- Virtual Saturday poetry circle is a home for anyone who wants the predictable love of poems and reliable commitment.
Ghazal ki aan main palkon ke saaye mohabbat ki hifaazat kar rahe hain (In poetry’s delicate shadow — a few are saving love itself).
Jai Polepalli, a Stanford Ph.D., now serving as a neuroscience professor in Singapore, read these lines in Urdu, in a zoom poetry circle he has been attending every Saturday, since March 2020. I first met Jai two years ago, at a poetry reading at Manny’s café in San Francisco, hosted by Mahendra Kutare of Kaavya Connections. Many poetry lovers of the rich and ancient poetic traditions of the Indian sub-continent used to meet monthly to read poems for a few hours.
When the pandemic started, several of us started to meet online, weekly, as a spin-off group from Kaavya Connections, organizing ourselves using a Facebook group called Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. The love of poetry was such that all languages, all genres of poetry were welcome, and the doors were always left open for anyone to come in, to read, or just to listen. Unlike an open mic, this was not a performance space since we all were united in our declaration “I am not a poet”.
We tried impromptu translations. We aspired to co-create a sanctuary for those who love playing with words. A few sang their words to share the music within and to convey the sentiments. Failing regularly, we continued the struggle bravely. We thrived on diversity. We included everybody and listened to the shy ones with a lot of patience and encouragement. We hated small talk and preferred a pregnant pause, as there was no such thing as an awkward silence when the words moved us so deeply. Something about giving your breath to words of poets long dead, and yet describing feelings that we were experiencing.
The pandemic brought tragedies to everyone, caused social unrest in the U.S. after George Floyd’s murder, or made visible the oppression of our systems as the largest migration of daily wage workers occurred in India. The strong feelings these evoked were spoken of in epic poems from centuries ago. Poetry created a sanctuary of tender loving care, where through old and new poems we could remember the violence, hold on to what is precious and let go of what had served its purpose, to collective explore the messiness that is human life. We had a time and group of reliable poetry lovers to help us discover our edges and relearn to trust, after every shock and to celebrate the weekly triumphs, which might just be to have found a good poem that we were eager to share, to be heard with affection and appreciation.
Being online meant that Jai could join the Poetry Circle even if he had moved away from the Bay area. Our open-door policy and word of mouth amongst poetry lovers soon led to poets joining us from Dubai and India as well. After a year of weekly poetry readings, I decided this virtual lovefest needed to be commemorated beyond the virtual world. We compiled a 200-page multi-lingual poetry anthology with 22 of us sharing poems for it.
When India Currents hosted the Matwala poetry reading, we started a monthly column called Poetry as Sanctuary to share our love of poetry by writing about it to share our joys with the community. After a year of hosting, I decided to take a break, only to discover that this weekly circle had a life of its own and continued even when I was no longer the host. Jai just completed six months as our dependable volunteer host.
All this labor of love has convinced me that this new normal is much needed in the world. I coaxed a few of us to shed our ‘I am not a poet’ line to bravely embrace that after 18 months of weekly poetry readings, we do know enough poems to read a few to the public at large, if for no other reason than to showcase the sheer variety of what gets labeled ‘Indian’ poetry. There are so many flavors to the languages, ideas, forms — from geet to ghazal to chants — that even a performance will never do justice to the art form. Yet, it may bring some joy to other poetry lovers to discover poems, as many of us have found poems we love online.
During my childhood, growing up in Delhi in the 70s, my extended family would gather every weekend at my grandma’s house. My uncles and aunts would pamper me in ways that compensated for my mother’s stricter ways required of a parent. I grew to know my cousins by playing and eating with them. Anyone could come to the open house as the weekend family ritual was the same forever.
This poetry circle reminds me of those old times remade for modern times. Virtual Saturday poetry circle is a home for anyone who wants the predictable love of poems and reliable commitment. The regulars do the real work by hosting, writing articles, sharing poems on our Facebook and Instagram pages, inviting their friends to the circle, and now a new book is in the making, too, etc. Like my family, this weekly ritual grounds us by being a part of the community that belongs to poems.
In the delicate shadow of poems, we gather to save old-fashioned deeply committed love — in our modern ways. Come listen to a dozen of us to find your voice, on Aug 28th, 7:30 pm PT. Register here.
(Top photo, a poetry gathering hosted by Kaavya Connections in San Fransisco. Courtesy, kaavyaconnections.com)
Dr. Jyoti Bachani is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is the founder of the group Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley. She translates Hindi poems and edited a poetry anthology called “The Memory Book of the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley.” She is a former Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, with degrees from London Business School, UK, Stanford, USA, and St. Stephen’s College, India. She is the founder of the U.S. and India chapters of the International Humanistic Management Association.