Some Thoughts about the Kritya Poetry Festival
Poets, it would seem, are members of a single tribe, the last tribe civilization is capable of producing, the Poetry Tribe. Like gypsies riding in their “caravans”, in that mobile language altar that is Trivandrum, we appeared in all kinds of venues, in orphanages, villages, a prison, universities and libraries, and we read our poetry to all kinds of people, including orphans, prisoners, politicians, priests, religious disciples, students, city dwellers, farmers, and readers of no identifiable status. Poetry was no longer some form of elite knowledge that fancied itself to be in the right, high and unattainable within its small circle, but salt cast out into the world, or a lamp.
The indomitable woman and poet Rati Saxena was our village head, our chieftain, our nurse. Leading this troop of child poets from across the world, she organized and promoted all these poetry events in a very short space of time ― such is her exceptional energy ― to the point of exhaustion. Fortunately, in the warm earth of India, it is possible to lie down on the ground at any time: India is not a society which is in a hurry to get somewhere or which rushes into the future, being proud of its own ancient sense of time. Rati Saxena may have aged in the process, but she went on floating, a cloud of poetry. Her Kritya Poetry Festival follows in the tradition of the ancient Indian tradition of worship rather than the majority of those rather boring poetry festival in Western countries with their over-refinement, literary rivalries and superiority. What India gives profound expression to is its hands, its cloth, its temples, its physical labour, its dust, and its people, a people who sleeps on the great Earth. This is an era in which it is possible for an American to call for a migration to the moon. India, however, adheres unswervingly to its ancient land and its own sense of time.
I enjoyed getting to know a few of my Indian readers. They would step out of the darkness towards me and, because of poetry, shake me hand by the hand. At the entrance to the Trivandrum Library, two youths shared their feelings about one of my poems with me, and I was deeply moved by the fact that some of my poems had been translated into Hindi. Back in the early days when I first began to write, Rabindranath Tagore was one of my first teachers of Chinese ― translated into Chinese, his poems had a wonderful quality to them. In secret, I read his collection Stray Birds, a book that was available only to a restricted few. With some friends of mine, we cut wax stencils of this collection and printed eleven mimeographed copies. That was back in 1974, in Kunming. In the branches of a huge tree near the library, crows hopped back and forth, ancient readers! They had once read the Bhagavad Gita. On this trip, my daughter Yu Guo came with me to India, since it was my hope that she could get to see India while she was still young, and it was a magnificent journey! We had hoped to follow in the footsteps of Xuan Zang (who had come to China in the Tang dynasty to bring back Buddhist scriptures). Yu Guo interpreted the English of these two youths for me, one a musician and the other a singer, their eyes shining, and in that moment I had the experience once again of poetry really being able to transcend language. Indeed, poetry is that ancient transcendence, a transcendence that human beings came to realize even before religion and that has endured longer than religion. Those young people at the orphanage in Trivandrum may not have had any clear idea about their uninvited guests, those “poets” as they are called, but the very idea of “a visit from poets” of itself created a certain energy and I am sure they sensed that something beautiful was happening. They were very happy, and when I took a photo of one boy’s bronze-coloured feet, he at once sensed it, and his feet began to dance so that I could photograph them in different poses. His feet were like a tree tossing in the wind, and he was so proud of his feet.
At Central Prison, Poojappura, the Indian poet Sreekumaran Thampi chanted his poetry, and there was an ancient sadness as well as consolation about it. I did not need to know what he was chanting. I had a powerful sense that all of us ― the poets sitting on the stage, the head of the prison, the guards below us and the prisoners had been brought together as one. It poured with rain. That outstanding Chinese teacher of thought and life Confucius once said that poetry could smooth over difficulties in a group, and that if you made no study of poetry, you would have nothing to say. He mentioned the six functions of poetry: making a start; taking one’s stand; bringing people together; criticism; setting things in order; and knowledge — he put knowledge right at the end of his list. Poetry connects with people, with life, and not with knowledge, and functions as an ancient form of worship. This truth, I realize, is something that neither China nor India has forgotten. Poetry is an activity for the maintanence of spirit, soul, divinity. For us, it is not merely a rhetorical activity carried out on paper: poetry wants to connect with the body, with time, with space, with being. The Kritya Poetry Festival created a certain clearing: rather than call it a poetry festival, it is better described as a clearing in which to offer worship. In Chinese, the character jie meaning “festival” is synonymous with ji or “worship”. A poetry festival is also an act of poetry worship. Since the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the poetry of Europe and America, poets have — owing to the exaltation of, and emphasis on, the ego — tended to dramatize the self, and poetry has increasingly tended to become a sort of rhetorical play practised by intellectuals who fancy themselves to be the only ones in the right, who are loners operating in a small circle very much isolated from the rest of the world. In China, poetry has always had a connection with the wild or unofficial, and this in turn refers to people, to common folk, to beginnings. In the tradition of Chinese poetry, good poetry was so often overhead when fetching water from a well and then passed on to others. It is an honour for poetry to be passed on this way, because it has been enjoyed and recited to others. A well is an origin or source, a bestowing, a sheltering, a dissemination. Li Po’s readers included the emperor, his consort, the senior officials, as well as ordinary people, one of whom was called Wang Lun, a man whose name will live forever because, as a friend, he was written into one of Li Po’s poems. If China has any religion at all then it is the religion of poetry.
