BY DEVANSHI KHETARPAL
When one of my favourite poets, Arjun Rajendran, posted on Facebook that he’s starting a virtual poetry workshop, I immediately signed up to be part of it. Soon enough, the workshop group became a community and movement we now call The Quarantine Train.
I am used to loneliness, but I am also used to cities. After I was forced to leave New York, I wondered how I would write: I am used to writing and reading in my journal on the subway, in parks and cafes. I always like to be among people. I love writing about the city’s smells, its sights, absurdities, its skins and bodies which brush into and past each other. I still wonder what will happen to all the strangers and crowds I love being a part of as a body among other bodies.
But finding this community, being able to interact with poets and readers from across India and the world, is a rare gift during this moment or, as a matter of fact, any other. After I left New York, three friends were diagnosed with COVID-19. I wondered if I could write something– a letter, a poem, a story– that would help. I wondered what the purpose of writing is during a pandemic– when words cannot heal, when millions of migrants have to walk back home on foot, when cases of sexual violence are on the rise, when Dalit and Muslim and Kashmiri and migrant and black and poor and minority and Rohingya and trans and genderqueer and indigenous lives are at threat in the most violent ways, when refrigerated trailers are serving as makeshift morgues. What’s the use of writing anymore? Why should we still be writers?Can writing ever save or serve a life besides one’s own?
I was told that I have to leave New York, move out of my apartment within 48 hours (on my birthday) and I didn’t have anyone to turn to immediately or anywhere to go. Some friends and professors offered to store my belongings– and it is strange to think of one’s things as objects living isolated in cartons in places that are not one’s own, in places where those objects have never found themselves before. On the way back home, I wondered if I would ever have places to go to again. As a writer, I felt like a banal object– suddenly in an imaginative and sensuous void, a shelf where I didn’t belong. There are situations that are far worse at the moment, of course, but in all of them, I think the numbness of un-belonging somewhere at some time is present.
When I think of the the writers I have met through The Quarantine Train and the cities where they live, I start to wonder if, in fact, I do have places to visit and friends to meet. New places, new friends. For now, these places and people are sealed off, but I find my peace in this knowledge. I still continue to ask myself if writing can save or serve a life besides one’s own. But, if anything, with The Quarantine Train I have realised that at the very least, my writing can open me up. Writing can allow me to offer space and love to strangers. Writing can allow me to have others inhabit the deepest corners of my self. Writing can build a home out of loss. That being said, dear reader, here are a few friends, a few cities, some places to visit , some living within me:
I had just left my career in international education and had embarked on a journey as a traveling writer (blogger, poet, aspiring novelist) when the COVID-19 pandemic was first reported within China. Having lived in China for several years, I followed the updates quite religiously, as I was concerned with the rising anti-Chinese and global surge in xenophobia against East Asians. I had been traveling in India for three months when lockdown struck here during late March; I remained within a backpacker’s hostel and dedicated myself to my writing. While I had a goal of completing the first draft of my novel within a year, the lockdown gave me additional space to dedicate myself to my novel.
On a personal level, I was enduring difficulties I hadn’t foreseen (cancellation of my international flight back home, losing my apartment in the US, postponement of a fellowship by a year, extending a visa in a country, spraining my ankle); these private affairs have certainly influenced my writing. By being isolated in a country I was visiting for the first time, I was able to introspect and reflect on a deeper level than if I had been able to return to the U.S. as scheduled. I completed the first draft of my memoir by April and have since edited 300+ pages of the book.
Joining TQT has been the light at the end of a tunnel. My health was in decline when I received the invitation; despite an inconsistent WiFi connection, I was utmost grateful for the return to the classroom, albeit a virtual one. I found great company and solidarity in listening to analysis of published poets hailing from various countries to participating in workshops to constructively criticize fellow members’ submitted poetry. The discussions, prompts, and reflections have inspired a surge in my own creative writing processes.
Throughout my international experiences (studying and working in China, traveling in India), I often observe first before speaking or submitting inquiries. For the first two months of joining TQT, I remained silent — even typing out and deleting responses — as I was concerned about taking up space as a white cis-woman from the U.S. However, at the encouragement of a couple of TQT members, I began to speak up in the group chat and during sessions. While I still maintain that listening is a crucial first step, this was a reminder that I cannot remain silent within my own privilege. I must continue to learn, to unlearn, and to understand the complexities of societal inequities wherever I am; posing questions and comments is instrumental to this journey.
