poetry at Sangam gave me the platform to celebrate literature without a thought for market constrains. This is important, for such spaces are rare as simultaneously sighting two equally glimmering rainbows in the sky. I wanted the journal to be an artistic shelter, a faith-giver for poets, an encouraging, sanctifying space for poetry. It’s for others to decide if we achieved this. 

    From its name itself, the word ‘sangam’ has multiple meanings: confluence, comingling, here—of rivers of poetry and community. In my vision for the journal, sangam shades into multiple tongues, voices, even flames—when derived at a slant from the Urdu zubaan. Sangam has added implications for me in my own work since I translate from ancient Tamil Sangam-era poetics, a poetry of the imagination that is allusive and rich in interpretative freedom. Poetry at Sangam thus also points to poetry in translation, which is a significant thrust of our journal. We honour translators and carried Translator’s Reflections if they chose to write about their process.

    Was the vision fulfilled, you ask? I wonder if a vision is ever fully fulfilled. 

    We are thankful to those who supported us: The Artist Within, Lakshmi and Subodh Shankar of the Bangalore Poetry Festival, and in the recent years, Raza Foundation. 

    I now look after it entirely on my own as the arts—especially poetry—needs much more funding for sustenance. This lack is endemic, and disappointing. My only regret is that we couldn’t feature many more wonderful poets by doing more and larger issues due to lack of a larger team powered by more resources. The flesh and spirit were willing, but the cash was missing so  we sometimes couldn’t showcase some excellent poets and translators which is a pity. 

    Both of us would feel elated after each issue; yes, we’ve got this out, the contributors are happy—followed by the ebb of exhaustion. We asked a lot of ourselves but had the support of the poetic community. They’ve consistently been generous with us in gifting their work. 

    3) Could you share with us pieces from Poetry at Sangam that are precious to you as Editors and also been significant in the decade-long literary journey? Surely there are pieces in the magazine that you cherish over and above the rest or pieces which push you to rethink nuances of craft? We’d love to know.

    Each poem we’ve published asks that we look at the nuances of craft; with each issue we’ve built friendships. Instead of choosing from the thousands of poems on Poetry at Sangam, we offer excerpts from our editorial introduction as a carpet if you will, woven for the reader to know our journey. 

    April 2013, Volume I | Issue 1 – PSC

    http://www.poetryatsangam.com/2013/03/april-2013/

    Each month, we shall upload the work of two poets, six poems each.

    This month we are delighted to present poems by….   Do mail news about submission calls and new book releases to priya.sangampoetry@gmail.com. We’ll be happy to feature these on our pages.

    April 2014 PSC

    http:// www.poetryatsangam.com /2014/04/april-2014/

    Summer’s here. Mangoes form on the old tree; faint music of the classical flute floats through the afternoon like a zephyr. Reading poetry becomes an antidote to glare as it draws us into rooms shaded with nuances. We present selections from the work of…

    July 2016 – PSC

    http:// www.poetryatsangam.com /2016/07/july-2016/

    Sharing happy news: Poetry at Sangam is now supported by Atta Galatta.

    Book lovers warm to the words ‘Atta Galatta’, the bookshop in Bangalore that stocks over 10,000 titles in regional languages, particularly from the South, as well as those in the English, besides hosting performances and readings. The roomy red brick-walled space is welcoming, enhanced by the smell of coffee and cookies… The couple behind Atta Galatta, Lakshmi and Subodh Sankar are most welcoming to what I consider the most endangered of literary arts, poetry…. Now to our new issue…

    June 2018 PSC

    http:// www.poetryatsangam.com /2018/05/june-2018/ 

    Pre-monsoon showers sway the mangoes outside my window. They hang seemingly close at hand but are just beyond plucking distance. As I gaze and gaze on them the condition of simultaneously being near and being far metaphorizes into many things. 

    October 2019 PSC

    http:// www.poetryatsangam.com /2019/09/october-2019/

    I’m editing an issue after a gap of over two years. During this time, guest editors from various parts of our threatened, teetering planet curated the quarterly; each one having created an issue to be treasured. Please read these issues again here. You will be gladdened!

