Poet Vijay Seshadri on Loss and Writing as Therapy
The Author of 3 Sections Talks to Peter Mishler
For this next installment in a series of interviews with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler corresponded with Vijay Seshadri. Vijay Seshadri was born in Bangalore, India, and came to America as a small child. He is the author of three previous collections of poems: 3 Sections, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; The Long Meadow, winner of the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets; and Wild Kingdom. He is currently the Myers Professor of Writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, New York. A new collection of poems, That Was Now, This Is Then, is out in hardcover from Graywolf Press.
Peter Mishler: How recent are the most recent poems in this collection? The collection feels like it’s touching on the present moment so well. Could you talk a bit about making poems in our current moment in America?
Vijay Seshadri: The newest poem, “Collins Ferry Landing,” I finished in December 2019—though it’s an expansion of a twenty-or-so-line poem I wrote in 2016. I think that if you mean by the current moment the time since the 2016 election (all the poems were written over three years after that) then definitely in its tone, its concerns, its colorations, the qualities of its ironies and attachments, the book hovers over its moment. This year has been such a shock that we’ve forgotten how tough last year was and the year before. But what happened—before Covid, before the killings and the demonstrations—had already been the biggest crisis in fifty years for this country. The book refers briefly to current events (in “Night City,” in the Goya poem) but it definitely—sometimes directly, mostly obliquely—plays out in relation to the upheavals we’ve been living through.
PM: In what way do you think the book “hovers over its moment” differently from your last collection in terms of approach? Is there a difference to articulate there in regard to this “hovering?”
VS: I guess 3 Sections is more speculative by an order of magnitude; and (leaving out the prose, which was memoir about my mid-twenties, and which was meant to read like literary nonfiction) more dreamlike in its transitions, its connections. And I remember I wanted to make abstractions when writing those poems, and I couldn’t quite make abstractions—the poems wanted to settle down into representation, into scene and act, into pictures of the world, and I had to compromise with them. So even though those poems also draw on elements from the time in which they were written and even though they use material from my lived life, they were more interested in themselves as poems, if you know what I mean. The poems in this book didn’t involve any compromises. Making them was more straightforward. I was responding to what was happening to me, what was happening in the world, and trying to embody my feelings in the right language. I’ve never as a poet thought that emotional necessity is sufficient to write a poem, but in the new book emotional necessity is a big part of what drove the writing. The poems weren’t easier to write because of that—they were probably harder, actually—but they came out being more direct.
PM: I want to give you space to speak about either “Night City” or “Idol of the Tribe”—two of the most remarkable poems in the collection, for me, especially as it relates to writing about the world as it stands today. Would you be willing to talk about either of these in any way you’d like?
VS: One idea about poetry is that it’s recollected emotion. “Night City” isn’t recollected, but an immediate response incited by what I thought of as the central image—the image, from the summer of 2019, of a father and small daughter washed up on the riverside drowned after trying to swim the Rio Grande into America. The conceit of the framing device of the poem, the moral accusation and anger, and the plot of the poem are basically at the service of that image. I put only the drowned father in the poem because I couldn’t bear to include the child. The image is just flashed at the reader, but it’s meant to be embedded in their consciousness. As for “The Idol of the Tribe,” I don’t know what that poem is “about,” though I guess I could speculate if I were forced to, or at least explicate. What it was for me was an apparatus by which to focus and concentrate another more diffuse and incoherent anger.3 Sections is more speculative by an order of magnitude; and more dreamlike in its transitions, its connections.
PM: Among the poems that are not meant to represent you and your lived experience, which of the speakers who is “not you” do you feel most psychically attached to at this moment?
VS: Probably to the speaker of “Soliloquy,” the dramatic monologue near the end of the book. I had him very clearly in my eye externally, physically—white, Midwestern, a sales representative, a runner and a bicycler, a cousin of the central character in “Lifeline,” a long narrative poem in my first book. Not me, but with my inner life.
