My friend Maaz Bin Bilal, the poet and translator, alerted me in late April to a submission call for a Covid 19-themed poetry collection. It was being edited by litterateur K Satchidanandan and academic and writer Nishi Chawla.

In those early days of the lockdown – oh, how long ago it seems now – that many writers mistook for a retreat or residency, I did have at least two poems that I could submit. They were accepted. A couple of days later, a publishing professional posted on social media that the anthology, now called Singing in the Dark Times, had been acquired by Penguin Random House .

Poetry as a big book

“It is one of our big books this year,” said PRH executive editor Elizabeth Kuruvilla, who acquired the book. At the time of its acquisition, the book had, in fact, generated quite a buzz in poetry circles, thanks to reports of an unprecedented large advance for a poetry anthology. But, Satchidanandan – or Satchida, as he is popularly known – said the editors would not keep the advance. “Whatever we get will go to an organisation helping the worst victims of the pandemic,” he added in a response to an email query.

Nevertheless, the book is big news – poetry, as is well known, is anathema to most mainstream publishers. So, what’s different about this book?

“The pandemic has been such a universal experience,” said Kuruvilla. “To begin with, the editors of the anthology thought of including poets only from India or the US, but there was such an outpouring of submissions.” She added that she was not really sure of how her colleagues would respond to a book of poetry. “But there was universal consensus that this was an important book.”

The spontaneous overflow of lockdown emotions might have created a big book, but selling it would have been a challenge in regular times. In our dark times, it is likely to be even more difficult.

“There is a lot of buzz, especially online, about poetry,” said a PRH spokesperson. “This book is absolutely important for our times. It might even open up the market for poetry.”

But don’t they say poetry doesn’t sell?

“Yes, people seem to be reading more poetry, especially online – but will that translate into sales?” said Sohini Basak, an editor at HarperCollins India and also the author of poetry collection We Live in the Newness of Small Differences.

She said poetry had picked up big time online. “After we did a few online events for our authors, media organisations did ask for videos of writers reading their works. But it’s a little early to reflect on sales.”

As an editor, Basak has recently helmed an anthology of queer-themed poetry, The World That Belongs to Us. The editors of the anthology are Aditi Angiras, a performance poet and founder of Bring Back the Poets collective, and Akhil Katyal, the author of several collections of poetry, including Like Blood on the Bitten Tongue.

The book was launched last month at an online event. “It was good to have all the poets in the anthology together at the launch,” said Basak. “The idea was to open up the conversation about queer poetry. We had hoped that it would get picked up by many festivals. That’s happening – but the festivals have also gone online.”

Does this mean the end of the road for poetry with mainstream publishers? “Not really,” said Basak, adding that they were bringing out several books, including a second collection of Bengali poet Joy Goswami’s verse, translated by Sampurna Chattarji. “But poetry inherently has a small market,” she said. “A newer poet might find it difficult.”

Small publishers are trying to pivot to online engagement

New poets have always found it difficult to get published by the mainstream press. In the mid-1970s, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel and Arun Kolatkar – all of whom would become major Indian English poets later – had to start their own collective, Clearing House, in Bombay to get their first books out. The situation is not too different now.

New Delhi-based poet and translator Dibyajyoti Sarma started his publishing venture in 2017 with his own book of poems. “I was a new poet, no one wanted to publish me,” he said. “So, I am trying to create a place for new poets that was denied to me.” Initially, it was called iwriteimprint, but its names has changed to Red River. Since then, Sarma has published 37 books (including mine, Visceral Metropolis).

But the pandemic and the lockdown has hit his business hard. “We usually have a launch, where people buy our books,” he said. This year, his major project was Danish poet Claus Ankersen’s latest anthology, River of Man. Ankersen was supposed to be in Delhi in May and a big launch was planned. Instead, an online launch was organised with Bengaluru Review, a webzine that has been hosting readings by poets on its Facebook page. “Online is a great place to promote your poetry but it does not necessarily translate into sales,” said Sarma.

Noida-based Copper Coin, which has published some major titles such as Vishal Bharadwaj’s Hoshiarpur and an Indian edition of John Berger’s Collected Poems, also faced delays in its publishing plan because of the lockdown. It published one book – A Long Walk in Sunlight by Arun Sagar. There was no launch – offline or online. “The number of likes on a book cover on Facebook does not really transform into sales,” said Sarabjeet Garcha, the founder of Copper Coin. “Online launches don’t count for much.” Still, despite the setback of the lockdown, Copper Coin intends to publish at least a book a month for the rest of the year.

Other indie publishers seemed a little better prepared for a crisis like this.

Kolkata-based Hawakal, which also organises the Ethos Literary Festival, had to shelve plans of launching a Delhi office in April this year. Since the lockdown began in end-March, it has released seven poetry collections and plans to launch five more by mid-August. “Sales have been good,” said Bitan Chakraborty of Hawakal. “We realised the necessity selling books online quite early in our venture and developed a fully dedicated e-commerce hub in 2016. We never relied solely on bookstores.”

