“You’d have to be as crazy as Dante to get those down, the infernal hatreds. Shoot them. Shoot them where they live and then skip town,” writes Vijay Seshadri in a sequence of poems that begins with the hell we have made of human existence. He writes of ‘decrepit social contraptions,’ of shattering claustrophobia, of vacant lives in mechanised purgatories, of people stamped with ‘postponed’ signs. He wonders if all thinking comes down to this. “Mystery, longing, thirst.”
The Brooklyn based Seshadri recently won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his poetry book 3 Sections and for good reason. He is a ruthless observer of humanity, its failings, losses, its absences and disappearances from the vitality of living. He is not a poet of generalities but particularities that somehow seem to ring true to everyone. He has a great capacity to look at and through and beyond things, facades, falsehoods, pretences, to plunge us into dark spaces we carry within, without acknowledging them. He seems to say, “Look at this..this is you and me and The Other and us. All human. All flawed. All fractured. And...one.” His world like Eliot’s Wasteland is haunted and haunting. Like Whitman, he is a rich imagist.
We are of course interested in his Indian roots, his birth in Bangalore in 1954 post the Pulitzer even though his previously published work in India had not been given the attention it deserved. City Express caught up with the poet and in an email interview, he shared a few thoughts about his life and work. He was even kind enough to share his childhood pictures shot in Bangalore with us.
Do you have any memories at all of Bangalore? Do any of your family members reside here still?
I have many aunts, uncles, cousins, and more distant relatives in Bangalore. My memories of the city, also are vivid.
Your academic life has been shaped in the US..but is there any Indian poet, in any language who is a favourite..who you admire?
There are many Indian poets, contemporary and historical, whom I admire. Some, such as Jeet Thayil, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and Sudeep Sen are not only gifted and exciting, but also are friends. I am reading right now a lot of Mirza Ghalib..I have a decent reading knowledge of Urdu-and am dipping into the other great classical Urdu poets.
What are your literary influences?
There are so many, it’s hard to say. My two favourite works of literature in English are Song of Myself (by Walt Whitman) and King Lear (Shakespeare), very different from each other and I suppose, between them, they comprehend my emotional range. As for my poetic practice, it’s been informed by a number of twentieth century poets. Starting with Yeats and William Carlos Williams (also very different) and proceeding through Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell to elders like Mark Strand and John Ashbery. Currently, I am reading Weldon Kees, Plath, Hart Crane.
What is your creative process like?
My process is fitful. I waste a lot of energy. Sometimes, the poems come easily-mostly, though, they are difficult births. Inspiration comes from many points, as does despair. The most satisfying thing about finishing a poem is finishing a poem.
Your poems like Hell and Purgatory evoke the restless emptiness in The Wasteland. What is it about the world that bothers you?
Alas, these are questions I can’t approach except in poems themselves.
There are conflicting stories about what inspired your poem The Disappearances
There shouldn’t be confusion about the source of the poem. Before the September 11th attack, I heard that the mother of childhood friends in Columbus had cancer, which led me immediately to the most vivid memory I had of her. She is the one who says, ‘Hush, children, don’t you understand history is being made.’ When I was in their house and they had the TV on the weekend John F Kennedy was being buried. The New Yorker bought the poem that summer and then when the attacks occurred, printed it on their back page. For Americans, the only event in most people’s memory comparable to 9/11 was the Kennedy assassination.
Do you follow Indian politics?
I admire, revere even, the Indian Constitution, which is one the great legal documents produced by humans. My hope for India is that it lives up to that text, finally, and fully internalises its values. I will watch the Election with fascination.
And finally, do you find it even vaguely amusing that suddenly India is claiming you as its own ?
No, I understand, and am very moved that Indians are taking pride in me.