Poems and Performances
Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay, Nashville’s first Youth Poet Laureate, talks about her journey, the future of poetry and the power of narration.
When Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay was named Nashville’s first Youth Poet Laureate, she was already an accomplished singer-songwriter. “Youth Poet Laureate came out of nowhere in my life,” she says. “The application for the competition required three poems. And, I only had three poems, as I was a songwriter for most of my life.” Nevertheless, at the behest of her mother, Mukhopadhyay submitted her application and was chosen for the honor in 2015. The program aims to identify young writers and leaders committed to civic and community engagement, diversity and tolerance across the city.
In her capacity as a Youth Poet Laureate, Mukhopadhyay has been winning over audiences with her striking delivery of her equally striking poetry. Her events have ranged from state-level performances and a reading at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago to a meeting with the then-U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Mukhopadhyay was also named Southeast Regional Youth Poet Laureate in 2016 and was one of the five finalists for the 2017 National Youth Poet Laureate competition, which recognizes youth with a history of artistic success and leadership.
“I started writing poetry the summer before my junior year of high school,” says Mukhopadhyay. This creative work grew out of her songwriting practice, but through the search for a new mode of expression. “I had always been writing songs. I had this concept that I did not think would work well in a song. So, I decided to take a stab at a poem. Since then, it has become my favorite form of self-expression,” she adds.
As much as she is a voice in the contemporary landscape of American poetry, Mukhopadhyay is also a careful student of her past. “My father always says that to be a second-class writer, you have to be a first-class reader,” she says. Her favorite poets come from the modernist and Beat traditions, with a particular affinity for Allen Ginsberg and E.E. Cummings. But, Mukhopadhyay says, “I was raised on my father’s favorites of Robert Frost and Rabindranath Tagore. Poetry in Bengali, my mother tongue, was always read to me and evoked such lyrical qualities.”
One of the prime responsibilities of a Youth Poet Laureate is to carry poetic tradition forward. Mukhopadhyay is optimistic about the prospects of poetry. “I believe that poetry is on the come up in contemporary American culture, whether that be through the form of spoken word or the carefully-crafted page poetry,” she says. “The form is teaching people how to feel again and reminding them of the importance of thinking deeply about the world one inhabits and one’s place in it.”
This ability of poets to lead their readers and listeners to careful thinking and reflection is borne out by Mukhopadhyay’s close involvement with the performative side of poetry. “Performance is a very underrated aspect of poetry…the poem must come alive on stage, adding to the full understanding and appreciation of the piece,” she says. “There is just something about reading a poem out loud, whether it be to a crowd or to oneself during the editing process, which takes on other meanings and inflections. What can be hidden on the page can reveal itself in one’s voice.” She read from her book “This is Our War” at an event hosted by the American Library Kolkata in 2017.
Part of Mukhopadhyay’s commitment to, and great talent for, performance comes from her background in the oral traditions. As she explains, “Borrowing from the narration and recitation traditions of India, where some make a living reading and recording others’ poetry, and inspired by my father’s exercise in such traditions, I try to do all I can to make a poem breathe in a performance.”
In this way, the poetic line becomes flexible, tied to the voice of the writer. And Mukhopadhyay has found her own voice in her poetry. “Rhyme and meter are classic elements of poetry, which must be exercised like a muscle from time to time. But, I am a steady proponent of free verse, as it leaves more room on the page and for the poet to speak. I do feel that form is helpful in creating a contained idea, but I love when those forms are looser,” she says. This relationship to form can be seen in these lines from her poem, “The City That Never Stops Giving.”
The city never stops giving
on the corner of 6th and Broadway
where downtown traffic is a harrowing consistency, when the light turns green,
it doesn’t always mean go.
Where Roy Orbison wrote “Oh Pretty Woman,”
emboldened by the femme of mercy
below his apartment balcony
where tourists and the music
leave a warm taste of affinity,
by the Starbucks in the Renaissance
that snags money from teenagers
who rendezvous before school.
They never spell my name right
on the little cups filled with magic. ...
Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.