City of Flowers

I’ve been moved over the past week to see my ghazal “City of Flowers,” written as the only way I could speak about the recent killings in Peshawar, find its way around Facebook, shared by some friends and many strangers. I’m never more grateful for having words than when I find them resonating with others at difficult moments.

Today, a pleasant surprise to discover that it made it into a newspaper in Pakistan. Usually, I’d do some writerly cribbing about the way the formatting was completely messed up (poets spend a lot of timethinking through stanza breaks, alignment, italics, and things like that, people!), but in this case, I’m just grateful these words found their way to some of the strangers for whom they were written.

To the many whoevers who made that happen (and the ones who got the photograph to me!), thank you. Click here for the full text from the Aman ki Asha website, or read the photograph or full text of my poem (correctly formatted!) below.

city of flowers poem

City of Flowers 
For Peshawar, 16 December 2014

My temples pound with laughters that died today.
Fences collapse. No this side that side today.

I made a hundred thirty two paper dolls, drew neckties,
burned them one by one, then finally cried today.

A bloodied pencil. A broken ruler. The impossibility
of measurement. No desks under which to hide today.

A teacher who saved two hundred lives, cries
when called a hero. A heart too tight for pride today.

Mine is not the grey silence of the unmoved.
The matted hair has left me tongue-tied today.

And the dead, listening to the wails of those who remain:
do you, at least, have someone in whom to confide today?

To leave the city’s famed flowers blooming, or to lay
them all at gravesides — who should decide today?

Your cliches do not warm them, Aditi.
If you say more, you will have lied today.

Alvin Pang and Poetic Jugalbandi

Returned from a whirlwind of a poetry reading trip in Chennai (6 readings in 28 hours!), one brief night at home, before heading into another beautiful whirlwind in Nepal tomorrow. My brain and body are so exhausted, but my heart is so alive.

I’ve always felt these things are worth it, above all, for the people one meets and the relationships one builds. The greatest gift of this Chennai trip was a new writerly friendship with the wonderful Singaporean poet Alvin Pang (if youdon’t know his work, you really should!). I’ve never had quite such a wonderful reading, a real jugalbandi, a way of reading and listening where your own words come back to you through someone else’s. We did two sessions together, without repeating any poems, reading back and forth in response to each other, and were amazed constantly by how much our poems were saying to each other across time and space. I can’t begin to explain how special that was: how often do you discover another human being through a quiet, spontaneous, joyful conversation between your most private selves and your most important stories, told rapidly back and forth in a short space and time?

I’m too tired to wax eloquent about it, and Alvin already did a beautiful job of that, so I’m just going to be lazy and share from his blog:

I am reading with Delhi-based poet Aditi Rao, author of THE FINGERS REMEMBER. It is past 2.30pm; we were supposed to start at 2pm, but were held up by Chennai’s gnarled traffic. On the spot, we decide, because we have not had time to think about what we each want to read for 15mins, to make it something of a back-and-forth poetic dialogue instead. I start with a poem, which prompts Aditi to respond with a similar poem, and so on. Her work is very fine, boldly executed, unfazed but not belligerent in the face of irreconcilable tensions. It soon becomes evident that there are many remarkable correspondences in our poetry. Not necessarily a matter of style or treatment nor even tone, but certainly in theme, certain images. Finger memory. Burning flesh. At one point I recount the Biblical story of Lot’s wife and family, on which a poem of mine is based. She responds with a poem also based on Lot’s wife. We have not planned this. I suspect this sort of thing is possible with many other poets also, if one looks hard enough for some sort of semantic or thematic resonance, but this is unforced. We are not making this up. Or perhaps we are making it up, which is what makes it sing: we are actively listening to each other, calling and responding. We are having a conversation. I have often felt this is what good writing does. The poems have not been written for the occasion nor for each other, but they are chosen to suit, the way we sometimes bring up old stories in new company. We read poems we might not otherwise have selected; we are made to think a little differently about what we have written. There is the frisson of resonance, recombination. Fresh context suggests fresh meanings. This is why we read and re-read books. Another way in which the love we put into writing becomes the love it brings. This is how literature lives and lasts.

Click on this link for more of this and other of Alvin’s beautiful blogging

Thank you, Alvin, for 2 completely memorable sessions. Love your speaking and your listening, your warmth and your generosity. Looking forward to many more poetry encounters in the years to come!

And thank you, Prakriti, for bringing us together :)