Poetry at Sangam, India’s only online journal to focus on poetry, has shut down after ten years. Founded in 2013 by Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Poetry at Sangam showcased Anglophone poetry and translations into English, as well as essays on poetics, from India and the world.
June 2023, volume XI, issue 2 is the final issue of the journal. The journal had to be shut down owing to a lack of funds, but will continue to exist – for the time being – as an online archive. In a candid chat with poet and translator Mani Rao, Poetry at Sangam’s founding editor, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, talked about how the journal was born, its trajectory, and publishing “cutting-edge poetry”. Excerpts from the conversation.
What inspired Poetry at Sangam and why the focus on a single genre – poetry?
More than a genre of literature, poetry is a way of perceiving the world and our planetary history, a personal axis to the cosmos. You’ll notice everyone becomes a poet when they fall in love. You know the Bollywood song – Main Shayar Toh Nahin – it aptly affirms poetry’s capacity for articulating ache, amplitude, wonder and loss (“Main shayar toh nahi / magar ai haseen / jab se dekha /maine tujhko /mujhko shayaari aa gayi (I’m not a poet, but beautiful one, since I saw you poetry came to me).
I see poets as people who remain in love with life and language throughout their lives. Poetry is the membrane through which we receive and sense the world in its fullness. It is the form intuition takes when it combines with language.
However, far too few books are published compared to the fine poetry being written. This is one of the reasons I started Poetry at Sangam. To share – for there never can be enough poetry, or love. During the pandemic people turned to poetry – for we instinctively seek this distilled language when reality is too brutal, and we are raring for rumination. We turn to poetry to help clear a space for attentiveness, and to touch each other with emotions and thoughts precisely expressed. And for solace. For ananda.
You focused on “experimental” poetry, if I may use such a term.
We did focus on the radical, bold, innovative and ground-breaking work. We published work that was not limited by genre, theme, aesthetic sensibility or national boundaries as long as it was beautiful in thought and expression. “Beautiful” includes the richness and mystery of life, even its darkness. We also occasionally featured essays on poetics and poetic practice. Over ten years we seem to have covered a lot of ground. I hope we pointed to the potential for publishing more poetry books and e-journals.
How did the idea of Poetry at Sangam take shape?
We began suddenly, and small scale. In March 2013, I lost my mother and was grieving. That’s when Arshia Sattar, brilliant translator, writer and co-founder of the international writers’ residency Sangam House invited me to create a poetry page on their site. Years earlier, Arshia and I were colleagues at the Pune-based NGO founded by Hutokshi Doctor, Open Space, where I had compiled a largish archive of Anglophone poetry called Talking Poetry – which has sadly disappeared from cyberspace. The impulse was typical of Arshia: dynamic, open, quick to see possibilities for expansion of space for the arts. I accepted her idea to be editor of Poetry at Sangam as a financially and creatively independent sister organisation, which Sangam House hosted on their website.
Having India’s foremost writer’s residency host us initially helped the journal. Enormously. As our reputation grew, our work enhanced the literary profile of Sangam House and which they have readily acknowledged. I’ve been invited several times to join literary discussions and events at their carefree space in Bangalore.
Next to step in was the superb translator and writer Rahul Soni – he is now a well-known editor in publishing, but in those days he was with Sangam House. In his calm and perceptive way, he reached through my mourning and cajoled me into writing introductions to each poet – a feature we are now known for. As Poetry at Sangam evolved, in April 2016, Rahul inaugurated our guest editor series. Radio host, cultural critic and writer of excellent non-fiction – and co-founder of Sangam House – DW Gibson was the other force behind all this. The trio offered the logo and page design and we were online, without a formal contract, on the basis of an email and mutual trust.
Trust is the keyword in Poetry at Sangam. In every partnership of ours with poets, translators, essayists, guest editors. Trust. On which firm friendships have been formed.
What was the literary journal scenario like in India ten years ago?
A decade is, in a sense, both a wink and a long stretch of time. The Delhi-based print journal of The Poetry Society (India) focused solely on poetry; they also held seminars, workshops, poetry competitions. Other journals like the Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, the Delhi-based India International Centre’s journal, and e-zines like Muse India featured poetry as one of the four verticals of literature. But I can’t recall another India-based e-journal exclusively devoted to Anglophone Indian poetry and translations into the English.
We now have so many spoken word café events, Facebook and WhatsApp groups on poetry, there seems to be a huge interest in the form. What do you think about the trends in poetry with the availability of the Internet?
A thriving culture of poetry has grown online in the last decade. Which, on the face of it, is good news. More openness or democracy in themes, forms, the various Englishes used, poetry drawn from diverse aesthetic traditions and cultural exchanges, which encourage experimental work. Poetry, like water, finds its level in these platforms. Some flow deep. Others glint on the surface.
We see a spurt in poetry on our ancient roots and connections, and new confluences between the human and more-than human world. As Deep Ecology philosopher Arne Naess wrote in 1986, “The human self is then basically an ecological self, that is, a kind of part of the ecosystems…” The swelling numbers of our tribe are driven by the ecological self which is embedded in the creative self. This has enabled the emergence of excellent online and print poetry journals.
Yet you’ve announced…the end! How is it possible, or rather, why!
