I tell Miss Johnson’s head-like-a-space-alien chihuahua that she’s sweeter than cotton candy. Glancing at my clipboard, I realize the flattery was meant for Mr. Smith’s Irish setter. Whoops. Luckily, the two gone but not forgotten pets reside in the same freeze dryer, a five-foot-by-two-foot metal box resembling an oversized washing machine. I apologize for my mistake then deliver the correct message to the correct pooch.
To make sure they can hear me over the humming engines, I stand only a few inches from the circular plastic window splitting their frozen world from my movable one. I don’t like classifying things as living or dead. Experiences make up life, right? Doesn’t everything, inanimate or not, have experiences? When I head out the door each morning, my house doesn’t disappear. Dust still collects on the furniture. Light still shines through the windows. And just because my belongings can’t get up and communicate this doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen.
This same logic applies to all the animals inside the freeze dryers. To their owners, they’ll inhabit a space in-between. To their owners, the animals are as movable as they let the past make them.
“Be seeing you soon, darling,” I say to Mr. Moore’s rainbow calico, continuing my rounds.
The best part of this job is talking to the animals. Whenever business slows and there’s nothing to do, I roll my chair back here and just talk. We discuss everything from politics to what movies to go see. However, one subject we always seem to touch on is my love life. Of course, the animals don’t really speak. There aren’t any barks or meows. But what’s the harm in pretending?
Ruff, it’s time to move on, to find love again. What about the cashier at the grocery store? She was definitely flirting with you. You should ask her out.
Purr, darling, don’t take advice from a dog. A dog’s love is suffocating and needy. Cat’s love themselves first then dish out whatever’s left.
Ruff, how can you love yourself without knowing love? Love doesn’t bend to your convenience, doesn’t wait around until you get bored or lonely.
Purr, oh what do you know?
Ruff, I know he’s starved for someone to pet him and say good boy.
The alarm on the freeze dryer behind me buzzes. I turn around, and Mrs. Miller’s pug, a compressed creature with a body like an accordion and a face like a fighter who’s taken one too many punches, greets me. With my index finger, I tap the thermometer built into the unit. The red arrow slightly fluctuates before stopping at 10 degrees.
“Looks like you’re ready to come out.”
Mrs. Miller’s pug, wires and rods jutting from his paws and chin, positioning him in a pose his owner remembered fondly, stares at me with glass puppy dog eyes. His expression, stuck forever as wanting and dependent, reminds me of an infant squeezing his mother’s finger, so I try not to look directly at him for too long.
I open the freeze dryer. Stale, chilled air blows against my skin, sending goosebumps down my arms. The smell of beef jerky wafts up my nose, a common odor due to all the moisture being sucked out of the animals’ cells, preventing pesky decay. I grab the polished block of mahogany Mrs. Miller’s pug sits on and lift him out of the machine. Then I carry him to the stainless-steel table in the center of the room.
Pressing on his flesh, checking for any give, for firmness, like a shopper examining the ripeness of a piece of fruit, I get the sudden urge to stroke his fur.
Three months have passed since Betty left, but I still go around the corner to make sure she’s not waiting there, hoping to catch me getting too attached. In the clear, I return to Mrs. Miller’s pug and scratch behind his stubby ears and run my hands across his coarse hair. I’m supposed to call his owner, supposed to say goodbye, but, like an addict needing a fix, I can’t help myself and keep caressing his apricot coat.
Soon I notice my hands aren’t awake. They’re hidden in my pants pockets. Instead, a phantom limb does the work of promising me there’s nothing wrong with a minute or two of affection.
A minute or two transforms into weeks where, along with my other duties of taking orders and preparing animals for preservation (removing their organs, injecting them with small amounts of embalming fluid, arranging their positions), I care for Mrs. Miller’s pug, which I’ve renamed Bread. I don’t know his real name, another leftover rule from Betty’s days, but his shape and color resemble a sack of squished bread so much I couldn’t resist handing out the moniker.
He needs me. And until the world forces me to start moving again, I’ll continue to take him on window-less drives. I’ll continue to pour him bowls of kibble. I’ll continue to whisper my stolen memories into his ears.
