Indian poet Akhil Katyal on politics in poetry and the UI’s International Writing Program
Friday, November 4, 2016

Love, loss, beauty, pain, and…politics.

Those are the five universal themes that Akhil Katyal says he finds in poetry from every era, from every corner of the world.

Katyal, a professor of English literature at Shiv Nadar University in New Delhi, India, and author of the poetry collection Night Charge Extra, writes about these themes in his own work.

“I’ve never thought that political occupation couldn’t be the subject of poetry,” says Katyal. “Delhi—and by Delhi I mean the political apparatus in India because it is concentrated in Delhi—is absolutely raging in its complexity, and poetry is my way of making sense of such a complex environment.”

Katyal, 31, is participating in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, which has brought more than 1,400 writers from more than 130 countries to Iowa City over the course of its storied 48-year history. The 10-week program brings together emerging and accomplished authors to refine their current projects and expose them to American culture and literature. IWP writers also have the opportunity to contribute to and learn from UI literature courses.

Katyal’s Night Charge Extra, a collection of poems in English, was published in 2015 by Writers Workshop, a literary publisher based in Calcutta, India.

“‘Night charge extra’ is a common phrase in Delhi,” says Katyal. “If you were to take a cab late at night, one of the first things the driver is going to tell you is that the night charge is going to be extra. I chose it because to those from Delhi, it is a recognizable Delhi reference and an English phrase which represents how on the streets of Delhi, you’ll hear a mix of English, Hindu, Punjabi, and Urdu.

Katyal says that whichever city he’s in, its cultural and political climate often dictate the sort of poems he writes.

“Somehow you’re always one step behind the city if you are trying to write about it analytically, but if you’re trying to embrace it in a poem, you can capture its essence,” says Katyal. “My poems are set in very particular places with very specific people in spaces that you will easily recognize. There are very recognizably London poems and recognizably New Delhi poems—yet they are love poems and loss poems and political poems.”

Katyal, born in Lucknow, India, moved to New Delhi, the capital of India, in 2003 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English literature at Delhi University. While there, he met professor Lalita Subbu.

“I was studying English literature, so we studied and analyzed text and wrote criticism, but we didn’t do creative writing as part of course work,” says Katyal. “But outside of the classroom, in the staff room or the cafeteria, Lalita Subbu took students under her wing and made writers, musicians, filmmakers, and creatives of all sorts take themselves seriously. She inspired me.”

Most universities in India do not offer courses in creative writing, a skill that often is taught informally. Shiv Nadar University, where Katyal currently teaches, is one of the few that offer it, he says.

“My creative writing education happened over a cup of coffee, over several hours, in a cafeteria with an exemplary teacher,” says Katyal. “I would show Lalita a poem I wrote and she would color the page in red with more edits than there were words in the poem. But somewhere in the middle of all those edits and harsh comments would be one line of absolute praise. And that sustained me.”

Katyal earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature from Delhi University and received his PhD in Hindi and Urdu literature from the University of London. He returned to New Delhi in 2011 to begin his teaching career at Delhi University. He moved to Shiv Nadar University in November 2013.

In an effort to write honestly about the world around him, Katyal says he found it imperative to write about politics. One of the most frequent topics of his writing is the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over the region of Kashmir. Katyal remains critical of both governments and sympathetic to the struggles of the Kashmiri people, who the dispute has caused great hardship for. Kashmir has become the most militarized zone in the world, with one soldier for every five Kashmiri civilians, says Katyal.

“It’s an international dispute over who has legitimate claim to Kashmir. The people of Kashmir are not being allowed self-determination as India and Pakistan fight over them. Independent surveys have suggested that the Kashmiri people would vote for independence rather than merging with either country, but neither India nor Pakistan will allow that to happen.”

Katyal also is an outspoken advocate of LGBTQ rights in India and is heavily involved in the yearly Delhi Queer Pride celebration.

“One of the things that sustains me as a poet is the energy that I derive from the crowds that I read to. This sense of community that you can form, however brief or momentary, by reading to a crowd of thousands can sustain me for months,” he says.

Katyal enjoys both written and spoken poetry, but he says he feels that spoken poetry is not given the artistic consideration or respect it deserves.

“Through the history of MFA programs in the U.S., there is an idea that serious poetry happens on the page and more playful or song-like or frivolous poetry happens elsewhere,” says Katyal. “That is not a reality that we have in other parts of the world. The lyric function of poetry co-exists with the epic function of poetry. In Lucknow and Delhi, these two functions have always been together. That is something I have noticed in the U.S. academia, that poetry is more a function of the page, not a function of the space.”

He argues that this attitude was reflected in the recent outcry over Bob Dylan being awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature.

“Bob Dylan was just awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature and people are asking why should he qualify for an award in literature,” says Katyal. “Literature is also sung.”

As his IWP residency comes to a close, Katyal says he looks forward to returning home. His second book of poems is nearly complete and will publish in 2017. He says he will remember his time at the IWP fondly and as an eye-opening experience.

“When IWP alumni from my country and Pakistan heard I had gotten in, they became really excited for me. I was asking, ‘What’s the big deal? Why are they so excited about a residency?’ I realize now that there is something really amazing about how the residency is structured. The way we spend time here is not bound by rigid terms. We are expected to do one panel, one lecture, and one reading, which we are happy to do, but then we have absolute freedom. This absolute directionlessness of what we could write while we’re here has made me understand why people were so excited for me.”

When Katyal returns to New Delhi, he will resume teaching, which will include courses in creative writing.

“I was looking at the UI’s writing courses and speaking with people here to see what works and doesn’t,” he says. “Looking at what kind of classroom atmosphere you should create, I want to incorporate some of what I’ve observed here into my classes.”