Akhil Katyal is a poet, translator, and a teacher – and one of the most influential voices in alternative poetry, especially among younger readers. His first poetry book, Night Charge Extra, was shortlisted for the Muse India Satish Verma Young Writer Award, and his second book of poems How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross won the Editor’s Choice Award from The Great Indian Poetry Collective.

Katyal’s translation of journalist Ravish Kumar’s Ishq Mein Shahar Hona was published by Speaking Tiger as A City Happens in Love in 2018. In 2020, along with Aditi Angiras, Katyal edited A World That Belongs to Us – an anthology of queer poetry from South Asia. He also teaches Creative Writing at Ambedkar University, Delhi.

At the 2022 Bengaluru Poetry Festival, Katyal spoke to Scroll.in about translating his own poetry across three languages, the role of social media in reading and writing poetry, the joys and challenges of writing poetry, and more.

You write in Hindi, Urdu, and English and you also translate across these languages – including your own poems. What are the complexities of such projects? Do you feel that even though you are both the poet and translator, some nuances are difficult to convey in translation?
You hope that you can give each language its due and not just translate the words that are at hand, words that are immediately in front of you on the page, but also have a sense of what their antecedence might be – the kind of mahaul, the mode, they are meant to create.

So, for instance, I have been trying to translate Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry lately, and one of them is a canzone that he wrote. A canzone is like an old Italian Provençal form of 65 lines, and each of the lines ends with one of five predetermined words. So if you are translating his canzone – a Kashmiri-American poet using an old European form to talk about a very difficult time in his life, the death of his mother and what was happening in his homeland – as a translator, how do you even begin to approximate the world that he was trying to create? One way to do this was to read as many canzones as I could, other poetry that Ali wrote around this time, and then to gingerly step into his world.

Thankfully, I had mentors and friends who read the drafts, offered inputs, and helped me chisel the translation. It was a work of a well-meaning community. What I mean to say is that as long as you pass through that gauntlet, the translator is able to bring together a consolidated world. If you just look at the text and have a more instinctive response to it, I think something very raw and unmade will be born out of it.

I have translated my own poetry a few times and usually one realises that they create slightly different impacts. For example, there’s a poem of mine called Forgiveness which in English sounds self-assured and the poet-persona has not dispersed into some kind of an emotional distress. Whereas the same poem in Hindi risks a greater sentimentalism and is slightly more lush than the English version. And the thing is, what I was experiencing while writing both was a range of emotions that included both these extremes – the English captures one aspect of it and the Hindi, the other. I appreciate both reiterations.

"Forgiveness" and "Maafi" by Akhil Katyal.

If you think about bilingual poets, for example, Arun Kolatkar – if you read his poetry collection Jejuri (1976) – the poems that he wrote in Marathi and translated into English and vice versa, are not carbon copies of each other. Instead, there’s a dynamic relationship between these texts and languages. I appreciate how this encouraged me to think of translation as a method instead of just an exercise.

You regularly post your poetry on Instagram. There is also a community of poets online who call themselves #poetsofinstagram. How do you feel about young poets taking to social media for readership instead of waiting to be published. Do you think this affects the ‘quality’ of poetry in any way?
The public sphere can accommodate all kinds of voices – whether it is folks who are putting their work on social media, those who are going through the more traditional publishing routes, or those who have been working on a poem for many months to send to a poetry journal…I think all artists create art in their own way.

As far as ‘quality’ is concerned, I do think the more you engage with the text, the more it tends to get refined. Over the years, one becomes slower – one takes more time, one pauses a little longer. But I also understand that there is a publication apparatus that creates its own gates and filters about who can enter and who cannot – so social media is a way to create your own audience, to start a conversation.

But the point is to not get stuck in it, not to be completely fulfilled by it, or write as if you are writing only for that audience or fully in that form. Social media platforms come with their own frames and constraints – do they allow you to write a long poem or an epic poem? If you are unable to do these then there’s a healthy reason to step out of that world, do your own work, and come back to that world for something else altogether.