With Bread buckled into the passenger seat of my car, I turn onto the final street to Taxidermy Memories (the name of my business). My cell phone vibrates. I recognize the number. She’s been repeatedly calling for days. I let the call go to voicemail. Then I pull into my building’s gravel parking lot, type in my password, and listen.
“This is Catherine Miller again,” Mrs. Miller says, her voice sounding like a mother demanding her child put a toy back on the shelf. “Since you won’t return my calls about my pug’s status, I’m coming in this afternoon.”
I unbuckle Bread and hold him between my palms.
“Want to run away with me, boy?” I say. “Want to become a speck on the horizon?”
I know I won’t go through with the escape plan formulating in my mind. How can I steal something so loved by someone else? I can’t.
I lower my seat and set Bread on my chest. Maybe Betty is right. I close my eyes and imagine where she might be and what she might be doing. She’s cooking breakfast for tiny fingers. She’s folding tiny clothes. She’s kissing tiny brows.
Good for her.
I lie like this, Betty curating the miniature museum inside me, a museum missing any paternal history, until my wristwatch beeps 9 o’clock and it’s time to open.
A white sheet covers Bread, a standard practice to prevent customers from becoming too overwhelmed right when they walk into the shop. When Mrs. Miller stops by, I’ll whip the sheet off like a magician making grief disappear.
A month ago, I went to the animal shelter in town with the hopes of adopting as many dogs and cats as they’d let me. The nice middle-aged woman who runs the place escorted me to the back where they kept all the animals in kennels. I lied and said I owned a huge farm where the dogs could live leash-less lives and the cats could hunt mice and nap all day. Smiling, she retrieved a Cocker Spaniel. The dog sprinted toward me, but when he licked my hand, all I saw was Betty’s tongue flicking out of Betty’s face. I flinched. The nice woman then asked if I’d rather see a cat. I thanked her, said no, and drove home.
While I wait for Mrs. Miller, I don’t think. I petrify my muscles and let my eyes glaze. I want to slip into the stillness, Bread’s plane, a plane where I could foster him, a plane where Mrs. Miller would zoom by and forget about us. A vast immobility fills me, and I’m locked in place as if I’m an artist’s rendering of my former self.
Then my arm itches, and, unfortunately, I’m shoved back into the empty bustle.
The bells tied to the lobby’s doorknob jingle. Mrs. Miller, a petite woman with dark smudges under her eyes like she hasn’t slept in days, stumbles inside, half a dozen grunting pugs yanking her forward.
I wander around my desk and meet her near the entrance. Her pugs growl at me. They’re her pig-faced bodyguards.
“Where is he?” Mrs. Miller says.
I point at the counter where the sheet conceals Bread like a child imitating a ghost. I glance at Mrs. Miller, not saying anything. Then her pugs start nipping at each other, snapping us back to why they’re here. With Mrs. Miller tugging on leashes, separating the bickering pugs, I show them to their lost brother.
I jerk the sheet off Bread. Mrs. Miller looks at him as if she’s studying a missing persons’ poster. Then she falls to her knees and wails, her tears as thick as paint.
Bread’s gone. Actually, Bread never was. I’m in my back office gripping a handle belonging to a filing cabinet. Again, I try to imagine where Betty is and what she’s doing, but all I can visualize is her stirrup-hiked legs birthing a pile of bloody rocks.
Ruff, it wasn’t your fault. What happened is no one’s fault. What’s in that drawer doesn’t love you. It can’t love you.
Purr, please listen to the dog.
The animals are wrong. I’m not starved for love. I’m starved to love.
I open the drawer and gaze at the reason why Betty left. Then I scoop up the leathery, freeze-dried body and sing my tiny preserved memory a lullaby.
WILL MUSGROVE is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ghost Parachute, Flora Fiction, 5×5 Literary Magazine, Rabid Oak, The Daily Drunk, Barstow & Grand, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.