I am particularly thankful to have learned much from the Dalit and Miyah poetry workshops. From explaining the etymological and cultural connotations of groups I had never heard about to contextualizing the composition of how literary theory can enable a mutual understanding among people, TQT has provided insight into the complexity of caste and linguistic politics domestically within India as well as in reflection of global societal issues, such as Black Lives Matter, gender studies, #MeToo, and the role of (imaginary) translation. The Quarantine Train offers solace among the seemingly stationary setting within our confined (privileged) spaces within the structure of lockdown; the stations forthcoming will shake and settle each and every member’s creativity and relationship to the written and spoken word. What a ride to embark upon!
ANESCE DREMEN is a first generation college student who studied in four cities in China (Xi’an, Beijing, Chengdu, and Suzhou) with the support of the Critical Language Scholarship and the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship. She graduated from Carthage College with degrees in Chinese and English literature. Her bilingual work has been featured in the Midwest Journal of Undergraduate Research, Carthage Vanguard, Xi’an Daily, and Shanghai Poetry Labs. Anesce is often found with a tea cup in hand, traveling between the U.S., China, and India.
At the outset, I’d say that this has been a very unique workshop, and not least because of the circumstances in which it is being conducted. Certainly, the lockdown has ensured that online medium is put to good use, which has enabled more participation, as compared to an ‘in-person’ endeavour. Moreover, the TQT has brought together participants from diverse fields and disciplines – corporate, government, educators, film industry, doctors, students – the list as long and eclectic as the discussions that ensue are interesting.
As a practicing poet, the best thing I found about this workshop is that it makes the process of meaning-making in poetry a collaborative, collective process. Unlike other art forms, writing (and reading) poems is a solitary activity. However, after attending this workshop, I realised that reading poems and engaging with them, interpreting them, uncovering the fundamental truths of human emotions tucked in the mystery of language – is best accomplished in the sort of workshop that is TQT. There is something that needs to be said about the range and diversity of genres and milieus curated. Ranging from quaint Italian poets (conducted by Devanshi Khetarpal), to highly relevant poetry movements around the country such as Miya poetry (conducted by Shalim M. Hussain) and Dalit poetry (conducted by Chandramohan S)– the curators at TQT have ensured a sumptuous fare. The next few sessions are being curated around ‘Imaginary Translations’ and Danish poetry. There is so much variation in the choice of poems read and poets covered during the sessions, that one is bound to be coached in-toto in the intricacies of sound, the nuances of alliteration, and the finesse of a poetic line. As Arjun, the chief curator, is known for remarking, “it is not a sentence, it is a line!” Or as another participant remarked, “TQT is like a Poetry Fellowship!” – which wouldn’t be inaccurate.
Something also needs to be specifically said about the choice of poems/poets. Unlike the traditional English literature classroom reserved only for canonical works, TQT makes a point of selecting, reading, interpreting and discussing really good poems (and poets) that are important and contemporary without necessarily belonging to the canon. Usually such works are found in prominent literary journals and magazines. In my limited understanding, I can vouch that such journals are frequented by a niche group of individuals. However, by including these poems in the workshop readings, TQT demystifies (the journals and) the poems. Also, by having a collaborative method to interpreting and understanding a poem, what happens is that the group, facilitated by its curator, finds first an approach, and then an inroad into a poem, slowly unpeeling it, turning its various strands under the light of the many conversations that are struck, until we are all standing at the heart of the poem, marvelling at what wonder lay hidden amidst those lines. Another important facet of the TQT is that it serves as a space for poets, emerging and old, amateur and established, to come together, share their work and elicit feedback from others. This is an especially engaging and fruitful aspect, as feedback about one’s work is one of the most vital things that a writer looks for (and most often, doesn’t get!) – does that metaphor work, is this line alright, what is the title communication, does that troupe border on cliché – such are the questions that are raised during the ‘critique’ sessions which really push the writer to think hard and deep, and engage with their own work in new light. It is my estimate that this year, some of the best poetry in the country (maybe even outside it) will be published by members of the TQT because the discussions around each and every poem somehow adds to the collective and individual knowledge about the technical and emotive range of the craft.
