Poetry today is about rebellion: Simar Singh

In a conversation with Simar Singh, the young man behind Unerase Poetry, I realised that poetry isn't just about the artiste. He opens up about his journey and how poetry has evolved as an art.

Poetry today is about rebellion: Simar Singh

We often find ourselves watching spoken word poems on social media as we scroll through our feed. Budding as a concept in India, poetry has already got many of us addicted. Even brands and filmmakers have started using these formats, with an aim to connect to the masses. Targeting social issues and striking that sensitive chord with words is now a rising concept and the main agenda of the new-age poems, where the recitation is supposed to make you feel something. 

This age-old literary art is now becoming popular in the contemporary form, especially in Mumbai. While it’s not just about social issues, many find this as an opportunity to share their good and bad experiences.

Enthusiasts earlier used to write about their chosen topics, but the availability of platforms today have made it easier for them to come forward and talk. One such platform is Unerase Poetry which was started two years back by a 16-year-old poet named Simar Singh, who has now become one of the most prominent names in the poetry scene. This was one of the first few initiatives which helped establish the poetry culture, delving further in the open mic scene, which was stagnated earlier with standup comedy.

In an exclusive interaction with the young man behind Unerase Poetry, Simar shares his thoughts about the poetry culture and the significance of such platforms to promote the art of storytelling.

 What brought out the poet in him and made him start Unerase?

Simar started writing at the tender age of nine, where he began expressing his thoughts about several subjects. This continued over the years, and at the age of 16, he came up with an initiative, calling it Unerase Poetry. 

On being asked about his inspiration behind giving his poetic side a vent and creating a platform in an unexplored space, Simar said, “I pursued poetry out of compulsion initially, not out of passion. It was a weekly exercise that my mother used to give me. I used to write poems when I was 9-10 years old. When I grew up and shifted to Mumbai, I realised that there are people who actually recite their poetry and I ended up at one of these open mics. That’s basically how I got into spoken word. I was inspired by the work of other poets and it is because of them that I started ‘Unerase’.”

Establishing the Poetry Culture

Pursuing a poetic journey in a setup where poets found it extremely difficult to take up spoken word as a potential career path can be assumed to be a tedious task. Comedy had, over the years, grown to be popular and having shifted from standup comedy to poetry, Simar believed that this space always had long-term potential. 

Talking of which, he added, “Because I was initially doing comedy for six months, I could see how great a scene this had become with AIB and TVF and all these groups providing platforms for comics to shine. But the biggest issue with poetry was that there was no platform and there was no concept of digital content. None of the poets were influencers in any way and they were just performing at small cafes for 30 people every week. It was a highly discouraging scene and not something that would inspire people to continue doing this for a long time. My main motivation behind Unerase was to make sure that I give people such a platform where they can make a living out of Spoken Word Poetry and call themselves full-time poets.”

Who inspired Simar?

On being asked about the poets who really inspired him to take up this venture at a time when not many pursued poetry, he said, “There were people around me who gave me feedback on my work and helped me perform more. These were people like Aranya Johar, Mohammed Sadriwala, Ramneek Singh. Ramneek was one of my biggest inspirations in Mumbai after I started Unerase because he was one of the people from the older scenes who came and watched the show. He gave me constructive feedback and criticism on how to go about Unerase. He was and is still one of my mentors who helps me navigate and tells me to separate business from art. He taught me to separate the commercial aspect from the novelty of it.”  

He also mentioned how grateful he is to Ankita Shah and Navaldeep Singh. Navaldeep was the first person who helped him set up the production and get a couple of artists on board for the first show. 

“Others like Balraj Singh Ghai and Sohail Gandhi who were very gracious to lend their space to us for free and use Tuning Fork as a launch pad for Spoken Word in India,” Simar added.

Music and Poetry

Unerase is known for its unique setup with a guitar strumming in the background as the poet narrates his little story. It is as good as music to the years, where you can possibly sit back, relax and just listen. And it’s not just with unerase, it is a widely executed concept with poetry in general. This establishes the fact that music helps the audience connect better with words and that there is an existing relationship between them.

When asked about the importance of the same in his shows, Simar said, “I think, individually for me as an artiste, music is a very important element in my performance because I like to see a lot of my pieces on the lines of music or a song. And that’s why with Unerase, I’ve maintained, or we’ve maintained, that we have a musician also performing with the artist.”

To explain how the concept was introduced, he added, “The entire idea of this coming into spoken word was a coincidence. My friend from school, Pranav, was very intrigued by people’s poems at one of the events and said that he will come again the next day with his guitar. I was very averse to the idea of someone playing music to poetry because I had never seen that personally. He did this with one poet and it sounded very beautiful. So, I told him why don’t you do it with everyone else. Then, it sort of became a Simar and Pranav thing every time we did a show. Eventually, I found more musicians and it sort of just became a unique thing for Unerase.”