It snowed yesterday. I felt the snow on my fingers and my bare feet last night. It didn’t numb, it didn’t bite. I saw snow for the first time only three years ago, and am still amazed when I realize how soft and gentle it is, how quickly it seems to melt when it touches my flesh, becoming like rain and less like itself. I feel like that sometimes: falling and falling till I can no longer retain my form, no longer keep it safe. But I think of poetry as something saved: caught before it collapses, pulled back to earth from the edge of a treacherous cliff. I wish I could save more things, memories, people. The last time I wrote the editor’s note to our tenth issue, the world was losing, much as it continues to.
There is never a right, joyous moment of light to come out with an issue full of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and art that touched us, stunned us, threw us into the deep end. I wish it didn’t always feel like we were handing out antidotes, remedies, pills and balms. I will repeat, from Jessica Sabo’s Fire Sign, that “When you ask me what I’m afraid of, I’d hold out my hands.” And in holding out our hands to share this issue with you, we hope you allow us to share what we are afraid of.
In this issue, we hope you come across pieces that make you feel less afraid, less alone. T.B. Grennan’s Cross-Countryis the rare example of a conversation-as-story, a form I am now tempted to try. Sharon Gayen’s artworks, on the other hand, are pieces on that delectable brink of chaos. Watching, on the other hand, Julienne Maui Castelo Mangawang read her poem, ‘A Mother’s Silence,’ undoes the form of silence, of the ‘anonymous’ artist. These are all, if you let them be, dear reader, hands holding out to you when you might ask one of the most difficult questions to any of them: What are you afraid of?
What can the literature of lands, territories, nations or zones do in the midst of a pandemic that has made our borders and outlines seem more containing while a virus, invisible to the naked eye, journeys and shape-shifts across them and renders them porous? How do we restore and reconcile with this new, mutating politics of spaces?
Janice Pariat is a writer who comes to mind. In this interview with our poetry editor, Smriti Verma, Pariat answers questions about the landscape of Indian literature and the space of the north-east in it as well as her ‘Where We Write’ series on Instagram.
Smriti Verma: How would you situate the contemporary Indian literarylandscape, and the forms of writing emerging in the same? Do you believe there’s a certain characteristic “Indianness” – an aspect singular and definite – or multiple strands of thought?
Janice Pariat: I would say that the “Indian literary landscape” exists in great multiplicity. There is writing in English of course, and a tremendously vibrant scene of literature in many other languages–Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu, Assamese, Manipuri to name just a few. At the same time, there are regions with incredible oral storytelling traditions–like Meghalaya where I come from–and these too must be acknowledged as “literary”. I would hesitate then to “situate” a monolithic Indian literary landscape when in truth it thrives in plurality. There is no such thing as “Indianness”–I think at a time of rising sentiments of Indian exclusionism, it’s more important than ever to remember and honour this. There is no such thing as Indianness in literary character or otherwise–we are diverse and gloriously multiple.
SV: To delve into something clichéd, could you tell us a little about your sources of inspirations – places, moments, events, writers – which solidified your relationship with writing and subsequently, your work?
JP: I grew up in Shillong amidst oral storytellers, and they form my first and most important “literary” inspirations. To be a good writer, you must be a good listener, and this is what being immersed in oral storytelling taught, and continues to teach me. There is music and rhythm in language, which comes originally from breath, not text, and this serves as the foundation of all my writing. To hear it always, to speak it out loud, to align the rhythms of the writing with the rhythms of breath.
SV: What place do you think writing holds, and may hold, in the increasingly politicised landscape which we find ourselves by the minute in India? How would you place the experiences of the North-East within the same?
JP: We are always political–even when we’re taking a so-called apolitical stance, and it’s exactly the same with writing. But in all honesty, the important issue for me at this time, is who is telling the stories–are communities that usually don’t have a voice being able to find space to voice themselves, are they being listened to? Or are others still writing their stories for them? Are we listening to other people’s stories? Are we trying to work towards building a space–literary or otherwise–where people feel safe telling their stories. I think with things like the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re finally being forced to view our histories through a different lens, through the lens of the ones who suffered, who bore the brunt and weight of discrimination, and acknowledge their version. It would be the same with the “Northeast”–a woefully inadequate blanket term for a geographical region that’s one of the most ethnically diverse on earth. Are we seeing more “Northeast” stories being told by people from there? Is there thoughtful nuanced representation growing from there in the rest of India? Writing helps provide a way for people to tell their stories, of course, but the structures around writing must also change.
