Saturday, February 24, 2007

The pin-striped poet

The trouble with coming into money is that even the most swashbuckling pirate will be tempted to cast off his (or her) eyepatch, buy a good suit, invest in some mutual funds, move to the suburbs and give up swashbuckling altogether. And while the pirate’s erstwhile mates will revile him (or her) for selling out, they will quieten down when they find their own treasure and move into the house next door.

All this has to do with the rags-to-riches tale of Poetry magazine, which is a venerable monthly publication based in Chicago, and an essay by a certain John Barr published in its pages.

The poet Harriet Monroe founded Poetry in 1912 to shake up American art—and she did, introducing American audiences to Modernism through the likes of H.D., Ezra Pound, and such poems as 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Monroe kept the magazine going for twenty years, through frequent bouts of financial illness, thanks to the kindness of small donors. She died, poetically enough, on the way to Machu Picchu in 1936, but the magazine doggedly survived, keeping its literary nose in the air under the supervision of a series of committed editors who published only what they considered to be the best contemporary verse.

And then Ruth Lilly, the reclusive heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, whose poems they’d politely rejected, in 2002 left Poetry magazine a bequest in the region of two hundred million dollars.

That is the dream of starving poets and their editors, no?

But it comes with its own pitfalls. They had to create a Poetry Foundation to properly spend the money (on, among other things, the magazine), and they put an ex-Wall Street executive named John Barr at its head. Now, Barr is a poet himself, but while he advocates a radical departure from the status quo much as Harriet Monroe did, he’s going in the opposite direction from Monroe—that is, back towards mainstream audiences. Monroe fled audiences that didn’t like challenging poetry; Barr is wooing them with supply tailored to audience demand.

He claims that contemporary poetry fails to connect with audiences because it is stagnating in the “rain shadow thrown by Modernism”. He’s out to seduce poetry out of its academic ivory tower and into the streets of the 21st century, with largesse; the Foundation has created several award categories designed to up the entertainment quotient: a humorous poetry award, a poetry for children award, a poetry criticism-that’s-learned-but-entertaining-to-read award. Barr’s thrust seems clear: if poetry is talking to itself, if mainstream readers or listeners don’t get it, it’s dead in the water.

It’s possible that Barr’s views are influenced not by the monetary rewards of giving the people what they want, but by the artistic rewards of creating a new art form that gives the people what they want. It’s possible that mainstream audiences really would read more poetry if it were more upbeat (Barr says that readers don’t like depressing stuff and poets should snap out of their bad mood). Either way, he’s busily championing a brave new portmanteau genre—an equivalent to ‘infotainment’. Poetainment, perhaps.

There is, predictably, fierce debate around his ideas, showcased on the Foundation’s website. It’s a debate you could apply to any kind of publication, including literature and journalism, and is well worth reading. For my own part, I can’t help wondering why, just when a magazine achieves the financial freedom to be as temperamental as it likes, and the freedom to publish authors whose excellence is beyond the average audience, it must decide to become all pin-striped and conventional. When Ruth Lilly said she hoped her money would bring poetry to the largest possible audience, surely she didn’t mean quite like this?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Shopper stop

I rarely have any spare cash. This is a situation I foresaw even at the cretinous age of seven, when my mother found me weeping with worry about how I was ever going to pay rent. That’s not to say that I don’t spend money when I have it: I buy durables and life infrastructure like mobility and communications, and am a shameless spendthrift when it comes to experiences like food and travel. But I’m not a great consumer otherwise. Besides books and movies, I don’t tend to buy too many things.

This is partly because the things I really covet, like art and silk carpets and the best wines, are magnificently beyond my reach, and if I’m not buying an item of superlative aesthetic or technological quality, it’s really six of one or half a dozen of the other, and I can’t be fussed to spend time fine-tuning my purchases.

