Before and After the Pulitzer: An Interview with Vijay Seshadri, by Kalpna Singh-Chitnis

Vijay Seshadri is the first Asian-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In his interview with Life and Legends, he mentions that he was a source of pride for India and among the Indians, and other Asians in America when he won the 2014 poetry Pulitzer for his book, 3 Sections. This interview of Vijay Seshadri in Contemporary Indian Poetry edition of Life and Legends is a continuation of that celebration, and an exploration of his life and work before and after the Pulitzer.

Vijay Seshadri, who once worked as a fisherman, logger and as an editor at The New Yorker, is a professor and the chair of the Undergraduate Writing and MFA Programs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. He is also the author of Wild Kingdom, The Long Meadow, and The Disappearances. His awards and honors include, 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; The James Laughlin Prize of the Academy of American Poets (for “The Long Meadow”); The MacDowell Colony’s Fellowship for Distinguished Poetic Achievement; The Paris Review’s Bernard F. Conners Long Poem Prize; 2004 Guggenheim Fellow and other awards recognizing his work.

Vijay Seshadri in conversation with Kalpna Singh-Chitnis –

KSC: You are a world-renowned poet, but you didn’t start writing poetry until you were in your mid- twenties. Did you surprise yourself by discovering the poet in you?

VS: No, no. I was writing poetry at sixteen, and wrote a lot between the ages of sixteen and twenty. Then I spent most of my writing time in my early twenties working on a novel. I always read poetry then, though, contemporary and canonical, and never really stopped thinking of myself as a writer of poems, even though I wasn’t writing them. The failure of the novel—I wasn’t in the right milieu to get it done; too many other things were happening in my life; and my idea of it was far too ambitious given my experience in writing something large (which was none)—led me into a period of confusion about my writing and out of that I came back to poetry and became more and more absorbed by the art.

KSC: In an interview in lohud, you are quoted as saying that that if one of your students at Sarah Lawrence asked for advice, “I probably would say you should be going out and solving the problem of global warming so we don’t all drown. I don’t think I would be saying you should be writing poetry.” Why is poetry not as practical as finding the solutions to the problem of global warming?

VS: Well, we’re living in apocalyptic times, and a lot is riding on our finding technical solutions to our problems. I guess I should have said that you should be saving the world somehow, too. I didn’t mean to derogate the importance of poetry in any time, and its particular importance now. I agree with Stevens that poetry is the violence of the mind in response and resistance to the violence of the world, and the world is more violent and disruptive these days than it has been in my lifetime. So I think, actually, poetry is more important than ever, both to rouse people to action (though that is hard to do with a poem) and because the art restores to the human being his, her, or their fundamental integrity and inner coherence and meaning in the face of the powerful disintegrative processes of the world.

KSC: What inspires you to write? Tell us a little bit about your books.

VS: The first question is unfortunately one I don’t know how to answer in any useful way, except to say that I can only write when I’m happy, or at least happy enough. As for the second question: My books are all, basically, selected poems. I write a lot but I finish very little. I have deep affection for my fragments—the ratio of fragments, some of them very big fragments, to finished poems is about ten to one—but the books exclude them (and they are most of my work) for the little of it that is finished. The first book, Wild Kingdom, was about my experience of nature and wilderness, and even the urban poems are conceived that way. The urban poems are often about race, but race elementally conceived, race as black and white, race as a natural force. The Long Meadow, my second book, is fundamentally derived from a contemplation of the relationships between myth and history. The third book, 3 Sections, is, I guess, about the self in its condition of self-awareness. Those are very brief, and highly reductive encapsulations, and probably shouldn’t be entirely trusted. Artists never really know what they’re doing.

KSC: You said above that you wrote a novel and abandoned it. Now, since you are a successful poet, would you consider writing the novel that you could not finish when you were young?

VS: It’s always a temptation. I love fiction, and am a good reader of fiction, if I do say so myself. Who knows?

Vijay Seshadri with his parents

KSC: Tell us about your family background. Do you have any childhood memories of India that you would like to share with us?

