The Wingword Poetry Competition
In December last year, I had sent in a poem, kakinada, as an entry for the Wingword Poetry Competition. The results were out last month, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the Commendable Mentions section. This post is about a little journey from there to a winning poem I happened to read, to another book by the same poet and my thoughts on the same.
The official list of winners and mentions on the website is longer than Rapunzel's golden hair, and there were a lot of takeaways for me.
One, there is a lot of poetry being written in India. The sheer number of submissions itself was extremely encouraging. There may no centralised well-funded, highly visible institution to support this argument, but there are an array of magazines, journals and writing communities which are popular in their own way by region or niche - Wingword being a case in point.
Two, I admire the remarkable patience the judges themselves must have had to read through and appreciate the individual voices of each poet they had to encounter; I was Teaching Assistant for a Literature course in college and just forty answer sheets would drive me mad.
Three, there was something very satisfying about seeing my name in any list of writing-related commendable mentions. Vanity, you little rascal.
And lastly, and most importantly, I had another bunch of people I could reach out to to discuss poetry. A previous blog post talks about how a lack of community of poets or writers was discouraging for me early on.
Though I was not even in the top fifty entries of the award, I was hoping to shamelessly gatecrash Wingword's Prize ceremony in Delhi this month to awkward out people with personal questions about poems with highly intimate themes - it took a global pandemic to put an end to that evil scheme. I resorted to the next best option, reading some of the poems and reaching out to poets whose works I could relate to or really liked.
These poems are all in a nice little ebook that Wingword have released. I cannot oversell a read - vivid imagery, ambitious themes, astute observations, mastery of the language, plays with form, sheer skill and unnerving encounters with truth - you will very quickly realize why they're, well, the winning poems. It's free for now - and a lot of people have put in a lot of effort to create and compile the contents.
One of the people I reached out to was Eshna Sharma (@poeticpermit) - Wingword's first prize winner for her poem Dinner Table Conversations.
Dinner Table Conversations
the waft of curry chicken
the radio begins to play
and we sit down for dinner
Ma passes around rotis
We make mundane conversation
"How is work?"
"Buaji called. She is visiting next week."
We smile and laugh
Ma fusses over Papa's plate
"Why do you eat so less?" she bemoans
Ma, why don't you ask him
why he drinks more alcohol than water?
Ma heaps a ladleful of
fragrant rice on my plate
We talk about the weather
about the coming elections
We talk about Donald Trump
And the new maid
"She puts too much oil in the food, no?"
But we don't talk about
why Ma is always running out of
painkillers, though she stocks the medicine cabinet every two weeks
We don't talk about
the scars on my sister's wrists,
too precise to be called an accident
We don't talk about why
My cousin divorced
her husband last month
But we do talk about
the Super Moon,
the 50 percent off at the local mall
And the current government's policies
For dessert we have
Peppered with cardamom and raisins
The subject of marriage is now broached
Sharma ji's daughter is getting married next week—
"Should we look for a boy for you too?"
This time, I smile.
"No ma, I've been in love with a girl since I was fourteen."
Dinner Table Conversations, The Beetles in the Walls
It's a very familiar setting in this country, isn't it? A family sitting down for dinner, making small talk - chances are you have lived this moment so many times in your life. You have watched the crockery glisten, you have been enticed by the aroma of ma ka khana long before it's on your plate and you have skipped past many threads of conversation which are so intimate and important but are awkward misfits which will outrage the very fabric of your familial construct. Your desire to choose another career, your love for someone outside your caste, your deliberate attempts to overlook mental health problems, your excitement about something as simple as a girl you like.
This poem is beautiful because it draws attention to the painful paradox we live in, this inexplicable juxtaposition of what we are meant to be and what we want to be. It is about the conflict between them that never peeks out from the subtext and is institutionally buried away under societal constructs as mundane as a daily dinner conversation.
Well, I loved the poem, and I wanted to read more by the author. I found her gem of a book, The Beetles in The Walls, a few days ago, which is what I will be talking about in the remainder of this narrative.
A first pass over this engaging collection of eight short stories and thirteen poems in her debut book reminds me of a certain Rowan Atkinson sketch where he plays headmaster, comically and shockingly explaining to a parent how he beat a student to death for flouting library rules. There’s a certain line that came to mind, to be more specific:
‘Mr.Perkins, I find this morbid fascination of yours with your son's death quite disturbing.’
At the time of writing, Eshna was not old enough to procure a driving license, but that did not stop her from addressing themes of death, loss and love - this is not a book for children or teenagers. She declares how she wants to paint a world of greys in her preface, and stays true to her word. To her excellent credit, she meets these ambitious themes head on; her stories confidently portray maturity and skill far beyond her years.
