In Interview with Bhumija Rishi

Slamming Out Loud- with Yashna Arora

This is a part of our series ‘In Interview with Bhumija Rishi’ where she speaks to enthusiastic and passionate young people excelling in non-academic spaces.

Yashna Arora is a final year undergraduate student of Sociology at Lady Shri Ram College for Women. She has been an academic rank holder but this is not primarily the identity that matters most to her. The core of her self is infused in the search of a meaning-making process. She is a woman who searches for meaning and humanity in a society marred with issues of gender, caste, class, age and whatnot. She has given her emotions a catharsis through spoken word poetry and is now a renowned poetess in the Delhi Slam Circuit. Here she recounts her journey as a Jijivisha fellow at the Startup- Slam Out Loud and the significance of spoken word as an art form.

Yashna Arora. Image provided by Bhumija Rishi

Hi Yashna! I know you are a brilliant orator because I have been observing you as a classmate for more than two years now. But I still want to inquire about your journey. How did you venture into spoken word poetry, I mean what was the motivation behind it?

That is so incredibly generous of you to say, Bhumija. Thank you for having me. I think I arrived at formal poetry only academically and knew pretty early on, that the white man describing nature to me was not something that amused me. I remember sleeping through English literature classes in 9th grade while my teacher enacted a line-by-line deconstruction of Tennyson’s The Brook. It felt so far remote and over- imagined. So I told my Hindi teacher that and she gave me Amrita Pritam to read and I felt an immediate wormhole build between her and I. I remember she described a drain in the city foaming as if with spit and I was immediately reminded of the open pothole in my gated colony where I drowned endless shuttlecocks every evening playing badminton. I think that wormhole was what I wanted built every time I read something. I cannot help but quote Jericho Brown here: ‘a poem is a gesture toward home.’ After a while, I felt the need to build my own wormholes, and have other people in them with me. The first poem I wrote at fifteen outside of any incentive, was about the personal absence and public abundance of language for my vagina. I performed it for my mother, who made me translate everything in Hindi and explain what I was saying. I think of writing as such an agricultural act of creating. Every poem I write feels like my first. It never stops feeling new and strange and unreliable. Sometimes, starting a new poem feels like relearning or destroying everything I’ve written before. Performing the poem, then becomes an act of seeking community from the violence of navel-gazing that writing tends to be for me and I think I enjoy the writing-performing kinship there.

What is the Jijivisha fellowship and how are people picked for it ?

The Jijivisha Fellowship is Slam Out Loud’s flagship initiative aimed at building ‘creative confidence’ in children from challenged communities. The organisation recruits creative professionals practicing a diversity of performative and visual arts to engage with children using an arts-based pedagogy. 

The recruitment typically involves an online application, an interview and an in-person collaborative training session, fondly called a baithak.

What is the social impact of your fellowship with Slam Out Loud ?

I was a poetry fellow which meant that I used poetry as an art form, and spoken word poetry, to be particular, to engage with a class of about 20 students to help build creative confidence. When I applied for the fellowship last year, I thought I already knew what I was setting myself up for: spoken word poetry as pedagogy.  The first time I went in for an orientation class, I introduced myself to a group of eighteen-year-olds, played a round of icebreakers with them, and promised to return for my first session in the coming week. It was only a couple days later that I realized I had taken a session at the wrong center of the organization with an entirely wrong subset of students. I was embarrassed to the bone and never wanted to take another session again. When I finally went back to my original classroom, I met a group of twenty young girls who did not know what a poem was. They had heard the customary twinkle twinkle little star and aalu kachaalu but had never been in the deliberate neighbourhood of a poem, they believed.

After some shuttling of introductions, we realized everyone knew what a paheli (riddle) was and everyone knew what they had for lunch that day. So our first writing assignment that day emerged from our only two common denominators: lunch and riddles. Everyone wrote riddles describing the food they had for lunch that day. Someone called kadhi ‘dahi ka peela syrup’ (yellow syrup of curd) and that has never not made me chuckle ever since. 

It is often said that language is like money. Plato thought this comparison weak. He believed that language did not transform ideas and alienate them from language so much so that their social character run alongside them as a separate entity, like prices alongside commodities. Ideas, for Plato, did not exist separately from language. Plato suggested an alternate model: money is not like language but it is like translated language. Ideas which have to be first translated out of their mother tongue into a foreign language to circulate, to become exchangeable, offered a somewhat better analogy. So the analogy lies not in language but in the foreign quality or strangeness of language. Every day of teaching poetry in the Jijivisha classroom has been an exercise in navigating some kind of foreignness, sometimes of language. It has been a lesson that one does not need to vacate one’s reality to imagine things. I have tried to learn and educate this along the way: to locate imagination in our available realities and then move from there.  To quote an incredible poem Shruti, a student from my class wrote: “din bada hai, masti chhoti, kar lete hain issi masti main seekhna sikhaana, sunna aur rulaana bhee”.

What is the most primal quality you think one should have to become a spoken word artist ? Is it public speaking, command over language, awareness of the nuances of social issues, confidence or something else ?