VS: My family can trace their presence in that part of India, around what is now the city of Bangalore, very far back. More recently, my grandfather was the chief engineer for Mysore State (which was later renamed Karnataka) before and after Independence. He was traditional but also enlightened—he gave his female children (my mother was his oldest child) college educations, which was unusual in their community at that time. My father studied physics, and then came here, to America, in the mid-nineteen-fifties to get a Ph.D., in physical chemistry. People who know South India can easily reconstruct the culture they came from using those facts. I left India at the end of the fifties. I have vivid memories of Bangalore in those early years. Experience made a strong impression on me when I was a child. Those neighborhoods where we lived—Malleswaram, Kumara Park—are strongly etched on my mind. The memories are complex, evocative, and beautiful.

KSC: How did you maintain a balance between the expectations of your Indian parents and what was expected of you growing up in a Western culture, in the United States?

VS: I don’t think I maintained a balance. I let it all imbalance me, but in an exciting way. I did manage that imbalance, I guess, because here I am, intact (sort of). The America I fully experienced as a kid was an America in turmoil—the civil-rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the explosion of the counterculture—and I was swept away as an adolescent and a young man by those things, to the consternation of my parents. I had an adventurous life, but it was hard on them. They, of course, wanted me to be a scientist or an engineer or a doctor. I think in the end they were happy with the way I turned out, but it was definitely touch-and-go for them until I was in my late twenties.

KSC: How did immigration affect your social life and creativity?

VS: It was difficult socially. As an artist, though, it gave me an early advantage because it forced me to see life from the outside, slightly estranged from it, which is what an artist has to do.

KSC: In the early part of your life, you worked many jobs. I read somewhere that you hitchhiked and came to the coast of Oregon to become a fisherman and also worked as a driver in the logging industry. These tough jobs are not something a boy from a conventional Indian family would do. Were you rebellious in nature? How did you convince your parents that those jobs were suitable for you?

VS: My youth was adventurous—it was a time of adventure—and I did a lot of things, though I never drove a logging truck. I lived close to and worked in nature and wilderness, which is where I wanted to be and of which there is a lot in America. It was the era of the American counterculture, and many people were trying, with varying degrees of success, to return to the land. In my case, it was the ocean, the salmon-fishing culture of the central Oregon coast. I just happened to find that pocket of the world while I was hitchhiking (it was the summer of 1977) back to San Francisco, where I’d been living, from Wyoming, where I’d gone to meet my parents—my father was giving a paper at a conference at the University there. I found myself on the Oregon coast and I fell in love with it, and worked on the ocean and in various capacities in the fishing industry for five years. I also did stuff in the woods, the Coast Range. I planted trees; I worked one winter as a gypo logger. That work was physically brutal. Fishing was very tough work, too, but nothing like logging. I didn’t really take to logging, though I loved being in the woods. If it seems strange that a child of Indian scientists would wind up in such a milieu, you have to remember that those were strange and revolutionary times, where people really were committed—in the aftermath of the revolutions of the sixties and the general antipathy to the social order—to reinventing themselves. I was a radical then. I calmed down—don’t we all?—but I miss those times fiercely.

KSC: What made you leave your life as a fisherman behind? What was decisive in changing your path?

VS: It wasn’t something I could sustain; not a life for me, really, just a long adventure in the wilderness, like climbing a mountain. You don’t stay on the mountain after you’ve climbed it, you come down. And though I loved it I had no real talent for a life on the sea. I had to come back to my dharma, to my obligations, to my family. And, of course, the adventure was always about literature. That was the underlying ambition and task. I’m so grateful, though, to have had those years. They were so meaningful and they gave me so much.

KSC: Do you still carry the ocean somewhere in your heart, and talk to your distant self? Would you ever consider writing a story or a novel about that phase of your life? I think that would be very interesting to your readers. You must!

VS: I’ve written fragments—there is one in “3 Sections,” an account of time I spent working as a fisheries biologist on the Bering Sea—and, yes, I’m going to fill the story out, and do it soon.

KSC: While studying in New York, you landed a job at The New Yorker. How did mentorship play a role in finding directions for you as a writer? Would you choose to mentor anyone like yourself?

