As a spoken word poet, Cipun Mishra has taken it upon himself to introduce the town-folk of Eastern India to the art form that he loves so dearly. He began performing poetry in late 2013. Fast forward to 2017, he ended the year with a six-city spoken word tour in Orissa. He has, therefore, been successful in surpassing geographical as well as language barriers through the art form. His recent journey, in fact, spread over 1,500 km, covering the cities of Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Talcher, Dhamra, Sambalpur and Burla. However, there is no stopping him. He now has an interesting idea in his kitty- something that will increase the reach of the art form multifold.
Highlights of the episode
- Understanding that the art form needs to perforate through boundaries, and there are several ways to bring down such barriers.
- Forcing your way through a poem is what renders it lifeless. Re-evaluation and patience is the key.
- Courage and belief need to be intact at all times to be able to communicate your vision through poetry.
Quotes and Takeaways From Cipun Mishra
- “… if you give me a pen and paper, probably I’ll write you a hundred ballads…”
- For poets are beginning their journey , “They might think that their writing is crude. What they do not understand that their crude can be the next beautiful”.
Describe for someone who has never heard of spoken poetry.
Spoken word poetry essentially, in the words of Sarah Kay who is a very popular spoken word poet, is the love child of theater and poetry. If you take theater and poetry and you mix them together, you get spoken word poetry. But if I was to put it in my own words, spoken word poetry essentially gives a platform for those pieces of literature which are better delivered and expressed when performed. For example, let’s take ‘Daffodils’. So, if you read it over and over again, it gives you different interpretations every single time. At the same time, let’s take a listicle poem, say ’10 responses to the phrase “Man up”‘ by Guante. Now, since it is a listicle poem, if you put it in a page format, it would not create the kind of impact that performing it would. So it’s a poem which is better delivered and performed. Hence, when there was a need for a format of poetry where you could express your poetry in a better manner by performing it, for pieces which need performing, spoken word poetry was born.
I see that poetry runs in your family. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience growing up under the tutelage of your father who himself is an Odiya Poet.
Brilliant question! My baba is a teacher, and also an Odiya poet. So he used to organize these kavi sammelans essentially, in our small township and he would call Odiya poets from all over the State. He used to arrange for their travel and they would come over to perform poetry on the Odiya New Year. Now, at that time I was a kid who did not understand the art form completely and like any other kid, I thought the poetry was boring. So, I never showed any interest in it.
Secondly, my father was somebody who wanted to publish his work, so he wrote a plethora of poems, all about my mother. He published them in an anthology called ‘Krishna’, which is my mother’s maiden name. It was extremely difficult for him to do the entire thing! For designing of the cover, he reached out to the school’s art teacher, who helped him with the illustrations and the cover picture. For the binding and publication, he had to run behind many publishers. Back then it was not that easy, nothing was digital. So, he found a printing press and invested every single penny of our savings in it because he thought that it would work out. Needless to say, it didn’t work out. He self-published it, printed out thousands and thousands of copies of his anthology from the printing press, day in and day out, staying at the printing press, almost losing his job as a teacher in the process. I remember him carrying those books and going to Bhubaneswar, while we lived in Talcher, which is a very lesser known town. He would travel by train in the morning to Bhubaneswar, and deliver these books to different book stores and ask them to sell it. But none of these book stores would sell it, so he would come back with all those books. I remember, there were about 5000-6000 that he got printed. But he could get book shops to keep only around five hundred books and the rest were never touched. They remained in packets, till the tenth standard, when I left home. Even when I came back this one time in 2016 after my engineering, I saw that those books were still there. The last time I went home, I wanted to take a book from him and wanted to work on its translation. That’s my only goal in life now. I want to translate my father’s work. So his work in Odiya would be on one side and my translation of it would be on the other side. I have been reading more and more Odiya to be more fluent in it, to be better equipped to do it. But yes, it never really worked out for my father, because all those books have been eaten up by termites.