They also organised an online launch of their anthology, Hibiscus: Poems that Heal and Empower, edited by Kiriti Sengupta, Anu Majumdar and Dustin Pickering. “It wasn’t an elaborate affair,” said Chakraborty. “There are several academic and non-academic sessions going on in the social media space. I don’t think it’s prudent to organise book launch events online.”

‘Hello! Can you hear me?’

With four months of lockdown and endless screen time, fatigue seems to be haunting both organisers and participants of these events. A popular meme on social media shows Dilip Kumar and Madhubala as Salim and Anarkali, respectively, from the iconic Mughal-e-Azam, with the former waking the latter: “Utho Anarkali, webinar khatam huwa (Wake up Anarkali, the webinar has ended).

Non-fiction writer and poet Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury, who is one of the organisers of the Bengaluru Poetry Festival, acknowledged this. “Initially, it was exciting, but talking to a screen can be a surreal experience – and not always a good one,” she told me. “Can you hear me?” has become the most common refrain at any online reading. “A lot of improvisations that happen on stage cannot happen online,” said Bhattacharjee, whose latest publication is The Hungryalists, a popular history of a Bengali poetry movement from the 1960s.

Started in 2016, the Bengaluru Poetry Festival is one of the few literary events dedicated to poetry. Poetry for Prakriti in Chennai is perhaps the oldest annual poetry festival in the country. Its first edition was in 2007-08, and it has been held annually almost every year. Newer events include the Kritya Poetry Festival and the Glass House Festival.

In 2018, I was a guest at the Bengaluru Poetry Festival. While there were poets from Delhi such as Michael Creighton and Sarma, there were others too, such as Manjiri Indurkar, Urvashi Bahuguna, Mona Zota and my professor from Jadavpur University, Ananda Lal. I have admired the works of these poets, but would never have a chance to meet them unless we all got the opportunity provided by such an event. Some might say this opportunity to socialise with one’s community of writers is the primary aim of all literature festivals.

“There is a little lack of enthusiasm from some of the poets,” said Bhattacharjee Chowdhury. “We were very sceptical about having an online event, but we thought it would not be good to not have the festival at all. So, we will share all our sessions – there are very few actually – on August 9.” Some of the marquee names this time are Venus Jones, Tabish Khair, and Hussain Haidry. “The good thing is that our budget did not usually allow us to fly in poets from the US,” said Bhattacharjee Chowdhury. “We are hopeful that the international names will help us draw in a different sort of crowd.”

On and off

While a poetry festival is a one-off event, several poets have taken it on themselves to organise events online. One of the longest running of these events is Mother Tongue Twister (MTT), organised by New Delhi-based poet and translator Mohini Gupta.

When Mohini Gupta was at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK, in 2017, as a Charles Wallace India Trust fellow, she conducted a workshop with schoolchildren that inspired her to write more poetry for younger people in her mother tongue, Hindi. “There was a need to create more engaging contemporary poetry for children in Indian languages,” said Gupta. “I wanted to fill this gap.”

This idea gained more muscle when she conducted another workshop in New Delhi. As the country locked down in late March, Gupta decided to use this opportunity to launch the Facebook page of MTT. The online events continued till recently, but she acknowledges the fatigue factor. “It is very difficult to motivate oneself,” Gupta said. “But I have been looking at different languages, and looking at translations of different genres, such as drama. There will also be a session on translating Orhan Pamuk. The variety has helped.”

The outpouring of poetry online is great, she feels, but will it translate into sales of poetry books? “That remains a concern.” Also, with so much poetry available free, will anyone be willing to pay for it?

“MTT was a passion project for me,” said Gupta. “I did not have a target. So, there was no anxiety for me. Reading or looking at a screen can be taxing – but we do need to reorient ourselves a little. There is a great possibility of new and enriching experiences.”

The search for such experiences has motivated Pune-based poet Arjun Rajendran to start The Quarantine Train (QTT) – a sort of intense online workshop. “There are two sessions every week, each of two hours,” said Rajendran, who has published several collections of poetry and has a new book – One Man Two Executions – forthcoming. “People joining are told that their work will not be critiqued unless they critique the work of fellow poets.”

One of the recent projects of QTT has been translating poems of the Telugu poet Varavara Rao, who is in jail in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case. “We are not activists, but we thought we should take a stance,” said Rajendran. Rao’s poems have been translated into several languages, including Naga, Swahili and Esperanto.

When the lockdown began, I had promised myself that I would emerge from it armed with several manuscripts. If Shakespeare could write Lear while in quarantine, I could surely take that novel I have been working on for a decade past the finish line. Surely I could finish translating into Bengali the Swedish poet whose work I have been reading.

The thing is: I am not Shakespeare. This means the manuscript remains incomplete – but then, this also means I do not have any anxiety of launching it, online, or worrying about its sales. That’s happy enough for this Sisyphus.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.