Eshna has a gift for prose - especially when it comes to character and setting expositions. The stories aren’t long themselves, on the contrary. In Mrs. Lee’s Flowers it was the colours and fragrance of the garden, in Love Thy Neighbour, it was the shabby neighbourhood which Joe lived in - they all stay vividly with you after just a few lines. Characters are introduced by what they think and what they do - a lonely artist washing dishes in an unkempt home, a traumatised son turning to smoking to deal with the death of his mother, a poor Chinese salesgirl stealing furtive looks at an expensive dress she adored at the boutique.
Eshna’s narratives build upon these quiet, conflicted souls. She engulfs the reader in their feelings and motivations, and the plot moves forward with organic consistency. I remember struggling with the balance between pace and granularity when I had started writing. For instance, as a writer, how do you move the story forward without getting lost in a particular scene or description?
Let's pull at that tangent and explore granularity with a simple action which can be written with multiple levels of detail and pacing:
I called my roommate for breakfast.
I looked around for Arya - he was lying on his bed, feet up against the wall, browsing Instagram on his phone. ‘Do you want breakfast?’ I asked him.
I looked around for Arya, he was in a familiar pose - on his bed, feet up against the wall, browsing Instagram on his phone. If I were told that Arya was in the college room, that is exactly how I would picture him. I can perhaps even guess which post he'd pause longer at. Our brains have funny ways of mapping thoughts to pictures at times, come to think of it.
‘Do you want breakfast?’ I asked him.
Eshna is already comfortable with granularity which leaves behind enough cues for the imagination for the reader to weave in the rest of the details. She knew when to describe more and when to move on with the story. Chaining clauses together, she lets her narrative simply and imperceptibly just flow. The mark of any good writer.
There are some raw edges, sure. An abrupt shift in PoV in one story, an inconsistent plot point in another and, if one were pedantic enough to point it out, a few typos here and there. At sixteen, I was struggling to string functional words together to address my high school crush, and that may somewhat disqualify me from further criticizing this wonderful collection of prose and poetry from such a young writer.
I repeat, this is not a book for the light hearted. Eshna, through her seemingly simple imagery-laden free verse, explores poignant themes that will make you pause between the lines to let the magnitude of her words sink in. Bursting with vividity, her poems seamlessly flit between astute observations of the tangible and intangible alike.
In Houseplants, she plays with metaphors. Sometimes, that is what poetry is about, isn't it? We engage in the clever act of drawing analogies, assigning attributes and characteristics from one observed entity to another, and then toy with the nature of one while implying the consequences on the other. Here, she scathingly wonders about her inability to take care of household flora:
at night when I
shaking and soaking in my sheets
I run my hands over
the empty side of the bed
and wonder -
Do I do to other people, too
what I do to my flowers?
Houseplants, The Beetles in the Walls
In Memories, she indulges herself with a feast for the faculties, weaving words together into a colourful, fragrant tapestry. I believe that poems like these will always be far more intimate to the poet than the reader.
My memories are everywhere -
In the bedsheets when I wake, like oil stains,
In the grout of the bathroom tiles,
In leaking drain pipes and dirty kitchen sinks
They look at me from the mirror -
My six year old self, mom's lipstick in hand
Memories, The Beetles in the Walls
In Asma, Boys Like You, and Growing Pains, she explorest feminist themes with the authority of someone who has truly faced pain specific to her sex. Everyone has the freedom to present themselves they see fit, the way they like to. But this freedom seems to vanish into thin air when a woman walks out of the comfort of her home.
A stole wrapped carefully to hide her chest
There are men on the streets that strip her naked
With just their eyes
A pepper spray in her handbag
and a pocketknife in her jeans
She wonders if she will have to use it someday
Will it sink into flesh, or
will it scrape against bone?
The women's helpline number is tatooed
across the grooves of her brain
Asma steps out into the world,
to live her life through just
Asma, The Beetles in the Walls
In Begin Again, she takes on a lighter note. A first date where - like the proverbial box of chocolates - you never know what you’re going to get. The poem replays one failed scenario after the other till a trip to the movies finally ends with the promise for another. But the poem also asks, do love stories really come without edges?
The light hearted tone continues in Group Therapy, where she decides that men do need a support group for broken hearts (If I find the link to register, I shall update this post), and wittily portrays the musings of the attendees.
They sit, huddled
The old timers with hollowed faces
And haunted eyes
Whispering through clouds of cigarette smoke,
Consoling sobbing newcomers that look
Deer in headlights
They talk of her peppermint breath
Her piercing gaze
The mole on her left shoulder
The softness of her hair
her lurid thoughts
Her fixation with demons and death
And her kisses, warm, angry, wanting
And the scars they left
Group Therapy, The Beetles in the Walls
It took me a while to write this post, and I hope I have done justice to both Wingword and The Beetles in the Walls. If you write poetry, even if it's once in a while, I'd recommend sending out an entry for the next cycle of the Wingword Poetry Competition - they encourage newcomers. As for Eshna's book, well, just pick it up and give it a read. I’m sure that you’ll be eagerly waiting for her next work by the time you’re done with this one.