Just as I was preparing this feature, the ‘New York Review of ’ sent me a collection of poems by a great Chinese poet Wang Yin, ‘A Summer Day in the Company of Ghosts’, for a review.
Surprisingly, I found the opening lines of his first poem aptly summing up Usha Akella’s quest as a poet: At first, what drew me in was a quality/ neither blankness nor blackness/ and I cannot call to mind its name/ Glimpsing a shape with an obscure scent/ I can hear silent weeping/ but will never again see those hidden tears
To add to it, I borrow from my writings: Art often fails us when, instead of artistic exploration, it surrenders to rhetoric. For the poets, dealing with feminism, the exploit also presents such a trap…/Artistic expression should be the primary concern of a poet. (The Book Review)
In a chosen poem — and also in her latest work, Usha Akella steers her way through the Chakravyuh of a battle between rhetoric loudness and artistic subtlety ever present in any exigent themes explored by the poetic art.
Usha Akella has authored poetry, creative nonfiction and two dramas. Her poetry books have been published by noted publishers such as Spinifex Press, , the Sahitya Akademi, India and Mantis Editores Press, Mexico. She earned an MSt. in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge, UK. She is the founder of the first South Asian Diaspora Poets Festival in the USA and . She was selected as a Creative Ambassador for the city of Austin in 2019 & 2015. She is widely anthologised and has been invited to numerous international poetry festivals.
About the poem…
This poem wanted to tackle a lot — gender violence, intergenerational violence, patriarchy, psychological dissolution etc., A rich tool at my disposal for me as a South Asian writer is Myth. The worst burn of patriarchy is the sense of betrayal a woman feels from the very culture that is the embryonic fluid in which she is raised. So, I chose deliberately to use Myth from another culture to posit the tremendous dislocation, fragmentation of psyche, lack of identity a woman goes through in systemic patriarchy. The line breaks, sentence phrasing, spaces indicate the unravelling of the psyche.
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You are an exceptional with a genius for a wide-ranging spectrum of craft and content. While you have explored many testing or usual meters, you have also given us a musical, Ek, on Sai Baba. A musical in English by an Indian poet abroad: something unheard of! Big themes as in your latest collection test a poet in us. Tell us how a poet should tackle such challenges. We would like to know your process in this creative journey.
The journey with craft is interrelated to one’s own personal and creative quest. Largely, spirituality and feminism have been the abiding poles; both were unavoidable from my roots and social experiences. Travel is the other mirror in which my pen seeks to express itself. Coming from India, spirituality in its myriad expressions permeated the social, family and fabric I grew up in—it shaped me early. Feminism became a cause I have had to address as a female poet; in fact, it seems like a primary duty. Then travel began to seep into my work as a hall of mirrors in which to understand myself—the play of ‘self’ and ‘other’ counterpoised against various cultures as I began to travel. Perhaps, underlying all of it is what every poet is seeking: a validation of self and life.
Along the way, the genres have been various: poetry, interviews, editorial projects, musical dramas (on Meera Bai and Shirdi Baba), creative non-fiction, an upcoming poem-picture book i.e., one poem set to 16 images that I am excited about. Whether themes are ‘big’ or ‘small’, the craft requires a balance and dance partnership between form and content; voice is the unavoidable footwork in the dance, and the poet’s sensibility is the hall in which it happens.
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While the title of your latest work, I WILL NOT BEAR YOU SONS, may sound defiant, the poems in the collection offer a vibrant canvas rich with images and metaphors, striking a right note with: And the days can stream/ Like a row of black piano keys. (from ‘On the Broken Line’). Most of our readers don’t read poetry. Please make a case for this extraordinary work.
The truth is, I felt a major creative and social obligation was discharged with that book. No poet worth her salt ever writes to be pretentious, fashionable or provocative to cheaply garner attention. That came from tremendous angst, personal suffering and tormented questions. The book has been astutely summed up in reviews such as Basudhara Roy’s something that has to be addressed more.
A woman poet should not in this age and time write a feminist poem, and have to defend it when the atrocities on gender continue, and much is left to be righted. You may have noticed a spate of such writing emerging in recent times from poets such as Anita Nahal, Pramila Venkateswaran, Megha Sood etc – women’s issues are valid, and will continue to be valid till some sense prevails.
The book was also delightful for me from a creative perspective; by no means have I reached my zenith in craft and experimentation in form, but I feel I made an attempt to improve craft in that book. Case in point is ‘Ka Ba Akh’.
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With Pramila Venkateswaran, with whom we started this series, you have been at the forefront with your Matwaala movement promoting the poets of colour in America. Our readers will like to know more. Please…
I am really glad you brought up Matwaala—the project whose mission has come to have a primary focus for us as working poets. In the beginning, we began with the aim to increase visibility of South Asian poets in the mainstream. When BLM resurfaced a couple of years back, there was no way we could sit back without extending solidarity to communities of colour—and thereby understand our parallels in identity and issues. From this awareness, the poets-of-colour series began and has been received with much appreciation, as evidenced in the recent article in . Kendra Allen’s conversation with me is upcoming in AWP’s chronicle, and it was a fascinating look into the uncanny thematic similarities in our poetry tackling issues faced in the communities we were raised in.
I hope that someday we won’t have to ever reference colour to speak of people, but for now, the term was aligned with ‘people of colour’ as a recognizable term.
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A personal note from the author:
This series has been a two-year uninterrupted journey, also pioneering a short template for the others. With an exception to a Diwali special with a major poet of our diaspora (watch this space!), I will take a short sabbatical now to wrestle with the challenges presented by my next collection in the making. It handles the cancelled voice through the premise of 59 Hindu babies, children, women, old folks, and men burnt alive in 2002 without trying to be discordant.
With the waning years, my window for helping our poets is slowly closing. Every minute, the aching regret nibbles at me alive: the success of Indian businesses has failed to translate into any patronage for poetry. How sad! I hope this series has helped some who value the non-profitable trait of the Indian culture to review poetry in a different light and will come forward.
MBE runs as well as the non-profit Word Masala project to promote South Asian diaspora literature. Also honoured with the Freedom of the City of London, he is a recipient of many awards and has read his work at important venues like the House of Lords and the National Poetry Library. His work has recently appeared at and and Published in numerous journals and anthologies; and with films and LPs under his belt, his collection of poems, is just published by The London Magazine. By profession, he is a qualified optometrist and an accountant.
In this for ‘iGlobal’, he profiles Global Indian poets from around the world.