VS: People published me soon after I came to New York, but I never really had mentors. I had one friend, Tom Lux, a wonderful poet, whom I’d known since I was nineteen, and who encouraged my earliest writing. He was the best literary friend I ever had, he helped me at every stage of my writing life, but I wouldn’t call that a mentoring relationship. You have to remember I was an Indian when there were really no Indians in the circles I travelled in, so that affected even my relationships. When I was fashioning my career—this was in the nineteen-eighties—I saw all my relationships as international, if that makes any sense. I saw myself as a nation of one, a small nation, yes, but a sovereign nation—negotiating with the more powerful nation-states around me. The New Yorker job came later, in the early nineties, but even at The New Yorker, where I made many friends, whom I retain to this day, my felt experience was one of isolation, which is fine, and which, looking back, gave me a lot. My experience of the literary world is sui generis. It doesn’t resemble normal literary relationships, of the kind I engage in now with my students. As for your second question, yes, I mentor students in the normal way, and they are like me in that they want to be writers, as I did and do. Otherwise they come from across the human spectrum.

KSC: How does it feel like to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry?

VS: It feels good. Maybe a little too good. One can easily get caught up in just basking in the attention and warmth. Writing, especially poetry writing, is often a cold and lonely experience, so to come in to someplace warm can be such an exhilaration and pleasure. But of course it is your obligation to go back out into the cold. That is where the treasures lie.

KSC: What was the reaction in India, among the media and literary people, family and friends, after you won the Pulitzer Prize? How and where one can read your books in Indian languages?

VS: The reaction was gratifying. I was given lots of media attention, and celebrated. I was invited to the big festivals and even gave the keynote address at the Jaipur festival. In India, and among Indians here in America, I was a source of pride. And among other Asians, as I was the first Asian-American to win a poetry Pulitzer.

KSC: You had a chance to study Farsi and Urdu for your research work. Did you also learn your mother tongue and Hindi, the most common language in India?

VS: Kannada is my mother tongue—actually Tamil, given that our community are Tamil speakers who have lived for a half-millennium in the region of what is now Bangalore; though I was spoken to in Kannada by elders who spoke to one another in Tamil, or in a code-switching amalgam of the two—and I can speak Kannada, though I’m illiterate (trying to correct that now). I learned Hindi, or what is called, more properly from a linguist’s point of view, Hindustani, when I learned Urdu. I’m literate in both, though I haven’t kept up the reading, and it’s been a long time since I was immersed in the idiom . I learned Urdu to study the poetry, but, more important, to study the politics and modern history of the Indian republic.

KSC: You have translated some of the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib and Momin Khan Momin. What inspired you to translate their work? Do you want to translate more from the Indian literature in the future?

VS: As I said above I was interested in Indian politics. I was in a Ph.D. program at Columbia on the basis of my literary interests and profile. My cover was that I was studying classical Urdu poetry, and learning Persian to reinforce my Urdu, but what I was really interested in was the history of Islam in South Asia. But in keeping with my cover I did spend a lot of time with the classical Urdu ghazal, and came to a just appreciation of that towering literary tradition. I’m definitely going to translate more ghazals. I’d also like to explore the poets of Bangladesh, and of Islamic Bengal generally. I don’t know any Bengali, unfortunately, so I’ll have to find a collaborator.

KSC: You are an original thinker, and very analytical in your thought process. Do you consider the critic in you a friend or an enemy when it comes to writing and critiquing your own work?

VS: That’s a good question. An enemy, definitely. But a very intimate enemy, somewhat like the beloved in the ghazal tradition—unappeasable, never satisfied with me, indifferent to my longing, contemptuous of my weaknesses.

KSC: Almost all of us have grown up listening to cradle songs, learning rhymes and reciting poems with great joy in school. But all of a sudden, poetry stops making sense to most of us when we grow up. What happens to us? Who is to blame for our lost love of poetry?

VS: It’s hard for me to answer that question, because poetry never stopped making sense to me. And certainly great poems of the past—by Yeats or Stevens or Frost or Shakespeare or Li Po or Hafez—remain in people’s minds, don’t they? I suppose modernity relinquished some of the basic musical and rhythmic pleasures—the pleasures of song—that poetry used to offer. That made the experience of poetry more inaccessible than it used to be. The big failure is probably in the way poems are taught in secondary school. People are made afraid of poetry.

KSC: Why is it difficult to understand poetry? Please share your thoughts on the complexity of poetry, and how a reader can understand poetry better and enjoy reading it.