At a time when the prolonged isolation, the anxiety wrought by a globally uncontainable pandemic and the ‘new normal’ have compelled many of us to confront various aspects of our own mental health, poetry in specific, and art in general, provides hope for a better tomorrow, and a soothing, almost embalming after-effect. What TQT does is to effectively administer that far-from-perfect panacea in appropriate doses on a bi-weekly basis.
ANKUSH BANERJEE is a mental health professional, poet and Research Fellow at IIM, Rohtak. His maiden volume of poetry, An Essence of Eternity was published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi in 2016. His poem, Righteous Among the Nations won the third prize at the 2019 All India Poetry Competition. His work has appeared in Indian Literature, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Vayavya, Eclectica, Cha, and elsewhere. He blogs here, and can be found at Cats Who Read, reimagining his favourite novels with his two cats (obviously!) playing his favourite characters.
The Quarantine Train has been a valuable connection in the face of a global disconnect. Personally, as a poet writing in English and living in a small town in the South Indian state of Kerala, this disconnect is larger than the current pandemic. I believe that art thrives in community and an absence of such a community has been bothering me for the past two years. The lockdown gave rise to a flurry of activity in the poetic community online and I was fortunate enough to be connected to it through TQT.
I have always found reading poems collectively as a highly enriching act and TQT is a platform that has made this possible on a regular basis and for a stretch of time. Considering my process as a writer, I entered the workshops at a point when I was finding myself coming up short in terms of what I want to do through my poetry. In the past few months, I feel I have had a clearer sense of direction and that has propelled me forward in my quest to becoming the kind of poet I want to be.
ASWIN is a poet from Kerala, India. He has an MA in Poetry from the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Queen’s University Belfast. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in a few magazines in India and the UK including The Bombay Literary Magazine, Verse of Silence, The Tangerine, The Madras Courier, and Coldnoon. He is 26.
Not the pandemic only, but every crisis situation makes me wonder of my role as a writer. Unlike other professional services from medicine to law to government or civil society or even the businessmen who contribute to the society more directly and explicitly, writing does not guarantee a direct facilitative role. Hence, the pandemic really seeded the introspective strain again. But joining TQT, seeing so many established names continuing to work towards their craft with ardour rekindled hope, makes me think that perhaps mine is not a futile quest.
I am a freelance feature writer and am trying to write short fiction. And believe that poetry will really help me hone my craft. The sessions have exposed me to newer ideas, concepts and thrown me into a pluriverse of literary possibility. If that itself were not enough, the uncertain times have also shifted my gaze alternatively to macro issues of mankind, nature’s vengeance and recuperation to basic concerns of a person-identity, ethnicity, expression, language of psychological and sociological distinctiveness also, even if the emotions are drawn from the same source universe. TQT has not helped to resolve any questions raised in my mind by the pandemic, but it has better equipped me to tackle them without getting lost.
KINJAL SETHIA is a freelance feature writer working on themes of culture and creativity. A post-graduate in Psychology from Pune University, she presently writes features for Pune Mirror, Times Of India.
Having a full-time corporate job doesn’t really allow one to pursue their artistic ambitions as much as one would want to. In that sense, this lockdown has proved to be a blessing in disguise for me. Suddenly, I found myself with some spare time after work, letting me focus more on my literary interests. It was just then that I saw a Facebook post by Arjun about starting a poetry group to meet and share a mutual love for this art form. I contacted him at once and I have been a part of this wonderful journey of The Quarantine Train since then.
Although I have always been passionate about reading and writing poetry on a regular basis, the structure of the workshop and the discussions opened new doors of perception in me. Besides all the exciting and scintillating conversations by the members of the group, the workshop broadly has three categories of sessions- appreciation, critiquing and guest workshops amongst so many other activities. Coming from a background without any sort of inclination towards writing academically, the poems chosen, discussed, deconstructed and analysed, with different interpretations from people with different backgrounds from all across the globe, made my experience of reading and appreciating poetry richer and more rewarding. It always feels like a poetry class I wish I was a part of much earlier in life. The poetry writing exercises are interesting and challenging in that they forced me to look at myself much more closely and pushed me into writing territories I never imagined I would see myself charting. The critiquing from the members in the group is constructive and extremely beneficial for anyone willing to hone their craft better. TQT drove me to not just work towards bettering my craft and appreciating poetry but also towards questioning my ideas and beliefs on varied subjects and I think such reflection upon one’s own philosophies is essential for an aspiring writer especially during trying times like these.
