Tenderness: An Improbable Profession.

Shefali Upreti | October 6, 2019

The Word Warriors are difficult to imagine without QC, and it is difficult to imagine QC without Yukta. At 27, she has spent five years, the largest chunk of her eight year-long full-time career, at QC. Her involvement with QC began with poetry. In the winter of 2010, Yukta attended a spoken word poetry workshop at the GAA Hall in Thamel, organized by QC. This workshop gathered what would become the leading poets in the nation-wide community of the Word Warriors.

“The workshop did something,” Yukta reminisces. “It shifted something in us. The poems that came from a personal space struck me. These were poems that resonated with me, not just poems that reminded me of my own story, but poems that, even though they were about things that weren’t in my proximity, spoke words that needed to be spoken. This sharing of what needed to be shared – I saw value in this.”

She wasn’t alone in this: six of the participants of this pivotal workshop remained in touch, wishing to keep alive the chord that spoken word poetry had struck in them. Together, they formed a Facebook group of poets with the initial purpose of just sharing poetry. The Word Warriors had thus been conceived, and they were growing fast. They began reaching out to the youth, replicating the workshops they’d been given, putting on performances at events, and writing. Writing sheaves upon sheaves of poetry.

This devotion towards poetry and literature came early in Yukta’s schooling. It was a new interest, even in her family of artists and craftsmen, her mother running a knitting business, her father from a long line of silversmiths. Their art, Yukta tells me, was more about sustenance rather than exploration, more about stylistic skill rather than an emotional reflection. Although, she says, a lot of the poems she studied in school focused on structure, on style, and barely lingered over emotional content. It was the poetry she read on her own that supplied this rarefied content – Madhav Prasad Ghimire’s epic, Gauri, which she read over and over again, immersed in the sweet, personal space it was written from.

Yukta Bajracharya performing Home

Spoken word poetry, with its accessibility, vibrancy, and strong focus on writing to tell a poet’s tale, reeled Yukta in. In her 2016 chapbook, Covering up My Cold Feet, Yukta wrote, “I had no idea that once I got off that stage my life would unfold the way it has done, with poetry being at the constant center of it.” This stage was the one QC Awards 2010 had set up, a slam competition geared towards young poets like Yukta. Her relationship with QC grew, nourished by poetry. She performed at their events, at book launches hosted by them, and conducted workshops for their pool of readers and young poets. In 2012, when acclaimed spoken word poet Sarah Kay brought her workshops to Nepal, QC and the Word Warriors engaged with her actively, taking instructor workshops from her and even performing alongside her in schools.

This spoken word collective has snow-balled since. Their Facebook page, Spoken Word Nepal, reaches eight thousand young poetry enthusiasts all over Nepal. The group once formed just to share poetry is a community of thirty three thousand members. Yukta’s poem Home,warm as the teashops of Lalitpur, has been watched and re-watched on YouTube, a favorite among many Patan habitués and many more fans of gentle poetry. (A)nagarik, a group poem by Yukta, Ujjwala Maharjan, Rochak Dahal is a Word Warrior classic, with 152,035 views since June 2015.

Yukta Bajracharya, Ujjwala Maharjan and Rochak Dahal performing (A)nagarik

All this came with rigorous work – planning, workshopping, performing, writing. Most importantly, this came with a conscious effort from Yukta and her peers to create safe, encouraging spaces for young poets. A space that accommodates everyone with something to say, a space where they don’t feel judged for saying it. “The community needs to be open and safe enough for them to gel in,” Yukta says.

Ujjwala Maharjan, author of The Only Thing Certain, another influential voice in the Word Warriors and Yukta’s other half in the duets You Do Me No Harm and Privilege, credits a lot of the warmth within the Word Warriors community to Yukta. “What got Yukta and me going was not just the art form: both of us loved poetry, of course, but it was also about how that workshop space felt,” she says. “It was also about the learning space, a safe space. So being able to take this art form to more people, creating the same kind of welcoming and exciting space that makes you want to listen to stories and share your own became central to Word Warriors as we started doing more performances and workshops.”

