Posted by Anannya Dasgupta
Editor: Shamayita Sen
Publisher: Hawakal Publishers, May 2021
Genre: Poetry Anthology
My first encounter with the book Collegiality and Other Ballads: Feminist Poems By Males and Other Non-Binary Allies was in the form of its call seeking submissions from anyone on the gender spectrum who identified as a ‘non-woman’. In the published book, non-woman has been revised to male (without specifying if these are cis-het or trans men) and non-binary allies, and in it are 45 or so male poets and one whose pronoun is they. In 2021, how is any book by a sea of mostly he-s a good idea, leave alone a feminist poetry anthology?
Also read: Book Review: Beijing Comrades By Bei Tong
Contemporary global feminisms are moving towards gender inclusion and intersectional alliances to enable conversation and engagement with the common struggles of internalised patriarchy and capitalism. Why leave women out of this? Unsurprisingly, in the Foreword of Collegiality and Other Ballads, Saikat Majumdar, and in the Introduction, Shamayita Sen, jump various misguided theoretical hoops to justify, at the cost of common sense, what presents itself in this anthology as feminist poetry.
While Majumdar erroneously claims that “feminism is a unique battle” (a detailed response to the Foreword is awaiting publication in Scroll), Sen makes confusing statements such as: the onus of empowerment on women has ‘weaponised’ female experience, and that the fourth wave feminism puts onus on white and upper-caste men. She claims, ‘this collection aims at inducting contemporary male poets into active feminist politics’. Her misreading of fourth wave feminism apart, Sen mistakes the feminist call to include men as one for excluding women. While the boys’ clubs of the world are only reluctantly letting women in. It would have been so much easier to have put together a collegial anthology that did not discriminate on the basis of gender.
Nonetheless, I decide to read Collegiality and Other Ballads for what it offers – mostly contributions from well-known male-poets with impressive publication lists. What happens when you put them together with no other voices to off-set, challenge or re-direct their enterprise of ‘writing about women, as women?’ as Majumdar puts it. To sum up my reading experience – the voices of men, and the one non-binary ally, ricochet off the walls of this boys’ room, amplifying what becomes a ship-wreck of good intentions. For example: ‘Non-Negotiable’ by Satchidanandan and ‘Surviving Marital Rape’ by Tiwari – poems Sen extolls as her favourites.
Satchidanandan’s poem has a woman strip down, write ‘non-negotiable’ on her naked body and set herself on fire. Tiwari’s poem is a set of instructions to a woman being raped – ‘focus into the distance’, ‘turn your face away’ etc. that ends with: ‘Or you could say, ‘No…’. One poem recognises the agency of women by glorifying death by fire, the other tells a woman that she ‘could’ exercise choice in refusing to be raped. What does this boil down to? The problem of rape exists because women do not say no, and if oppression gets too much, women can kill themselves? For more on rape, let’s turn to Ra Sh’s poem. Titled ‘Emasculation,’ this poem is a lament from a male prisoner raped by men: ‘Amma amma mother of mine! / Pussy, they call my ass! /Lady, they call me!/ Man or woman /am i?’ For being raped by a man, a man experiences the humiliation of possibly becoming woman. What could be worse than this! How are these poems in Collegiality and Other Ballads in any way ‘active feminist politics’?
Poets in this feminist anthology are unable to own-up to being feminist. Here is Kahl, from ‘Training to be an Underdog’:
I say, leave me to my knitting—does this make
me a feminist? Or am I someone who dislikes
seeing people be bothered and directed by
Well, Mr. Kahl, you’d be in great company if you saw your choice to knit as a feminist stand.
You might then see that when underdogs become allies, they name each type of violence and add it up rather than dissipate it in generalities. Had you said, ‘yes, this makes me a feminist,’ I might have seen solidarity instead of dismissal of hard-fought feminist ground in your dilly-dally of questions. Another poet’s question begs mentioning. Saha’s poem ‘Trafficked’ features a man stripping naked, and making veiled references to getting sexually aroused as he describes women being trafficked, killed and buried. The poem ends: ‘I beg for some shame. When will I be home?’ How are these poems feminist?
The anthology is an unrelenting reportage of ills that patriarchy visits on women – battering, prostitution, neglect, lack of representation, lack of choices, lack of understanding, lack of voice – some of it is reported in women’s voices. Taking on women’s voices (Abhay K, Mukherjee, Bin Bilal, Raghavendra) mostly leads to no additional insights to the commonplace knowledge about the women they write about. But the note to Torabully’s ‘Voices from Apravasi Ghat’ in Collegiality and Other Ballads is an eye-opener. It has two glosses: one which explains why he switches menstrual cycle to circle in the poem, highlighting his interventionist voice, and the other that explains the first-person voice in the poem as re-voicing the coolie women he writes about. In an anthology that keeps women’s voices out on principle, for men to speak as women, or re-voice them without hesitation or irony sounds like a power grab. In an attempt to giving voice, they take voices away.
That voice hollows out without embodiment and becomes a distancing device is one way to understand the overall discomfort with the aggregate experience of reading this anthology. Aziz’s poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in Collegiality and Other Ballads is a sensitive recounting in first person voice a child’s attempt to make sense of the normalised violence of having one’s father beat up one’s mother. It hits all the right notes as a poem till, a curious footnote – ‘This is not culled out of personal experiences’. Why this caveat to distance experience? The choice of footnote gives away the gender bias in Sarma’s ‘In Which We Eat’, a poem about Draupadi requiring to feed more mouths than there is food. After exhorting Draupadi/ Yagnaseni to eat the last morsel, the poem inexplicably ends by offering the last morsel to Jayant Mahapatra instead. The footnote explains Draupadi’s predicament but gives no reference for Mahapatra or the fisherman that Mahapatra will feed. Real men don’t need footnotes.
The sole non-binary ally, Chand, read for ‘defying gender’ and contributing ‘gender fluidity’ by Majumdar and Sen, makes me believe that a re-assessment of genders in feminist poetry may still be possible. But it would require a joining of voices in conversations and not blatant exclusion. The poems in this anthology would read very differently within a different framework and context; it hurts the poems to be in this echo-chamber of maleness. To Sen’s complaint in the Introduction of Collegiality and Other Ballads that says otherwise, I submit that if the world changes in verse, then there is hope that it might in action.
Anannya Dasgupta is a poet, fiction writer and artist. She directs the Centre for Writing and Pedagogy at Krea University where she is also a faculty member in the division of literature and the arts. She can be found on Instagram.