PM: It’s a fascinating comparison to link “Soliloquy” to the earlier “Lifeline,” especially reading them one after the other, and I wonder if you’ve been able to identify a difference in the way these poems communicate, and how, perhaps, the leap from the earlier poem to this newer one reflects the evolution of, or shifting of, your inner-life?
VS: The similarities between those two poems have to do with the fact that they’re character driven; and the fact that even though they’re poems they mimic other genres—the short story and the Shakespearean soliloquy. I gave both characters an entire back story in my head, and even decided to make the later character, literally, in my mind, a distant cousin of the earlier. That particular American type, practical, absorbed in the workaday, but with a hidden, and sometimes not so hidden, spiritual bent, is one that I’ve always been drawn to. The business traveler (and I don’t exclude artists and academics from that category), whether he’s in the woods or on a plane. Those two poems don’t reflect a shifting of my inner life but its constancy. From the time I was eight or nine, I’ve always been alive—sometimes almost to the exclusion of everything else—to the contingency of the world, to its accidental quality, the mystery of its presence. I’ve always thought of this world as otherworldly. The question of being: Why is there something instead of nothing at all? It’s not remote and philosophical; it’s intimate and basic, every consciousness is haunted by it, and it’s as much a feeling as an interrogative formula. This is what connects the sales rep to Parmenides. Why ARE we? And why are we we? What are these bodies, these faces all about? We get tangled up in the words, and the philosophers try to give us word therapy, to tell us we’re being bewitched by words, but we all know the feelings and experiences. My favorite poem by a couple of lengths, and the one that most decisively convinces me of the transcendent value of poetry—across the languages I know, anyway—is Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” It’s my Bhagavad Gita.
PM: Do the words isolation or grief register for you as key thematic impulses in this collection? If yes, then would you be willing to say more?
VS: The book is shaped by the losses that everyone has to absorb. There are political dimensions, and a concern with the way the mind experiences time and space. It has some secondary themes and some humor, but loss is central as negative and positive space. Universal loss animated by the only thing that animates loss and makes our real sympathy for other people possible, which is our recognition of common loss through our individual loss. Natural losses, losses we anticipate. But I could never have anticipated the power with which they shook me.The book is shaped by the losses that everyone has to absorb.
PM: What observation can you make about the role of poetry/writing in your life as you’ve navigated the experience of loss?
VS: Writing those elegies was therapeutic, and more so for me than something like grief counseling would have been. To give shape, rhythm, architecture to feelings so powerful and inchoate, to memorialize, to make a musical order, gave those feelings a ground on which to stand and acquire meaning. I really understood, maybe for the first time how deep the act of memorialization is. We became human when we started to bury our dead.
PM: I’ve admired Thomas Lux’s work for a long time, and he was integral to me as I began making poems. Would you be willing to comment a little on his work and its value for you, or about your relationship, or what you think you were working out in the poem dedicated to him, “Cliffhanging”?
VS: Tom was a major poet, and is terribly underrated. He was misinterpreted when he was around. He’s always been associated with a native strain of surrealism, and that association clung to him long after he abandoned his early allegiances. What he is, though, is an American pastoral poet, of a certain kind of late millennial disassociation. He grew up on a dairy farm in western Massachusetts. His “surrealism,” the wild quality in his imagination, its crypticness, derives from his intimacy with the strangeness of nature. The tradition that embodied that strangeness became lost to American poetry, which is largely an urban and suburban poetry now (and I don’t mean that invidiously; I grew up in the suburbs). Nature when it appears is an aspect mostly of the sublime. But Tom was like a countercultural Robert Frost; or he was the flip side, a generation removed, of someone like Robert Francis (another terribly undervalued poet, who also came from western Massachusetts). Francis was genteel, and Tom was not. But they were both Down East pastoralists. I knew him from the age of nineteen. He was the teacher I had who encouraged my writing and instilled confidence in me, believed in me. He helped me, crucially, at every major turn in my path as a writer, every major crisis. He gave me the job I have now. “Cliffhanging” was a way of working out a part of the immense gratitude I feel toward him.
