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Poetry is seduction

Vijay Seshadri, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for poetry, talks to HT about his American voice, Indian roots, and the enduring power of poetry

books Updated: Apr 25, 2014 21:40 IST
Sudha G Tilak

For nearly a quarter century America has been familiar with Vijay Seshadri's "alchemical brand of poetic magic," according to Alice Quinn in The New Yorker. On 14 April, he won the Pulitzer for his third book of poems, 3 Sections. The Pulitzer committee called it, "a compelling collection of poems that examine human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless".

Born in India in 1954, Seshadri left for America when he was five with his family. His essays (My Pirate Boyhood, in particular) offer a glimpse of his loneliness and his "ambiguous social status" as an Asian immigrant. He currently teaches poetry and non-fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College, New York. Excerpts from an interview over email:

You are the fifth person of Indian origin to have won the Pulitzer in America. How do you feel when Indians want to own you during your success?
I'm happy that Indians, both here in America and in India, respond with such enthusiasm. We, sadly, don't win the medals we should at the Olympics. So at least we should get the occasional literary prize.

Your poems (3 Sections in particular) are inclusive of terrains from across continents. How important is geography to your creativity?
Though I look up often in my poems, I'm very much a poet of the earth, my earth, and am unlike poets ­– famously, George Herbert, say, or Emily Dickenson – who create interior landscapes.

Does India play a part in your sensibilities whilst writing poetry?
I think India colours my subjectivity, and while the object of the poem is recognizably American, the subject contemplating the object has characteristics that are Indian – I was, after all, raised by two very Indian people. But that is the invisible hand that is shaping the poem.

Tell us about your childhood; any memories of Bangalore?
I have vivid memories of Bangalore, from the time I was two when I left a few years later. I've written some of the memories in prose in the past and plan to use some of them in the future. My parents were when I was growing up middle-class intellectuals of the independence period. They were scientists who respected the religious tradition they came from but didn't practise it much. For scientific intellectuals in that era, science wasn't just a vocation. It was an ideology, a way of looking at the world, a powerful force for change, and in some ways a religion in its own right. The longer my mother spent in America the more she longed for the rituals of her youth, so my parents are probably much closer to them now than they were when I was growing up. I do speak Kannada, though I'm unfortunately illiterate in it. I also learned Urdu and Persian as an adult while I was enrolled in a PhD programme at Columbia University. During that time I lived in Lahore, and studied Urdu there. Strange to say, but in the years after we migrated I've spent more time in Pakistan than I have in India.

One of the major Indian-American poets from Karnataka was AK Ramanujam. Are you familiar with Indian poets in English or other regional languages?
I met AK Ramanujam when I was studying at Columbia, and know and tremendously admire his work – not only the poems and translations but the scholarly writing. Losing him was a terrible blow to Indic studies in America. I read quite happily Indian and South Asian poets in English, though my influences are still the ones I acquired when I was a kid, and those are the canonical American and European poets.

Do you visit India regularly? What are your links with your Indian family?
You have to understand that we came to this continent when Eisenhower was president. In those days, air travel was prohibitively expensive, and it was unthinkable for any but the super-rich to get on a plane and go to the other side of the world as frequently as many middle-class people go today. My parents knew that they had left one civilization for another. The globalised society we see now was incipient then. So I went to India for six weeks in 1966, and that was it for the sixties. Subsequently my parents started going back regularly, but by then I had left home and was living on the west coast, and my interests were in nature and wilderness, American wilderness, rather than the civilizations of the old world. So I didn't go back to South Asia until 1990, when I went to Pakistan on a fellowship, and then travelled around India visiting relatives. I've been back a couple of times since, but mostly I'm working so it's hard to get a good chunk of time – and India needs more than anything else time to take it in.

What are your earliest memories of wanting to pen your thoughts through poetry? Do you recall the first bits of poetry you ever wrote?
I have the first poems I wrote, when I was sixteen, still. I don't, though, think I'll show them to anyone. I was always literary, I was always a reader, but as for poetry I don't think my thoughts flowed into poetry. Rather what happened was that I encountered poems I fell in love with, and I wanted to create objects like those.

What were your early preferences in poetry?
Yeats, Auden, Donne, Whitman are probably the early big four – I had a traditional literary education. Then a host of contemporary American poets who came to prominence in the nineteen-sixties. European poets such as Tomas Transtromer and Gunther Eich. Later, French poetry, mostly nineteenth century. If I had to point to the most extensive influences on my work I would have to say the poets of an American classicism – and by that I mean the writers of the mid-century: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke.

Why do you feel most comfortable expressing yourself through poetry?
Poetry contains thoughts and feelings, but poetry I don't think is a means to express thoughts and feelings. Rather those are a part of something else, which is a verbal performance, like a musical performance. An athleticism of the mind, if you will.

In India contemporary poets bemoan the lack of spaces for poetry to nourish. Is it different in America?
No. Poetry flourishes in America. People might not read it in the numbers they should – though when has that ever not been the case anywhere – but so many people here write it and write it well, and there are many ways one can live and survive as a poet.

In an age and world where technology is shrinking our need to read and write long hand or letters, the outbreak of Twitter, how valuable is it to preserve and nourish a tradition of poetry?
I think all these changes are just on the surface. Underneath we are still creatures in search of meaning. Poetry has been, since we emerged as the species we are, I suspect, primary in that search, and that is never going to change.

You teach poetry and liberal arts to college students in New York. How do you draw them to the power of poetry?
I show them that poetry is persuasion, and therefore seduction. Everybody likes to find out about seduction.