Sailesh Naidu: Towards pen, poem and personhood

Chintan Girish Modi | Updated on March 27, 2020

Creating a community: Sailesh Naidu seeks to understand his heritage through poetry   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SAILESH NAIDU

Sailesh Naidu’s poetry workshop, ‘The Queering’, deftly confronts questions of sexual and political identities through verses

A poetry workshop designed for queer, trans, non-binary and gender conforming people in India is rare. That too one where they feel safe and understood, and are also able to create art out of the pain they carry.

‘The Queering’, held in the Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai last month, was facilitated by Sailesh Naidu, a gender non-conforming poet and artist born in the US with roots in India. Naidu, a former Alexander Von Humboldt German Chancellor’s Fellow, led a workshop on imagining what a queer future would look like through group activities and individual coaching.

We were a group of six, and it turned out to be the perfect number for the kind of intimate sharing we were about to engage in. In the round of introductions, we were invited to say our names and preferred pronouns. The ritual of stating pronouns makes it possible for individuals to define themselves on their own terms with reference to a gender identity that might not be acknowledged, respected or affirmed outside queer spaces. Using the pronouns they choose for themselves is a way of demonstrating allyship in a world where their existence is erased not only through language but through structural violence in families, workplaces and public life.

Naidu, who grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Berlin, regards poetry as a way to unpack personal and public identities.

“My mother is from Karnataka and father is from Andhra Pradesh, so I know that a long tradition of poetry thrives here. India is also going through its own queer revolution. I wanted to know what queer voices look and sound like when given the space to be heard. Society has programmed us for self-destruction, and to love ourselves is an extremely radical act,” Naidu said.

During the 20-minute exercise that followed, we could write anything that came to mind. It was an excellent outlet for all that was simmering inside, making me feel unseen, unloved and undesired. It occurred to me that we rarely have queer spaces for this kind of community-based therapeutic work because people prefer to meet at parties, film festivals, pride marches or in activist spaces. The warmth and connection palpable in the workshop room owed much to the energy, intention and care with which Naidu held that space together.

“I piloted this poetry workshop with queer people in Berlin, and it mainly came out of my disappointment with the lack of queer voices within the poetry scene. Queerness pushes our notions about what is true, our imaginations of what the world can be beyond the structures that constrain our bodies, minds, sexualities and genders. Poetry seems like the best way to explore that because it plays with meaning, and our understanding of words and of ourselves,” said Naidu.

During another exercise, Naidu placed printouts of queer poems at a few different spots in the room. Some of these were: Blythe Baird’s The Kindest Thing She Almost Did, Akhil Katyal’s Spring 2016, Ocean Vuong’s Ode to Masturbation, Danez Smith’s The 17-Year-Old and the Gay Bar, Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus and Audre Lorde’s A Litany for Survival.

We were asked to read each poem carefully, and note the phrases or lines that resonated with us. These were to later serve as prompts for the poems we would write. It was crucial to recognise the politics of that selection. Naidu had mostly picked out work created by queer poets of colour living and writing in a racist, heteronormative and Islamophobic American society.

Theancestors, or predecessors, invoked in any queer space provide a good indication of how queerness is understood. Does it refer only to non-normative identities built around gender and sexuality or is the space also invested in the struggles of other marginalised identities based on race, ethnicity, class, religion, and caste? Naidu’s workshop falls into the second category. We watched poetry videos featuring poets such as Lucille Clifton and Angelique Palmer, both African-American women who fought discriminatory social structures through language that was restorative. Vuong, mentioned earlier, is of Vietnamese heritage while Akbar is of Iranian heritage. White poets never have to qualify where they come from. Since whiteness is the standard, there are no question marks about whether they are insiders or outsiders.

In a country built on colonisation and slavery, whiteness is synonymous with belonging. Naidu, incidentally, has been working on issues of social exclusion faced by migrants and asylum seekers.

I ended up writing a poem about a person who once occupied a significant place in my heart. The relationship was complicated not only because we wanted different things from life and from each other but also because of racial and cultural differences.

As the words took shape on the page, I felt a lightness in my chest. I felt grateful for the opportunity to be immersed in poetry, a medium and practice that is meaningful and healing for me. As I heard the other participants read out their poetry, and speak of their time at the workshop, it appeared that they, too, felt nourished by what poetry could do for them.

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer, educator and researcher

Published on March 27, 2020

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