SV:To elaborate on the earlier question, do you think a writer has a certain responsibility towards speaking the social and political truths of their society?
JP: A certain responsibility to whom? To their community? To the world? The nation? To themselves? The pressure to do so probably exists on all these fronts, but a writer must be free to follow the stories they wish to. Art is meant to offer that kind of liberating space–and who knows, within it, the writer might find that the story that resonates most with them also happens to be one that shines a light on their communities.
SV:I quite fell in love with the Instagram series you started called “Where We Write.” I felt it was quite a lovely way of contextualising the lives of writers during the pandemic. It’d be great if you could talk a little about the same – the inspiration, the impact, what you felt got created in the process.
JP: When the lockdown was announced, I found I was spending extended hours at my writing table, more so than on normal days. My workspace is so much of myself, I realized, and what I find inspiring. It is projection, curation, comfort, motivation all at once. This got me thinking—and curious. I put a post up on Instagram. “What’s your work space like? Do share, send pictures, show.” And slowly the photos poured in, from across the country and across the world. The call had struck a chord perhaps, given that most of the planet was in lockdown ‘work from home’ mode. People were now forced to reassess the spaces they inhabited, for the majority what was personal and work wasn’t as neatly demarcated anymore. Many had to conjure a work space (dining table!) where their homes had none. What I found most moving was that each picture offered a tender glimpse into someone’s life—who they are, what they hold dear and important, the small things they’ve collected on their journeys, and choose to place around them. Each, in their own way, tell a story. The series has become, for me and some others, more than merely a fun thing for our quiet lockdown days. Here is where we learn to adjust, to think things through these unsettling times, to acknowledge our immense privilege to be able to retreat to a work place at all. Where we write is where we are most ourselves, where we are most vulnerable, comforted, most alive.
Devanshi Khetarpal: Many writers have had their writing practices have changed through this time. Some of us liked to write in public places– in parks, cafes, restaurants, eavesdropping and observing– and some of us are experiencing new sensory limitations since we’re not able to experience the full spectrum of sights, sounds, touch etc. Are you relying more on sensory memory to write? Or have you changed or had to change your writing practices, rituals, habits during this time at all?
JP: In all honesty, lockdown time is just a slightly more exaggerated writerly situation for me, and I say this with the acknowledgement of how incredibly privileged I am–that I have a house, a job, food, a roof over my head–given that too too many don’t and how terrible it has been for them. I don’t ever write fiction in public spaces; I can only edit or read through a draft in a cafe. Writing fiction happens for me in a space of absolute solitude. So in a way I’m always relying on memory. Having said that though, the novel I’m working on now demanded a research trip to the West Khasi Hills in Meghalaya, and of course I haven’t been able to travel. While I’m hoping to be there at a safer time, I’ve had to rely on memory, other people’s reportage accounts, and my imagination to write this particular narrative down.
DK: Has truth or some truth shifted for you during this time? I mean, are you being re-introduced in a radically different way to truths you already knew about yourself as a writer and the world, or is the familiar slipping out and taking the shape of the strange?
JP: I think what’s been most striking for me at this time is how my cycle of consumption has broken. That I often indulged in mindless “because I can” consumption, rather than because there really was a need to. I’m going to try and take this forward with me even when we come out of this. I’ve also had to reassess my “travelling often” lifestyle. The planet cannot bear the weight of our wanderings, and I’d like to travel more responsibly from now on, or not at all. As a writer I’ve been thinking about what kind of stories will come out of this time, what is the language we’ll need to invent to capture these experiences…I’m not quite sure yet, but it’s worth thinking about, how our art will be transformed…
She studied English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Her work—including art reviews, book reviews, fiction and poetry—has featured in a wide selection of national magazines and newspapers. In 2014, she was the Charles Wallace Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Kent, UK.