I believe that poetry has, by its very nature, something of a leftist quality. Poetry is opposed to extremes, and it isn’t about individualism. Poetry is neither compromise, nor, of course, is it bitter struggle. Poetry is a form of transcendence, a kind of love or heartening. If all the gods are far beyond the reach of our human offerings, then that leaves even more for poetry to do. Poetry existed before religion did. The major tendencies of this world are materialism, technology, knowledge, and homogenization. The Earth, all living things, and ordinary people have been relegated to the lowest level they have ever occupied since the dawn of time. Under the guidance of commercial enterprise, humanity is completing its final stage of alienation. Confucius once said that being human means being benevolent. Benevolence is love, coming together as one, mutual enjoyment.
The Kritya Poetry Festival takes its cue from an Eastern tradition: that poetry can smooth over difficulties in a group. As a product of that remote tribal age, and as the core of any act of worship, poetry serves as an invisible spiritual force that moves through language, song, dance, art and music . . . and makes manifest itself in a symbolic way that brings people together. Before this moment, we may each of us have our own conceptual conflicts, self-enclosedness, suspicions, arrogance, sense of inferiority, differences of wealth and poverty, ideologies and so on.
But by means of poetry, in this moment and in the future, we become members of one family who love one another.
I will come again, one day.
Unfortunately, I was not allowed to go inside the ancient Hindu temple at Trivandrum. I respect this temple and I am so extremely fond of it: it is so mysterious, holy, solemn and joyous.
Friday 24 November 2017, Kunming
Translate by Simon Patton
Being a poet is not a profession, it’s an ideology of life. Being a poet is not only locking yourself in a mysterious world and writing about the truth, the society and your inner side, it’s also being the society yourself. Being a poet is fighting openly for the people next to you, for justice and the helpless ones. Writing poetry means resist. Resist to consuming, resist to ignorance, resist to poverty, resist to indifference.
There is no better way to feel the purpose of poetry than participate in Kritya International Poetry Festival. Four days full of substance, full of motivation in a magical scenery of Kerala, South-West India. The creator behind all is the director of the festival, Rati Saxena, who without any exaggeration hosts the dream itself. The program of the festival is very tight in terms of richness. All the poets were carefully chosen by the creative team of the festival, people who put aside their everyday life to make this festival happen and unique. The most impressing thing is the wise way that the team of the festival chose the poems to be read by the poets for each event.
We must not forget that the theme of the festival was poetry against xenophobia and racism. Nowadays, it’s urgent to support this message and react actively to all these huge changes that happen to our world, to all these masses of people that are forced to be immigrants and refugees and be victims of racism incidents. Poets from Netherlands, India, Belgium, Mexico, Turkey and many more countries around our planet united their voices and made a clear statement. Poetry lives within people and their speech.
Arriving the first morning and during the conversation with Rati and other poets, I realized that this is a festival for the hearts, like a walk on a wonder. Coming from Greece, wonder is a very important word in our mentality and in our soul. Every day and every moment we are looking for the surprise and the alarm that will give us the admiration to keep on and withstand the fall. Coming from Greece to another great civilization, as Indian is, can be only a step forward. To explore a poetry festival that combines readings from established poets with beautiful excursions, that combines poetry installations with visiting prisons and orphanages. Kritya is a poetry festival that pushes the borders further than the ordinary and usual ideas and practices but at the same time keeps the tradition alive and kicking.
Beyond ordinary means moving your mind borders and accept the new wherever it comes from.
First big shock for me was our visit in an orphanage, somewhere deep in a forest. We stepped in a wonderful place among trees and rivers and reached to this institution that helps more than thirty kids and some elderly people not only to survive but learn how to be human beings. Facilities made completely by the love of people, provide a shelter for these kids, a school to go, a free yard to play and pure nature to feel the real world, our real mother and god. We had the chance to speak to these kids, to hear them singing and watch their eyes, their truth, their fears. Can really poetry help and heal even a small part of their soul? This question stuck in my head and paralyzed my thought. What a poor and orphan kid in India can expect from life and even from poetry? Can art save them?
“Yes it can” is my final answer as long as we put aside our ego and focus on helping these kids on their struggle to find themselves. Rati Saxena predicted it rightly and motivated us to read our poems or just share our stories.
Second great experience in this festival was visiting a prison and reading my poems. I knew that these people didn’t understand much from my words but I had this certainty that they felt the freedom breeze I had while I was writing my poems. Walking around the jail, I noticed the walls were beautifully painted by the prisoners and I finally discovered again what hope means. Western world, from where I come, has lost the core of hope and looks for substitutes. My new poet-friends express very nice this feeling in their poems. It is a pleasure to read their books now that I came back home and travel to their thoughts, their countries and their hearts.
The last day of the festival we visited the Asan Memorial Association where there is the statue of the great Indian poet Mahakavi Kumaranasan. All the poets gathered in a wonderful location next to the ocean to read their poems. The atmosphere was ideal, the ocean refreshing but most impressed was the ancient Greek architecture on the columns of the place. This is the lesson of the festival. A peaceful and united world, exchanging knowledge, sights, literature, languages, news ways of expression and culture without nationalism, racism and religion fights.
Kritya International Poetry Festival is a dialogue for the future.