An Interview With Poet Vijay Seshadri

by Jeet Thayil

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Online Only, posted 6.29.04

Vijay Seshadri was born in Bangalore, India, in 1954, and moved to Columbus, Ohio, at the age of five. He has lived in various parts of the country, including Oregon, where he worked as a commercial fisherman, and as a biologist for the National Marine Fish Service. He drove a truck for a living in San Francisco, and worked briefly as a logger before coming to New York City to study with poet Richard Howard in the master's program at Columbia University.

His experience in the fishing industry formed the centerpiece of his first collection of poems, Wild Kingdom (Graywolf, 1996). His second collection, The Long Meadow, published by Graywolf in May, won the 2003 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets.

Praised for its elasticity, wit, and intimacy of tone, Seshadri's poetry also includes elements of Indian mythology and religion, although these references tend to be separated from their cultural context.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Seshadri, a 2004 Guggenheim Fellow, when, and why, he started writing poetry.

Vijay Seshadri: I think I conceived of myself as a writer before I started writing, and I started writing poetry when I was 16. I was in college. I had become interested in poetry and that first January I heard Galway Kinnell read from The Book of Nightmares, which as yet was unpublished. I loved that reading. I remember it clearly; it made me want to go home and start writing. I was never one of those writers who knew from the age of six that they were writers, who lisped in numbers. In my early twenties I wrote, or tried to write, a novel that was much too ambitious for me. I’d been influenced by the French new novel, and by Pynchon, and John Hawkes. They were radical novelists and I felt I had to write a novel like theirs. I probably had a novel in me, but it was much more a conventional novel that a person in their early twenties would write, a coming-of-age story; but I had modernist and postmodernist models. Around the time I was also reading Beckett’s trilogy and thought that’s what novels had to be. An impossible model, really. In my mid-twenties I went back to poetry.

P&W: How do you begin a poem? Do you collect material? What comes first, the image or the line?

VS: There used to be a time when I actually willed poems. I would sit there and see something that was beautiful in the world and I would say," I am going to write a poem," without any sort of linguistic bridge. Because I was influenced by images, and by imagism of a certain sort, by the bias toward the image in American poetry, I would start a poem with an image that was really interesting to me. For example, I remember once being on a train and seeing an egret grazing the water of a pond as it was flying; one foot was grazing the water and I thought it was beautiful. I regarded that as a poetic occasion, and for a long time I wrote in response to such experiences.

Later, if I saw something it became necessary that that image call forth a rhythmically alive phrase. The rhythm of the phrase would make it possible for me to write. I think what happens as one’s poetry grows and changes is that the demands we make on poems are greater, so even the rhythm does not become sufficient to enter a poem. You have all sorts of conceptions that come to bear. You have to see that going in a certain direction will make it possible for you to enter into it enthusiastically. If you don’t have enthusiasm you are not going to write a poem. You have to say, "Oh, that’s a great idea; I’m going to follow that." I feel poetry is easier for me now than it used to be, on one level, but much harder on another. It’s a zero sum game. What’s given to you as you develop along certain lines is taken away along other lines.

P&W: In Wild Kingdom you have a poem titled "The Reappeared." In The Long Meadow there is "The Disappearances." The first may tell us something about geography, that “it’s the same there as here.” The second deals, as you’ve said, “with history vertically, rather than horizontally.” How important are history and geography in your poems?

VS: They’re givens and they’re sort of oppressive givens for me. The fact that I came from one civilization to another, however young I was, puts me in historical circumstances. History has a density simply because in the movement from one society to another it’s reality is made more painfully apparent to you. When you have the problem of history as a poet, you have to find a way to manage it, to appropriate it and not have it appropriate you. By "appropriating you" I mean, I think, the conventional immigrant narrative, which has been repeated by every immigrant group. It has a certain marketability, but that marketability tends to be ephemeral. I would say that that’s a way in which history is determining the writer rather than the writer somehow finding a way to get himself or herself out of history. I was always taken with Stephen Daedalus’s saying, ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ That was, in a nutshell, the response of the people I regarded as literary models. It made the dilemma fairly peculiar and I think what I said about verticality as opposed to horizontality—when I was asked to talk about "The Disappearances"—has something to do with that. You have to find a new way into thinking about these things in order to free yourself as a poet from them.

"The Disappearances" is peculiar because it’s very much about American history. My authority with respect to American history—my ability to appropriate it—is problematic because I come from another culture, from India, and because I’m an immigrant even though I came here when Eisenhower was president. It’s still one of the things by which history exerts itself on me and, I guess, oppresses me. But, then again, I was here when Kennedy was president. I remember the day of his assassination clearly, as does anybody who was conscious in America at that time. It’s very much a part of my experience, part of the things that shaped me as a child.

P&W: "The Disappearances" deals with an unnamed cataclysm. I know that many readers, when they saw the poem in the New Yorker, assumed it was about September 11.

VS: I thought it was unfortunate but it was unfortunate in a way that was ambiguous. The poem made me more well-known than I had ever been. It appeared on the back page of the New Yorker at a time of national crisis. Lots of people read it, and I always felt uncomfortable about the situation of the poem, but it was quite deliberate on the part of the New Yorker. The editors understood that the poem moves toward a historical cataclysm and then moves beyond it. It takes in loss and it makes the historical personal somehow. There was a serendipitousness about that poem’s being published when it was, and that wasn’t odd so much as mysterious. It was a particularly intense period where people felt loss and grief. I’ve been told by friends and students who read it then that it answered to the feelings of that moment for them—and it also rose to the Kennedy assassination, which was the last time in American history where people felt the same sort of profound instability. I think it was legitimate that it was published at that time. The only thing that bothers me is that people would think I would write in response to 9/11. I mean, I don’t think I could have written a poem in response to 9/11 to save my life. I was just too shocked.

"The Disappearances" revolves for a while around how uncanny loss is. If you think about the experience of people who have died, they’re there and they’re gone, and that’s the real mystery of it. It’s the great oblivion of death that is the most interesting thing about it, and that’s what I was really baffled by. Narratives of loss tend often to be very coherent; they resolve into grief. We imagine people who have lost someone to have grieved and to have gone on. Nobody deals with the deepest existential response, which is bafflement.