    This instalment is a double issue and introduces many firsts…

    April 2020 PSC

    http:// www.poetryatsangam.com /2020/04/march-2020/

    Poetry in the time of calamity. In this issue are poems written before the contagion’s spread. Poems which will survive after it passes.  We are fortunate to have …

    October 2021 PSC

    http:/// www.poetryatsangam.com 2021/09/october-2021/

    Jean Clottes, possibly the world’s foremost authority on cave art, disagrees with the nomenclature we have given our species, Homo sapiens or ‘wise ones’. We don’t know much, he insists. Instead, he and other anthropologists and philosophers propose Homo spiritualis. According to him, humans are a species that contemplates the nature of consciousness. Imagination, belief in the fluidity of existence and permeability to the invisible forces of spirituality was a mark of these early people and continues to mark us today. 

    January 2022 – MH

    http:// www.poetryatsangam.com /2021/11/january-2022/

    As our marble-blue home does its heliocentric revolution, we choose to mark time with poetry. Poetry at Sangam shifts into its ninth year this 2022; a feat in tenacity and interstitial-deep love for poetry and translation by our founding editor Priya Sarukkai Chabria.

    As we evolve into the new year, the January issue of Poetry at Sangam is guest-edited by awarded (The “Great” Indian Poetry Collective, Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize, Prabha Khaitan Woman’s Voice Award…) poet and professor …. She curates this issue with the spectroscope she uses as a practitioner (see her new poems here)—honing in on the coloured strands of embodied experience—as well as an educator—faceting the reader’s engagement through specific virtue. The purpose of poetry finds tidal stretch as much as it is pinpointed with the accuracy of a fraction of a second. 

    April 2022 – MH

    http:// www.poetryatsangam.com /2022/03/april-2022/

    This year is delightedly flagged by Indian Anglophone poets as the 70th anniversary of late Padma Shri Nissim Ezekiel’s first book of poetry, A Time To Change and Other Poems. (A title that once alluded to a shift of Indian poetry in English from the Romantic era but somehow feels as relevant post-COVIDicene). His later poems like ‘The Patriot’ and ‘The Professor’, usually first discovered in classrooms, are remembered gratefully not only for making poetry accessible in the Indo-English spoken vernacular, but for rendering poetry seasoned with homegrown humour. Lines like ‘I am the total teetotaller, completely total[1] and ‘I am living just on opposite house’s backside’[2] may appear as punchlines bringing bemused focus in a student—especially one skeptical of the practical pursuit of English literature in a capitalist economy, while waiting for the bell. However, they succeed in bringing bazaar English into the general literary conversation, converting postcolonial into colloquial, making room for a commoner persona in a terrain mostly dominated by the pedantic persona. Nissim showed us how poetics can step into a Modernism belonging to an individual voice, pincoded with very local quirks and preoccupations.

    Therefore when Founding Editor Priya Sarukkai Chabria suggested I curate the April 2022 issue, I knew it would have to be a tribute to the Nissim legacy of an individual satire. Each of the poets are handpicked for their poetry and their voice. Some are adepts in the humourverse and some will be attempting it in their poems for the first time here. I’m pleased to add that we have a balanced gender ratio when it comes to funny bones.

    June 2023, Volume XI | Issue 2 – PSC and MH

    http:// www.poetryatsangam.com /2023/04/june-2023/

    We announce with regret that the current June 2023 issue of Poetry at Sangam will be the journal’s last issue.

    We are deeply grateful to the guest editors, poets and translators who contributed to the journal during its decade-long existence, and of course to our readers. We also sincerely thank the institutions, individuals and webmasters who sustained its existence.

    We are proud of the contribution we have made to the literary community–which will continue as Poetry at Sangam will remain as an archive on the exceptional international writers’ residency Sangam House’s website that has hosted us these ten years.

    –-Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Mrinalini Harchandrai

    4) Could you take us through the process of editing Poetry at Sangam? It must have been challenging sometimes to solicit work from writers far and wide. What was it like to figure out the names that would go into a particular issue? More importantly, what has been your underlying rationale underpinning solicitation of work—is the politics, the craft, relevance—or any other factor?

    PRIYA:  Poetry at Sangam rarely carried previously published work. We’d read a range of poets and chose poetry that gave us the Ah! experience. No poet or ‘theme’ was avoided; we didn’t privilege any agenda other than focussing on inclusiveness. Once a guest editor was invited, the issue was hers to put together as she wished. In such cases, issues were planned much in advance. I remember once when we had three guest-edited issues lined up, i.e. committed for nine months, a remarkable poet askedsurely as the founding editor I could include her work, and to her disappointment (and mine) I stated I just couldn’t interfere. 

    Usually, we went for translations from languages and voices that were perhaps marginalized but opened up worlds of imagination, ideas, craft which can be pushed in many ways, and the art embedded in them. It might begin with reading a poor translation on the Net, then seeking out a translator we could trust to be both truthful to the text, and inventive. 