Yukta Bajracharya and Ujjwala Maharjan performing Privilege

This pillar of creating supportive communities, committed to nurturing artists in safe spaces is shared by QC bookshop, where spoken word artists still arrive to rejuvenate, think, hang out, and most of all, seek out Yukta. It was only natural that QC would draw someone like Yukta. In 2014, when Yukta was asked to start full-time, she was content to comply, crossing over fully from her three year stretch as a reporter at ECS magazine.

“I noticed her during the audition,” Ujjwala recalls. “She had done a poem that, like a lot of her poems, was so vulnerable and powerful. I remember being like, Wow! Her writing was hands down the best in the group. The poem Home was my absolute favourite then, and still is. I really appreciate how much Yukta values and enjoys collaborations, especially artistic collaborations. All the group poems we did together, I almost always felt like backing out because I was always intimidated by her writing, but her excitement and belief that we could do this and it would go well together made it work. I think that is what her leadership style is too – caring a lot about people and getting them excited to do things.”

Presently, the QC office seems to have adopted her personality – open, bright, animated with color. Her metallic green hair, her vibrant shirts, the pattern of stickers that decorate the back of her laptop match the posters and the photos and even stickers tacked on to the office walls. The patient manner with which she probes ideas and the easiness of her laughter sets the tone for the way the team works with each other. All questions are entertained with large measures of patience; all concerns, no matter how small, are addressed. At times, Yukta is almost maternal in her care for the team, admonishing them for not eating, looking after their health.

When it comes to helping out the poets, Yukta is exceedingly generous. Her colleagues recount fondly the times Yukta has stayed up until the wee hours of dawn, going over their poems three days before the deadline, providing crucial feedback and support. “Yukta di never says she doesn’t have time,” Deepa, a team member at QC and also a Word Warrior, says. “She never says that she can’t do it.”

“I do aspire to be gentle and kind,” Yukta says, giggling abashedly as I recount these praises. “It’s something that I aspire to and value. Of course, over the years, at different times, I have been mean and rude. At some point it did take me some time to accept that there is a certain strength in being tender – it doesn’t mean you’re weak. When we think about strong people we think about a certain toughness, equated with other things like physical strength, having a strong personality. But there’s strength in being tender, too.”

Yukta Bajracharya performing Beautiful enough

“Tenderness for others and tenderness for yourself: this was something I had to work on when I started working,” Yukta says. “I had grown up feeling the need to do well in school. I had always been in these high pressure situations where I felt the need to shine and perform well. I’m not sure why this is, maybe it was because of my family not doing well financially that I felt that I had to make the best of a hard situation. When I worked at the magazine, there were lines within which people worked. There was a sense of a competition, and succeeding in the workplace meant receiving that one promotion that was reserved for the best.”

Competitiveness at QC wasn’t alive in this same way, but QC had its own challenges. “At QC, developing ideas is very communal. When I first entered this space, it was different.” The directors weren’t in the country, Yukta tells me, and the team, different members at the time, ran themselves on unrelenting volumes of work. This created a certain lack of boundaries and posed challenges in distributing responsibilities. “The first three years were challenging for me personally, because of issues with accepting who I was, managing expectations while working in a team largely composed of friends. This (setting boundaries and how much time and emotional health could be compromised for work) was an intensely dark period of my professional career – a huge learning experience of what to do and what not to do, how to be and how not to be. It took me time to become kinder, realize how growth happens, and in these years I’ve learned the most about making mistakes and failures.”

Tenderness takes work and acceptance, Yukta says. And tenderness in the workplace depends largely on the way you see work. It is easier, she says, to be gentle in a workplace that isn’t, or at least says it isn’t, about competition, but rather about coaxing the best work out of everyone it employs. In such a workplace, tenderness means compassion for those who are struggling in any capacity, inclusiveness of people and ideas alike, a goal to help every artist up the rungs of creativity, a nurturing of emotions and creativity that goes beyond typical kindness, taking months of patience. Tenderness becomes a commitment, a tool tried and tested by professionals like Yukta, to house artists, to help them grow.

“She’s an amazing educator,” says long-time Word Warrior Nasala Chitrakar, whose poetry chapbook, Wandering Feet, was published alongside Covering up My Cold Feet in 2016. “She’s very intuitive, and thinks of things we might miss out, and she’s very flexible, helping us change our minds or letting us change hers. She genuinely enjoys engaging and learning about what people are up to. She listens to everyone.”

