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Rediff.com  » Getahead » The Indian teen who is New York City's Youth Poet Laureate

The Indian teen who is New York City's Youth Poet Laureate

January 09, 2014 17:54 IST

'Poetry is my secret weapon'

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Arthur J Pais

Bill Clinton was there. Hillary Clinton was there. New York's governor was there. But guess who stole the show at New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's inauguration?

New York City 2014 Youth Poet Laureate Ramya Ramana!

Ramya, 18, tells Rediff.com's Arthur J Pais how poetry helps her fight inhumanity, racism and exploitation.

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was sworn in January 1, the audience was in agreement that at many points the performers upstaged the politicians in attendance, which included former President Bill Clinton, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The New York Times felt, 'The most showstopping performance was that of Ramya Ramana, New York's Youth Poet Laureate.'

Ramya evoked the real New York City when she read a poem at de Blasio's inauguration -- Not lights, not Broadway, not Times Square -- and the inequality that was the new mayor's campaign theme:

We will no longer stay silent to this classism.
No more brownstones and brown skin playing tug-of-war with a pregnant air hovering over them like an aura of lost children.
No more coloured boy robbed of their innocence.
This city always will be the foundation of this country.
We are root.
We are backbone.
We brown, we black, we yellow, we white, we young, we collage of creatures stomping to be reminded of the mammal inside of us.

The 18-year-old -- who is studying philosophy and politics at St Johns, on a four-year scholarship accorded to her as a winner of the Knicks Poetry Slam competition -- says her shyness means she finds her voice in poetry.

She spoke to Rediff.com's Arthur J Pais about her fight with bullying in school, her writing and her plans to continue her efforts to get young people registered to vote.

Why is poetry important to you?

Through poetry I have been able to confront the fears and anxiety I have faced as an immigrant and as a person of colour. It is my secret weapon.

Writing poetry and bringing out my feelings has been a very transformative experience for me.

And more important, I use poetry to address the social issues and get people, especially young people, to do something about injustice around us.

I want to use poetry to help marginalised people acquire a voice to fight the inhumanity, racism and exploitation around us.

When did you start writing poems?

I sought refuge in writing poetry many years ago. To some extent, I have been conscious of the importance of poetry in Tamil literature, even though I was born and raised in America.

I cannot remember when I started, but I began taking it more seriously in my sophomore year of high school.

I started performing after joining an organisation called Urban Word NYC, which taught me how to nurture and build my poetry and also facilitated slams and performance workshops.

I am still a shy person and nervous when it comes to reciting before an audience even though I have performed at such venues as the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York, but I am becoming better with each performance!

Apart from poetry, what has given you courage and solitude to confront anything in your personal life?

Prayers.

Four years ago I was undergoing a lot of depression because of bullying in the school on Long Island.

It was mostly full of white students and for some time I did not know what to do. But when I began to pray, I got a lot of inner strength.

In the beginning, I would pray to just God. My mother is a Hindu and my father became a Christian some years ago when he had a religious experience during a business visit to Switzerland.

He had been baptised by missionaries in India when he was very young, but he had not been practicing. During the business trip, he met a stranger who asked him if he would like to join a church service and something of that experience made him embrace Christ anew.

But he never suggested that I become a Christian.

One day during my generic prayers, I heard the hymn Hallelujah, which I had never heard before.

I had a physical vision and Jesus came into my life. I knew hardly anything about Jesus, but soon I was reading the Gospels and the rest of the Bible. Among many other things, I found wonderful poetry in the Bible.

However, I would not like to say that I belong to a church because the organised church has committed many acts of injustices and I feel many people from right-wing groups have hijacked Jesus.

To me, Jesus was a revolutionary who advocated the rights and welfare of the ordinary people.

When I pray these days, I ask for strength to fight injustice and inhumanity around me, to gain more strength to do so.

Please click NEXT for more...


Image: Ramya Ramana


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'I want to celebrate the possibility of fighting for a better world'

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How did you deal with bullying?

I was able to transfer to another school, but there was also some bullying there. But my prayers had given me the strength to find peace and comfort in my own heart.

I also realised that success was the best revenge and I worked hard to shine in my studies and other activities outside the classroom.

I also reached out to the bullies and tried to understand their lives. They could not believe someone doing it.

What have you taken from your parents?

My mother, who is a home-maker, has given wonderful nurturing to my older sister and me.

From my father, I have learned genuine humility. He is one of the most humble persons I have ever known.

I was born and raised in New York, but Indian culture has influenced me deeply.

In our culture, the concept of hospitality is very strong and that idea has been ingrained in me and my sister from the childhood.

Thinking of others and wanting to fight with them for a better world is part of this hospitality concept.

One of the poems you performed at the YPL slam was Miss America. Did you watch the pageant on TV?

I did not watch it on TV and wasn't even aware that it was on until afterwards I heard about an Indian-American woman winning it.

I then watched the event on YouTube and then I thought to myself that some Americans are not going to be happy with the fact that she's not white and then I saw all the racial tweets.

I was not surprised as I know first hand how deep racism is there in America, but the hardest part is coming to terms with it.

The reaction against Nina Davuluri (Miss America) made my resolution to fight, to get to a place where ignorance and the notion of Caucasians domination are ending, even stronger.

I wrote a poem while thinking of the new Miss America. It is an empowering poem.

I hope to meet with Davuluri some day and perform the poem in front of her.

The Youth Poet Laureate programme is 'designed to energise youth voters' through poetry. Have you voted in an election?