Don’t allow the platform to constrain or control the limits of your imagination and creativity – the crisis of quality has always cropped up whenever someone has attempted something new – the key is to not get stuck in the rut and to keep your poetic experimentation alive. Social media also offers instant feedback – do not take criticism or even praise too much to heart. The bad poem will die out while the good poem will live on, that has always been the way.

"In the Market" by Akhil Katyal. Several of his poems are also posted to his Instagram feed.

You respond to current events and breaking news with poems – you have written about Shah Rukh Khan, Virat Kohli and Babar Azam, the hypocrisy of ‘merit’. Could you tell me a bit about this practice? How long does it take, what kind of topics catch your attention, and what is the power of poetry in expressing an opinion?
As one grows and lives and understands the world, one comes to develop certain kinds of concerns and positive prejudices of what you desire the world to be. And as things occur, you don’t respond to that event alone but to your idea of what the world should be like. When something momentous happens – it has either affirmed your belief or completely shattered it.

For example, my grandparents come from what is now Pakistan. Think about the tortured, crazy relationship that these two brother states share – and how constant it is. The public sentiments are so vicious, so polarised…that you are constantly thinking about it. Any conversation involving the two nations tends to turn so hateful so quickly – even when it comes to something as simple as a cricket match.

So one day it made me think – wait a minute, these are athletes and they only have to take their game seriously, that’s all they need to do on the field. In fact, this is their job. But the news anchors when speaking of the game were weaponising the tools of the trade – the bat and the ball. This was before the event had even started and this is exactly where the poetic image lies – the realisation that this is just a bat, nothing more and nothing less. As soon as the poetic image and the poetic principle gets established, that’s when you would want to respond to an event.

The poetic and the political has to go together – the moment when one takes precedence over the other, what you create is either well-meaning and sincere but falls completely flat in terms of its form or it could be a poem that is true to its form but has been unable to sufficiently take into consideration the urgency of what you are responding to. Sometimes you strike a balance and sometimes you don’t, but you persevere and you learn.

Sometimes you respond quickly to an event, maybe within one week or so but the thought process behind it, that you are responding to it – this means that the event is an opportunity for you to address your long-held beliefs and expectations. For instance, one has grown up on Shah Rukh Khan – his movies, his songs, his interviews – we have seen so much of him through the years, especially while coming into our own, that each of his personas has had a very visceral impact on his audience. And the reactions to these personas have remained with us, oftentimes so seamlessly that all kinds of human emotions seem to be in some way associated with our memories of Shah Rukh and his characters.

When Aryan Khan was in jail, and it’s something that no parent should have to go through, what I realised was this was happening to him because he stands in for a certain idea which the current dispensation wants to destabilise. If it was just this sentiment, “Oh, it’s Shah Rukh! He is a famous actor and that’s why my heart is bleeding for him” then I suppose the poem that you are talking about, wouldn’t have worked.

What made so many people read the poem was the names of his characters and our personal associations with them. Those names are not just some neutral entities – they represent all the different communities and people who live together in this strange nation of ours.

Akhil Katyal's poems on India-Pakistan cricket match, the reality of 'merit', and Shah Rukh Khan.

How did The World That Belongs to Us come into being? How did Aditi Angiras and you find the poets you wanted to feature?
The book itself was suggested to us by Sohini Basak, the wonderful commissioning editor at HarperCollins. Aditi and I were only too willing. However, all of us thought of it as a fairly compact, tame project that we would wrap up in six months. But as we started to think about what it could be, what it could contain, what promises it could keep…it started growing into a very bulbous and unpredictable figure. We let that happen.

In India alone, people think of gender and sexuality in a variety of ways – even our languages have so many terms and phrases to express these aspects of existence. What we decided was to not have watertight categories – we let variety determine the content of our book. In the end, it took us two years to put the book together! We also included translations from ten different languages. There were nearly 200 people involved in it by the time the book was published.

We issued a general call to poets and managed to find poetry in six to seven languages. We also asked well-wishers to spread the word – this meant that we could find poets that we would not have been able to otherwise. We made it a point to reach out to as many people as we could using as many networks as we could find.