You know I often think ‘confidence’ can be such a servile definition of what makes art possible.  In my experience, I have learnt that spoken word poetry is an economy of light. So many times, with social science, we plunge into the world with a flashlight trying to seek facts and answers and observations. What really makes spoken word poetry distinct from page poetry is the vehicle of sharing. I think all poetry is really about learning to let the light that we tend to flash on the world, pass through us, thereby blurring the examiner-examined duality. Spoken word poetry goes a step onward and lets the light cast longer shadows by making the engagement between the poet, the poem and the listener linger for longer. To answer your question, I think, it is communication that is the most primal quality of spoken word. It does not need to be hefty language or a mind bending metaphor. Anything you use to build a wormhole from your mind to someone else’s, rolls as a performance poem. 

Do you think that there are certain misconceptions about the art of Spoken word ? What are they ?

In talking about spoken word and performance arts, we cannot de-historicize what we sit on. Spoken word poetry is increasingly consumed as one would consume McDonalds, as something that occurred to us by some mystic economic liberalism. I think the most pertinent misconception, which has obvious grounds in its aggressively urban, upper-caste medium of enactment, is its movement towards forging a universality as if only those experiences deserve sharing which can be universalized. Slam poetry emerged out of marginalized poets always having to engineer their emergence, always having to self-promote and struggle not just with a poem, but whose gazes are on their art, who do they write for. It was a destruction of credential-based gatekeeping in sharing art in publications. We cannot replace one kind of gatekeeping with another.

What were the challenges you faced when executing the fellowship ? Was your upper-middle class upbringing an issue, I mean did you look from an unconscious bias of being privileged ?

Ok, so this once while teaching rhyme schemes with an arduous Shel Silverstein poem, I hear one of the students say: “This is so boring!” from the rear end of the class. In the moment, I confront my most fundamental limitation as a broker in language: A linguistic form that militates against a development of meaning commits a betrayal to its audience’s humanity. The essential lesson in my failure at introducing Shel Silverstein to a group of 12-14 year old girls in East Delhi was simple: the intent of any truly educative process is not to arrive at some valuable nugget of meaning but to forge meaning in the collective act of sharing. So, I instantly retired Silverstein and ask for song suggestions from the class. After some consensus, we arrive at Kya Baat Ay by Hardy Sandhu. The next 40 minutes of classroom time are spent dissecting the lyrics, meter and rhyme scheme of the song in the way ‘jism dee khushbu elaichi di’ rolls phonetically with ‘lagda hai karaachi dee’ and an introduction to metaphors as poetic tools. Rajabai, a student from the class expresses her discontent in the way the artist chooses to rhyme ‘hot’ with ‘gande thought’ and the class goes on to examine what we academically call the ‘male gaze’ and its impunities. I did not decide to raise a feminist classroom of literary critics, sharing art and unsettling our prejudices in a dialogic space did, believing in the collective process to forge its own abundance did. Education, to me, is a radical act of abundance in a civilization so unconditionally committed to an arithmetic of saving as ours. Anne Carson says, “perhaps poets are those who waste what their fathers would save.” I think anyone who participates in education in any form or state of being is committing to this abundance. Especially when facilitating a classroom of young girls who do not share such a relationship of shame with English, I wanted to make sure that I do not enact the same carceral regime of disciplining their ideas that our education already suffers from but also achieve my lesson plans. I knew that I had to let them forge their own wormholes and every step of the way, the support of the organization really help me fashion that, whether through music or through improv poems, I tried to approach creativity and not the medium of its expression as the end. I do not know if my students will fashion a living as poets and the idea was not to build poets, it was to enable their communication and empathy for each other. 

You have a plethora of interests across fields criss- crossing public speaking , social welfare and child rights . Do you plan a career that manifests out of these interests ?

For now, I think I shall be happy to have a career that enables me to traffic in light, to be able to both plunge with that light to investigate social realities but also to let light pass through me and let me be self reflexive in what I seek to investigate. I do not know the way that would manifest into a career but something along those lines would be inspirational.

Would you like to start an initiative yourself similar to Slam Out Loud ?

I have not thought of that until now, but if that is the kind of reparative space we shall need, I will be glad for that to be another wormhole I help build.

If given a chance what would you like to change about the way  Slam Poetry happens ?

There are so many ways in which circuits become incarceral tools, expecting a regimented medium and kind of performance from anyone who seeks to write and perform. I think an ideal space is one that does not have a premeditated gaze that forecloses all dialogue about why someone chooses to share what they do, one that does not make a regime out of poetry. I wish performance poems were not seen so much an end in themselves but a tool for dialogue. On a logistical level, if I could change the way slam poetry happens, I would eliminate the paraphernalia, I think. The mics, the stages, the chairs. It would just be everyone sitting on floors, listening, sharing and snapping

Thanks for talking to us Yashna! I wish you all artistic goodwill.

  • Views expressed are purely personal to the interviewee. Neither the interviewer nor Manmarziyaan endorse them in any way

Manmarziyaan is looking to amplify the works of young people enthusiastic about their fields and interests. Connect with us on editors.manmarziyaan.com to be a part of this series as an interviewee.

Featured image designed by Haya Wakil

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