So growing up, it was a really difficult environment because these kavi sammelans were funded all by our family, all by ourselves. My mother and my father, both are teachers, so we barely had money. In that environment, when he spent all our savings in publishing those books, it ran our home to the ground. So, it was a really difficult environment, where poetry or art would actually never be talked about in our home. You would think that in a house of an artist, art is something that will be very pronounced; well, it was not!
Anyway, he continued to organize these kavita sammelans till my second year of college, till 2014, after which his health really deteriorated. He had a spinal issue and we ran out of money, so he had to stop doing it. Also, political issues cropped up because certain political influences do come up in peoples’ poetries.
However, it was only then, in my second year of college that I understood what my father had been doing. That is when I figured out that my father had been doing poetry open mics for long time himself, before it was really cool. And he was doing it in a vernacular language. I really wanted to contribute to it but by then, like I said, he had stopped doing it. The effect of living in such a household is that now I am trying to give back to the society, which I should have been doing back then, which my father could not, even though he tried to, and maybe make some impact as an artist.
What was your first performance like?
My first performance was in 2014. There was this poetry slam competition that we wanted to organize in my college, Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT). It is called ‘Open Sesame’ and was conceived my friend, Oliva Das and me. This was the first such competition in entire East India. We picked up ideas, concepts and organized the entire event. When the event began, my first performance was an introduction in the first round. I performed Phil Kaye’s ‘Numbers Man’. I did not have an original piece to perform then. I was working on one, but I was not in a position to perform my own. But anyway, it was a terrible performance.
I was really nervous. I went up on the stage, I had learnt the entire poem but once I recited the first line, I realized how difficult it was. So, I flipped out my phone and began reading out the rest of the poem. Hence, my first performance was just a reading, while I was shivering.
Can you tell us something about your thought process when you write a poem? What inspires the poet in you?
I have two approaches to this. The first approach is when I’m given a prompt. For example, if there is an ‘Airplane Poetry Movement’ prompt, I take that up and write a poem. Or when I’m writing a poem for somebody, I usually ask them their favorite word or the meaning of their name or their favorite memory and how it is relevant to them, and I write a poem. So when I take this approach, I try to understand the psyche of that person, the emotion that the person is sharing with me and I try to connect it with something that I have felt. My problem is that I can never write a poem that is not personal to me. At some point or the other, it has to have a connection with me because I believe people overlap and resonate with frequencies. If you’re conversing with another person, it’s essentially because you’re resonating at the same frequency at some or the other level. So since there is this equal resonance and overlap, experiences, feelings and responses to experiences overlap. Hence, how you respond to a particular scenario or a particular emotion would be similar, and I try to cull out this similarity and weave a piece around it.
I mostly deal with metaphors. I am someone who does not write heavy worded poems. For example, I won’t use the word precocious. I try to write poems with a lot of imagery and a lot of metaphors, so that when you listen to the poem, you can close your eyes and imagine an entire painting or a movie reeling in front of you. I use metaphors so that my poems have a rustic feel and have a connection with you.
Secondly, when I’m writing a poem, without a prompt, it is often derived from a particular feeling. I believe that it is always the extremes which inspires a poet because nothing mediocre can. For example, if I’m extremely sad today, if something goes terribly wrong or if I have panic attacks or if I’ve had a bout of depression, I would try to recollect instances from the day. It never comes to me as a word or a prompt or a thought, it always comes to me as a line, which frames itself from my experiences throughout the day. For example, if we are talking, and out of the conversation, there is something that stayed with me. I take that something and I try to think around it, and automatically an unfinished painting of sorts starts to emerge. I then paint it immediately but I let it stay like that for some time. I think about it for a few days and I come back to it to make subtle changes. I’m somebody who can never rewrite. So all my poems are always first drafts.