Most poetry journals unattached to universities or patrons collapse within a few years. Three funders kept us going these ten years. (Mind you, we’ve always had total creative freedom). Here’s our roll call of honour. Sanyia Kripalani’s Dubai-based NGO An Artist Within kept us going for almost two years. From 2016 to 2017 Lakshmi and Subodh Shankar’s much-loved Bangalore bookstore Atta Galatta stepped in – this was before they broadened their scope to sponsor the exciting Bangalore Poetry Festival. Since then we have been thankful to The Raza Foundation, headed by poet-critic, translator and culture-activist Ashok Vajpayi.
Over these ten years, costs have risen. We’re fortunate to have survived a decade. But look – when the money runs dry, one needs the heart to brim with hope, one needs moral support. This we’ve sumptuously received. My husband, Suresh Chabria, pushed me to persevere whenever I was challenged. My colleague, poet and novelist Mrinalini Harchandrai, volunteered her creative energies and time on par with me over the last two years. Besides curating three issues, she liaised with poets and our webmaster and directed the production. She also brought in outreach on social media to spread the heart of what we do much further. This adds up to a serious amount of work.
How did you source cutting-edge poetry?
We roamed the Internet and read books to find heart-stopping poetry. I got suggestions too. For instance, Naveen Kishore, poet and publisher of Seagull Books, threw open to us Seagull’s collection of translated poetry.
A direction that worked wonders for us was having guest editors. Almost half our issues – 22 out of 51 – are guest edited. Automatically, the vision of Poetry at Sangam expanded. Soon, we were plumbing the genre – going deeper – we carried more voices and translations plus audio recordings, Translators’ Reflections, Poet’s Notes. and lengthy editorials.
That sounds radical – how did you maintain the identity, or editorial control, with so many guest editors?
It was not about control. On the contrary. I was concerned that a single person wielding control would be harmful to the journal – as monolithic control is, in every arena of life. I did not want to privilege my own vision of poetry. This is the antithesis of freedom that is poetry. I needed to divest myself of gatekeeping duties while adding diverse voices I didn’t know or wouldn’t have normally gone for, but were beautiful and explorative both in what they wrote and how they wrote it. Inviting guest editors was the way forward. Each guest editor was given a carte blanche. By sharing the editorial and curatorial role, the entire journal became the voice of the poetry community.
Looking back, I think the collegial free-spirited giving and listening on both sides made Poetry at Sangam an inclusive space; one that holds a dazzling display of forms and formulations of language, emotion, thought; and approaches to sacrality – of which poetry can be one of the foremost expressions. Again, many guest editors volunteered to give their time, and each one gave generously. Such was the magic happening at Poetry at Sangam.
These guest editors brought their divergent practices, poetics and cultural affinities and created a mesh of incredible richness across 34 languages from Ao-Naga, Manipuri and Assamese, to Haitian Creole, Occitan, Santali, Ukrainian. We’ve hosted guest editors including the multiple award winner George Szirtes, Alvin Pang, who presented a dazzling selection of diverse voices from Singapore, Sophia Naz explored liminality in her issue, Kim Dorman selected poems with philosophical humility, Sumana Roy did an issue focusing on the theme of mothers, Arun Sagar crafted a meditative issue, and so on.
Although Poetry at Sangam was English language, it seemed a vehicle for so many languages via translations.
Poetry translations were a significant part of the issue, each accompanied by the Translator’s Reflections on their craft and art. Closer to home: from the Hindi Akhil Katyal’s translations of Mangalesh Dabral and Uday Prakash; Rahul Soni’s translations of Ashok Vajpeyi and Shrikant Verma; the Marathi mystics translated by Anjali Purohit, Jerry Pinto and Neela Bhagwat; Ranjit Hoskote’s translations from Urdu, Sanskrit and Kashmiri; from Classical Tamil Vivek Narayanan’s Kuruntokai translations, and Shobhana Kumar’s of the mystic Manikkavacagar; yours, Mani, from the Sanskrit of Kalidasa and Saundarya Lahari.
Beyond India: the dying language of Náhuatl self-translated into Spanish by Martín Tonalmeyotl and then into the English by Autumn Richardson; Gaspar Orozco translated by Ilana Dann Luna from the Spanish; Grzegorz Wróblewski translated from the Polish by Piotr Gwiazda; a mini anthology translated from the Persian by Sholeh Wolpé; from the Iraqi Arabic Jon Davis co-translated with Naseer Hassan and Marilyn Hacker’s from its Syrian version. Arunava Sinha edited a special translation issue. We carried over 700 pages of poetry in translation, and each one is noteworthy. Again, cherished friendships have developed with many of the translators. It is about the formation and affirmation of a poetry community.
Looking back, how would you describe the experience,? What were the rewards for you, considering it was not financial.
For years the experience was like walking through sun-shot mist, arms stretched out minus plans but only to seek and share poetry with others. But foremost was the joy of a platform offering complete freedom, trust earned, friendships formed, aesthetic discoveries made. By editing more than 2,000 poems and writing introductions I’ve reflected on poetry, and the art of translation. This undoubtedly natured and honed my own growth as a writer.
How to preserve or document this enormous work of a decade? Will there be an archive of the work?
The Poetry at Sangam archive will remain on the Sangam House website in the near future, although I cannot say whether it will be sustainable in the long term. But we are definitely looking to create an anthology with the poetry, especially for translated poetry.