In How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross, you take the reader through a vast geographical expanse – through these poems they visit the UK, US, Kashmir, Delhi, and Lahore. What role does geography play in your poems?
Geographical locations are often the instrument of what you are trying to express. All these abstract feelings – love, loss, desire, hunger, pain – do not hover six feet off the ground. They have their feet planted on earth. There’s a bus stop where you saw someone for the last time, the nutty conversation that you had sitting in the verandah of your home with your mother, in a particular street in a particular city you experience a particular intense experience – in each of these instances the locations are not immaterial to your feelings and therefore they are not immaterial in poetry either. Your emotional response seamlessly weaves in that location. Now if you are talking about regions or countries or rivers – it’s the same principle at work.

How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross was an attempt to respond to, in some capacity, what was happening in Kashmir and other similar geopolitical crises. It involves several such reasons that would be impossible to write about without taking into stock what other people’s claims about that space also are. Which is why they are set in Srinagar and Delhi, and also the places that I have been and not been – London and Lahore.

Who are your poetic inspirations? What kind of poetry are you most drawn to?
I read several kinds of poetry across a few languages. The poets that have really spoken to me are: Naomi Shihab Nye who offers sustenance and startling new ways to look at the world; Agha Shahid Ali, who weaves in poetic traditions of various languages within the kind of English that he writes; Carol Ann Duffy for her verve, wit, and humour; Dorothy Parker for dark humour written in the most difficult of rhyme schemes. I have also trusted the words of Langston Hughes.

Closer home there’s Amrita Pritam and the poets she has influenced. One poet whom I always teach in class is Shubham Shree, who writes the most irreverent, playful Hindi poetry – and so beautifully brings forth the capacities that the language holds. Then there is Uday Prakash, Mangalesh Dabral…

Poets and poetry unlock your world in different ways. You become aware of the stakes and the ethics at work when a poet responds to their times and circumstances. I really appreciate that.

What is the greatest joy of writing poetry? What is its biggest challenge?
One of my favourite poets, Jane Hirshfield said, and I’m paraphrasing her from memory – she asks what is the yield of lyric poetry? One of things that these poets do, she says, is that by being able to respond fully to the range of experiences that the world throws their way, they leave their voice print in the world. Their poetry becomes a stamp of the fact that: “I was here. I lived fully and I experienced all the emotions that humans are capable of.”

The idea of I was here. I inhabited the world – this is what a lyric poet does. Their creation is a marker of their habitation and I think that’s the joy of poetry. When I experience loss or joy, I am able to experience them fully and make sense of them. Readers can see their own joy and loss reflected in mine…what more can any person ask for? It’s really that simple.

The challenge I would say is to not let any pomposity get to you – to not let anything stop you from experimenting or learning from others. While it is easy to appreciate the pats on your back, you should also beware of them. Thankfully, I have enough students, mentors, and friends who keep me on my toes – they are kind enough to point out my lapses and weaknesses.

Publishers are often reluctant to publish poetry books because they don’t make enough in sales. Do you think this will change anytime soon?
In the last decade or so, there’s been a mushrooming of Indian English language poetry publishers – for example, Poetrywala and Copper Coin. Big publishers like Westland or HarperCollins too have been publishing a fair amount of contemporary Indian poetry. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I got to know what poetry publishing was, one couldn’t find as many poetry publishers. At least that was my experience.

If you are a poet in the English language in India right now, your words will find a home – there will be someone who will help you bring your poetry to the world and share it with readers at large. With whatever distribution capacities that these publishers might have, your books will find a place at a bookstore or online. If your poetry is persuasive, it will be resilient and in one way or another, it will find a way to thrive.

If by poetry publishing you are thinking only of the big publishing houses then maybe yes, it is not as profitable for them to publish a lot of poetry. In such cases they might want to limit the publication of contemporary poetry while continuing to publish the tried and tested poets like Rumi or Javed Akhtar. But does that mean contemporary poets don’t have many avenues in front of them? No, that’s not true either. In a country where we have superb commissioning editors like Sohini Basak and Karthika VK, I think young poets will be alright.

Akhil Katyal reads his poetry at the 2022 Bengaluru Poetry Festival.