Site icon Arnav Sibal

Cards, Kings, and Earth: A Retrospective

Hard to believe it’s been exactly one year.

Broke by the Toll

At midnight, on the 4th of May, 2019, I released my debut spoken word collection, Dirtskin. Why midnight? To be cool. It’s what all the famous folk do right? Now, if you had asked me a year before if I had been working on anything or if I was looking forward to releasing my first collection – of any sort – since Wildflower Sea, I’d have likely responded with “I’ve given up on all that.” And it wouldn’t have been a joke.

I started this blog back in 2012, writing shitty life advice (Fourteen year olds make for the best mentors after all) before having the genius idea of packaging that shitty life advice in the unassuming media-friendly form of poetry.

I amassed a decent following and got a bunch of views and likes and was arguably consistent in my output. But 2017 told a different story. By the time the leaves began to fall, the only thing I’d written that year was an early draft of Seat 5.

I’d given up.

I was convinced that my “lack of substantial success” could be attributed to one of two things (this despite having an actual book to my name. I know. The arrogance):

a) “I’m not good enough.”


b) The public-at-large has terrible taste in poetry and “I’m actually better than those who are somehow fucking making it.”

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the current state of spoken word. It all sounds the same to me. Everybody seems to have been drafted into this style that can only be described as Button Poetry Romantic Monologue. Nor do I like this new brand of ‘Instagram Poetry.’ Rarely does it sound like you’re not quoting yourself. In fact, Ian Kent, on a video call the other day, aptly described it as “Tissue Paper Poetry.” Make of that what you will.

I digress.

Spring 2018 was my first semester without a writing workshop. The daily jottings in my Notes app had already dried up. No new words or phrases I enjoyed the sound of. No new ideas for works. No new dialogue concepts. No wordplay. Nothing. I couldn’t be bothered. I was done. I’d see out my last year of college and get a job in advertising or channel my frustrations into being an editor (Editors, this is just light-hearted banter).

And so, this continued into the summer until ever so slowly I started writing again. I hadn’t missed it one bit yet there it was all in and around and over my life again like it had never left. 

I might have to, reluctantly, give Narendra Modi’s wicked saffron government some credit. One of the first poems I wrote in the early stages of Dirtskin was in response to the rise in nationwide communal lynchings.

As for the title, I coined it right after the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections. As Trump was declared the winner, I ran a quick google search of racial slurs for brown people. The utter lack of creativity was disappointing. Come to think of it, two far-right governments played a hand in the making of my debut and I am feeling incredibly conflicted right now.

This “slur” evolved into something much more beautiful as I began to realise that dirt, much like skin tone,  comes in different colours. With these sediments, in retrospect, what followed seems only natural.

Sandman was born two years and a month after Dirtskin when I saw an empty plastic chair by – you guessed it – the corner of a crosswalk.

I had these great plans. From audio clips to instrumentation. I wanted there to be a design to the language I used. I drafted up a crazy list of earthy-sounding words, phrases, and ideas. I wanted it to be on Spotify and iTunes. I wanted some dang nice album artwork. 

Most of it did not come to fruition.

Then again, a lot of other ideas came together in ways I didn’t plan.

In the past 12 months, I’ve been enormously lucky. I landed four feature spots with Mike Geffner Presents the Inspired Word, one with Word Vomit Poets, and had one of my best open mics with Jo Morris at Nuyorican Poets Café (I showed up tipsy). All this has meant that I have had to go over the poems quite a bit in order to lay out the set lists and rehearse. In that time, I’ve found myself realising new connections between lines across the poems and their influences on the characters and story.

I’d be lying if I said these new interpretations didn’t make me a teensy bit proud of myself.

The writing, however, isn’t the only thing that made Dirtskin what it is. Ian Kent, my good friend and director, looked at my poems and immediately knew where to shoot what. Recording would have been faster if I’d learned my lines well enough but I will forever be in wonder of the ease, patience, and generosity this man displayed when tackling this project. This is as much my baby as it is his. Do yourself a favour and check his work out.

Dusting Up

It isn’t as tight or as clean as I’d have liked it to be. There are fair amounts of vagueness and exposition but of those nine poems, I can safely say four manage to hold their ground even though the entire collection is meant to be experienced together for all the pieces to fit in place. There are ideas and grains of ideas that demand further exploration at some point in the future.

I do wish I’d taken more time with the collection to flesh it out but I was desperate to set it loose before graduation. I also talked about its progress way too much online and that is not something I will be doing going forward. No one needs to know how many drafts. When it’s done it’s done. However, tracking its progress made me accountable and at the end of the day, it definitely played a part in its completion. After all, I’m not known for my ability to complete projects.

Go On Out There Like a New Man

This collection gave me momentum in both writing and performing. If you’re struggling, that’s what you should aim for. 

Assess your art.

What do you mean to your work? What does your work mean to you? Whatever you’re working on right now,  whatever you abandoned, find those underlying threads. It could be comedy or wordplay or something as straightforward as turtles. I don’t know. 

Understand why you do what you do and what it is and where you want to take it.

Minimise that desire to have 10,000 followers. The ‘like’ stats don’t matter. You don’t have to post every day or every week to stay relevant.

You’ll be relevant forever – even if it is to just a single person half the world away – if you’re true to work.

Happy Birthday, Dirtskin. Fuck you, Sandman.

– A

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