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