A serious laugh

As a copywriter, brand strategist and poet, Rishi Dastidar often finds himself with feet in quite different professional camps. But that doesn’t mean he splits his writing brain in two. As he explains: “It’s all grist to me…it’s a question of dialling it up or down as needed.”

In fact, he believes his agency work, as head of brand language at Brandpie, offers him a window into worlds that he believes more poets could be exploring – issues like finance, project management and politics.

It’s a philosophy he applied to his debut poetry book Ticker-tape (published by indie Nine Arches Press in 2017); his intentions set out very clearly before we even reach the contents with a flowchart that invites the reader to ‘enter equinox’. It’s a diagram that wouldn’t be out of place in a corporate change management plan, if it weren’t for lines like ‘We were going to write promises in the water’ and ‘It made me want to dance in a perfect, eternal loop’.

Somehow – and I’ve seen a lot of these flowcharts in my time – Rishi manages to turn something that typically makes eyes roll into something beautiful. More importantly, something playful.

Rishi 20 (1)

“I want to do something different,” he explains, after a long conversation about the new Re:Thinking Diversity report published by, among others Spread The Word, London’s writer development agency, which Rishi chairs.

“I want to be seen and read seriously and I want the freedom to write about serious topics that aren’t just related to my identity, but I also want to reclaim an idea of comic in a way that isn’t light verse. Playful seems to be the best word to capture that complexity.”

As a consequence, Ticker-tape is packed with poems that span everything from the politics of drones to the 90s rave scene, by way of Nandos and the problems of ‘becoming English’. The hashtag even gets a look in, in the poem #MyEngland, with lines that include ‘#MyEngland is a theatrical pageantry of boos at a corner kick.’ followed immediately by ‘#MyEngland is a set of Imperial calling cards, with empirical effects.’

 

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The effect he creates – helped by a gorgeous neon cover designed by his sister Ria – is dizzyingly disorientating. It is poetry as glorious, technicolour entertainment, something Rishi makes no apology for, pointing out that he is competing with the likes of Netflix and ‘Celebrity MasterChef’ for an hour of your time.

“Some poets find this heretical, but no one bats an eyelid when conceptual art manages to be both deeply serious and deeply trivial. People accept the two tones in one artist, but when you try to stretch poetry in the same direction… ‘oh no’,” he says.

Like a lot of writing, part of the problem lies in the perception of the thing. Typically, poetry with a capital P has always been regarded as sincere, perhaps even semi-autobiographical, strong on emotion. Serious, if you want to use shorthand. But if you’re writing from a social media landscape, for instance, where the language might not seem so formally challenging, the critical community can be less open to what you’re trying to do.

But Rishi manages to straddle this gap, creating serious poetry using with language, voice and images that practically fizz on the page. The eponymous ‘Ticker-tape’, with its 73 tercets each starting with the word ‘my’, is a microcosm of Rishi’s skill at this blending and blurring. There are quieter moments to catch your breath, too, such as ‘From Stavanger’ and ‘What night is’.

Ultimately, says Rishi, “a good poet should know the traditions they’re coming from. And any gap between those traditions is where your main task lies – finding your voice and then persuading enough people that what you’re doing with that voice is interesting enough to be called poetry and to buy it.”

Three years after Ticker-tape was published and just three days after the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown kicked in, Rishi’s second book was published. This time, a long narrative poem called Saffron Jack (also from Nine Arches Press).

In some respects it’s a very different beast to Ticker-tape, this time a long form poem that follows the drastic action of a man who – always the outsider – decides to set up his own country, crown himself king, in the middle of a war zone.

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Jack is a serious exploration of identity and imperialism, what it means to feel dislocated from the community you live in but can’t go back to the one you’re notionally part of. And yet, it is also wild, ‘high concept’, trivial even, storytelling. Think Jerry Bruckheimer does poetry, in the best possible way.

Consider point 99:

Jack text

Like Ticker-tape, the handbrake turns in language are extraordinary. As the Forward Prize-winning poet Mona Arshi writes on the inside cover, “There really is no one else currently writing poetry quite like this.”

Jack loosely updates Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, although as Rishi explains, the kernel of an idea formed after watching the 1975 John Huston film starring Sean Connery, rather than any desire to address Kipling’s Victorian imperialist sensibilities. At about the same time, he came across an article about the town of Baarle-Hertog, in which you can hop over Dutch-Belgian border at ease – sometimes while in the same house, as a consequence of decisions taken back in the 12th century.

All of this seemed like a good metaphor to Rishi to explore the question ‘if you don’t fit in, what do you do?’ Plus, he adds, “For me the more interesting idea about the Kipling story was what it meant for someone who doesn’t look like an imperialist to go and try and claim the idea of imperialism.”

Jack’s voice is key to the poem but it took Rishi the best part of a decade to find a form that could both contain his narrator and let him fly. Initially a piece of prose, Rishi then tried dramatic monologue and long verse poem. Finally, he came across ‘How to Look at Mexican Highways’ by Mónica de la Torre which unlocked Jack’s form. “Tone is everything and often I think writers sacrifice it for structure,” he says. “Jack’s voice felt too whiny for prose, too hyperreal for monologue.”

 

The heart of Rishi’s poetics lies in innovation – something he calls for more of in the publishing industry. Not innovation for the sake of it, but that desire to be playful while making a serious point. The worst thing any poet can do is forget to play. Or as Rishi puts it: “Bad poetry is dead poetry is poetry that lacks energy.”

The key for Rishi is in staying alert, alive to the fact that an idea can come from anywhere at any time. Some things might emerge quite quickly, others go into notebooks, only to re-emerge months or years later. “The fundamental scratch is usually an interesting piece of language or an image I’ve not seen before,” says Rishi. “It’s almost always a juxtaposition, opposites colliding.”

Some might say a bit like a brand strategist who’s also a poet.

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Find out more about Rishi’s call for more innovation in publishing in our second interview all about a new academic report called Rethinking Diversity in Publishing. You can also follow Rishi over on his Twitter feed.

 

 

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