Her novella The Nine Chambered-Heart is out with HarperCollins India (November 2017) and HarperCollins UK (May 2018), and is being translated for publication into nine languages including Italian, Spanish, French, and German.
Currently, she lives in New Delhi with a cat of many names.
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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 crowdsI 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.
To learn more about The Quarantine Train, kindly visit its Facebook page here or view its brochure here.
i want to tell her dead girls don’t get into harvard
sometimes i feel like every door in the world could be locked and i wouldn’t know the difference. like how many sides does a window really have. why are there so many tree trunks in my front yard. / mom, did we buy a hatchet? a liar is always a mouth but a mouth is not always a boy.
actually, i’m sitting in a bathtub and and some woman is getting paid to tell me water doesn’t exist.
teenage girls love to say hometown like we didn’t watch it burn. your guidance counselor loves to say suspension like you started the fire. sometimes, all it takes is an afterparty. the balloons deflate and you are on a boat in the middle of his basement. administration tucks you in her file cabinet. someone will “look into it”. the men flip our stories like an hourglass.
how many of us will leave screaming before the door slams?
somewhere in a small town, there is a girl who can’t say her own name. in july she will say what she should’ve said in january.
i want to tell her graduation and a house in the city
what is left here but a nickname you wish they’d stop calling you. a prom you never attended but remember so well. there is a summer break hung in each of our closets.
sometimes, all you have to lose is your own hands.
things the kids [didn’t know]
when it snows in nevada [when grandmas body has begun to freeze]
she crosses the stateline with a hammer in her bag. [she doesn’t carry a knife anymore, lost it somewhere in her last marriage]
when she shows up at our door, the oven is buzzing and the dogs are barking and my mom is yelling about the pipes and [my grandfather is telling my mother that we will only ever be women] and the news is reminding us that a body is [temporary], i never know how much i will miss this noise. until i do.
when it snows in nevada, grandma writes her [will] in front of our fireplace “it’s really just that pair of earrings and my bible” and “i hope rod will give the knife back so that you girls can [protect yourself] when im gone”. she chuckles as the hospice nurse changes her dressing. i want this to be a metaphor. but grandma is gone, a year this spring. she asked me to build her a house. and now, i write her into every story i tell. look how honestly we can live [beneath my fingertips].
when it snows in nevada, when grandma [and her care team] are moved into my room, we begin hanging her life from the walls. old scrapbook pages and [clothes she grew out of and then back into]. she wants to say goodbye but she doesn’t want a funeral.
[when the pain started spilling from under the welcome mat. when her stomach was filled with fists. when none of us left the house. the women gather around her like we are a pack of sorry animals. in our living room, my mother speaks with certainty. it is the first time in months that the birds leave her chest. my grandfather still doesn’t know].
i am only a child for as long as i can hold my breath. i only know what is whispered into my door-hinge. i only know what the police report says. i only know-
[loss like this].
MYA RIGOLI is an eighteen year old poet. She loves iced coffee, reading with her dogs, and true crime. Her work has been featured by Button Poetry, the California Endowment, and Get Lit Words Ignite. She has competed in the international youth slam Brave New Voices, as well as winning the Classic Slam. She is pursuing a veterinary degree.
CINDY QIANG has been painting and sketching since the sixth grade. She mostly uses acrylic paints and pen for her portfolio works. Cindy has won several Gold Key Scholastics Awards in Art and continues to pursue her passion through an art minor at New York University. In addition to art, she is also studying dentistry at NYU and likes to run and play the piano for fun.
A METAPHORICAL ILLUSTRATION OF ONE WOMAN’S BIPOLAR CYCLE THROUGH THE USAGE OF THE LUNAR PHASES
She is beautiful and glorious. I talk about the goddess in hushed tones—she, not I, because I have been consumed by her and her capacity for everything. I love her, I admire her, I worry for her, I cannot compete with her. I want her to stay, I want her to go. I can’t handle her, but I love the way she handles herself. No longer tossed around and spun about, she’s not someone that things just happen to. Instead she happens to other people, lawless and incalculable, the hazy jolt of realization as the sun comes up after you watched it set those endless hours ago—the sun! The sun! Oh, it’s time to sleep, isn’t it?
