Poetry publishing: ‘keep at it, be relentless’

A poet interviews his publisher and the publisher retorts right back in this irreverent conversation between Abhimanyu Kumar (whose debut collection of poems Milan & the Sea came out in October 2017) and Dibyajyoti Sarma, publisher of Red River (formerly i write imprint)

Abhimanyu Kumar (AK): You changed the name of your venture i write imprint to Red River just after publishing my book. It’s unfair. But why this change?

Dibyajyoti Sarma (DS): You don’t worry. You sell all your copies and we will reprint the book under the Red River banner. Frankly, I had to do it because I needed to register for GSTN. By now, I realised that i write imprint sounded little clucky, so the change.

AK: But you gave me another reason sometime back?

DS: Oh, yeah. Okay, let’s make it official. You see, I have spent most of my adult life outside Assam, my mother’s land, and aspired to live a cosmopolitan life without the labels of narrow identities. It did not happen. I can converse in Marathi, but for my Marathi friends, I remained the ‘asami mulga’. I shifted to Delhi and it’s the same story. So, finally I decided to embrace my Assamese identity. Red River is our river, Luit.

AK: Having run a small press for well over a year now, do you think there is a ‘market’ for poetry? Does poetry sell?

DS: Let’s tackle this other way round, does poetry need a market? With the word ‘market’, we are equating poetry with commodity. Is poetry a commodity? Okay, fair enough. You need money to publish a book and you would like to recover this money, perhaps make a tidy little profit too. Why not? Coming back to your question, the answer is yes. There is a market and poetry sells. Those who claim that poetry doesn’t sell, they compare poetry with other genres, like popular fiction. When you do it, of course, poetry doesn’t sell enough. So we need to contextualise the reality.

As for me, sometime back, I read somewhere that if a poetry book sells 200 copies, it’s a bestseller. I am not sure if it’s a legitimate number, but I have made it a goal to achieve. It’s still a big number for an outfit like us, but I believe with a fair bit of promotion (with the help of the author of course) we can achieve this number. When I say 200 copies, I mean selling them, not giving away for free, which most readers expect from poets. So, I have a standing instruction for my poets: ‘Don’t give away any copies for free. What you have done in the book is a work of art and you must be paid for your work.’

I did tell you the same thing, I did, didn’t I? Did you sell?

Now, you tell me, when you were working on the book, were you worried about the market at all?

AK:  No. I do not worry about the market. I am convinced of my genius! You have read my poem ‘I Hallucinate of Fish Heads’ published by Raiot and in the collection? I have already said I am Mayakovsky and Pushkin put together.

DS: Ah, yes. I love the poem. In fact, I am really proud of Milan & the Sea.

AK: Thank you. How do you see the poetry publishing scene in general in India?

DS: Right now, the scene is mighty wonderful. I really admire the work that Poetrywala has done. I was lucky to witness the beginning of it firsthand, albeit, from the outside, how a tiny poetry magazine in Marathi, Abhidhanatar, grew into a formidable force, at a time when mainstream presses wouldn’t touch poetry, unless you are Vikram Seth or Gulzar.

Now, the situation has completely changed with mainstream presses jumping into the fray (with some reservations). In the few last months alone, Speaking Tiger published collected poems of CP Surendran and Manohar Shetty, plus Michael Creighton’s debut collection (New Delhi Love Songs) and HarperCollins has brought out new collections from Tishani Doshi and Sharanya Manivannan, plus, the new Ashok Bajpai translation by Rahul Soni is brilliant. Then Aleph published Ruskin Bond’s collected poems, I was the Wind Last Night. And Penguin is coming out with Ranjit Hoskote’s latest Jonahwhale.

Recently, we saw the launch of Dhauli Press, which has published some interesting volumes (a special shout out for publishing Assamese poet Harekrishna Deka’s English poems, A Touch of Time). Then, there is Hawakal in Kolkata (which published Kiriti Sengupta’s Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral and Linda Ashok’s Whorelight), and of course, Copper Coin, another venture I admire (which recently published Sophia Naz’s Pointillism.)

When I was starting this venture, I did some research and found that there are at least 25 poetry publishers in India. Are they my competition? No. Every press has its philosophy and market strategies.

At its core, poetry publishing in India is still a labour of love, not a business venture. For example, you were a part of i write imprint much before we decided to do the book. You even gave me Rs 5000 when I was starting out as a donation. Is it the right word? Let’s call it a gift which I happily accepted.

Poet & Publisher

AK: It was my way of showing support, I guess. Anyway, you had read the manuscript of my book. It had a different name. It, as you well know, was with another publisher based abroad, who had published a close friend’s second book. But mid-way through the editing of the manuscript, I developed creative differences with the editor. She wanted me to ‘fact-check’ the poems and found the language ‘crude’ in places. So we parted ways.

I have to confess, as I had already given you some money, I thought if you publish the book, it would amount to self-publishing. The point is I did not want to pay my way to publish. Now I see that you have a different kind of model where you do make a certain investment but it can be recovered, as I did.

DS: No profit no loss is the motto.

AK: Exactly. I am happy to see that we have managed to sell a fair amount of books. Do you think we are witnessing some kind of a resurgence/revival of Indian English poetry?

DS: Resurgence is perhaps not the right word. Poets and poetry were always there, just avenues to reach out were missing. For example, Kavya Bharati is a dedicated poetry journal still in existence, but very few young poets have ever heard of it.

Then internet came, and first blogs, and then Facebook changed everything. I started translating from Assamese in my blog, i write riot.

You started writing poetry in the age of Facebook. Do you think social networking has helped you find readers, your growth as a poet?