My first year in a college in the US, I went out to the local supermarket to buy toothpaste and found row upon gleaming row of toothpastes, scores of brands in dozens of variations, all screaming Pick me! Pick me! I had never seen so many things in my life, let alone so many kinds of so many things. Each was made in a factory, distributed by gas-guzzling transports, and fated to wash up in some nasty landfill. It all seemed very exhausting, and all I wanted was some damn toothpaste, so I picked the cheapest tube and got the hell out.

That pretty accurately defines my consumer profile: unadventurous skinflint. I enter and exit shops like greased lightning and only when necessary; pick one brand of everything and stick with it; and have never owned a credit card, except for one brief stint during which I didn’t use the thing, and refused to pay the annual fee, which caused the bank to revoke it, which was just fine by me. Most of what I own by way of furniture and clothing has been either gifted or handed down to me. All in all, I’d say I have the same relationship to shopping as a vampire to garlic.

So a couple of days ago I startled myself by spending a significant amount of time selecting and buying a very expensive shampoo and conditioner. By expensive, I mean that those two quite small bottles cost more than the going rate for part-time domestic help in my neighbourhood. And by startled, I mean gobsmacked, because I hugely enjoyed the process, and even contemplated buying a totally superfluous bath gel by the same company, and was saved from doing so only because I became distracted by an attractive toothbrush in clear plastic with coloured bristles even though I have a perfectly serviceable one at home.

Over the last couple of months this sort of thing has been happening more and more. I’ve bought, without any necessity, a jacket, an iPod and, at the risk of over-sharing, my first selection of new underwear in many years. This, in my life, is rampant consumerism, and I have the disconcerting feeling that there’s more where it came from. I’ve merely experienced the first groggy yawn and stretch of a sleeping giant deep in my soul.

And now, just when I was tasting the pleasures of retail therapy for the first time in my life, Al Gore has gone and put a big fat dampener on it all over again with his movie An Inconvenient Truth, which is about the clear and present dangers of global warming even though it is also a lot about Al Gore. I have no idea why I feel so guilty when it is the US that contributes one third of all global warming, but I do. I’ve promised myself not to run riot anymore.

But maybe, if I’m good in every other way, I can keep buying this shampoo.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Hips don't lie

George Bernard Shaw, a great wit and occasionally a bit of an old goat, defined dancing as ‘the vertical expression of a horizontal desire’. Bollywood uses this elision all the time to get past the censors, and so does everyone else. Dance is a universal, endorphin producing physical response to rhythm, it shows off the body fantastically when it’s well done, and it’s one of the few socially sanctioned ways in which you can manhandle a complete stranger and not have them slap you. What’s not to love?

But if dancing comes as naturally to human beings as the other horizontal thingy, then it can, likewise, be a site of acute anxiety and self-doubt—only more so because dance is so much more public. Coming to a place in your life where you can dance joyously and beautifully, eyes closed, lost in the music, is a long road full of anguish and ill-timed zits, especially if you grew up in the shadow of Flashdance and Dirty Dancing. Looking back upon the school dances and parties I suffered through in my early teens, I’m thankful just to have survived.

For a time one could get by simply by denying the whole enterprise. I spent many evenings with my backside planted in a chair, scowling at anyone who approached. Even though every muscle twitched yearningly in response to the big hits of the day, the idea of sending my imperfect body out on a packed gymnasium floor to advertise its lack of coordination and total unsexiness, was simply not an option.

People higher up in the food chain could offer no words of comfort: my elder sister reported that she and a jug-eared partner had got their ears stuck behind each other. The dance floor was obviously full of nameless perils. So, while my friends set out on the road to self-knowledge and comfort by at first huddling together in a restless circle, and gradually relaxing into having fun, I just sat around acting as if fun and I were sworn enemies.

My friend Stephanie Watson tried hard to rescue me. At one dance, she and my other buddies picked me up and carried me out onto the floor. She looked me deep in the eyes and said, with genuine compassion, “Now I’m going to kick you until you move your legs.” She wasn’t one to speak an untruth, and so she duly began to kick my shins while I, who never said “Hmpf” unless I meant it, defiantly took it. She kicked a bit harder than compassion strictly warranted, and my affection for her suffered some temporary reverses, but I wouldn’t budge.

