Poet and Lucy Writers’ Poetry editor, Usha Akella, writes of the South Asian Diaspora Poets’ Collective festival, Matwaala, which she founded several years ago.
Matwaala, meaning ‘intoxicated’, the poetry festival I birthed, may have had a seed of Gandhism at its core – Be the change you want to see. I am especially partial to the task of bringing poetry to community. My passion and faith in the healing purpose of poetry was first expressed in a project I launched called the ‘The Poetry Caravan’. The Caravan has brought well over a thousand poetry readings to disadvantaged audiences in women shelters, hospitals, senior homes etc., in New York City suburbs and Austin.
On commenting on the collective identity, poet and scholar Dr. Amritjit Singh, who baptized us with the name, defines Matwaala as: The name Matwaala evokes bonding and bonhomie, fun and funk, creative adventure and freedom, artistic assertiveness and non-conformity. A Hindi/Urdu word, it was the name of a radical literary magazine edited by the poet Nirala from Kolkata a century ago. Matwaala is used for someone who is drunk, but the word is used more often in a transferred sense, for someone who is a free spirit.
Essentially, Matwaala, the South Asian Diaspora Poets’ Collective, is a community of poets whose origins go back to South Asia. Our aim is to promote South Asian poetry and collaborate with other arts in North America. The mission of our initiative is to encourage solidarity, promote members’ work, and increase awareness of South Asian poetry in the mainstream American Literary landscape. We welcome poets of the South Asian diaspora across borders (India/ Pakistan/ Bangladesh/ Sri Lanka/ Nepal/ Bhutan/ Maldives/ Burma/ Afghanistan).
As poets we are, of course, drunk on language and words.
I am concerned about the visibility of South Asian poets in the American poetry scene, university reading series, or representation in anthologies and syllabi. Though the core mission may be perceived as idealistic or even somber, Matwaala materialized in a weirdly Austin magical way, in the spirit of the city’s motto, ‘Keep Austin Weird.’ The idea of a poetry festival emerged after an editorial project I co-edited with Pramila Venkateswaran (the Long Island, NY poet) for the e-journal, Muse India. The issue focused on an ekphrasis project involving Diaspora artists and poets that generated the idea for sustained collaboration and initiatives. Pramila and I have shared similar concerns and hopes for SA poets. The festival grew from that shared vision erected on a shoestring budget propelled by enthusiasm and faith in 2015. The first festival/collective drew to its fold a group of poets, Saleem Peeradina, Pramila Venkateswaran, Ravi Shankar, Sasha Parmasad and Varsha Sarraiya. Certainly joie de vivre, friendship and a sense of community have become the hallmark of the festival, which seeks to establish a paradigm based not on hierarchies but on solidarity; readings, youth readings, papers and panels are its stuffing.
In 2015, the festival was sponsored by the South Asian community and the mainstream alike. Our main fiscal sponsors were Austin Poets International (that hosts the big Austin Poetry Festival), the Austin Community college, and support in spirit and kind from the Cultural Arts Division, City of Austin. The Turkish Dialog Institute hosted a reading with impeccable hospitality as an outstanding gesture of peace building. A bevy of friends, restaurants, aunties and uncles in the South Asian community offered homes to stay, meals, marketing materials and made fiscal donations.
Our venue in Austin was Casa de Luz with its Zen-like ambience and organic restaurant – so healthy and leaving us in want of spice. The gastronomically tame food was more than compensated by the poetic spread from ten poets, some celebrated, some upcoming, each introduced by a pair of witty youth MCs with limericks, as in:
Too much easy rhyme we confess: Akella, Matwaala, Daruwaala,
While coming to the point, we’ll mention he is an Oxford wallah,
Let’s learn to do it better with Keki,
God forbid we mention that Englishman Shelly,
But it’s cool to toast the Persians and Greeks in FIRE ALTA!
An Austin poet named Usha Akella,
Unemployed, so created Matwaala,
Kept her up at nights!
Barely had a bite!
But Hey! She brought in Keki Daruwalla.
Saleem Peeradina presented a paper on the Mumbai poets—a pivotal chapter in Indian English Writing that marked the modernist evolution of the writing in the 70s. Anis Shivani’s paper struck a cavalier note with why he did not think he is a South Asian poet and the guest of honor was the eminent 78-year-old Parsi poet Keki Daruwalla of New Delhi. He won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Asia in 1987 for his book Landscapes. Phinder Dulai the Indo-Canadian poet moved us greatly with a reading on the tragic Komagata Maru incident supported by a rich mine of historical photographs. The cultural segment was an eclectic mix of a young violin virtuoso, Kai Cole, the Indian classical dance school, Natyalaya, improvisational poet, Thom the world poet (a sobriquet self-bestowed), guitarist Darrell Mayers, photographer Rama Tiru, and the Syrian multilingual vocalist, Julie Slim. Matwaala’s beginning was true to its spirit of community across borders and inclusivity.
Thom graciously sang to us:
To build an Ark, you must begin
with what you have and who you are
is seen by others when they choose /to walk with you
A dream is only as good as the morning song of birds
birthing each new day with a blank check promise
Golden the free skies. Blue the wide seas
which others cross to be in a circle
where you chose to be, and to create
something new as breath, old as song.
Gathering is an ancient ceremony.
Listening the first prayer. The second is respect
You gave your all, and volunteered
to start the spark that fired and flamed
and warmed the hearts of all
who praise your name.
