You end up making enemies. That's an anthologist's curse: Jeet Thayil

A bulletproof skin makes for a good poetry editor, says the author and poet

67-Jeet-Thayil Jeet Thayil | Basso Cannarsa

Jeet Thayil is done editing anthologies. The poet, novelist, librettist and musician gave readers the gift of two important poetry anthologies in the past: 60 Indian Poets (Penguin, 2008) and The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (Bloodaxe Books, 2008). His edited anthologies have been the go-to-guide to magisterially survey the scene of Indian poetry in English after Independence.

If you hear that I am working on a new anthology: please take me out to a field at dawn, give me a last cigarette, blindfold me and dispatch me with a merciful shot to the head.

And now with the monumental mixtape that is The Penguin Book of Indian Poets, almost running into 900 pages covering 94 poets born from 1924 to 2001, one would not be able to work up an appetite for a more sumptuous spread. Among the collection are lost and out-of-print poems by major poets alongside essays that put entire bodies of work into their cultural contexts. Understandably, the 63-year-old poet, with four collections of poems behind him, wants to go back to his own writing now. With the anthology already a bestseller, waiting to go into its third print edition a month after its release, Thayil makes poetry look like a popstar in a world where most publishers consider this genre bad business. Excerpts from an interview:

Q\ How did you decide on the timing of the release of this volume?

A\ It was a happy concatenation of events. The publisher of Penguin Random House, Meru Gokhale, asked in early 2021 if I would update the last version of this anthology, which appeared in 2008. I agreed, thinking it would be a quick job. But the 2008 version did not seem relevant to the moment. The world had changed, our nation had changed. The poems resonated differently. And as I read— on the internet, in libraries, new publications by dozens of poets—I realised that I was looking at a much larger book than I had previously envisioned. Even then I had to be ruthless…. You have to leave out people. In the process, you end up making enemies. But that’s the anthologist’s curse. And it’s okay, I can live with it.

Q\ How would you describe the poetics of the younger generation of poets in the anthology, or those under 35, like Mindy Gill, Nisha Ramayya, Urvashi Bhaguna, Yamini Krishnan, Shalim M. Hussain, Prithvi Pudhiarkar, Alolika Dutta?

A\ That’s an important question. For me, there’s no difference between a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old, at least in terms of this anthology. I’d rather not label someone a Millennial or Gen Z or Boomer, in any case. It’s a reductive way to evaluate a writer. The reason this anthology does not follow a chronological order, in terms of publication or birth year, is because when you read the work you see how seamless the transition is between poets, wherever they may be from, whatever the gender or age. There is an organic flow to the order, and you will find several running threads. That really was the thrill of putting the book together.

Q\ You particularly mention Lawrence Bantleman, Gopal Honnalgere and Srinivas Rayaprol in your preface and how the anthology seeks to correct their long-forgotten legacy. Why do you think they were left behind in existing anthologies?

A\ The point about these poets is that all three were outliers. They were originals, you couldn’t categorize them. You could not call them Bombay poets or Delhi poets, or place them in the Nissim Ezekiel School or the Dom Moraes School. They were lone wolves: they were their own schools…. Also they never played the literary game in order to fit into certain boxes and be included in certain anthologies. Honnalgere in particular was a kind of outlaw, a mystery, except that every once in a while he would publish a piece of work that would go out of print almost as quickly as it appeared. There was never a collected volume of his poems until 2020. And it’s the same with Rayaprol, whose work is now having a second life. I like to think it may have a tiny something to do with the fact that they were prominent in my three previous anthologies. And that is entirely due to Adil Jussawalla, who introduced me to their work.

Q\ There’s always been this thinking that one should not be in a hurry to publish poems, one should polish one’s craft, wait for endorsements from an established literary figure before even calling oneself a poet. But all that has changed. Now there are multiple ways to get your book published, and there is instant validation on social media. And, everybody seems to be writing poetry. So who is a credible poet today?

A\ In a way, I’m happy with a cacophony of voices, literary chaos, an anarchy of poets publishing all over the place. About good and bad poetry, that’s really not my place to say. You only know which poets speak to you and which do not. That’s all there is. There are people who like to say, “Oh, I don’t understand poetry.” My father [T.J.S. George] is one of them, by the way, though he reads Malayalam poets. What it means is, they’re not interested. There’s nothing to understand. There’s just one question: Do you like it, or do you not? If you don’t, move on to the next poem, you might find something that resonates with you. I think there are very few people in the world to whom you could read aloud a poem and to whom it will mean nothing. I feel only sympathy and pity for them.

Q\ Have you thought of editing an anthology of poetry in other Indian languages, or in translation? Or even in Malayalam, your mother tongue?

A\ Honestly, after this iteration, I never want to edit another anthology in my life. I mean it. And if you hear that I am working on a new one: please take me out to a field at dawn, give me a last cigarette, blindfold me, and dispatch me with a merciful shot to the head. I am done with this thing. I worked on it for two years, but for the last three or four months I did nothing else…. Now I’m slowly getting back into my own novel and my own book of poems. The point being, I cannot afford to do another anthology because it pays nothing. I’m a working writer and I need money like any working person.

Q\ A lot of people get upset when you say mainstream publisher and poetry in the same breadth, as in poetry is not supposed to be commodified; it’s not meant to earn money; the independent ecosystem of smaller presses is a better bet.

A\ I have only one thing to say to those people: they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s very clear they are not poets, they’re talking theory. Most poets I know would love to sell their books and make a living out of it. And the only way we’re going to be able to do that is if more people buy books of poetry, whether by mainstream or independent presses.

Q\ What makes for a good poetry editor?

A\ Bulletproof skin.

The Penguin Book of Indian Poets

Editor: Jeet Thayil

Publisher: Penguin Hamish Hamilton

Price Rs1,499; pages 908