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A Slam Dunk—Sitting Down with the Airplane Poetry Movement

As part of their Festival of Ideas, a celebration of the intersection of Medicine with Arts and Humanities, The KMC Editorial Board hosted a range of activities from art and photography sessions to talks by eminent personalities on issues like the different health care systems.

Nandini Varma and Shantanu Anand, the founders of the Airplane Poetry Movement (APM), conducted a slam poetry workshop on 2nd September 2018 at the Festival of Ideas. Through their distinctive startup, the duo has been delivering hands-on training in writing and performing poetry. Apart from their workshops and open-mics, APM has also pioneered the National Youth Poetry Slam providing budding poets with a platform to put their works out. The MIT Post had the opportunity to interview Nandini Varma and Shantanu Anand. 

Is it hard to gain a lot of traction and attract a huge crowd to open mics for spoken word poetry, considering that poetry may not appeal the masses and we have a lot of other recreational stuff to pursue, be it stand-up comedy, cinemas or theatre? How do you tackle it?

Shantanu: (Smiles) We don’t tackle that problem! So here is the point, poetry is not for entertainment. By definition—poetry and entertainment are two things parallel to each other. It may or may not be entertaining. If you try to make all poems merely entertaining, then you are limiting its power.

A good poem can move you, shake you up, calm you down, get you thinking, isolate you, or even make you recognise yourself as a part of the crowd.

When there is so much that a good poem can do, don’t reduce it only for entertainment purposes. At times, one might find a particular piece to be boring, but it can still touch someone else’s soul in profound and meaningful ways. If we try to tackle that problem and mould poetry into a mass appeal thing, it will lose the essence of what makes it unique. We are comfortable with having less number of people at workshops and events and conduct it with all the passion we have for this art form. We have never seen this as a compromise. Even if something is a niche interest, say only a per cent of the population likes it, it’s a lot of people at the end of the day.

Shantanu and Nandini at the Festival of Ideas at KMC

Have we reached a stage where poetry and open mics can be seen as viable full-time career options? It takes a lot of courage to walk such unconventional career paths and convince people along the way.

Nandini: Honestly, I think we [Nandini and Shantanu] may not be too ready yet. We are still looking for alternatives apart from all the work we do at APM.

Shantanu: Every poet I know who is out of college—even if they are touring, performing at festivals, events, and corporate shows—none of them is unemployed. Everyone pursues poetry as a side-thing. I have stopped predicting what can or cannot happen in the future. I believe that that’s a peaceful thing to do.

A poet might start making a lot of money through this, and Amazon Prime and Netflix produce spoken word specials, like the ones in comedy. Having said that, what you should notice is that Biswa, one amongst the top comedians in the country, has to essentially write a show, even though stand-up comedy is so popular.  Not many people have it as a full-time job and like to diversify using their skill sets of writing and showmanship. It might so happen that an exceptional minority of poets, not only concerning talent but also circumstances and luck, might build a career out of spoken word poetry in the next two-three years.

Have you ever concluded that a piece of spoken word would be of superior quality if it’s coming from people who have a background in literature? How can a general poet learn the nuances the language has to offer, for instance, figures of speech and different writing styles to improve their poems?

Nandini: We noticed here, at the workshop, that the medical kids were amazing!

One thing we keep telling people is that as long as you are honest in what you are writing, you are taking the right path. It is because everyone has something to share with the world.

Everyone has various emotions churning inside them. It boils down to the ability to put it out on a piece of paper. If you look closely at literature colleges, there might only be a few who are good at the spoken word by using the things they learn to enhance their quality of writing. I think anyone can learn these little tactics.

Shantanu: For those of you not studying English, you should read more poetry from different countries around the world and not just from the USA or India. In today’s time,s we surely don’t need to have a degree to know something. Literature students read a lot, and that’s what gives them the most significant advantage over others.

If you want to be a good spoken word poet, take out seven hours a week, one hour a day on an average, and read!

