Advice, Fables, and Poetry from Pulitzer Prize-Winner Vijay Seshadri ’74

Image: Oberlin.edu.

Image: Oberlin.edu.

First I had three
apocalyptic visions, each more terrible than the last.

The graves open, and the sea rises to kill us all.
Then the doorbell rang, and I went downstairs and signed for two packages—
One just an envelope, but the other long and bulky, difficult to manage,
Both for my neighbor Gus.

The man reads earnestly from behind a lectern. The crowd leans into his words. He stands with his back straight and shoulders squared, but his voice is animated, quickly shifting between exaggerated characters and grand ideas. He reads as he might to an enthralled child before bedtime.

Vijay Seshadri ’74, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, essayist, literary critic, former editor at The New Yorker, and author of multiple published collections of poetry and prose, stands before the crowd in Finney Chapel.

He reads excerpts from three of his books, selected poems and stories that are equally varied and eccentric. One is a vignette: the day an unassuming toddler erupted in prophetic tongues. Another is a poetic description of the science behind fluorescent silk creation in transgenic silkworms. Another borrows a lines from a song in The Sound of Music. Another retells one of Aesop’s fables.

After an hour he invites the audience to the microphone for questions. Multiple students and community members ask questions, often regarding their respective fields of study, research, or interest. Seshadri responds eloquently to each. He speaks to his childhood isolation and its manifestation in his poetry. He ponders the difficulties of translation from English to Urdu. He speaks to the history of Oberlin and his experience here. He offers advice to an aspiring poet, stating that, in his opinion, “The poem as an art form has already been conceptualized”. As one might expect, his explanations weave between disciplines, subjects, cultures, and generations, providing descriptions of the complexities and nuances of his beliefs. The crowd applauds as he humbly steps from the stage.

Earlier in the day I was afforded the opportunity to sit with Vijay and pick his brain for an hour at a press conference for student journalists. His responses fascinated me and left me with restless curiosity; each of his ideas was spoken with the introspection of an intellectual and the clarity of a teacher or mentor. His responses are transcribed below:

JB: So, my first question: what are your creative processes and rituals, if any? What spurs the creation of a poem? Is it an idea? A phrase? A word? 

VS: I think I am the most haphazard and unsystematic writer I know. What I can say is I usually get up in the morning and try to write. But I can’t really give you anything more coherent than that because ideas come to me in all sorts of ways and under all sort of circumstances, then I write them down or keep them in my head. I’m always working on something, even if I’m not at my desk. I’ve tried to regularize it, but I’ve never really quite been able to.

JB: Regarding again the way you write, I’d love to hear about who you believe to have been your influences. Are there certain poets or poems you find yourself returning to for inspiration?

VS: Yeah, I mean, my influences are so countless and various, and they occur across such a wide span of time that it’s hard to locate — from my perspective as a writer and a reader — specific influences. They’ve been subsumed by one another. You’re always being influenced. At a certain time you develop a style and then those people who influence you become very important because they happen to be the people you were reading when you were forging your own voice. I think, for me, those people were the classical midcentury American poets — people like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke. Those were the people I read when I was young — well, not really young. When I was really young I read a lot of contemporary poetry and a lot of poetry from the Tradition. These were the poets I was introduced to during my time studying here. There was a very lively poetic scene, then. A lot of the people who went on to have major careers as poets came here when they were young. People like Mark Strand, Louise Glück. I was influenced by them as well.

When I decided I was going to write poetry seriously, the people who influenced me were from an earlier generation. Poetry from the ’50s. [John] Ashbery had been a huge influence on me, even if it doesn’t seem that way — I’m a poet who isn’t in the business of playing with meaning the way he does. I have a different style. The influences are various and they are constantly shifting, and I’m constantly shifting as a writer as well.

JB: How would you describe your writing style? I’ve noticed you synthesize a lot of academic disciplines in your poetry; you borrow concepts from fields ranging from biology to visual art to calculus. Your poem, “Imaginary Number” has a line, “The soul/like the square root of minus 1/is an impossibility that has its uses.” I find that sort of juxtaposition so interesting and seemingly rare.

VS: I mean, yeah, it’s fairly anomalous. I certainly use a lot of scientific concepts and there is a lot of facticity in my poetry. And I try to infuse it with learning, too. Basically I write with a clear style and a classical diction, the style that embraces the values of clarity and distinctness. I’m not someone who uses language in a jagged or opaque way.

I guess what you could say is that I am very concerned with the artifact. It’s almost as though I think of the poem as a sculpture or as an object. As I was saying earlier, it’s that sort of midcentury notion of what a poem should be: an object. This is a concept I’ve always been attached to. And the poets I have been influenced by that are closer to my age were often influenced by this notion as well.

