Magazine 2012
Of Poets, Poetry And Pedagogics : Teaching Gender And  
Cultural Studies In A Metropolitan Classroom Setting  
Dr. Rajeshree Trivedi  
Maniben Nanavati Womenb s College,Mumbai.  
in our work and our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather  
than a reason for destructionb &..We need to use these differences in constructive ways creative says, rather  
than, in ways to justify our destroying each other,b  proposed Audre Lorde, the well known Caribbean-American  
writer, poet and activist.(Quoted in African American Women In Literature, p. 2) Call it b differencesb , b multi-  
culturalismb  or b diversityb , the term leaves us exasperate especially, when a faculty member opens a literary  
or a theoretical page for the purpose of teaching gender or cultural studies in a classroom set In a metropolis  
like Mumbai. Mumbai which is considered to be the Asiab s largest melting pot, where people form cosmopolitan  
background reside not from one but three to four generations. The target groups of learners in the undergraduate  
literature classrooms comprise of students from diverse sets of cultures or monocultures, religions, class,  
linguistic backgrounds and at times are affected by the lack of belongingness to any cultural specifics owing  
to the ancestral migration, for example, there are students from families belonging to the third or fourth  
generation of the immigrants who came to Mumbai from other parts of India. These students hardly have any  
kind of family or extended family establishment in their native place nor do they fluently speak their native  
language. In fact, they are more fluent in the local language that they might have acquired from their vernacular  
medium government aided schools or from their immediate surroundings.  
Quite far away from their origins, one cannot ignore their recently acquired status of being a member of virtual  
communities on social networking websites where any relation or relative irrespective of its typical Indian  
hierarchical status is equated with no other relationship but that of being just a b friendb . Further, the identity of  
self that todayb s youth explores in his or her own new avatar on the online chat rooms or on MUDs (Multi User  
Dungeon) in the form of replacing their identities with the photographs of Bollywood actors, sports  
celebrities, figures, symbols or motifs associated with a political or cultural forum, or at times also with the  
consumer objects of desires are also much in vogue.  
Amidst these multiple identities, the female student who is generally found to be very introvert or well enveloped  
in a covered body in the classroom is seen in her substituted photographic avatar on her online profiles,  
thereby leaving the visitor who had been sent a request for joining the group or the online community  
confused or alarmed as to find out what is her real self- the one in the classroom or the one on the picture  
profile on the blog.  
Sensitizing myself as a faculty member facilitating these female stakeholders belonging to various cultures  
and religions in a metropolitan city to the curriculum that includes topics on gender exclusivity, patriarchy,  
lesbianism and ideological platforms that openly discuss the challenges of a b free societyb  often puts me into  
an embarrassing or challenging situation. Gender studies or cultural studies in a classroom with students still  
preferring to remain veiled in their well covered bodies or dropping down their gazes or remaining stoic to the  
renderings of poems by Sujata Bhatt or Gertrude Stein or Amy Lowell or dealing with a communally  
sensitiveb  issue in Arundhati Subramaniamb s b Another Wayb  (b  poetic response to Gujarat riotsb  ) becomes  
more challenging especially when they find it difficult to express or respond to or in comprehending the  
poems. I wish to make a few observations in this paper on teaching the poetries of two of the Indian women  
poets b  Sujata Bhatt and Arundhati Subramaniam b vis-C -vis the poetries of two diasporic women poets of  
African origins -Maya Angelou and Claire Harris with the common point being all the four choose to give  
way to their poetic voices out of b necessity and choiceb . Simultaneously, the study will be parallelized with an  
exegesis on the responses their readings evoke among the young female learners in the classroom. Do  
these readings really make any impact on the young minds who are often swayed by the flux of online fictions  
and social networking websites that often have their own versions of truths? Are they encouraged to read  
further about these socio-cultural and religio-political websites that are customized for achieving specific goals  
or missions or purposes thereby, leading/misleading the young Indian adult to narrow provincialism,  
fundamentalism or anti-knowledge rather than developing a healthy social behaviour? I intend to explore a  
few of these issues in this paper.  
Some of the poems prescribed for the students majoring in English literature in the S.N.D.T University  
curriculum include Sujata Bhattb s b Muliebrityb , Arundhati Subramaniamb s b Recycledb  and b Heirloomb  Gwendolyn  
Brooksb  b We real coolb , Maya Angeloub s b Africab , Gertrude Steinb s b Stanzas in Meditation (some selected ones),  
Amy Lowellb s b Patternsb  and many others.  
The dynamics of teaching a single poem by a poet certainly demands a detailed reading of poems other than  
the prescribed one. The poem b Muliebrityb  idolizes a rural girl engrossed in searching for more and more  
mounds of fresh cow dung is an embodiment of b the greatness and the powerb . The speaker admits :  
I have thought so much  
but have been unwilling to use her for a metaphor,  
for a nice image b  but most of all unwilling  
to forget her or to explain to anyone the greatness  
and the power glistening through her cheekbonesb &b &..b  (Norton Anthology, 242).  