I did it in the New York mayoral election. Not only was I writing a poem on the need to vote and participate in public life and appealing to the young to register and vote, I was also voting in a general election for the very first time.

What are the other projects you are working on?

I have a book offer, and I am writing poems for it. I want to celebrate the possibility of fighting for a better world.

I hope God will be watching over me and inspire me not only on this project but everything I want to do.

What do you plan to do after college?

I will continue what I have started -- to be a community organiser and activist advocating for human rights and social justice.

I will continue giving back to the community.

Please click NEXT to read Ramya's poems...


Image: Ramya Ramana, sitting second row right, watches former US President Bill Clinton introduce New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, sitting first row, second from right, with his wife Chirlane McCray in New York, January 1.


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Miss America

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Ramya Ramana wrote Miss America in moments of anguish and disappointment over racial attacks on a fellow Indian American.

'As I, along with possibly thousands and millions of other South Asians were enthused and pleasantly shocked with the result of the 2014 Miss America being an Indian-American,' she wrote in an e-mail to Rediff.com, 'I was also aware that in the post-colonised world we live in, many people would not be happy with the results.'

'When I saw the tweets, I was extremely disappointed. People were saying such things as Miss New York is an Indian... Congratulations Al Queda. Our Miss America is one of you.'

'I knew as an Indian-American the issue had to be addressed and confronted,' Ramya wrote. 'Most people that know me would say I am shy and introverted, so it is a task for me to address my opinions through just conversation.'

'Art and poetry is a place where I find my freedom and can voice and say things that are not easily said in conversation -- poetry is my platform and here is an example of what I want to do my poetry.'

Miss America

Do not hesitate to make sand castle out of chest.
When their mouths flail like sneezing guns
At the epitome of your bloodline,
Do not fear the consequence of pulse.
Simply stand firm -- staying still is one of the hardest things mankind can do.
Use the esophagus of your eyes as weaponry.
Talk to them in chatter box format
Tell them this soil is yours."
This flag is yours. This birth certificate is yours.
Speak of Caste systems, Speak of Gandhi, Speak of Nehru,
Speak of women being held like Jonah in
Belly of a world that does not speak well of its own body.
When your body becomes a half flashback of the twin towers being bent like scoliosis,
Remind them of all the pelvic bones broken because
Their ancestors wanted to conquer what did not belong to them.

When they say, “You, are a terrorist Nina.”
Say back: “No, we are all the ground you could ever wish to be.”
Say back: “No, this land does not vomit our limbs. It cages them like young child of home.”
Say back: “No, your great grandfathers, raped, killed and
Oppressed every race in the world. You are the biggest terrorists I know.”
People will always tell us that we are not American.
Smile and show all the red waiting to be sprawled out in our gums.
Open our eyes and let the whites of our pupils splash out like volcanoes.
Give our hands tantrum method and let it be known the blues of our veins
Wants to sing its voice like the vocal chords of a
Homeless man who’s been silenced into genocide.
Show them the flag that tattoos its mantras all over your body.
Show them that walk that you do. That Indian thing that you do.
Keep dancing Nina, keep dancing.
Stomp your feet like resurrected rhinos getting shivers to movement.
Do that dance, bring all that motherland you can in here.
When they mock us, keep dancing. When they laugh at us, keep dancing.
When they mold us into animal construction site, do not stop moving your feet.
Let them rise, make them dance with us. Make them do that hip turn with us.
When they hate us, when they kill us, when they terrorize us,
Dance, sing, stomp,
Say “Here’s your foot long buffalo chicken on whole wheat. You’re welcome.”

***

It's Not Your Problem

The idea of this poem was to bring awareness on this issue that often people let our ‘titles’ break us apart and forget about the greater cause of humanity,” says Ramya.

“I believe god created us to all be in communion with one another and I believe that we are also called to serve and love one another.'

'This notion of only supporting what belongs to your title is not only dangerous, but extremely vain and materialistic in approach. It is important for us to take action and serve all people -- regardless of orientation.”

Gum wrapper sticking to pavement.
You only eat mints.
lt is not your problem.
Door shut.
Little boy taps knock-knock. Keep ears deaf.
It is not your problem.
Food sprawled like unwarned vomit.
You already ate.
It is not your problem.
Desert stomach.
You live in tundra.
It is not your problem.
Stomach of empty cactus.
Again, you live in tundra.
It is not your problem.
Boy crying.
Childhood taught you that males don’t water from face.
It is not your problem.
Boy curled like locks on scalp.
You straighten your hair.
It is not your problem.
Cigarette silhouettes gathered as shadow at funeral.
You don’t smoke.
It is not your problem.
Lungs at graveyard marry structure of prune.
You only eat dates.
It is not your problem.
Hymens crushing and falling like raindrops.
You’re not really a feminist.
It is not your problem.
Porn wearing child like, “I own you.”
That’s gross.
It is not your problem.
Dead people.
You’re alive.
It is not your problem.
Politicians baking laws like crack.
You don’t do drugs.
It is not your problem.
Bullets flying like Esperanza in chest of teenage boy.
You only have sisters.
It is not your problem.
Gentrification dancing in skinhead uniform.
You live in East Village.
It is not your problem.
White supremacy uses power control as man-made alter for Satan. You’re Agnostic.
It is not your problem.
Authorities taking over and New World Order happens.
Do not vote against it.
It is not your problem.


Image: Ramya Ramana


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