Days after a poet accused a literary editor of sexual harassment in a Facebook post, 12 Indian poets have written to the Sahitya Akademi, seeking to withdraw their works from a poetry anthology currently being edited by him.
The Sahitya Akademi, a government-funded organisation which promotes Indian literature, was slated to publish an anthology titled Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians, edited by poet and translator Sudeep Sen. However, in a letter sent to the Akademi’s secretary Sreenivasa Rao on Tuesday, poets Minal Hajratwala, Shikha Malaviya and others stated that “due to irreconcilable differences with Sen, we the undersigned no longer wish to be associated with him”.
The letter further stated: “We do acknowledge the Akademi’s work in creating this anthology and will remain with the project if the editor is replaced. If replacement is not possible, then we ask for our submissions to be withdrawn from the anthology immediately.”
While the letter to Sahitya Akademi does not spell out the “irreconcilable differences” the poets have with Sudeep Sen, several signatories to the letter told Scroll.in that they have chosen to withdraw from the anthology because of allegations of sexual misconduct made by a fellow poet against Sen.
In a Facebook post two weeks ago, the poet claimed that minutes after she read out her poetry at a public event, an established poet and editor (who she later identified as Sen) walked up to her and proposed a relationship. She rejected him. The same evening, she ran into him at a party. As she was leaving, she alleged he grabbed her in a hug. Later, she found he had taken a photograph of her during the party, which he posted on Facebook without her consent. She wrote a comment to say it was in poor taste and blocked him.
Recounting her experience, the poet said she felt violated by the incident. Her Facebook post elicited wide support. When contacted by Scroll.in, however, the poet said she did not wish to speak to the media.
Meanwhile, Sen has completely denied all the allegations. “I have learnt from various people that [the poet] has made these allegations against me – the allegations are completely false,” he told Scroll.in. Sen claimed that he did post a set of photographs on Facebook of a group that had gathered for “an evening of camaraderie” in 2016, but took them off when the poet in question asked him to.
But Shikha Saklani Malaviya, poet and co-founder of the non-profit publishing forum The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, said the allegations were serious enough to warrant a response. “As a publisher, editor, poet and woman, this [incident] rattled me to the core,” said Malaviya. “I’ve always viewed our [Indian English poetry] community as very supportive, thriving on trust, mutual respect and inclusivity. However, [the allegations] highlight the insidious and systemic abuse of power that many have witnessed, experienced and been warned of in the poetry world.”
Scroll.in accessed some of the letters that Sen wrote to various poets in response to the controversy. In his letter to the poet who made the allegations, he denied proposing any “relationship” with her and claimed he felt wronged by all the accusations. “Clearly there are misunderstandings that need to be sorted out,” the letter said.
In another letter to one of the poets who chose to withdraw her work from the anthology, Sen wrote that he was “shocked beyond belief” to hear the allegations against him and that the narrative had been “distorted and embellished to ensure instant condemnation”. He also claimed he felt wronged by the “smear campaign” against him.
Sahitya Akademi has not responded to Scroll.in’s queries so far.
‘This has rattled me to the core’
The allegations against Sen have triggered a storm in Indian English poetry circles. Sen is an award-winning poet with more than a dozen published collections of poems, as well as a translator, graphic artist and the editor of art journal Atlas. Over the past two weeks, amidst multiple social media discussions on sexual harassment and power play in the literary and publishing world, several poets whose works were to be featured in Sahitya Akademi’s upcoming anthology announced their decision to withdraw from the book in their own personal Facebook posts.
“I am saddened by recent public revelations about this person’s behavior, about which I had heard inklings for years, and honored to stand with my fellow poets in solidarity,” said poet Minal Hajratwala in a Facebook post sharing the letter sent by 12 poets to Sahitya Akademi on Tuesday. “In addition to the signatories here, most of the other poets slated for the anthology have already withdrawn [from the anthology] and have written their own individual letters.”
Another poet who signed the letter to Sahitya Akademi, but did not wish to be individually identified, said, “I personally chose to believe [the poet’s] story. I found his alleged behaviour very unethical and inappropriate. So in good faith I chose to withdraw [from the anthology]. It is important that these stories come out so that the community feels safer and knows it can act as warning, if not as a judgement.”
Poet Linda Ashok is ambivalent about withdrawing her name from the anthology, but claims she confronted Sen in an email about the instances when he made her feel uncomfortable in the past, and he replied with an apology. “My own experience with Sen is not a case of sexual harassment but certainly very embarrassing and unpleasant,” said Ashok, the editor of RaedLeaf Foundation for Poetry and Allied Arts, a foundation that has been offering the annual RL Poetry Award since 2013.
Ashok believes that this issue is not just about Sen and that many women in the poetry world have faced different forms of sexual harassment over the years. She claimed that many poets are legitimately afraid of talking about their experiences publicly, because some of the editors and publishers are powerful and influential. “There is a fear of backlash. The poetry world is small and there are very few opportunities of publishing and recognition,” she said.
‘Issue is bigger than an individual’
In addition to the poets who were to be featured in the Sahitya Akademi anthology, many other veteran poets and writers have also spoken out about the allegations against Sudeep Sen.
“I think she [the poet making the allegations] is very brave to bring her experience out in the open,” said Mrinalini Harchandrai, editor of the poetry imprint Bombaykala Books. “She has started a conversation that many women are habituated to tucking away in their pallus out of a complexity of fears that include shame, retribution and apathy from their social fabric.”
Harchandrai cited an incident at a recent poetry festival in India, where she witnessed a well-known publisher approach a writer and slip in sexual innuendos in the middle of a professional conversation. “I had heard about this behaviour of his from other writer friends but this was the first time I was witness to it,” she said. “This sort of problem is so entrenched in our patriarchal modes of behaviour that can be a bit complicated. However, generally speaking, when a person abuses their position to hurt others wilfully and remorselessly, that power should be taken away.”
Poet, writer and translator Priya Sarukkai Chabria emphasised the need for more clarity on all the allegations and for building a unified approach of zero tolerance. “I applaud the young poets who have withdrawn their work from an anthology on the basis of the allegations,” she said. “But let’s remember the issue is bigger than an individual and more widespread than acknowledged. We need to build a supportive community to help others speak out.”