PM: Is the Henry Vaughan poem whose opening is quoted in your excellent “Man and Woman Talking” a poem that you have a significant relationship to in some way? Surely, time, and the entanglements of people, of bodies in time are an interest in these poems, but what about eternity?
VS: The first, great stanza of the Vaughan poem (“The World”), which is the one I quote, has been rattling around in my head for almost as long as I can remember, at least since my late teens. It’s definitely one of the most striking launches into a poem that I know of. The rest of “The World” doesn’t stay at that level. My book is kind of “about” time, especially time experienced through people, but, at least for creatures whose understanding and perceptions are as limited as ours. the other side of time is eternity. The consideration of one implies the consideration of the other. But the stanza also tells the reader something important about the character who is speaking those lines within the drama of the poem, which mimics a play.
PM: Outside of English and American poets, what writers come to mind as influences on this collection in particular?
VS: I guess Proust. I haven’t read him in a long time (I now mostly read contemporary writing, and these days political science, history, and scholarship about India and Bangladesh). But I bet every creative writer who really gets Proust is drawn to the subject of time at some point. I just make a few stabs at the subject—the most direct one is “Who Is This Guy?” which is Proust by way of “Game of Thrones.” Also, maybe, the classical Urdu poets—their deep commitment to the theatricalization of the speaking voice, which I always cottoned to, but was something I was explicitly aware of while writing. Also, I was watching a lot of standup comedy on YouTube. That has to have influenced me.
PM: I ask this question of all of the poets I’ve been fortunate enough to interview: is there a moment from your youth, your childhood, that, looking back on it now, presages or hints at your later life in poetry?
VS: I was always a huge reader growing up, in a time when there was very little television available, and I was allowed to watch only a little of what little there was. So that was a general background. I particularly remember, though, that in ninth grade in my Ohio junior high school we read Julius Caesar, and I was dazzled by Antony’s speech over the body of Brutus at the end of the play—the “This was the noblest Roman of them all” speech. It really got to me for some reason, and I caught the scent of poetry then and there, and have been sniffing after it ever since.
PM: Do you think there is something particular in Antony’s short speech that had a kind of thematic or prosodic pull on you, even if you didn’t necessarily know why at the time?
VS: I could feel the cadences and inflections, the unified symbolic gesture, rolling down to that final phrase “This was a man,” and I experienced the rhetorical figure of understatement there very powerfully, the effect of the subduing of the rhetoric. I wasn’t analyzing it then, but I understood instinctively that it was the handling of the language that was creating the emotional effects, which were various—sometimes powerful, sometimes subtle—and were themselves harmonized by the language. They made us watch the 1953 film, too, with James Mason, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando as Antony (and, also, Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr—a real blockbuster). As good as Brando was, I already recognized that the language just by itself was better and more able to give birth on its own to the character.I was always a huge reader growing up, in a time when there was very little television available, and I was allowed to watch only a little of what little there was.
PM: I couldn’t help but think of both Whitman and Milton in the syntax and prosody of these poems in your new collection, and I wondered if you’d be willing to talk about the influence of either poet on your work?
VS: Everything from Whitman’s pantheism to his transitions and the inner life of his lines, their inner dynamics, their tremendous relaxation, has worked on me since I was a kid. I was never uniformly convinced by his happiness, though I live it happily while reading; and I’ve become a little suspicious politically, over the years, about that particular manifestation of Transcendentalism—its tremendous assent seems inimical to dissent, and it’s hard to be anything but a dissenter these days. I don’t write like him, though he’s a part of the DNA of anyone who writes American English.
Milton? Milton, maybe. That way of putting lines and sentences together has always been very alive in American poetry, too, whether recognized or not. I didn’t get that directly from Milton, though I read him early. I got it from Wordsworth, who got it from Milton. Wordsworth was the first poet who wasn’t Shakespeare and who wasn’t a twentieth-century poet, a contemporary or near contemporary, whom I really heard, and he taught me to hear all the others. I caught his conversational tone immediately, and that basically confirmed that tone in me, and then the other stuff, the movement, the sonic structure, the syntactic complexity as it plays off against the line, the enjambment, came along with that.