Although he may not use her as a metaphor, he can never forget her demeanor. This very idea of the poem  
makes itself a great metaphor. b Muliebrityb  which means womanhood finds a strong, female, biological expression,  
this time a rebellious one in Bhattb s another poem b  White Asparagusb  where the speaker outcries the sexual  
depravity that a pregnant woman experiences during the fourth month of her pregnancy:  
Who understands the logic behind this desire?b  (241)  
Thereb s a spark of eroticism and sensuality in some of Bhattb s works which is connected to b the feeling of loss  
and concernb  that one finds in both the poems mentioned here. One may imagine the speaker to be a male in  
the poem b Muliebirty , the way the girl is described in the poem- b the way she moved her hands and her waist  
whereas the speaker in b White Asparagusb  seems to be none else but a female who can very well understand  
another womanb s feelings. But both the speakers deliberate deeply into the psychological realms of their  
subjects, interweaving their personal responses of a deep concern for them- b I have thought so muchb  in  
Muliebrityb  and b Who speaks for the strong currents/ streaming through her legsb &.b  In one of the interviews  
where the poet was asked whether she faced any difficulties in bringing out these kinds of varied expressions  
in her speakers, she replied:  
No, the erotic poems were not difficult to write. They were written spontaneously, impulsively - with a great  
need to write them, a need to break certain silences surrounding female sexuality - but without any audience in  
mind. And, of course, the earliest ones were written when I had no thoughts of publishing. Also, I did not see  
myself literally in these poems - but myself looking at some b otherb  self or at another imagined woman in the  
poemb .  
Bhattb s poems voice womenb s personal experiences such as menstruation and child birth either by way of  
being her own self in her poems or being an imagined woman b in a different time and a different placeb  who  
she confesses is connected to her own self in one or the another way. For her poetry is a place where she  
raises questions and examined issues related to social, political and womenb s issues . Both these poems when  
discussed in a classroom that consisted only of female students in their late teens and early twenties evoked  
distinct responses. While they were comfortable with the first poem where they were interested in analyzing the  
poem by comparing it to William Wordsworthb s poem b The Solitary Reaperb , the second poem initially created  
a stormy stir among these young women with some of them showing a blankness that refused to acknowledge  
the contents of the poem while the others giggled shyly and yet others coyly asking a questionb  Why should  
we read this kind of a poem?b   
A discussion on socio-political as well as socio-cultural contexts in which the poetess took up the gender  
based writing eased up the process in the following classes. Further, an exercise on a detailed analysis of the  
form and techniques applied by the poet made the students more interested in understanding and sensitising  
themselves with the contents of the poem. In Bhattb s poems, themes are webbed into an equivocal use of  
words embedded in linguistic structures that build up powerful visual images.  
While teaching Maya Angeloub s poem b  Africab  and talking about her identity as a black woman, one refers  
to many other poems of Angelou. For example, the poem b Still I Riseb  deals with Africa being compared to a  
black woman with the adjectives for her being used in the poem-b haughtinessb , b sassinessb  and others. Angeloub s  
poems resonate or rather reverberate an accusing call t all men and women of the world who may or may not  
have played a role in destroying her culture-  
Now she is rising ( remember her pain  
remember the losses  
her screams loud and vain  
remember her riches ( her history slain. "  
A similar kind of clarion call echoes in the Canadian poet Claire Harrisb  poem b O What Are You Thinking My  
Sistersb . Bhatt, Angelou and Harris write from different literary platform; Bhatt writes from the multicultural  
perspectives voicing different voices from different cultures across the world where the poet has travelled  
through, Angelou voice is the spokesperson of the Black people in America whereas Harris voices the post  
colonial and racial issues from the Afro-Caribbean perspectives. Reading out a few other poems from Harrisb   
anthology of five poems b Dipped In Shadowb , and a detailed analysis of the images drawn by the poet for  
addressing the issue of Caribbean-Canadian femininity drew sentimental responses in the form of students  
relating themselves with the plight of being a girl child in the family often being victimized of gender discrimination  
in the family as well as in society. Although the images and the ideas after the reading of the poem evoked  
varied responses, the students demanded for a permission to enact one of the scenes from the poem. A brief  
explanation of the cultural background in which the poet produced this kind of a work helped the students  
who initially came up with either a tight lipped or a solidly unreceptive or an extremely rejecting response that  
they emitted earlier on the reading of b White Asparagusb . They showed a more matured response when the  
re-reading of the b White Asparagusb  took place in the classroom. Surprisingly, one or two students showed an  
enterprising readiness to recite it loudly in the class.  
Woman writers are often accused of being narcissisticb &b &b &The self is the universe. A couple of years back,  
there was an instance when a critic responded to Vicki Feaverb s menstruation poem as being monotonous.  