This encouragement for other artists to open up and share is reflected in Yukta’s own work, executed with tenacious compassion. Many of her poems, many of her performances that have elevated her to a position of an influential Nepali literary figure, are extremely gentle, even in their deeply personal emotional depth. Poems about difficult relationships, scarcity and tough mental terrains are written with such affection that it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile one emotion with the other – does the poem evoke anger or does it evoke love? Poems by Yukta tend to feel both in equal measure.

Yukta Bajracharya performing Seaweed

“To see tenderness as a strength took me a while. In the initial phases of writing poems, I was troubled by the fact that they were compassionate and emotional, not revolutionary and groundbreaking,” Yukta says. “One of the things that I realized was that for that time period, that’s the only way I would write. That’s my voice, and changing that would not have been genuine. Finding other people who were tender was really powerful for me. That sort of expression, I really admired in others.”

What is the point of this tenderness, the point of sharing this tenderness in work, in print, and even on stage? According to Yukta, the survival of the Word Warriors depends on their compassion and commitment to helping each other express themselves. “If the Word Warriors weren’t a community committed to lifting each other up, caring for and hearing from one another, they would be lost by now,” she says. Art thrives on response, she adds, and artists draw inspiration from each other, help each other grow. Growth, Yukta knows, happens best in safe, encouraging spaces. “The things that I say, and the things that I write – I am able to do them because I have the space where I know I won’t feel judged for it. Workshops need to be this space, where anyone can explore and share.

“Feeling safe enough to explore is very important for someone who creates art. In a workshop, we give a certain framework. We’re saying: this is how you use metaphor. We’re saying: break those rules and see what happens. What happens when you’re, for example, doing poems by not spelling all your words correctly? Art needs artists to try different things, to experiment.”

Exploration and experimentation are important artistic devices for Yukta. In her work with QC, the Word Warriors, and Book Bus, Yukta engages with scores of young children and adolescents, and holds the softest spot for children’s literature and poetry, approaching her own workshops for young people, as her colleague Nasala Chitrakar calls it, “with child-like glee”.

“I like how children’s stories are very playful,” Yukta says. “We tend to think: this is for the child, and this for the adult. With adults things get serious, there’s a lack of playfulness, and the spark of wonder that children’s books have is lost. The possibilities with playfulness are so vast, not just in the story itself, but also the structure. Popup books are for children, but it still brings wonder to adults.

“I really appreciate the small things in children stories – the kind of stories they tell. They are very endearing,” Yukta tells me. “I want stories like these; I want literature to always be a part of my work and the approach I take when working with youth. I love working with the youth because – it’s very important for me to recreate experiences I’ve had in workshops. The way that we conduct workshops is very new to children who go through a very rigid educational systems. Even standing in a circle and sharing is something absolutely new. Greater learning can happen when you bring yourself into the classroom, share your stories.”

In the Nepali context – but not limited to it – poetry is an improbable profession. Even for a poet like Yukta, poetry had seemed like a gamble – the need to pool into her family’s monthly income, the need to earn enough to support herself makes her wonder what poetry for her would have been if not for spaces like QC, if not for grants she’s won along the way, and if not for the enduring support of communities she actively helped foster. But striving for tenderness in the workplace is unheard of, made real and possible only by poets and educators like Yukta Bajracharya.

“Growing up, in many ways, something that I’ve learned is that for young people it’s important to have other people they can depend on. I don’t see dependency as something that’s bad,” Yukta says. Towards the end of our talk, the young team members at QC, who so admire their Yukta di, have started to shuffle around the office, listening in on our conversation.

“Young people need people they can look up to, and in some ways literature and the arts can do that for them. My interest in working with young people stems from that – a lot of people I meet shouldn’t feel like they’re on their own. Poetry, or having a community, can give that unwavering comfort and support, and can do so much for young people. Rarely does this emotional support come from the family. It’s important to have an outlet, and it’s important to have a support system. Sometimes this support system is the arts,” Yukta says.

Then she gestures happily around the office. “Sometimes it’s other people.”

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