More poems followed by different poets inspired by the joie de vivre:
We came from distant states
Packing our life-stories
In carry-on bags
To spill our guts
To unheard, unmet
Strangers on a sacred quest
At the altar of poetry.
We made our offerings
Of blood, sweat, and tears
And joined the chants
of fellow pilgrims
Drunk on words.
Food, drink, song, dance,
And laughter –
It was a feast like no other.
Free spirits, we soared,
Our hearts filled to bursting.
By Saleem Peeradina
We launched the signature Matwaala mug in Austin as a laurel for the poet-of- honor. It carries the logo and poetry lines by the poet. Three editions later, we’ve brought out three mugs. Of the award 2018 poet-of-honor Ralph Nazareth wittily observed: only truly feminist Hindu women could have selected three male Indian poets as poets of honor at the poetry festival they founded. They didn’t just stop at choosing men. They leapt across the religious spectrum, choosing a Parsi, a Muslim and Catholic in succession! Talk about being genuinely inclusive!
Pramila Venkateswaran, my co-director’s home and presence in the New York area, initiated our decision to move the festival to the Northeast. She was the poet laureate of Suffolk county from 2013-2015. We felt the centrality of New York City would garner more interest and provide interactive opportunities with the various academic institutions. I visualized the concept of the Matwaala Big Read – an open forum to attract talent of all ages at one big reading, hoping to create in the years to come the Mecca/Jerusalem/Benares of all readings! The Asian American Writers Workshop in New York City loved the idea and offered space. The political climate in 2017 may well have been the prod that attracted 16 poets from difference cities; Pulitzer winning Vijay Seshadri and lauded poet Meena Alexander, plus younger rising stars like Rohan Chhetri, attended.
Picking up the baton for festival editions 2017 & 2018, Pramila writes:
In 2017 and 2018, when we had the festival in NY, I had the opportunity to see my ideas manifesting. My vision for Matwaala is to highlight the contributions of South Asian diaspora poets in American literature. There are not merely a handful of SA poets in the diaspora, but several in each city. My vision is to show the numbers which can fill a few volumes, but to also show to the world the rich literary heritage that SA poets bring to American literature. We see the brilliant intersections of South Asian and American traditions, and the startling and unpredictable creativity with language and form that ensues from these intersections and jugalbandhi (conversation, to use a musical term).
In 2017, the poets read at NCC, at an art gallery in Setauket, and at the AAWW (Asian American Writers Center) in NYC to a packed audience. A vision I share with Usha is to bring more and more of the younger generation into the Matwaala fold and mentor them so they publish and transmit their knowledge to others. That’s how Matwaala can grow. In light of this I got many south Asian students at NCC to participate in a student reading. They also were part of the Q & A with the poets and felt as if their world had suddenly grown larger. There were poets who look and spoke like them!! And what’s more, they had a professor who looked like a typical desi and spoke with a desi accent. How cool! When we honored Saleem P as poet-of-honor in 2017, I was excited because my interview-essay on him had just been released by Ariel: A Review of English Literature. So, people who came to the readings and did not know Saleem could read the interview essay and understand the long history of Indian English poetry. More particularly they could learn of the Bombay poets’ movement, of which Saleem was a part and also connect with his contemporary themes of migration, loss, and discovery.
In 2018, we wanted to highlight the feminist themes in light of the breaking #METoo movement and hence we had a fabulous night of poetry at Bluestockings, NY’s remarkable feminist bookstore. We followed this with a reading the following day at AAWW. We honored Ralph, a selfless longtime contributor to poetry and poets, who has mentored several poets and who was a community activist and publishing head of Yuganta Press. Since Matwaala honors poets who have contributed to the poetry community and outside, we honored him as the poet-of-honor this year.
VIDA keeps a count of women poets in all the major journals published in the U.S. Likewise, I feel Matwaala will give us the opportunity to keep a count of the number of SA poets being published in all the major journals and push for more inclusion of them.
Matwaala may not be in the dictionary of poetry festivals. Lean on funding in the present, we cannot boast the scope of a Struga or Medellin but our plans are serious, and steps steady. The launch of a website and anthology are upcoming in 2019. We will be honoring a UK diaspora poet Yogesh Patel as the poet-of-honor next year. I know there are poets who resist this kind of activism – with a different approach – and say: be global, be American, do not accentuate differences and you will not be treated differently. Perhaps, that is a similar hope of post-feminism, that by ignoring gender issues and accentuating humanity, somehow, problems go away. Perhaps, we need a melding of both ideologies. As immigrant poets, we have to be true to our roots or our poetry lies, and we also have to be American – and ultimately human, above all labels.
My opening remarks at the 2015 festival are still relevant and summarize Matwaala’s heartbeat:
While this is a celebration of the talent of a certain diaspora, this is ultimately the celebration of Poetry. We are poets because we dare to say the unsaid and we hear the unheard. We unlock experience with words that make the subtlest of emotions and perceptions tangible. No poet is a fine poet or a great poet only because he or she belongs to this or that ethnicity. A good poet is one because he/she is attuned to the universal unmasking itself in his/her individual sensibility. Today you will hear voices that are rooted and yet fly. Voices that break down barriers. Voices that dare to be South Asian, American and simply human… I wish you a day of intoxication by a wine more powerful than wine. While the first might close the gate to the soul, the other opens it. Thank you for being here.