Also, people feel that a poet would be amazing at expressing things, but that is absolutely wrong. They are great with words but not so great with speech. I know that it does not make a lot of sense, but if you give me a pen and paper, probably I’ll write you a hundred ballads, but if you give me a mic and ask me to tell you how much I love you, I would stutter, a lot.
Have you ever had to force a piece?
I’ve never forced a piece, even though I have tried to, on multiple occasions when I am at a point when I want to end a poem but I don’t have an ending. This happens to several poets, because we want to end our poems in a certain way. But every time I try to force something of this sort, I see that the poem becomes really lifeless.
However, sometimes you do have to push yourself and create something, and then reevaluate it and work around it, to defeat procrastination. Most of the times though, forcing does not work. You can take the middle ground as well, when you try to work around the lines that you have to force out of yourself. Forcing an entire piece is stupid though, because if you’re forcing an entire piece, it is unoriginal, unauthentic and it is not something that comes from your soul and your heart. Then it just becomes something that you’re writing for catering to the demand, and when you do that, you’re not delivering art; you’re just delivering something that people want.
What is your favorite line of your own poem and your favorite poem you have written?
To be very honest, I don’t think I have a favorite line from any of my poems. I think it’s because I just don’t think that any line can be a favorite. It’s almost like I have a lot of children; these poems are like my children. I see all of them equally. Maybe some lines are better in some poems, but that is what the audience will tell you. To me, all of them are similar.
However, if you need me to quote, I would say that a line that I really enjoy is, “Maybe my poems cannot hold you with the affection that my chest can”. It is not my favorite though.
As for my favorite poem, again, I don’t have a favorite piece, I don’t know how to have a favorite piece. There are three poems of mine that I really love though. There is this really short piece that I wrote, called ‘Nomad’. I wrote it at around 3 am, a spur of the moment sort of a thing, for a friend who was visiting. I wrote it deriving a particular image of her and me, trying to run and play, fool around, take pictures and have a good time on a beach in Orissa. Another such poem is ‘Permanent Address’. It is a poem that I really enjoy performing. I’m waiting for its video as I’ve performed it for InnerVoice by WittyFeed. This poem talks about the inability of millennials to find a home. Third one is ‘Usually’, which is my most popular work. It’s a poem that almost everyone enjoys and appreciates.
What has been a highlight of your journey as a spoken word poet so far?
So, in 2016, right before I left college, I decided that I wanted to start my own dead poet’s society sort of a thing. I called it ‘Soul Sundays’. Every Sunday, people from all walks of life would turn up. I did not take a room or a conference hall or a jazzy cafe, I took the garden of our university or the staircase of whichever building that was available. I used to come up with a list of activities for the Sundays and work on them throughout the week. The highlight, however, was a particular kid called Sarmishta Mohanty. She had never written poetry, and always wrote prose. She had never gone up on stage and was really scared of public speaking as well. However, through the course of this event, she worked on all these things and by the time I left college, she was so well equipped that in a few months, she went on to become the representative of Airplane Poetry Movement in our college. She also became the head of the literary society of our college and helped in organizing multiple poetry events across the city. She, in fact, went on to become the poster girl of spoken word poetry in Orissa. This was a kid who had massive anxiety issues, had never stood up on the stage, had never spoken in public and had never written a poem. Seeing her grow made me feel like I had achieved something.
Another highlight would be the Spoken Word Tour that I organized. In September last year, I figured that our poetry community is very young. Hence, I thought of working on it and growing it into something bigger. This growth, I understood, would happen if this art form goes from Tier 1 to Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. I started working on the idea from October, and reached out to different people and organizations in Orissa. I planned to tour several cities in Orissa, deliver workshops, and organize showcases and open mics. So I began my journey and it worked out really well. At the end of it, Cuttack developed its own, Cuttack Poetry Society, which now encourages poetry in Cuttack as well as in Bhubaneswar. The tour also gave rise to a similar poetry club in Sambalpur and Burla. This was quite spectacular.