Then, one long summer in Delhi, just like that, I got over myself. There we were, some cousins at some house, with some music, and—importantly—no lights. All my repressed twitchings burst forth into a bout of utterly unselfconsciousness, and from that moment I was a fundamentally changed human being. I finally got it: it’s not what it looks like, it’s what it feels like. Back in school, I stepped out on the floor with my friends for the first time and discovered that it was much more embarrassing to have to stand down from my earlier hardline position than it was to actually dance.

Precisely because it’s so hard to overcome self-consciousness, I have a soft corner for Albert (played by Kevin James) in the movie Hitch. Albert is the model of the geeky, over-stylised, utterly uncool dancer, but he dances with such happy abandon that a silent cheer wells up in your heart. It’s a shock to the system when Will Smith, playing the dating coach, smacks Albert in the middle of his routine and yells: “Don’t you ever, ever do that again!”

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Half-time break

Arthur Dent, the loser English anti-hero of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, could never really get the hang of Thursdays. It was just so typical, in his scheme of things, that the aliens would pick a Thursday to destroy the Earth to make way for an interstellar bypass.

I thought Arthur was just being a silly wimp until yesterday, when I suddenly lost the hang of Fridays. That was when, with perfect normalcy tinged with a nagging suspicion that all is not well, I turned thirty-five. I’ve been feeling it coming on for the last few years, a slight decline in stamina, the need to remain upright for a half-hour after meals, an occasional tendency to forget why I walked into the kitchen or the wall. But I wasn’t at all prepared for the malaise.

Some birthdays are exciting landmarks: the double-digit magic of 10, shiny happy adulthood at 18, buying drinks for colleagues at 25, and hitting one’s prime at 30 are all a barrel of laughs. Others, like 33 or 34, just come and go and lull you into a false sense of security. But turning thirty-five, very much like suddenly growing a second belly button, serves no real purpose other than to give you a good fright.

According to the World Bank, the average life expectancy in India is 63-64 years, though of course one has to factor in the specific conditions of one’s birth and upbringing. I give myself plus points for having been born female to educated middle class parents, for having occasional health checks, for bathing every day even though I work at home, and for not lying on my resume even though the temptation is great. I probably have to take away points for having a sedentary lifestyle, for putting extra salt on popcorn, for paying my phone bills late, and for still being interested in boogers and suchlike instead of owning a proper handbag. All in all I figure, based on the fact that a palm reader once told me so, that I will live to about seventy years.

So the sudden disquiet that is making the hair on my neck stand up is merely a justifiable, normal response to the cellular-pitch shriek of the biological half-time whistle.

In sports, this whistle traditionally marks a hiatus during which, over lemonade and bananas, players get shouted at for their mistakes, and get advice on what to do in the second half in order to finish the match without completely disgracing themselves, the team, the coach, the sport, the country, and the sponsors of the lemonade. Very often, this exercise actually does help the players pull up their socks and get a few goals in before the stadium lights are turned off, though sometimes, if things aren’t going so well, it just makes them bad-tempered and liable to head-butt someone.

There is such a thing as a ‘life coach’, most famously the motivational speaker Anthony Robbins, but I don’t have one, which is a shame, because it would be nice to have someone new to head-butt. I fall into that seven percent of Indians who, according to a recent poll, do not believe in God. My mother has stopped trying to give me advice because she’s asthmatic and has wisely decided to expend her breath on stuff that actually produces results, like breathing. None of my peers seem to have anything sensible to say about anything, which at least proves we’re all on the same team and also makes conversation much more entertaining.

So I guess I’ll just bumble along from birthday to birthday, trying not to screw up too egregiously. Besides, forty is yet to come, and that’s when life begins.