‘Now through your head there speed the words Hold on.’ As those words, the final line of a short poem about Kolkata I’d been working on since arriving in the great city, came out of my mouth, I looked in front of me at my audience. During the past year, I’d read poems at Sheep Festivals and school assemblies, in attics of restaurants and back rooms of pubs, with gangster rappers and Morris dancers, but none of that prepared me for the scene in front of me. I was reading poems to one poet from Swansea and two from India and behind them, a crowd of grinning and pointing residents of Kolkata had gathered. A rickshaw driver had stopped to take me in. Two Indian schoolboys giggled with each other. Behind them, the city’s distinctive yellow Ambassador taxis sped past. On the other side of the road, a man sat on the pavement gutting fish for sale, as murky water gurgled past his feet towards the drain. The next stall over was crammed with the most vibrantly coloured flowers I’d seen in my life. This was Kolkata.
The poem I was reading was the culmination of a film I was making with my exchange partners, Joe Dunthorne, Tishani Doshi and Jeet Thayil. Loosely inspired by Richard Linklater’s Slacker, our plan was to shoot, in one take, a series of conversations as we walked down Chitpur Road in north Kolkata. Joe Dunthorne would tell an anecdote about the time a local tried to pick him up by telling him he looked like Princess Diana. Tishani Doshi would reflect on the quieter spaces of the city, its parks, its rivers. Jeet Thayil would grab hold of unsuspecting locals and shout haiku at them. The relay baton for this series of conversations would be a stool, passed from hand to hand, which would also be the platform from which I would deliver my embryonic poem.
As the content of these conversations will tell you, Kolkata is a city of incredible variety and vibrancy. It is rich in history: we managed to find in the Park Street Cemetery the tomb of one of Charles Dickens’s sons, which was impressive yet surprisingly ramshackle. We went on a boat on the Hooghly river, fishingboat-bobbing our Welsh and Indian selves and chatting about our shared poetic concerns on a break from the madness of the city. We found a shared love of the sestina and wrote one collaboratively for Dylan Thomas, whose centenary celebrations the trip was part of. And we read together at the Kolkata Book Fair, the tents, stewards and professionalism of which reminded us of Hay-on-Wye, but with roughly, it seemed, a hundred times as many people. It was awesome to read poems like ‘Anatomy’ and ‘View of Valleys High Street through a Café Window’ in that setting.
One thing I struggled with during the trip, and continue to do so now I’m back and trying to develop my jottings into full poems, was how to write about this amazing city. Do I have any right to? My writing is so geographically rooted in Wales and in a set of experiences which are my own. How do I write about a completely different culture and way of living? The best I’ve come up with so far is to adapt the sort of descriptive, documentary, writing-in-situ style of a number of poems in my first collection to this completely new subject matter. To paraphrase something Jeet said, if you were simply to fix a camera to the front of a taxi and record a drive through the streets of Kolkata, you’d have a truly astonishing film. The poems I’m working on out of the experience, including ‘Kolkata Street Scene’ with which I’ll end this blog, and which I read for the film, are attempts to replicate something like that.
Before I finish, though, I just want to take a moment to thank my collaborators – or co-conspirators – on this project. Joe, Tishani and Jeet are amazing writers and people who it was a joy to be with. Discovering the shared ground in our writing and also enjoying our differences, discussing process and the things we’re grappling with, was an amazing experience.
Kolkata Street Scene
There on the pavement, men in broken-down
patio chairs fiercely discuss
what’s for lunch and a dog has given up
on consciousness. A bus comes tooting at itself
to get out of the way and, in top floor flats, men take up
sniper positions. A flower stall guy names the price
for colour, as a passerby
spits his clear spit onto the street.
Here comes a girl on a motorbike, plaited ponytail
growing from her helmet like a towrope.
Now through your head there speed the words Hold on.