Indian publishing house Poetrywala celebrates twenty years of its existence. As a publishing house that has immensely contributed to the growth and publishing of Indian Poetry, especially in English, we speak to its founder Hemant Diwate, who along with his wife Smruti Diwate runs the show.
TBR: You are celebrating 20 years of Poetrywala, tell us a bit about this journey.
HD: We were already into publishing of Marathi poetry before we started the English imprint. I was editing and publishing the magazine Abhidhanantar since 1992, in which we had already published important works of Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar. This was part of the Marathi Little Magazine Movement, and it gave us a chance to meet, and understand grassroot level poets, and bring poetry to them. For us, publishing wasn’t only about selling books, it was about being a part of a movement, it still is. Everything falls into place because of our love of poetry. And this journey isn’t only mine, it is about everyone coming together.
In in the earlier days, people had difficulty accessing books, especially in smaller places. We developed a distribution network, made books available in the small towns too. This helped us gain an audience.
Unlike in Bengal where little magazines have thrived, in Maharashtra, people mostly depended on libraries for their reading. Lesser books were sold too. Also, as a result the magazines which came up didn’t survive for too long. Since 1998, we started a movement trying to establish the influx of so-called romantic poetry in Marathi. This kind of poetry was unrealistic. In that sense, our movement was similar to that of efforts that happened elsewhere in the country too. We understood that we had to make special efforts because even the general public was more interested in that kind of poetry. That is why we published poets who were writing something different from the usual kind of poetry being written.
In 2003 Dilip Chitre translated my poetry into English, the translation was liked by everyone. That’s when we first decided to publish in English. Dilip got the Tukaram prize for the translation. It was a time for change, and I realised that. Mediums were changing very fast too, from television to internet, everything moved fast. And since I have been an advertising professional for many years, I could sense that change very fast.
Because of the fact that we already had a base and network ready through the publishing of Marathi books, publishing in English didn’t require too much effort. And books did quite well in fact.
TBR: What has been the most difficult part of sustaining an exclusive poetry press for all these years?
HD: Actually, we don’t look at it that way. We have never concentrated on profit; we are into this publishing for the love of it. Also, by the time we started publishing in English, we had kept some money aside from the profit of other books, which we invested here. The sale of a few books helps us publish others, that’s how it goes.
I had a steady job as an advertising professional, which I could fall back on. Also, because we had enough experience for all these years in selling little magazines, and Marathi books, it was not very difficult with the English poetry books.
We would like to think of it as an investment into poetry, not a business. Thankfully, we could sell most books, even during the pandemic, people were reading poetry. Our success has been allied to the success of other poets and well-wishers.
TBR: How is it that small presses are successfully publishing poetry and keeping it alive, while the big (or very big ones) shy away from it?
HD: You see, the patterns are very different. For a big publishing houses have different departments, all of whom have to be paid. A profit has to be made from the books for them to maintain their office and publishing house.
For a small publisher like us, there are no formalities, which is why we can take the risk. We don’t have any departments. Between me, my wife and our house help, we share most of the work in different ways. We don’t consider too much profit for poetry. We invest most of what we earn, into other books, and that’s how the cycle continues. Our work is honorary most of the time, at time poets work in whatever they can to help us too.
I look at publishing poetry as a part of a movement that spreads a larger message. If I were to look at it only as a business, I couldn’t have continued. That is the biggest difference.
TBR: Since you started 20 years ago, how much has the publishing scene changed for Indian English writing? Also, there are more small publishing houses today in comparison to what it was when you started.
HD: Yes, the publishing scene has changed, but that’s true of other things too. Unlike a lot of other poetry publishers, we don’t ask our poets to buy books or put in money into the making of the books. We are interested only in publishing poetry, not in making money. Incidentally, the Poetrywala buyers are different from Poetrywala poets.
Compared to earlier years, now sales have reduced. You see, sadly, people in India, especially English language readers prefer instead of reading writers from outside, instead of reading Indian writers.
Marketing from outside plays role in this too. Prizes play a role in marketing too. You will rarely hear of Indian writers winning international poetry prizes. Also, there are so few prizes for good poetry in India. The prizes that exist, are mostly for popular poetry, not for critique’s choices.
See, I will finally die as a Marathi poet. So, I am not afraid of critique.
The existence of other small publishing houses hasn’t affected us at all. In fact, I think it is better if people publish from different places and spheres. Our model of publishing is different. We work together and in collaboration with our poets. It becomes a collaborative project. Our poets do some marketing for the books too.
TBR: Since you publish writers from around the world, especially in translated poetry, what do you think of the writing scene in India, especially with regard to quality of writing?
HD: We publish translations, from all over the world. Most of these translations are done by people we know and trust, other poets, that is. These are friends, and they do it as a matter of their own curiosity, which helps us out too. We don’t commission translations.
You should read our translations; they are very good in fact. The writers who have done them, have invested lot of time in such projects.
TBR: According to you, what does the future of poetry publishing in India look like?
HD: Publishing poetry is a bit like the different stages of becoming a butterfly from a cocoon. People are in different stages of writing too, and most of the Indian poets are in the cocoon stage. If you look at the poetry writing scene in India, most of the poets are still influenced by the earlier generation of poets.
What remains a mystery to me is, why most of them are not writing in their own languages. Also, you’ll find that there are about only four to five poets in each language who are writing something very different from what everyone else is doing. It is only these few poets who stand out as a result.
The problem with our poets is that they don’t understand the value of reading today. Reading, researching, and understanding the history of literature is important for the growth of any poet. How else can one grow? The problem is almost every poet thinks that they are born as poets, and that poetry will come to them from some divine intervention. But this isn’t how it happens, you have to live life, watch things around you, read and observe for your poetry to develop.
In each language, there are about seven to eight main poets. And in every twenty years or so, you’ll find something different happening. Everyone is reading each other; poets here are influenced by poets around the world too. This can be a problem too sometimes. In order to come out of such strong influences and be able to write something in your own language, something that is very different, requires skill. It is very difficult, and when poets are not able to do it, they become imitations, and others become frustrated. This is also because most poets don’t have the patience to wait, to read, research, to think, and then to write. How many Indian poets do you think are there who have read all major Indian poets?
I think poets should look at world poetry, and read more of translated poetry. English is no longer a foreign language in India, it is part of us. And if you have that calibre, you should be able to find your own poetic language once you have spent enough time reading the work of others.