The pandemic has changed a lot of things for me not just in terms of what ideas I should be exploring more as an aspiring writer/ poet but also in viewing and understanding the world around differently; we cannot take things for granted anymore, the machinations of a world dominated by capitalism have become more apparent, revolutions started brewing around the world, the oppressed societies have started to see through their problems amidst rising exploits of fascist forces, massive layoffs of employees in corporations exposed the commodification of the working class and the ruthlessness of a system driven by profits rather than labour relations. Amidst all of this, I think the role of an artist becomes increasingly indispensable. Trying to voice your struggle in ways you can best imagine and showing solidarity with the oppressed, the marginalized and the ones at the lower side of advantage is the need of the hour and personally, I see poetry and writing doing this for me.
KAUSIK KSK is a Hyderabad based writer who works as a Business Analyst for a living. He takes a keen interest in all things literature and cinema. He got a few of his haiku published in journals and magazines like Modern Haiku, Frogpond (Haiku Society of America), The Asahi Shimbun, Under the Basho, Acorn and Failed Haiku.
A journalist friend of mine, who was doing a story around poetry and the COVID-19 outbreak asked me if poetry is helping me cope with the demands of quarantined lockdowns. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it at all. For I do not start or stop reading poetry according to the moods of the times. Engagement with poetry, or literature, cinema, and art is a constant process and I am unsure if it can be reduced to a form of therapy or immediate utility. What poetry does for me, is to shape my perceptions and sensibilities. A closer attention to its forms and experiences, moulds a form of thinking, a way of looking at self and surroundings. So whatever be the state of the world and society, poetry influences my sense-making at a more fundamental rather than topical level. This is not to suggest that poetry cannot be therapeutic, or useful or beneficial – just that its effects are never time bound. They are all pervasive.
What the lockdown did give me, was time – an anxious, uncertain time, but time nonetheless. I was happy to find in this period, a poetry workshop like The Quarantine Train led by Arjun Rajendran. The most delightful aspect of this workshop is its refusal to take the burden of topicality and instead discuss the art, craft, and politics of poetry as a rigorous method of thinking and sense-making. I am grateful for the amount of emphasis that is placed on craft in this workshop. Far from being some kind of apolitical aestheticism, a critical understanding of form and style (and not just themes and intentions), is crucial to understand the effects of language and discourse and the place of art in the political matrix of society. So this workshop, while born in the context of the pandemic, will create, I believe more fundamental shifts in our practice and outlook.
Like all practices, poetry requires a community that works towards raising new questions, and deliberating on possible answers to keep the process relevant and alive. The nature of this community is important. Often, forms of community building mistake uncritical celebration for compassion. Instead, I am glad that active and detailed critique of each other’s works, liberty to suggest changes and point out problems – and the openness shown by the writers in inviting such criticism, is the cornerstone of TQT. This, for me, suggests honesty, openness to change and progress, and the spirit of experimentation and transformation: ideas that are essential to both creative and political practices. If we can come out of this process with a greater sense of accepting our own flaws, and rethinking our outlook towards writing, while also inculcating the art of compassionate critique which enables rather than debilitates creative expression, it would be a step towards making better sense of our worlds.
PRASHANT is an independent writer from Bangalore, who also teaches courses on cinema and literature. He won the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize for 2019. His creative and critical writing has appeared in Seminar, The Bangalore Review, and Deep Focus Cinema among others. Prashant works with the Kabir Project and is part of an arts collective called brown-study works.
Writing is a lonely road.
But the journey by itself is not alone.
Everything goes into the making of the form and the content. For some time now I have been pondering on what the process of this writing is. Getting into The Quarantine Train has somehow begun to put these questions into perspective. Not that I have arrived at answers. But that the questions have more focus now.
More than the personal, it has been the social and the political that has moved me during the pandemic. As a writer, the TQT is slowly helping me to process language, to let it mature into what it should be.
It has given me a jolt. Into the different roads that are there.
The journey has a direction now.
ARATHY ASOK is the author of Lady Jesus and Other Poems. She is a bilingual writer whose works are described as “resistance poetry with a sharp edge” (Journal of Commonwealth Literature). She has published in both national and international journals and her works have been translated to Malayalam.