December 26, 2004
To Raise a Poet, It Takes a Cantab

Among the many routes to becoming a poet, two basic themes emerge. There is the solitary scribbler, the Emily Dickinson model. And then there are the poets like those fortunates who gathered in Robert Lowell’s office or blossomed in Stanley Kunitz’s garden, who flourish best in a community. They find a workshop, a place to listen, a place to read, people whose work they respect, and they begin to find their own voices. That’s how Prabakar T. Rajan did it.

I heard Rajan read at the Cantab in Central Square, Cambridge. It is a poetry community I also found when I arrived in Boston from New York. His route, though, was longer and more circuitous, beginning in his native India, winding through England, through his years of training as a psychiatrist. It was in England that he began writing poetry more seriously. He says it was because of the light.

“In England there is a tenderness of light. In India there is a very brief twilight and dawn at either end of a long day of bright sunlight. When the light is more muted that does things to your mood. It becomes an impetus for reflection, and I started writing about fall and twilight in England.”

When he arrived in the Boston area, he began spending time in front of the poetry shelves at the Brookline Booksmith, devouring the work of Adrienne Rich, Mark Doty, Philip Levine, and others.

“I was beyond rescue after that,” he says. He was smitten with poetry, but he also felt paralyzed. “What I read on the shelves overwhelmed me.”

Then he found his poetry home at the Cantab, a venue I’m glad he lucked into. If they are to be nurturing, poetry communities of all types--workshops, open mic venues, graduate programs--need to be respectful, to offer an example of people working hard at their craft, to listen and respond thoughtfully to the work that’s offered. It’s easy to find bad ones, where the prevailing atmosphere is self-indulgent and disrespectful. At the Cantab, by contrast, the hosts tend to know what they’re doing and audiences are famously welcoming, especially to the newbies who haltingly confess it’s their “first time.” Rajan felt so at home there, in fact, that he joined a workshop run by Ron Goba, the venue’s doorman and resident father figure.

“Honestly I feel privileged to have the Cantab,” Rajan says. “Unlike with the poet you meet on the shelf, here you can hear the poet’s work and then you can shake her hand and talk with her. What could be more magical than that? Just imagine getting to do that with Hart Crane.”

Rajan now has a chapbook out, Leaving Ripples. It, too, in a way is a product of the communal experience he has found in poetry. He explains that when he first began writing, he started with fiction and actually wrote part of a novel. But he found himself constantly distracted by thoughts of who the readers would be and how his work could find its way to them.

“I was disillusioned with prose because I was always thinking that I had to take it somewhere. With poetry, you can have an audience of one or two and it’s wonderful.

“Writing is too serious to be left to publishers. The venues where poets perform is in the verbal, narrative poetry tradition. It’s how poetry was originally transmitted. I feel I’ve rediscovered an ancient tradition and a place of true brotherhood, well, siblinghood, where you are linked with other people through a line or a phrase that you or they have spoken.

What we’re reading now: Prabakar T. Rajan is reading Sentimental Tommy, a lesser-known work of James Barrie, which he says captures, “the large-eyed, snot-nosed intensity, the precipitous stakes and searing ripeness of even just an hour of childhood.” I am re-reading The Never-Not Sonnets, a luminous book of poems by Barbara L. Greenberg that I always enjoy going back to.

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at

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Leaving Ripples
By Prabakar T. Rajan

Morning opens blurred, gummy, fogged
flesh of river writhing, gray sky
bleached earth, silence ghastly
as the whites of eyes.

Some towns are trees soared
from a river stem.
Some people are a tangle nerved
from a lash of pain.

What does it matter that today slithers by?

This day, this week, this month.
Crumpled pages in tomorrow’s fist.
Why do we sob our anger to sleep
like evening wasting itself
plump riot of burnt lavender
become gray, drab indifference?

An African child steps into a well
to drink the moon
leaving ripples. Someone
strangles a lover
hacks a homosexual
burns a bride. There is no musical score.
No bacchanal for suffering.
Most cruelty is sordid, ordinary.
Bleak and stubbled
as an endless car park.

A weed blossoms pavement.
Lightens the wait
of a traffic jam. What is there to do
but hold the wash of this human tide
close against us
like lamplight cups faces
while we still have breasts
and tears?

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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