AK: It certainly helped find readers. I remember blogging. It was dreary because no one commented ever. And I remember discussing this with Nitoo Das and Sharanya Manivannan long back – I have fallen out with the latter but let me add that I consider her very highly as a poet, probably the only one who is better than me in my generation! Then again, only suffering helps one’s growth as a poet.

DS: I keep hearing these stories of falling out between poets, and frankly, it worries me a little. I wonder why we can’t all come together for the common cause of promoting poetry.

AK: Like the Bombay School? What do you think about it? How relevant its legacy is today?

DS: The legacy is tremendous. It’s our reference point, isn’t it? It’s the only legitimate school of poetry we have, isn’t it? These days, I meet young poets who think Nissim Ezekiel was ‘not very good.’ But you have to remember, if Ezekiel did not arrive at the scene at that particular juncture, Indian English poetry would not happen yet. Then Dom Moraes returned to India, and the marriage of influences of these two poets, Ezekiel’s focus on local colours and Moraes’s formalism gave birth to what we now know as Indian poetry in English. (Just to clarify, Jayant Mahapatra was an outlier and a brilliant one at that.)

For me, personally, Clearing House is the ideal I wish for i write imprint/ Red River — just a few books and all of them masterpieces. This is legacy in my book.

What do you think of Bombay school? Or schools in general? Do you think in today’s competitive world, nurturing a new school of poetry would be near-impossible?

AK: I think Bombay School was elitist and Ezekiel’s mocking of local accents and poor English of others in his poetry marks it as such. This is something we tried to avoid doing in TSC.

I think Dom Moraes would have not have made a name had it not been for the father’s patronage. He craved western recognition and his poetic concerns do not resonate with me at all – at least his formalism.

Only by destroying the legacy of Bombay School can something new come up in the present times. But remember, this is not to be vile about the matter at all. I cite Whitman from Leaves of Grass – ‘He honours my style the most who learns under it to destroy the teacher.’

DS: I am all for forging new ways ahead. We must find our voices in the present tense, not ape the past. But I also expect a sense of awareness about what happened in the past. That’s something I find missing today.

AK: Would you say this is a prevailing trend today? What trends do you see operational in today’s poetry scene in English in particular?

DS: (Makes faces) Please don’t tempt me turn myself into a poetry critic. Then we will be here all day. One thing I have noticed and I absolutely abhor is how so many young poets don’t want to read others, anyone, except Rupi Kaur perhaps. Reading others is the first and the last step in becoming a poet. There is no shortcut.

What trend jumps out at you?

AK: I find most of Indian English poetry absolutely awful. So that is the main trend. It is too academic. Or flowery. Or abstract. It needs to be totally annihilated. And let me remind you, literary revolutions are no less bloody.

DS: ‘Kill you darlings,’ literally. I think most of the readers, fellow poets, especially the younger one, are aware of this lack of quality, but don’t want to say anything, lest they are left behind. It’s a vicious cycled.

AK: Totally. There is a lot of resentment in the poetry scene today about perceived elitism, corporatisation, nepotism, etc. Your take?

DS: You tell me.

AK: Haha! You know very well what I think. But I will write about it separately later.

DS: I’ll remain politically correct and keep quiet. However, let me take this opportunity to beat my own drum. In December, my translation, ‘Sananta Tanty Selected Poems,’ was longlisted for the Jaydev National Poetry Award 2017. I was truly surprised; blame it on this resentment you mentioned. I don’t know the organisers and/or the juries and anyone for that matter. But it was there. And it was a big deal for me. I knew it would not go into shortlist and I am okay with it.

AK: You are a poet and a translator. Has your own work suffered since you started to publish?

DS: Oh, absolutely. I have so much unwritten/ half-written material lying around it’s not funny. Every time I am doing something else (except for my day job, which I do with diligence, because that’s my bread, without butter, and I am lucky to have a job like this and a wonderful boss who supports my venture, and I don’t want to took the gift-horse in the mouth), and I am thinking of another design, another editorial change, another project for i write imprint/ Red River. But I was in a high, published eight books in one year, and did everything, from editing to designing to procuring paper to promoting the books. It does not matter what happens tomorrow, I am content.

On a serious note, I think I would take it slow this year. I have two prose manuscripts to sell. I have been trying but with no luck. Then someone suggested that I needed to be famous before a mainstream press would pick my books. Now, I believe I am moderately well-known (and I am hoping that this interview will make me famous. Will it?)

Okay, seriously, how would you define a famous writer? Would you like to be one?

AK: A famous writer is a famous writer. Don’t you think I am already famous?!

DS: Of course, you are. That why I published you.

AK: What are the challenges particular to a small press publisher?

DS: Money. Money. Money. There are so many projects I want to do, but somebody has to pay for the printing cost. For example, I want to publish a collection of U Soso Tham translations. Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih did some lovely translations of Soso Tham for Raiot in 2016. I want to write a mail to Nongkynrih asking if he would agree, but I don’t have funds in place and so I am dithering.

AK: Any advice to someone who would like to follow in your wake?

DS: Ah, several. I am good at giving advice. (laughs) One, don’t start with a publishing venture with the intention of churning out bestsellers. Bestsellers are beautiful aberrations, no one can predict them. Two, don’t expect to earn a profit at least for the first five years; keep your day job. Three, do it because you love it, not because it will help advance your other agendas. Four, don’t ever complain that people don’t buy books. You knew it before venturing into this. Five, keep at it, be relentless.

Do you have any advice for me?

AK: Yes, you ought to publish a novel about sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.

DS: Oh, yes. I have the exact manuscript with me, your novel, you remember? We should do something about it.

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Abhimanyu Kumar Written by:

Abhimanyu Kumar is an independent journalist based in Delhi.

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