Although, I suppose I started out very much under the sway of Field Magazine. At the time it had just gained its roots in Oberlin and hadn’t yet clearly defined its aesthetic — but this Midwestern surrealism was still influential then, as well as deep image poetry. It eventually moved away from that. But that style remains part of my genetic code. All of my influences are additive. It’s like–I can’t know whether I’m more like my mother or father. The distinction isn’t made clear. Nor can I tell whether a part of me is due to my environment, right?

Aristotle says there are four causes. There’s the material cause, there’s the formal cause, there’s the efficient cause, and there’s the final cause. The material cause was the complexity of my experience itself. That was what made me. And I think the efficient cause — the cause that spurred me to write poetry — was Galway Kinnell. Even though he faded as one of my influences, he was the efficient cause, the man who pushed me into the threshold of writing. I would say the person I get a sort of apparatus from, a sort of structure from, is Elizabeth Bishop.

Finally, the person I probably tend towards is [W.B.] Yeats. He was the first great poet I encountered when I was sixteen, the first person I glommed onto and found interesting and compelling. I always think that’s the ultimate achievement, to stir that in someone.

JB: Interesting. I read an article about your poem, “The Disappearances,” and the fact that it was published by The New Yorker shortly after and in response to 9/11. A line, “This is you when the President died… This is you poking a ground wasps’ nest,” is, I presume, a reference to the assassination of JFK? 

VS: Yes.

JB: What I’m wondering is whether you often write poetry with social and political implications in mind.

VS: I come from a political generation. Poetry back then was imbued with politics. One of the things that was exciting about the ’60s that drew a lot of people to poetry was that poets were some of the first people who came out strongly against the Vietnam War. David Ray and Robert Bly organized this group in 1963 called “Poets Against the War in Vietnam,” and they gave readings all over. They instigated that whole period of rebellion, and I was growing up through all this, so poetry had a quality that made it indistinguishable from collective life and from political life. I retained that aspect.

Part of the reason I abandoned the deep image American surrealism that was part of my early education was my interest in history. Especially being a person of color and having grown up in an isolated racial environment — there were no Indians here when I was a kid — I became conscious of my place in history. And that poem is very much about the speaker finding himself in history by orienting himself around the assassination of JFK, which was a memory from my childhood and a vivid memory at that. It was just an accident that I wrote that and The New Yorker bought it that summer and then 9/11 happened and the only comparable event in American collective history of the past 40 years was the assassination of JFK. They were both moments of collective shock throughout the country.

JB: Do you think your background as a mathematician and philosopher influenced your poetry? 

VS: It’s not that I’m doing something with algorithms in my poetry or something as reductive as that, but math certainly gave me a sense of simplicity and elegance, both fundamental mathematical virtues. You can prove a theorem in any number of ways, but you must always prove it in the simplest and most elegant way possible. Those aesthetic values were translated into my writing. But it is not as simple as a one-to-one correspondence between the two. It’s not as though I studied this so I wrote a poem about it. Instead, it is more of an inheritance of tendencies. A habit of mind that those disciplines gave me. For example, because my father was a scientist, he held a hierarchy of what knowledge was. But he was not interested in the practical applications of things. He was interested in the study of phenomenon for the sake of understanding. He gave me the value of doing something for its own sake rather than for whatever result it may bring me. Which is good if you are a poet. There aren’t many material benefits to being a poet.

JB: Do you think the clarity you were speaking of earlier came from your scientific background, then? 

VS: Yeah, I think so. Scientific truth is inevitable, right? And how do you acquire inevitability in a work of art? If you think about art in that way, clarity and distinctness become quite important.

JB: There was a line in your poem, “Memoir,” that particularly struck me: “The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.” Assuming this line is taken literally and assuming the speaker in that poem reflects your own views to some extent, did this line come as a revelation to you? Did this desire to convey humiliations play into your writing? It implies writing should be confessional to an almost extreme degree. 

VS: The things I write are very ironic. The original Greek word for irony means dissembling. It means lying, basically. But irony is developed as a rhetorical device as something where the literal and the implied meaning separate — in a phrase, in a sentence, even in a poem. It’s at the heart of writing poetry, I think, this form of metaphor-making. That poem is a sort of sendup of that tradition of writing memoirs. I basically say in it, “Well, nobody confesses,” right? Because we simply cannot confess the things that are most painful to us — those moments in which we are humiliated. And then I go into a series of confessions. But of course those are all false confessions. I don’t tell you in that poem what actually happened to me or what really humiliated me. I make up a series of things and then I turn the poem on its head. At the end of the poem, the speaker is saying, “and then I was seized by joy” and this is the worst humiliation of all. So I don’t really want to be held to any proposition this poem may elicit, because in the end you’re really left with nothing except the experience of the poem. I don’t think it’s leaving you with an objective truth about experience that you are supposed to take literally. I think poetry has done this, has left readers with an objective truth, but I don’t think it has to.