#DesiLitBiz: Shikha Malaviya on The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective

Shikha Malaviya The Great Indian Poetry Collective
Shikha Malaviya Photo Credit: Deepak Kumar

About The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective:

The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective is the coming together of poets who believe words can transform lives. Founded in 2013 in Bangalore, India, as a not-for-profit press, the Collective publishes innovative, diverse poetic voices from India and the Indian diaspora. Through a mentorship model, members of the collective support one another in producing beautiful poetry books, chapbooks, and anthologies. Through workshops, readings, and community and school events, the Collective is building a poetry community in which artistic expression leads to positive action, as each poem initiates a dialogue with society and the greater world.

Shikha Malaviya is the publisher and also one of the original founding poets with Minal Hajratwala and Ellen Kombiyil. At the time of this interview, the advisory team comprises of the following poets: Sampurna Chattarji, Carolyn Forché, Ranjit Hoskote, Prageeta Sharma, and Arundhathi Subramaniam.

About Shikha Malaviya:

Shikha Malaviya is an Indian American poet, writer, and publisher. She is a co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a mentorship model press publishing powerful voices from India and the Indian diaspora. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in Catamaran, PLUME, Prairie Schooner & other fine publications. Shikha has been a featured TEDx speaker and was selected as Poet Laureate of San Ramon, California, 2016. She is an AWP poetry mentor in their Writer-to-Writer program as well as a Mosaic America Fellow, committed to cultural diversity in the San Francisco Bay area and beyond. Her book of poems is Geography of Tongues.

“The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective is a coming together of poets who believe words can transform lives. They publish innovative, diverse poetic voices from India and the Indian diaspora.” ~Shikha Malaviya #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

Desi Books: You started the collective in 2013 along with two other poets in Bangalore. I love the origin story and the operating model described in your Entropy interview. I encourage everyone to read it because you get so specific and transparent about every step. Looking back now, eight years on, what has changed, if anything, from that model and why?

Shikha Malaviya: Thanks, Jenny. We’ve tried to be as transparent as possible. At the end of the day, we are poets and writers as well, and we want our authors to feel that we are all in this together.

The Collective’s journey has been a slow and winding one, with a steep learning curve. None of us had been in the publishing business before. When the Collective was founded, there were very few avenues for poets in India to receive mentorship opportunities and get their books published. There was a huge void, one which I feel still exists, though it is shrinking with so many small presses on the rise. We were pleasantly surprised to see our efforts received so warmly and to see how smoothly one poet mentored the next one, where each poet offered different strengths. It is a very collaborative process but at the same time rigorous. We work through a combination of e-mails, video calls, phone calls and meeting in person (where possible). I make it a point to try and respond to our authors within twenty-four hours. In fact, I heard through the Indian poetry grapevine that we are known for our scrupulous editing.

We set out to build a community platform that would include archiving Indian poets/poetry along with encouraging stellar new voices and we were able to accomplish some of that. However, all three of the founders ended up moving back to the United States in the span of a year and that made it more challenging to work with poets in India as well as figure out distribution. It’s very hard to be in one country while trying to make an impact in another. We’ve been so fortunate to have our Indian authors help with the logistics regarding this.

“When [The (Great) Indian Poetry] Collective was founded, there were very few avenues for poets in India to receive mentorship opportunities and get their books published.” ~Shikha Malaviya #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

Desi Books: How many poets/collections have been published since inception? What were some of the biggest surprises or challenges throughout this publication journey?

Shikha Malaviya: We have published nine poets/poetry books so far and our tenth one is slated for publication later this year. What amazes me is how unique each poet’s work is. We’ve published voices from the LGBTQ community, experimental poetry, lyric poetry, poetry that addresses identity, mental illness and so much more. The biggest surprise has been how warmly our vision and voice were received in India and now, here, in the US. And, also, how our little press has been able to bring out such stunning voices. The biggest challenge, by far, has been to sustain a small press with a limited budget and to have our books available in both India and the US. Every penny gets put back into the press and none of us draw a salary. It truly is a labor of love.

Desi Books: I’m sure this comes up a lot but how has the global pandemic made you adapt/change your work, if at all?

Shikha Malaviya: We were operating through our phones and computers mostly, so that aspect didn’t change because of the pandemic. However, we launched Ranjani Murali’s book of poems, Clearly you are ESL, during the pandemic, and the printing got delayed because of lockdown. After the book was finally printed, we had a very soft launch because of Zoom fatigue and other factors. We tried to get some books to India, and it was very difficult because of the lockdown that occurred there. The pandemic also gave us the opportunity to reassess what our goals were for the collective.

Currently, I am the only founding member remaining at the Collective and, after having moved back from Bangalore seven years ago, it’s high time that we broadened our vision to include more voices and countries from South Asia and the South Asian diaspora. Stay tuned for an announcement in the coming months.

Desi Books: Talk a bit about how you see the publishing ecosystem (publishers, agents, support organizations, reviewers, etc.) for poetry from where you sit now. And how different is it in the US versus in South Asia? What still needs to be changed/improved for poetry, as a form, to get its due respect? What has been improving, if anything?

Shikha Malaviya: Poetry is a hard sell no matter where you publish from and there is some truth in the saying that only poets read other poets. Every review, every social media share, every reading, and every conference event makes a difference. But the biggest hurdle is often dispelling the myth that poetry is inaccessible because it is too complex, flowery, or esoteric, when in fact, poetry has always been a genre of the masses and very accessible. Some of our most loved plays, religious texts, and epics have all been told in poetry form and endured over time, so it mystifies me when people say they don’t understand poetry. But what’s publishable these days, sadly, often comes down to what sells, and mainstream presses rely more on prose to keep them afloat. I don’t know what we would do without small presses.