VS: Well, difficult poetry—John Ashbery, say—is difficult to grasp, but poetry that isn’t difficult—Robert Frost, say—isn’t. No one would say that Frost isn’t a great poet, but he’s telling stories, and we understand stories. That is the last thing that Ashbery is doing. Your question conflates a lot of different kinds of poems and a lot of difference in the quality of poems. But, yes, poetry has evolved in the main into an art that requires a degree of sophistication to fully enter. So does modern music, though, or contemporary painting, or for that matter science. High culture has got away from many people, and that is generally unfortunate, not for the sake of high culture but for those people who would benefit deeply if they were given the tools to appreciate it. But there is a lot of very great poetry that is extremely accessible. Yeats is probably the greatest poet in English in the past two hundred years, and he is both profound and immediate. Stevens, who is just as good, is profound but not immediate or immediately accessible, but if you spend some time with him you start seeing the beauties, and eventually they will floor you.

KSC: “Memoir” is one of my favorite poems of yours. But you do not find this poem spiritually uplifting. However, as a reader, I have a slightly different understanding of this poem, and find it spiritually very strong. Why is the acceptance of guilt is not celebrated, even when it is liberating?

Video courtesy, PBS NewsHour

VS: I don’t quite know what I might have meant when I said that or where I said it–I don’t tend to describe my poems as either spiritually uplifting or not uplifting. I think uplift of that kind usually involves reader response rather than writerly intention. The poem is ironic, and I want to emphasize its irony. I’m not revealing anything. Orwell is right–no one ever tells you the real story of their life, and I don’t either. None of those things happened to me. I would never tell anyone what really happened to me. The interest here for me was the deflection that occurs in this poem—creating the feeling of the “real story,” the “humiliations,” and then deflecting that story at the end. The value is in its sudden shift into the phenomenology of joy. I guess I see it as abstract, conceptual poem, the pleasure of which lies in the fact that it alters expectation. The word “irony” comes from the Greek for dissembling–saying something but meaning something else–and irony is a powerful tool in rhetoric, and of course at the high end of literature has profound tragic dimensions.

KSC: How important is a writer’s background for his or her work to be recognized at a higher level? Do you agree that academia seems to have much control over granting recognition to writers, and the elites in that world are less inclusive toward the writers coming from outside?

VS: Well, the definition of being an outsider is that you’re outside, so of course the people inside are not going to be aware of you in the way that they are aware of the other people who are inside. The elites of the world are not inclusive of the non-elites of the world. Why should it be any different in poetry? It certainly never was historically. It certainly never was in India at any period in Indian history. That said, the world of American poetry is changing and becoming more diverse and democratic all the time, and it started out more democratic than any other literary culture.

KSC: Would you like to share your views on 2016 Nobel Prize in literature given to Bob Dylan? Coming from an Indian background, where the history of Indian poetry has a long list of celebrated poets from oral or lyric traditions, what arguments do you have in favor or against a poet like him?

VS: I grew up on Bob Dylan. I don’t think I would have given him the literature prize. I would have given it to John Ashbery, who just recently died. But I love and revere Dylan, so I thought it was fine. I think it’s scandalous that Indian writers writing in the vernaculars are never considered for the Nobel. There are tremendous writers in all the Indian languages, but they don’t get translated; no one in the larger world is conscious of them. That’s a problem that I don’t have a solution for, but I feel the injustice.

KSC: What is the reason for the lack of interest in reading and translating from the Indian languages in the West, in comparison to the other Asian and European languages?

VS: I don’t know.

KSC: Please tell us a little about “Vijay Seshadri Graduate Fellowship in Writing.” How the idea to offer this fellowship in your name emerged?

VS: My former students got together and did it, under the impetus of Sally Bliumis-Dunn, who was my thesis student over fifteen years ago. I had nothing to do with it. I was flattered, of course, that they would think of me in that way, and deeply gratified that I could be somehow involved in getting money for a writer to study writing. I love to teach, and I enjoy the classroom and am seriously concerned with the education of those in my charge. It was very moving to me that they honored that important part of my activity in the world.

KSC: Do you have any message for the new generation of writers?

VS: Respect the past, and learn from it. Read, read, read. And remember, a writer is someone who writes, not someone who just thinks about writing.


Kalpna Singh-Chitnis is an Indian-American Poet and Filmmaker, based in the United States.