Also, I got it from Wordsworth because I’d heard it in Ashbery first. I made the connection quickly, without any external critical prompting, between Wordsworth and Ashbery—an Ashbery poem moves like a blank-verse Wordsworth poem, in flows, eddies, retreats of language and thought, hesitations, aporias. Milton, Wordsworth, Ashbery—they all share a liquidity that derives from the way they make lines within sentences and sentences out of lines. I was immersed in Ashbery in my late teens and early and mid-twenties—those years of “The Double Dream of Spring,” “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” “Houseboat Days,” and “Litany.” Ashbery carried a lot of the past with him—and by that, I mean the English and American past, not just the French Surrealist past. He’s much more traditional than people realize. In fact, when I think about it, hearing Wordsworth through Ashbery was what convinced me of the permanence of what I was hearing, and convinced me that I should try to figure it out because it was so enduring. That the same aural reality was common to them both. That changed my idea of what poetry is.
PM: I’ve asked this question of both A.E. Stallings and Ange Mlinko about their work, and I wanted to bring you into the conversation about this. I sometimes ask in this series what is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry, but, like them, I wanted to ask what is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of rhyme?
VS: One of the paradoxes of rhyming is that you can make the substance of the poem seem inevitable, far more inevitable, if you manage rhyming properly, if your rhyming—and I’m talking about true rhymes—is natural and oriented to the rhythm of the lines. You can drive the poem down into a well of inevitability. I used to rhyme because I enjoyed the challenge of creating inevitability, and because I’ve always had an appreciation of the popular song, though I’ve never done all that much rhyming, mostly my poems sprawl. Rhyming really hones your technique, though. I think it’s actually a first-order poetic phenomenon, from which others derive. Someone like Kanye or Kendrick Lamar understands that, so it’s not as if I’m a throwback.One of the paradoxes of rhyming is that you can make the substance of the poem seem inevitable, far more inevitable, if you manage rhyming properly, if your rhyming—and I’m talking about true rhymes—is natural and oriented to the rhythm of the lines.
PM: Not at all. I wanted to move on to the final poem in the collection which uses Einstein’s phrase “spooky action at a distance.” Einstein’s language itself is enough to drive a poet wild, but I wondered in what ways you see the general phenomenon or physics of “spooky action at a distance” at play in this collection, or in poetry, or in reading and writing, generally?
VS: Einstein used the phrase “spooky action at a distance” disparagingly, to express dubiousness about phenomena that quantum mechanics predicted—predictions of instantaneous effects one particle has on another across vast distances. Quantum entanglement. Very nice phrase and very strange. Einstein showed us that the world was much stranger than we had thought it was, but he couldn’t go beyond his own strangeness, which makes him a real artist. I don’t have the mathematics to understand what the physicists actually mean, but it turns out those predictions have now been experimentally verified. How could you not as a poet use such a metaphor, especially because of the pertinence to language. That poem in which the phrase is encountered, “To the Reader,” has some Baudelaire in it, too, which I’m glad to have a chance to acknowledge.
PM: Could you talk about the practice of letting your poems have a will of their own?
VS: The cliché is that the poems write themselves, the writer is just the channel they pass through. They might take on some of the grit and the material of that channel, but they already have a will of their own. It’s a cliché because, though imprecise and psychologically simplified, it’s basically true. In my case, my tendency to intellectualize, my formalisms, the reading I’ve done, the longing I have to write a different kind of poem than the one I write (and I’ve always had that longing) put up a resistance, and the poems have to get over that. But that’s good for them, it makes them stronger. That’s my process—get a little piece of inspiration, try to wrestle that little piece into a preconceived idea I have of the poem I want to write, exhaust myself at that and fail, and then just follow the poem as it makes itself.