This spoken word poet from Gargi College went on to win the National Youth Poetry Slam in India in 2016 and also represented India in Chicago’s International Poetry Slam competition. Here are excerpts from our rendezvous with Diksha Bijlani:
Q. How did your National Youth Poetry Slam victory and subsequent presentation at Chicago’s International Slam CUPSI feel like? Has the power of your reach and the charisma of your personality dawned on you yet?
Diksha: My Gargi college team and I went to National Youth Poetry Slam (NYPS) content with being part of a space that, for the first time, was going to celebrate spoken word poetry. It felt like a gift, to be able to share stage with the top college teams from around the country, with a spoken word collective from Pakistan, with featured poets from India and beyond. So when the moment of winning came, it felt unreal. We had this huge-ass trophy to fly from Bangalore to Delhi, and every moment of explaining the airport staff or fellow passengers how exactly three tiny girls ended up with a huge golden trophy on this IndiGo flight, was blissful with the memory of it.
But if NYPS was a gift, CUPSI Chicago was a reward. Each moment of being appreciated there as the Indian team, each moment of sharing space with an entire diaspora of poets and listening to their stories, every moment of hearing “Oh, are you that Indian poet from Button Poetry?!”, felt rewarding. Weeks of practices that led to NYPS that led to Chicago led to us being in that moment, and I had nothing in my heart but gratitude. Our feature at the finals in Chicago even received a standing ovation! We were part of a brown poets meet over there, and we witnessed Haiku slams and Nerd slams. At the CUPSI finals, we also witnessed the entire community standing up against a white entitled something called Marc Smith who has been called the founder of slam poetry. His poem was deeply problematic, and all the finalist teams decided to withdraw from the competition that year as a revolt against the organisers for inviting him to perform. We made poet friends from around the globe, who are currently the most positive people in our life.
The power of this reach instills gratitude in me because it invokes the realisation that there are now more people I can help, or support with words. Each time someone at a slam tells me they find solace in my art, or that they started performing poetry because of me, it is a humbling realisation of my potential to empower- and that is what keeps me going on days I don’t feel the most poetic.
Q. How has your journey of founding Slip of Tongue been like till now, along with performing with your collective at various places?
Diksha: We started Slip of Tongue with a vision to connect more people with this art form, and also to experiment with spoken word and music through collaborations. The journey has been very enterprising, we have done workshops and shows across Universities, and also continued to organise our own official events called ‘Slips’. Fourth Slip was held just recently, and it surpassed our expectations with more than 120 people showing up just to listen to poems, music, and us.
Q. You have often spoken about your high-functioning depression, when did you first realize it and how have you dealt with it?
Diksha: I realised I had it last year, primarily when I noticed that my achievements and professional success did not make me happy. I was a productive, well-performing, and to some extent even overachieving individual, but most of it felt like a coping mechanism to ward off the emotional turbulence inside. And when the day was over and the show was done, I returned to bed at night with this persistent void inside of me. One of my ways of dealing with it was to write and perform my poem ‘High Functioning Depression’. Another way I have tried to deal with it is to practice gratitude constantly and towards the smallest of positive things I witness every day.
Q. How do you think the culture and scenario of spoken word differ in India and Chicago? Do you see slam poetry becoming a profession in India anytime soon?
Diksha: I think a major point of difference is representation. The spoken word community in the US has much more representation across communities and especially oppressed communities, but in India, this proportion of representation is something we are yet to attain. Although we have made great progress on some ends, and there are a lot of women at slams telling their stories. But this representation still needs to percolate more to queer poets, Dalits, Muslims, queer Dalits, people with disabilities, non-English spoken poets, and all other underrepresented communities.
It already is a profession, and there are many campaigns that are now employing spoken word poets for their execution. It is yet to be seen as a profession yet, which I think will happen over time with more and more organisers paying the artists they call to perform, and better-prized competitions coming around.
Q. If spoken word ever becomes a profession, would you take it up full-time?
Diksha: I have chosen the path of public service for myself, and while poetry is very poetically a kind of public service too, in the next few years the public policy is going to be my primary profession of interest. I will never stop doing spoken word though, and even for the next few years, it is going to be a second profession for me. In the late future, I might take up teaching spoken word full-time for a while, or organising international spoken word events in India.
Q. What do you think of the recent developments in Shamir Reuben’s case?
Diksha: The revelations about him have made us realise that sexual predators in safe spaces are the hardest to spot. This has made us take conscious efforts now to spot this behavior, call it out, and reinstate poetry slams are safe spaces. For the same reason, the Slip of Tongue event that happened right after was a fundraiser with an NGO called Sayfty that trains women against sexual abuse. The community as a whole has become cognizant of this, and we are trying to do better every single day since.
Feature Image Credits: Paul Finney for NYPS