She doesn’t sleep. She is fire, fire, fire.
If I had to pick a word to describe her in those times, only one suffices. The word fits her like couture, tailored and made to measurement. Violence. Her heart threatens to burst like a ripe clementine in the fist of a 7-year-old, forcefully, carelessly, delightfully. She’s all Shakespearian tragedy in her limbs, the way she plummets dramatically onto the floor, all too aware the way her hair scatters in the silence. Then she peels one eye open and grins, her friends all laughing at her antics. And though the violence wears a pretty face, she still has bruised knees from the fall and a mark behind her hip and one just under her lip and another one another one another one—
But Sappho said, “all can be endured, for even a pauper…”
All can be endured for the way they look at her, mirth in their eyes. She is the unspoken word at the end of a poem lost to time. She feels loved and her desire swallows it so whole there isn’t even a tiny bit left for the rest of her. It’s never enough.
She is fire, fire, fire. And she burns through it all.
She is her own narcissism and everything that entails. People search for purpose. She has found hers: devoted worshipper at her own altar, she is her own lighthouse and her own nightlight and her own god and her own savior and her own villain and her own hero and she is her very own purpose. I exist for her. She exists because it is her right. I am at her whims, her beautiful caprices, and if she were real I’d be hopelessly, endlessly in love with her. I mean, I think she’s real. I suppose I am in love with her, but it’s just so hard to know, when she comes and goes, when I have to stop loving her all over again.
She always longed to be exquisite, and only recently realized that she can never be marble features set in stone, carved to perfection. She exists in movement, soft to the touch, sunlight dapples skin and skin gives way to red and cheeks and fingers and touch her, touch her. She’s begging to be experienced. Don’t take a fucking picture, it’s a travesty. You can only see that she’s beautiful when she moves and smiles and follows you round like those summer thunderstorms that always seem like a dream.
You’ll love her, I swear. I swear it by all the cattails on the riverbank, counting down the days till you see her again. Oh, the way you’ll love her, it’ll be violent, it will. And you’ll love that too.
I am nobody and I want it I think of her as somebody and it makes too much sense lines sharpened to a blade’s edge somebody means I may have to say her name and summon her into existence think of the madness she harbors when she makes her appearance she hates to cry in front of the masses but she’s stumbling into your arms now is this the face of a woman insane?
her cries echo the sounds of destruction singing violins and the shattering of vases he says “I could never hate you” could she say the same? how she tries, but there she goes again already in the throes of hatred falling out of her like a compulsion threaded by the needle of habit blood trickling down her arm how she despises the worst of it, but this is all she knows
she dances around her room emulating a clumsy ballerina so the spiral downwards looks a little like a plié the yellow leaves stained on the ground by the rain are her only treasure and she’s back to embers
Honestly, I think this is the best you get when it comes to me. She’s got enough energy to fulfill her responsibilities. She gets 8 hours of sleep. She remembers to call her boyfriend. She remembers to eat. She’s so normal it hurts, repeat, repeat, repeat. She’s a sentence with perfect grammar and dated notes on her laptop. She’s blinking the correct number of times per minute. She’s ceased fiddling with her hands. She’s telling jokes that are sweet and innocent and funny nonetheless. She can listen to Tchaikovsky and whatever’s on the radio. She wants to be better, but she’s grateful she’s not worse. She feels loved, for the most part. Sure, sometimes she cries a little when she feels ugly, but that’s normal. That is normal. Is that normal? Well, it’s not for her to know. And this is the only time she’s okay with that. I think…she’s okay with that.
