The Shape of A Poem: The Red River Book Of Contemporary Erotic Poetry, Srividya Sivakumar & Paresh Tiwari, Red River, 2021, 254 pages, Rs. 399
When you read a lot of poetry for a living as an editor, after a while it takes a lot to get your attention. I’m sent a huge number of anthologies and poetry books in a year, and it can be easy for things to merge together. How can something stand out these days with so much being published?
The answer is quality. You will never fail if you produce quality and Red River are among those who produce consistently high-quality publications. Not least with The Shape of a Poem. I didn’t know what to expect, given erotic poetry isn’t my first-choice poetry-wise but I was really, really impressed.
Firstly, the design of the anthology is head-and-shoulders above average. From the beautiful font, to the striking cover and gorgeous interior artwork juxtaposed with every author, you know you are reading a quality publication. Beyond this sensory feast, I found the editors has seriously excelled in picking a veritable and impressive line up of some of the best modern poets around.
The Editors have grasped the nuance of erotic poetry with their opening quote by the incredible Audre Lorde when she stated: “We tend to think of the erotic as an easy, tantalizing sexual arousal. I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way.” Rather than being a rather predictable assortment of erotica and sex-based poetry, verging on pornography, the Editors have taken Lorde’s insight to heart and captured the essence of erotic in its purest form.
As they go on to say; “But the erotic is not an easy animal to possess. For starters, it is often misunderstood and mistreated. It is trivialized, confused with pornography, considered taboo, bold or risqué.” What separates this anthology from other erotic poetry collections, is its awareness of erotica existing as a consensual act, without the bondage of gender or labels, and free of shame. As the Editors point out, some questioned the very creation of a collection on erotica, which begs the question, why is this subject maligned or denigrated within the world of poetry? That alone is a reason to compile such a collection and the Editors have achieved this beautifully. If anything, an anthology is truly the life-blood of good editors who know instinctively what works and what does not. It is a framing of artwork through the intuitive understanding of the subject-matter, that is what separates the forgettable from the unforgettable.
Aakriti Kuntal is without doubt a favorite poet of mine, I have read her work for years, and she never ever disappoints, in any genre. Opening this gorgeous collection, I am reminded why Kuntal is the kind of poet, all poets aspire to be, but few if any will reach. She’s got an uncanny way with language and surrealist imagery that garners her mad respect and an unforgettable, original voice: “I stare and devour a pallid pink, naked in the thermometer of your neck, our bodies recurring like two mad dragonflies on a June day.” Kuntal’s ability to penetrate the very essence of any subject is utilized well in her work here, where her rich imagery and understanding of emotion, pair together to heighten the erotic nature of her juxtaposed language. Like so many Indian poets, she writes better in English than many native speakers, and this is but one reason Indian poets will remain at the top of the poetry genre.
I was familiar with many of the chosen poets, based on my anthology with Megha Sood, The Kali Project, and it was incredibly gratifying to see such talented poets in this collection, speaking from a different and equal vantage point. There is little I cherish more than watching poets thrive in multiple genres, growing their craft with the support of publishers and ideas people who know how to get the best out of people. Working in publishing, I’m gratified to see Red River produce some outstanding works and establish themselves as a force within the poetry world. Not just for Indian writers, but worldwide.
Poet Aditya Pandya writes: “It runs electric along the rim of a lacuna, like light on the lip of a glazed ceramic cup, long full of some sweet liquid undrunk, still, becoming some dark musky wine.” Women and men write out their erotic lament, in such immediate glory, it feels quite electric reading the intensity of these poems. Almost like being permitted into a secret membership.
I admit I worried I would find this tedious or too in-your-face but neither were true. Yes, some poems I did not care for, as is the case with any anthology and about personal taste far more than whether they hold merit. But if an anthology has a generous handful of delights, it has succeeded and The Shape of a Poem most certainly has: “I come from a long line of lapsed dancers. Imprisoned by cricked backs, blown knees, erratic hearts and wasting-away illnesses, we sit, tapping our toes. Jukeboxes longing to be plugged in.” (Pris Campbell). I also really appreciated the blend of Indian writers with others around the world, this worked really well.
We work hard to earn money, bring up children, etc., but often neglect one of our core needs, that of erotica and our carnal desires. Art can often evoke or remind us of this neglected portion of life, which can color our souls with such sustenance and for this reason, can never be unworthy of poetry: “You drink like you are starving, your eyes feast on mine. My throat lights up in a hoarse alchemy: a reason to leave, the urgency to stay.” (Smita Sahay). Balance is understanding needs that may have been overlooked for more obvious ones. As women we shy away from erotica more than men, but all humans, freed of shame, have carnal desires of some kind or another, and poetry is not simply the territory of love poetry, or ‘safe’ poems, but should embrace all aspects of the human condition. To do less is to sanitize poetry, which surely is the worst offense.
With lines like: “— what a mad way. This ruckus of sorts. What a mad way for the air to asphyxiate into itself, for the street to jerk into dust, & nothing but dust” (Tuhin) there is romance, direct sexuality, semi-pornographic depiction and a dispelling of stereotypes of what erotic poetry must constitute. As Tuhin says: “Erotic is to the creative what ordinary is to the commoner. Silhouetted outline of your lover’s face against the halo of theatre screens. Sharing the same food licking the same fingers. Biting the same legs, the same feet, same hands.” I appreciated the statements of intent along with the short biographies of each poet, this helped me visualize the writer in my head, and made their work less removed.
Poet Somrita Urni Ganguly writes “you know, in my head there are different compartments for languages: punjabi is for friendship, urdu for poetry, french is for courtship, spanish for sex.” Reminding me there is an intellectual humor to observation, as much as passion, and the combination of insight and raw evoked feeling is why I find poetry so compelling. This anthologies Editors have poured their own hearts into this project, clearly passionate advocates for the embracement of erotic poetry to the cannon. They say in their afterword: “cultivation of pleasure for its own sake provides you with the imagination and the capacity to not just stay alive but to explore aliveness. You convince them that erotic is a language. It is fire and energy. It is what sets us apart and makes life bearable.” I think in this time of struggle, they have truly placed their finger on one reason we as a species continue to touch one another intimately, to feel alive and remind ourselves we are more than chained to a desk. I find it uplifting and incredibly hopeful to be reminded of this in such an immediate and honest way as only quality erotic poetry can deliver. “Because of the way he chose a peach — the gentle, testing press; because of the way his eyes closed with that first mouthed bite; because he didn’t wipe juice from lips, from chin —" (Carole MacRury)
The length of this collection, the exquisite layout and care to design and visual beauty, and the Editors choice of featured poets, is as perfect as an anthology can hope to be, and I’m filled with ideas of how to replicate this perfection and deeply inspired by the care and attention given to this work. As I do much the same job, it takes someone who knows the hard work and dedication to create something on this level, to truly appreciate what the Editors have achieved here. If you love poetry, if you love erotic poetry that is exquisite and honest, then you will discover a gem in this collection by Red River. I cannot recommend it more highly.