Thesmall press revolution
Most of us would be happy to publish one book a year — or even one every few years — but Bombay-based poet Arjun Rajendran, as testimony to his prolific production, published two in 2017. In April, he released The Cosmonaut in Hergé’s Rocket (Paperwall), following it up in October with Your Baby is Starving (Aainanagar/VAYAVYA). The latter is part of a collective project, FIVE, and includes chapbooks, available as a box set, by four other poets. Significantly, the publishers of both his books are small presses. These independent organisations, unattached to any publishing behemoth and working on comparatively shoestring budgets, are silently bringing about a revolution of sorts in the landscape of Indian English poetry.
The past year was a sort of watershed for poets writing in English in India, with arguably the largest number of publications in recent times. While the seniors — Adil Jussawala, Manohar Shetty, C P Surendran — continued to publish, many younger poets, such as Tishani Doshi, Nitoo Das, Sharanya Manivanan, Nabina Das and Biswamit Dwibedy, to name a few, came out with muchacclaimed books, prepared over years. There were also quite a few debuts: Michael Creighton, Ranjani Murali, Medha Singh, and this writer, too. This list is in no way exhaustive — not even close. Many on this list are beneficiaries of the work of small publishing houses, scattered all over the country.
“Indian English poetry is flourishing because of small presses. It’s one thing to publish canonical/senior poets, but it’s heroic to support lesser-known voices. So [small] presses ... are all publishing important voices, and they are doing it with integrity,” said Rajendran. Two of these, closer home to me in the National Capital Region, are Red River (disclosure: my publisher in its earlier avatar, i write imprint) and Copper Coin. The former was established in 2014; the latter towards the end of 2013. Between the two of them, they published 13 books last year. It is no coincidence that they have two poets, Dibyajyoti Sarma and Sarabjeet Garcha, respectively, at the helm.
Both claim that being poets was what inspired them to start independent publishing houses. “I was not happy the way poetry was being published around me, in terms of editing, design and the overall feel,” said Sarma. “So I wanted to do some experiments.” He claimed that most of the books he has published till now are those of his friends, but charity began at home for Sarma. “I started it [i write imprint] to publish my second book of poems, as I was convinced no one else will do it,” he added. By now, his books, characterised by their unique pocket format and art work, have gained some currency, at least among poetry readers.
As a poet and translator himself, Garcha felt the necessity of bringing to the fore new and interesting voices, even if it is a risky enterprise. (His new book, A Clock in the Far Past, will be out soon, its publisher being the Bhubaneswarbased independent press Dhauli Books.) “Profit should not be the motive in poetry publishing. A venture like this is solely based on faith and commitment — the faith that if we do things right, we’ll break even sooner or later, and even profit might eventually follow.” Copper Coin has not made any profit with its poetry titles barring those in Marathi, but its non-fiction titles, especially in Punjabi, brought home some revenue. In 2018, it plans to publish two novels, including one in Marathi, besides poetry.
Sarma, on the other hand, had not even thought of profits till November last year, when he ran out of savings into which he had been dipping to publish the books. “I thought of giving it up. But I had several manuscripts with me, and I did not want to disappoint the authors. So I registered the company (hence, the name changed to Red River) and am now working on raising funds to print the books,” he said. Profits are still beyond the nearest hill and, Sarma claims, the task is an uphill one. But that’s unlikely to discourage Sarma, who is also a translator.
Both he and Garcha are convinced that the future of Indian poetry in English lies with small presses. “Only small presses can preserve poetry,” said Garcha. “If you consider the publishing scenario of the past 40 years in India, you’ll notice that the number of poetry titles brought out by small and independent houses is much, much more than those issued by the major traditional publishers put together.” Sarma said, “Mainstream presses would publish only the big, recognisable names, but how do you become a Vikram Seth or a Gulzar overnight?” The onus of discovering new writers is, therefore, on Garcha, Sarma and company and, by the look of it, they are doing a stellar job.