The rest of it belongs with falling stars and nightingales, and palaces shrouded in mist gold specks in her eyes a little sunflower dying mascara in free fall it’s me and I’m small again I always come back to her face painted like a butterfly struggling to tell her that I’ve failed “you still don’t love me?” she asks, her voice trembling through the mirror I want to, I do, I touch a fragile wing
now she’s screaming again fury and rage her only protectors
I AM A WHOLE PERSON I EXIST OUTSIDE OF YOU YOU ARE NOT EVERYTHING I AM EVERYTHING THE THINGS I LOVE ARE EVERYTHING THE THINGS I WANT ARE EVERYTHING THE STARS AND THE SKY AND THE OCEAN AND THE TREES, THEY SPEAK THEY SAY THEY LOVE ME
I guess it ended up being a dream, anyways. She changes by the goddamn minute, sly bastard that she is. She’s supposed to be prose but her baser instincts fall into wretched, shitty poetry. It smells like smoke in the air after the candle’s been blown out.
He said, you seem a bit sad today. I smile, a little sadly. He’s only known me for two weeks, and I’m not sure if it’s untrue to say I’ve been lying all this time. Those two weeks of mania obscure the truth of what I am. Thus far I look like someone people write love letters to. I look like I’d read them and scoff and throw them in a pile along with all my other forgotten fancies. But the truth is, I’m the only one writing love letters and they all come back, stamped over, RETURN TO SENDER I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE. And of course I pretend it doesn’t hurt. And of course it does.
We’re speaking French and I don’t seem to have the words, fuck, I barely have them in the languages I do know. I slide out words like triste and fatiguée and hope he doesn’t trip right over them. I don’t want him to think I’m a sad person, even if it’s a little bit true. He asks if there’s anything he can do for me. He says, pour les semaines sans sourires.
I close my eyes. It sounds about right. There’s no dread when I know what’s coming. There’s only resignation. Sans sourires. It sounds so lovably pathetic, but the truth is it’s what I know. The smile-less weeks and the colorless summers and the merciless winters, they don’t ever change. I just keep on feeling sorry for myself, like always. I just keep on constructing who I think I’m meant to be, asking others what they think. I’ve built myself up through the opinions of others, which is why I’m so easy to defeat. One bad patch spreads like the plague, like a group project soured by a non-cooperative partner. Is it just a fantasy to believe I exist outside what others perceive me to be? Is it ludicrous to hope that someday I won’t need anybody?
I don’t need anything, I tell him. One wobbly baby step after the next. Until the fall.
I run out of words. I lay in bed. 2 hours. 6 hours. 14 hours. The world disappears. 3 days. 5 days. 9 days. I think I cry. I think I dream. I think he says, mi amor, are you okay? I think he worries. I think they all do. But I can’t know for sure. I think I lived a million lives before I woke up. I think the world goes on, but I don’t. I think my love and fear and anxiety and euphoria and hopes and dreams and desires and intricacies are all buried in a place no one will go looking. But I can’t know for sure. 20 hours. 14 days.
And then I see the sun.
And she sees me.
And we go around and around again.
You ever had your heart broken? You ever went through one of those gut-wrenching, think-about-it-every-second-every-day breakups? You ever see something and your heart just drops straight out your stomach and you can’t breathe? You ever cry so hard it just sounds like gasps falling one after the other, a domino effect? Gulps and hiccups competing with brute force? It’s not pretty, is it?
That’s how it feels, every time she leaves me. Come morning the goddess turns to a mortal and it never hurts less. And every time she comes back it’s a knife in the scar, resentment and anger and unfettered lust, open wounds carelessly smeared. I want her like something fierce. But I cannot forgive her for abandoning me, over and over and over again.
I am soft and lovely and ice and deadly. I am red mouth kisses and slaps on the thigh and cold cold feet and shades of navy. I am sweet baby roses and lush orange leaves and bitter envy and burning guilt. I am trying my best yet scared of what I could be. I am sunshine smiles and turning to snow. The moon calls out to the tides but the ocean is still yet to be known.
I am fed by starlight and I starve in the depths.
MICHELLE CAO is a soon-to-be senior at New York University studying Politics, Rights and Development. She hails from the foothills of Virginia, where she developed a love for language and the dreamy romanticism of the forests. She has had a passion for writing since her early days and uses it as a medium to express her complicated relationship with her ever-growing neuroses.