You’ve also organized quite a few spoken word poetry events in various cities. What are some of the challenges that you have had to face while organizing such events?
The biggest challenge that I’ve faced is the lack of understanding and awareness of the art form. So when I go about organizing an event and I ask for a space to organize it, the first question that people still ask me is what spoken word poetry is. People, in fact, often confuse it with poetry recitation. However, it is totally understandable because these cities are not acquainted with this art form. For example, at Talcher, people have a greater understanding of a music evening, than a spoken word poetry event. So this is a major challenge that I face.
What is on your bucket list for this year?
This year I’m taking the Young India Fellowship, which is in Ashoka University in Delhi. My plan for this year is to take along what I learnt from the Bangalore poetry community and try to understand how it works in Delhi. I’ll get more involved there, try to gain insights and use all this knowledge to create something with YIF. I want to reach out to communities like Kommune, YourQuote and Airplane Poetry Movement and discuss with them how all this knowledge can be delivered as a curriculum to students. This has been discussed by a lot of people earlier, and deliberations have been going on as to how to create a curriculum on spoken word poetry for online platforms like Coursera and The Climber. This is something that I now want to work on.
Another goal that I have for this year is to try and translate my father’s book.
Third goal is to visit more cities, penetrate into areas which are even beyond Tier 2 and Tier 3, because spoken word poetry should not be limited by geographies or language, it goes way beyond that.
What do you think does it take to be a spoken word poet?
- Courage. Because without it, I cannot go up on the stage and talk about the mental health issues that I have, or talk about issues like sexual harassment. Talking about such things take a lot of courage!
- Belief. Spoken word poetry is about believing in your art form, when everything else falls apart. Imagine spoken word poetry to be a house, and you to be a refugee. So when nothing else gives you shade, spoken word poetry will. If you chose not to take shade in it, then the walls will start crumbling rather than reinforcing themselves, and it will all break down. There will then be nothing left for you. So it takes a lot of belief for a spoken word poet to keep reinforcing those walls. It takes belief on your art form to be able to do it, and if you cannot do this, do not commit to it.
- Vision. What kind of poetry do you want to bring into this world? Who is it targeted to? Now I could just go out and form an angry rant, but that anger stems from some emotion or thought or circumstance, which must resonate with a lot of people, because like I said before, people resonate and overlap. So, it’ll always have some kind of connection with people. Hence, you need the vision to deliver your spoken word piece in a way in which people understand and relate to it. Trying to envision this while you write a poem is extremely difficult, but is equally essential. It only comes with a lot of practice.
- Responsibility. As a spoken word poet, what you’re performing might or might not go viral; might or might not be heard. But even if one person is listening, what you perform can change that person’s life. Also, if I go up on stage and I present a skewed opinion on feminism, the audience, if it is impressionable, might adopt that skewed opinion as they believe in you. So you’re bestowed upon with a responsibility as a thought leader and as an artist, to say the right things. It is your responsibility to ensure that what you’re saying is accurate, well-researched, well-backed up, true, and emotionally viable. Also, when I say responsible, I also mean that you do not steal somebody’s voice and words. For example, I’m a guy, so I cannot go up there and perform a poem about a widow. That is not mine perform to read or perform. It is her voice, and I cannot steal it. It is like a white guy going up there and performing for a black guy. You do not do that.
This, according to me, is what it takes to be a spoken word poet.
What is your message for budding poets?
I have two messages for budding poets. Firstly, do not try to imitate others. Usually spoken word poets try to imitate other poets’ style of writing. This not only kills their originality but also restricts their extent of creativity. They might think that their writing is crude. What they do not understand that their crude can be the next beautiful. Secondly, never think what you’re writing has been already said and hence, is irrelevant. What you’re forgetting is that even though there have been a billion poems on depression, nobody has ever spoken about your experience of it. And nobody other than you can say it better!