Can someone objectively be considered a bad poet?

Shantanu: Yes, those who are dishonest and exploited. If one uses poetry to spread hate speech, and you will be surprised that this happens, is a bad poet for me. It is a sheer misuse of the platform. A poet who may not write the best poem in the history of the world is not a bad poet. They just happened to have written a bad poem. On the flip side, a poet who has bad intentions, especially in a political scenario that we live in, they are wrong, regardless of the fact how good their poetry might be. They might write amazing lines, rhymes and punchlines, but the motive is immoral.

Participants performing at the workshop

From a business point of view, what are the special features in your course of action to compete and stand out among various other organisations in this new buzzing market of poetry? How do you see your organisation differently?

Shantanu: We don’t intend to stand out. That’s not our aim. We are engaged and invested in poetry education. For us, that’s more important not only from the outlook of business but also for a personal experience. I feel even if we can help a thousand poets get better and find their platforms, they’ll find their way forward. We love assisting poets to find something within them. If that does not happen, we’ll have a generation of poets without a soul. We are not solely responsible for this. I don’t want to call us the crusaders for spoken word poetry education, because we aren’t. It’s just that our passion resides in it.

You both interned at Campus Diaries before launching APM. What was the turn of events which moulded you both to come up and implement this idea on such a huge scale?

Nandini: While we were interning with Campus Diaries, we got the opportunity to curate a magazine of all the speakers in TEDxGateway at Mumbai. It is the biggest TEDx held in the country. So, we were there to interview the speakers. One of the host for the event was the acclaimed American Poet Rives. We checked out his profile and were blown away by his work.

The least expected thing happened next. During one of the rehearsals, our group was hanging out, when he walks into the room and conducts an amazing fifteen-minute impromptu workshop.

That short span of time was enough to channelise our thoughts in a proper direction and give us the belief needed to start APM.

Shantanu: We already had the idea before that, but his humility gave us the conviction to start APM. When APM was founded, we were very different from what we are now. We had no clue what we were doing; we just loved spoken word poetry and its workshops.

Do workshops for poetry have a particular curriculum or syllabus involved? Also, what are the key factors to keep them as lively as possible and an excellent tool for learning?

Shantanu: So we have a combination—there are technical elements and non-technical elements, which could be called human factors. Not only the performance has a lot of technique and stagecraft to it, writing too has its technical intricacies. It is just that most people subconsciously use it. We, on the other hand, try to push the rest of them towards it.

Nandini: Since spoken word poetry is a combination of two art forms—namely performance on stage and writing—there’s a scope of teaching a lot of things from both of these aspects.

A participant reads out her lines after a small task involving similes

We have a broad range of genres of the spoken word. Do poets of a specific kind attract a more significant fan base than others? What are a few hot topics/styles which are the most loved by the audience?

Shantanu: I don’t want to answer this question because if a person wants to examine trends, don’t analyse spoken word. Instead, investigate Bollywood for that matter. Bollywood has its finger on the pulse of mass audience appreciation. If I wanted to manufacture a poem, that was popular; I would look at what the top stand-up comedians, actors and directors sold and tried to copy that.  Unlike poetry, they have content which appeals to the masses.

By answering this question, I don’t want to encourage people to manufacture their poems for mass audience appeal. A good poem should be organic and real.

APM’s flagship project for the year is the 100 Poems Challenge. How do you go about setting different prompts and constraints every week?

Nandini: (sighs) Coming out with creative prompts is tough because we have to ensure that it balances out all kinds of genres. We always try to make these categories and fail because we have analysed the trend of that week and wish to challenge them into something different.

Shantanu: The point being, since it’s a challenge we try to find prompts that push poets to write the poems they would not have written otherwise.

If someone tells me, “I didn’t write on a certain prompt, because I didn’t connect to it.” My answer is that’s why the prompt exist – to push you out of the comfort zone to imagine new scenarios and grow as a writer.