#NaPoWriMo & The Curious Case Of Women Writing Poems, Riding Horses
Strong Men, riding horses. In the West
On a range five hundred miles. A Thousand. Reaching
From dawn to sunset. Rested blue to orange.
From hope to crying. Except that Strong Men are
Desert-eyed, except that Strong Men are
Pasted to stars already. Have their cars
Beneath them. Rentless, too. Too broad of chest
To shrink when the Rough Man hails. Too flailing
To re-direct the Challenger, when the challenge
Nicks; slams; buttonholes. Too saddled.
I am not like that. I pay rent, am addled
By illegible landlords, run, if robbers call.
What mannerisms I present, employ,
Are camouflage, and what my mouths remark
To word-wall off that broadness of the dark
I am not brave at all
...wrote African-American poet and personal feminist hero Gwendolyn Brooks in her poem ‘Strong Men, Riding Horses’. I often nod this poem into memory. For I too, pay rent, am addled and more often than not, don’t ride strong-men horses into the sunset. I am also not brave at all. I cannot say this for most women I know. They’re brave in the pauses they take between running from robbers. They’re brave in the cheques they sign in smudging ink. They’re brave in the hustle, the longing and the healing.
It also appears that this year’s National Poetry Writing Month, referred to as #NaPoWriMo, is proof of this courage in women. Every year since 2003, poets from across the world write a poem a month to mark the occasion. I was tempted to follow the trend last year but was discouraged by the performativity I witnessed within the poetry community online and more importantly, within me. For thousands of poets from across the world post their poems on Instagram, Facebook, WordPress and Twitter to show their work for the month. In my book, that’s brave enough. Podcaster and writer Ira Glass, who believes you’re only as good as the amount of work you produce, would be rather proud with this year’s out pour of poetry from Indian writers who identify as women.
In 2017, NaPoWriMo in India had women speaking up against oppression and the sheer frustration of being a woman. Some celebrated the idea of of speaking up. Many decorated it. Some went guns blazing using poetry as protest. What they all had in common was a body of work that discussed the female condition. Something about this made me very uncomfortable. Even the most evocative of poems left me biting my tongue in question.
Women writing poems for NaPoWriMo 2018, however, have conquered the poetry community online with sheer numbers. Compared to last year, I observed far too many women (but never enough) writing poems in the month of April this year. More distinctly, there was less conversation about the female condition. Poems from women centered less around circles of ‘what it means to be a woman’.
This both appeals and overwhelms. For in the unfortunate culture of co-opting issues in Mumbai’s poetic stages, NaPoWriMo’s female writers representing themselves in a magnitude of numbers is a fantastic feminist tool. That they wrote about anything that pleased them – a tree, the idea of home, grandmother’s sarees, self-care, dates with self, the nature of poetry – is a power stroke.
For what is more powerful than a woman, just being herself?
Than a woman sitting as she pleases, dressing to please and be pleased, writing what she damn well wants to – to hell with expected activism. Perhaps, women online have grown tired of the emotional labour asked of them to explain how and why a sexist comment/behaviour is problematic. The only labour women in NaPoWriMo have taken upon themselves, is to write.
Almost as if acting off a collective consciousness to love themselves, many Indian female poets wrote about self-care. As I read them, I found myself naturally inspecting my own self-care routines. It appears as though female poets online are telling other women that the only way to care for others is to care for self. Sit a while and heal from the world.
Writing poems about women and the oppression we’ve faced is an old and powerful form of dissent. But I find there’s more power in simply having more women in the room writing, talking, yelling, drinking, laughing, weeping, being. Indian women marching poetic marches in NaPoWriMo 2018 prove that there’s merit and more joy to the feminist cause in greater number of women writing, than simply having poems about womanhood. Overwhelm them with numbers, take up room, occupy space. We don’t just want to read about more women. We want to read more women.
As my favourite Indian female poet Tishani Doshi writes in her poem ‘Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods’,
Girls are coming out
Of the woods the way birds arrive
At morning windows – pecking
And humming, until all you can hear
Is the smash of their minuscule hearts
Against glass, the bright desperation
Of sound – bashing, disappearing,
Girls are coming out of the woods.
They’re coming. They’re coming.
All visuals for this piece are courtesy of Samarth Bhagwat