Would they say that about war poetry? No, but when a woman writes about menstruation and half the population  
in the world experience it at some time every month, isnb t a universal topic?b  wonders Arundhati Subrmaniam.  
Her poems range from feminist issues to spirituality to metropolitan inhabitance and its concerns, mysticism,  
human relationships, sensuality, experiences in foreign land many others. b Her engagement with spirituality,  
therefore, is influenced by her feminismb , writes Chintan Girish Modi, a critic who interviewed her for b Tabloidb .  
The b City of septic magenta hair-clipsb &b &b &b &/ where it is perfectly historical/ to be looking out / on a sooty  
handkerchief of ocean,/ searching for Godb  from her poem b Where I liveb  unleashes the profanities of the  
magical city that has its own impregnating mysteries parallel to those in the b tired oceanb  that stands on the  
shore of b Lb Oreal sunsets,b  perhaps the superficial glories. The adjectives concocted out of the branded or  
latest female cosmetic products, b botoxed with vanityb  or Lb Oreal dreamsb  or b nylon dreamb  or the female  
utility objects - b magenta hair-clipsb  or a female deity - b Mahalaxmi beggarb  ( the paradoxical image where  
Goddess Mahalaksmi is the goddess of wealth) and the kitchen-imagery b the b imli-soaked bhelpurib  insinuate  
that the speaker b Ib - presumably a woman is on a spiritual exploration drive that intermittently experiences the  
meaninglessness of human existence amidst the chaos of b vanityb , b deliriumb , b mistrustb  and b hysteria.b  Every  
individual in the city contributes to this melange of madness and mistrust and dark alleys. Yet the city teaches  
you to stiffen your spine and follow your nylon dreams. The city that makes you sick or chilled with haunting  
memories somewhere pushes you to seek the mysteries of your own existence and your journey beyond ,  
maybe while diving into or plunging into the psychological realms of the sea which every one has been  
historically doing in this city.  
In the poem b  5.46. Andheri Localb , the proclamation - b In the womenb s compartment/ of a Bombay local/ we  
search/ for no personal epiphaniesb  does not remain one as the speaker realizes that she along with her  
community of the local train are strongly connected to one another, sharing common domestic issues,  
psychological health problems or social or economic status or challenges. The kind of warmth or belongingness  
that they enjoy with one another metamorphoses themselves into an embodiment of strength and power the  
kind of which Goddess Kali possesses with her symbolic thousand hands and her multiple avatars in different  
eras where she took various births as simple women of the world. However, what she prefers to opt for at the  
end of the day is not immediately indulging into any kind of impulsive or violent acts but get preoccupied  
once again with the daily chores of life.  
Subramaniamb s poems whirl out subtleties whereby the students encounter unprecedented poetic images  
and allusions that might require them to surf through the online search engines to understand the exact  
context or derivations that the poet wants to convey. For example, in a poem called b  Demandb , there are  
references to scenic places like Isfahan or al-Andalus or b the skies of Khorasanb  in the poemb  Sisterb  for which  
the students go through the online projection or there are references to Palmyra trees or wisteria flowers that  
the students come with the colourful printouts from the images on the net. A lingering effect of rhythmic  
resonance pervades through mind on reading some of the alliterative lines b b  organza, odours and ovariesb   
amidst the pathos of endlessness of human misery that often pushes the reader towards a peep into existential  
philosophy. The exercise of reading and involving oneself with Subramaniamb s poems leads one to a liberated  
front b where the self doesnb t bloat.b  On sharing their personal experiences of cherishing these poems, a few  
students came up with some of the interesting observations- they are about Mumbai local trains and the city  
of Madras, however they take you to a jet trip to Lucca, for a cycling trip to Trossachs (Scotland) or the  
ruined Mycanae; there are pangs of woes in the most sensuous poems and traces of sensuality in some of the  
most tragic utterances, leaving one b electric with desireb  (Vigil).  
Learning responses to literary texts may vary from individual to individual and classroom experiences of  
students as well as teachers not only vary from one to another but also from each session to the other. Deriving  
permanent conclusions or rejoicing for a long time in the glory of having conducted a resourceful session may  
turn out to be a nightmare in the following class. However, the process of familiarizing the students with the  
contextual background of the writer/poet does accelerate the process of comprehending the contents in the  
African American Women In Literature ( a pamphlet with visuals and short articles and excerpts from a few  
works of Afro-American women writers).  
Bhatt, Sujata. Muliebrity Norton Anthology OF Poetry  
Interview with Sujata Bhatt. September 1, 2005. Accessed from  
Angelou, Maya. Africa Accessed from  
Subramaniam, Arundhati. In Interview with Akshaya Pillai. Tabloid in The Deccan Chronicle , November 21,  
Subramaniam , Arundhati. B4Where I LiveB4 Allied Publishers, Mumbai, 2005)