    The word ‘relevance’ to me is irrelevant, indeed, misleading as a category to ‘judge’ poems. The kind of poetry I’m speaking about always quickens the pulse, and gladdens. 

    5) Priya, what is in the offing now? What can we look forward to from Priya’s pen and keyboard? We’d love to know.

    PRIYA:  2024 looks like a full year. 

    Two translation reprints, Andal The Autobiography of a Goddess  from Zubaan,  and Sing of Live Revisioning Tangore’s Gitanjali from Westland.
    A new collection of short climate fiction stories from Red River Stories
    Continuing the work of translating Tamil sacred songs by the wandering  medieval  mystic Manikkavasagar. Though I began this work in 2016, it has picked up speed when the excellent Shobhana Kumar, poet and translator,  joined me as co-translator in 2023. The mystic composed over a 1000 dazzling songs seamed with compassion and complexity. It’s intense, demanding work that will take us two more years to complete.   

    More immediately, Mrinalini and I are happy to announce that we’re editing an anthology, Poetry at Sangam’s THE DRAGON’S HEART World Poetry in Translation.  This is culled from the pages of our journal,  forthcoming by July with the prestigious Jadavpur University Press (JUP). Neither Mrinalini nor I have spared ourselves though it took much more time, energy and imagination than we envisioned. Every translation is accompanied by the Translator’s Reflections so it is a book as much about translation as the poems in translation. We send a huge thank you to the featured translators and poets for standing with us in solidarity through this difficult literary adventure. It should be a largish anthology that we hope will surprise, provoke and delight readers.  

    6) Mrinalini, many congratulations on your latest novel, Mrinalini! Do tell us about it.

    MRINALINI: Thank you for your warm wishes for the book. Rescuing a River Breeze is fiction set in 1960s Goa, right before its annexation. The story starts as a slice of life of a young girl going about her life in Portuguese-era Panjim, until an event beyond her understanding and control, the arrest of her father, shifts her world off-track. Many folks have been asking me if I jumped from poetry to the novel, however I started researching the novel over 10 years ago so it was always on a parallel track, whose release somehow coincided with the closure of Poetry at Sangam. However, I’m so pleased that its publication will be followed by the publication of the anthology Priya mentioned into the sangamverse of subcontinental literature.

    Author’s Bio:

    Ankush Banerjee (he/his), poet, Culture Studies PhD research scholar and serving Naval Officer, is the author of An Essence of Eternity (2016). He has been recipient of the 2019 All India Poetry Prize, as well as the United Services Institution of India Gold Medals in 2013, 2017 and 2022, for his essays on Military Ethics and Leadership. His poetry, reviews and essays appear in Eclectica, Cha, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Tupelo Quarterly, Kitaab and The Indian Express, among others. His work has also appeared in the anthologies, Yearbook of Indian Poetry 2020 and 2021, Best of Asian Poetry 2021, and Converse: Contemporary English Poetry by Indians. He is currently stationed at New Delhi.

    Priya Sarukkai Chabria is an award winning translator, poet and writer acclaimed for her radical literary aesthetics. Her books include speculative fiction, literary non-fiction, two poetry collections, a novel and translations from Classical Tamil of the mystic Andal’s songs. Awarded for her Outstanding Contribution to Literature by the Indian government, she has attended prestigious writers’ residencies and presented her work worldwide; it’s widely anthologised. She edited possibly the largest archive of Indian Anglophone poetry Talking Poetry (India) and now edits Poetry at Sangam. http://poetry.sangamhouse.org. Another version of her speculative fiction novel titled Clone is forthcoming with Zubaan, New Delhi in 2018 and University of Chicago Press, 2019; the French translation by Editions Banyan is scheduled for 2019. Also forthcoming in 2018 (Ed.) Fafnir’s Heart World Poetry in Translation with Bombaykala Books. She’s translating sacred songs from Old Tamil. www.priyawriting.com

    Mrinalini Harchandrai is the author of ‘A Bombay in My Beat’, a collection of poetry. Her poem won first prize in The Barre (2017) and she was a finalist for the Stephen A. DiBiase Poetry Prize 2019. Her unpublished novel manuscript was selected as Notable Entry for the Disquiet International Literary Prize 2019. Her short fiction has been longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2018 and Columbia Journal Spring 2020 Contest. Her work has been anthologized in RLFPA Editions’ Best Indian Poetry 2018 and The Brave New World of Goan Writing (2018, 2020).

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