How has Poetry evolved?

Poetry, as an art, has evolved manifold over a period of time, from a Shakespearean and a Victorian context to a more contemporary and rebellious nature. Poems are now used as a tool for many to voice their opinions, address social issues like patriarchy, feminism, religion or simply experiences which have personally affected them. As an art form, it has transformed from a more idealistic point of view to being realistic. 

Talking about the way poets have been perceived today and how it has changed in a year, he added, “Earlier people wrote poetry and published books but nobody went and bought them. So, the masses didn’t get to know about the rebellion that we’re talking about. But, right now, with the internet, everybody can see them. Many of these videos echo the thoughts of a lot of other people who watch or listen to these poems. But their thoughts have either been suppressed in so many different ways or they haven’t got the opportunity to talk about what we talk about. So, it’s a rebellion.”

To give spoken word a definition is hard in the current scenario. The art is perceived to be more abstract as the perceptions encompass around a very thin line difference between storytelling and spoken word poetry format. Even though it is a fairly budding concept still, spoken word has seen drastic changes in the recent past.

Speaking on the same, Simar added, “The best part about spoken word in India is that it’s changing every single day. You can’t really put a tag or a label under what is spoken word in India- Is it a community, scene, an industry or a part of the pop culture? It changes every single day with new projects, new content and new poets coming into the scene.”

Recalling how it has been a year back, Simar said, “Initially, one could literally count people and say that there were literally around 150-200 people who were actively doing spoken word in Mumbai. I could go back exactly a year from now, where we had still done shows and collaborations with people for free, until the point where right now poets are charging a good amount, making proper monthly salaries that people would take for single collaborations - doing this for full time. It’s really changed very drastically and it’s still growing even more drastically.”

Going against the norms

Poetry is now perceived to be quite a contemporary art form, with people now using these platforms to voice their opinions. However, there has been an initial resistance to accepting a sort of rebellion with words.

Stating how receptive the older generation can be to poetry, Simar mentioned, “Standup comedy which is available online has become unnecessarily abusive. I know a lot of old people complaining about that. However, when they look at the work that we’re doing,  they find it engrossing yet more responsible. They don’t really notice the medium but notice what’s being said. I think a lot of our thoughts again question older people to think. For example, if we’re doing a poem on homosexuality or one against the celebration of festivals, a lot of old people do not agree with or understand it. But because spoken word is such a conversational format, it at least makes them think. So, even though they disagree. at the end of the day, I know they’ll question themselves or they will question us and then come to conclusion. The very reason that it’s making them think is enough for us as creators. Our work is being heard by them.”

Personal branding for Poets

It is true that more than proper poetry platforms, individuals are now a brand in themselves. Individual poets, in the current scenario, is a platform for himself. 

Speaking of which, he added, “I like how in the past two years it has evolved from a ‘collective’ being a platform to now an individual becoming a platform for themselves. A lot of artists who started as Unerase artists have now started a youtube channel with lakhs of subscribers and followers. That’s something I keep telling people who get in touch with me. I try and tell them that if you feel your work is important and your voice needs to be heard, then it's best to take out your phone record a video and put it up on youtube. If it’s striking a chord with people, they will watch it. You can create a platform for yourself. It also helps you value your own struggle - when you see your own work watched first by 100-200 people and then 1-2 lakh people.”

A message for the budding poets

For a roadmap for budding poets, Simar shared what are the most important things one should focus on as a poet. Of course, everyone has his own little story or a path, but “everyone’s journey is very unique”. However, learning from his personal experience, here’s what he mentioned.

  • Finding your own tribe -  3-4 people who can give you feedback, constructive criticism and really believe in you.

  • Believe in yourself and what you’ve written. A lot of times stage anxiety gets to you it’s very normal. It still happens to me but I feel what really pushes me is the thing that I am reciting.

  • My art is always going to be bigger than me being an artist. If you remember the very reason why you wrote something and if you remember how important it is to you for the people to hear this story, then it’ll sort of help you get up on the stage and perform.

  • Justify every single word you’ve written in your piece. If you’re able to do that, then no one else’s feedback will matter. And I have realised that I have written a 10 sentence long paragraph which I can fit in one line. I improvise and that is what makes my poem better. 

Currently quite active with The Cuckoo Club, Unerase Poetry has worked with The Habitat (formerly known as Tuning Fork) and Anti Social. Organising shows at different locations in the country, Unerase intends to do one event a month in Mumbai. Simar’s upcoming venture with Unrase is a curated show on ‘Women’s Day’ around March 6, 2019.

It is good to see young minds thinking and taking initiatives such as these to bring about a movement, only this was with words. And, poetry has, indeed, evolved to be a powerful tool to express without any fears.

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