Having said that, the system of publishing poetry in the US is far from ideal. One usually must submit a manuscript to a competition with reading fees which average around thirty dollars per submission. I know poets who have done this for five years or more before their book wins a competition and gets published. Imagine the fees they’ve paid when, honestly, they could have self-published their own book for half the cost. Publishing technology has evolved and all of us have become savvy marketers over social media out of necessity. But there’s a stigma attached to self-publishing. Most accomplished poets I know are fantastic editors as well, so I don’t understand why poets must go through this torturous process when there are other options available.

“Poetry is a hard sell […] Every review, every social media share, every reading, and every conference event makes a difference.” ~Shikha Malaviya #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

The poetry publishing ecosystem in India is certainly different. In terms of numbers, there are less poets, but the audience in India seems more receptive to poetry and buy more poetry books. Since the collective was founded, several new poetry presses have emerged in the past decade such as Copper Coin and Red River. Anthologies are very popular there and there are so many literary festivals as well as dedicated gatherings for poetry where an audience fills up the room. What India lacks in MFA programs and workshops, it makes up for in enthusiasm for the genre. 

Desi Books: As a collective, you’re not just publishing poetry collections, you’re also engaging with and supporting the poetry community at large with workshops, mentoring, and more. That is a lot of pioneering work right there. Of all the non-publishing work being done, what would you say has had the most impact—both for The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective and the poetry community at large?

Shikha Malaviya: I would have to say it is mentorship. I was talking with one of our collective poets today, based in India, and they told me how transformative the mentorship process was for them and their manuscript, that they were amazed at how they had grown as a writer through it and how their work had evolved. That was music to my ears.

I’ve also been a poetry mentor these past six years for AWP’s Writer to Writer program and have mostly worked with writers from the South Asian diaspora and they share the same sentiment.

Mentorship is so much more than just teaching or guidance. It’s about illuminating possibilities and potential. To know that someone is in your corner, rooting for you, and that they have gone through the same process and challenges makes a writer/mentee feel seen and validates their journey (that often seems a lonely one). 

“Mentorship is so much more than just teaching or guidance. It’s about illuminating possibilities and potential. To know that someone is in your corner…” ~Shikha Malaviya #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

Desi Books: Tell us about this year’s publications and what we can look forward to in 2022, please

Shikha Malaviya: Ranjani Murali’s inventive and experimental book of poems, Clearly You are ESL, came out earlier in the year and is so unique in terms of form and content. She’s taken India’s colonial legacy of English and turned it on its head, illustrating how language can be both freeing and restrictive.

Later this year, we’ll be publishing Divya Persaud’s Do Not Perform This, which is a hauntingly beautiful series of poems that explores life during and after chronic illness.

In 2022, we will be pivoting to include more voices from the South Asian community. We’ll be making an announcement before the end of 2021 with more details.

Desi Books: If I could turn the spotlight onto you personally for a moment. What are you working on currently with your own poetry and writing?

Shikha Malaviya: I just recently completed a manuscript of historical persona poems based on the life of Anandibai Joshee, India’s first female medical doctor and the first Indian woman to study medicine in the United States. I was in search of the first South Asian woman to come to America when I stumbled onto her sepia-tinted photograph online in 2017. I found Anandibai’s life story so riveting and was shocked to find out that hardly anyone knew of her. I’m also working on a literary novel about a poet who suddenly disappears as well as a YA memoir in poems.

Desi Books: Thank you for your time, Shikha, and for all that you do as a literary citizen. My usual closing question: what’s your favorite desi book and why? In your case, I’d love if you would share more than one recommendation, please, because we could all do with more poetry in our lives.

Shikha Malaviya: I have so many favorites. It really wouldn’t be fair to list one desi book, especially when so many of my desi friends are wonderful writers. And of course, all the books published by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.

But there is a novel by a Sri Lankan born writer that I keep on returning to, that I must read at least once a year, and that is The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. You can tell that a poet has written it. Each line of the book holds so much, ready to burst into bloom. The first time I tried reading it I had to put it down because it seemed too heavy—the imagery, the emotions, the multiple characters. But when I picked it up the second time, it was as if I was witnessing an orchestra performance. Everything came together so beautifully. That was more than twenty years ago. I’m waiting for another book to move me like that. Michael Ondaatje’s poems are amazing as well. If there’s one poem of his I would recommend, it would be “The Cinnamon Peeler.” Then there’s “Application for a Driving License” and “Notes for the Legend of Salad Woman.” Sorry, it’s hard to list just one.

My favorite Desi/Indian poet, however, is Arun Kolatkar, who sadly passed away in 2004. I love how unapologetically he used English to write about life in India, making it his own. My favorite poem of his is Breakfast at Kala Ghoda, though I recommend reading all his work, especially his book, Jejuri.

“. . . a novel by a Sri Lankan born writer that I keep on returning to […] The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. You can tell that a poet has written it.” ~Shikha Malaviya’s fave desi book #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

“. . . I love how unapologetically [Arun Kolatkar] used English to write about life in India, making it his own.” ~Shikha Malaviya’s fave desi poet #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

Learn more about The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective and Shikha Malaviya.

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