An Interview with Vijay Seshradi
Vijay Seshadri is well aware of the many masks he wears. He has several ways to talk about them and he likes to talk about them. He’s good at it. Poet, nonfiction writer, professor, husband, father, son, Indian, immigrant, hitchhiker, and Elizabeth Bennett are some of the identities Seshadri has made room for in his consciousness. On April 14, he added Pulitzer Prize winner to that list—winning for his latest book of poetry, 3 Sections.
It was announced two weeks after he and I spoke, and a friend asked me if I’d heard. “You talked to him right before his life changed forever,” she said in a daydreamer’s tone. Inside, I resisted her assertion because I had a sense that no matter how decorated a writer he becomes, he will not exaggerate or downplay any effect an award has on his life. In fact, he told me that the prize put him in touch with people he hadn’t spoken to in forty years and that Indian news outlets had asked him to comment on the elections there (he told them he reveres the Indian Constitution)—both grounded, sensible responses to what surprises came as a result of the Pulitzer.
But I had mistaken what my friend meant when she said his life had changed forever. “I can’t believe he just got an iPhone…” she said, shaking her head.
The day before I interviewed Seshadri in his Carroll Gardens home, he FaceTimed me by mistake. No one has ever pocket-FaceTimed me, so I voice-called the number back, and Seshadri, in a tone that signaled a sense of humor without self-degradation, said he was in a hotel room messing around with his new Apple product and had called me by mistake after clicking on my email address. He said the contraption was not just his first smart phone, it was his first mobile device. Ever. He’d never even had an MP3 player.
When we met the next day, I showed him how to voice text—which he promptly did in a message to his wife in the next room, who opened the door to tell him it had gone through. Then, he made me tea, which he transferred from his kettle to a porcelain pot, and insisted I try the biscotti he’d purchased for the occasion. It seemed exactly right that this man, who I’m sure is a quantifiable genius, knew that we’d need provisions for the rabbit hole I wanted him to take me down. By the end of our nearly two-hour conversation, I had everything I came for: a deep understanding of the cross-genre “I,” an ability to apply the word trans to many things, and something I hadn’t expected—permission to be unkind.
I. WRIGGLING ON THE PSYCHOLOGICAL PIN
THE BELIEVER: You teach nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence and you write poetry and nonfiction. Do you identify more as a writer or as a teacher?
VIJAY SESHADRI: I see myself only sporadically as a teacher and consistently as a writer. Teaching is how I pay the bills…and fortunately, for my students, I can intellectualize about writing, and I can talk about it well, and I like to talk about it. And I’m genuinely interested in explaining things to them. But I resist thinking of myself as a teacher. I still think of myself as a writer who has pulled a fast one and hoodwinked this institution into giving me a job and health insurance.
BLVR: Have you ever taught about how poetry and nonfiction intersect?
VS: Yes, but I can only do it textually, by looking at periods in literary history where there’s a rich confusion of genres, as in the American Renaissance. That’s happening a lot in contemporary writing: John D’Agata, Anne Carson, any number of lyric writers. Nick Flynn, say. Nick isn’t doing nonfiction traditionally. He’s extending what he does as a poet rather than the other way around. This is a really rich period for that kind of thing. But other periods in literary history have been equally or perhaps much richer.
BLVR: I heard Patricia Hampl, another poet and nonfiction writer, call nonfiction non-poetry.
VS: Well, in order not to get confused about trying to figure out what these different genres are—and it’s important for all writers to try to figure out what they’re doing—you have to find a way to talk about it. If you think about histories when you compare one genre to another, you can understand certain things. For example, I would say that at this period in time, the most over-determined and the most self-contained form is the short story. Because the short story is the most itself, right? …It’s not as if you can flit from the short story to the poem or the short story to the essay, as, at least, I can from the poem to the essay or vice versa. We can more fruitfully compare essays to novels. We’re much more comfortable with having a novel get into an essayistic jag for a while. We’ve been comfortable with that for a long, long time, whereas we feel it would mar the purity and the perfection of the short story if a short story writer suddenly spoke to us directly and discursively.
Historically, there are hierarchies of purity. Certain aspects of poetry are very, very pure. The lyric poem can’t be anything but the lyric poem. If you want to do what Sylvia Plath is doing, you cannot get discursive, you can’t get philosophical. You’re caught and wriggling on the psychological pin in the way that she was, basically. And that’s the experience of the poem. Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is essayistic and discursive. A lot of Ashbery’s gestures are a part of the world of lyric poetry. But a lot of them are part of the world of the essay. He used to write art criticism, and so was steeped in prose. The barriers between genres were low for him. The barrier, on the other hand, between the short story and everything else is high, very high. The short story is protected, enclosed in its garden: what Lorrie Moore writes, what Alice Munro writes. But Ashbery wrote a book called Three Poems comprising three long pieces of prose that are extremely essayistic in the way they think and move. They don’t resolve, they don’t get anywhere, but they’re like essays.
BLVR: Someone—I’m not sure if it was you—but someone was talking about Ashbery poems and saying that they have a tendency of bringing you so into the moment that their content doesn’t resonate. Do you agree with that? A poem could use so many of tools of the essay and feel so similar, but the experience of the poem is so different from the essay.
VS: Phenomena are always determined by history. You abstract certain qualities and say that they define a genre. A long, discursive Ashbery poem is nothing like an essay by George Orwell, which has an intention. The intention of an essay by George Orwell, like “Such, Such Were the Joys,” is to change society by making us aware of class differences and their harmful consequences. And a long, discursive Ashbery poem has little in common with that. But it has a lot in common with an essay by Montaigne, because Montaigne is inviting you into his mind, and the movements of his mind…rather than the content of his judgment. So you can’t say, “Well, the essay is this and the poem is that.” You can’t make credible hard-and-fast characterizations, especially now, when there’s so much intermingling.
We live in a trans period, right? Contemporary issues of sexuality, for example—the exciting aspects of them—have to do with transgenderedness. And there’s trans-nationality. There are people like me, for example. I mean, what am I? Am I Indian? Am I American? And I’m not alone in being between things. That in-between-ness, that’s true of the genres too. They’re flowing into each other and they’re transforming into new things. Technology is transforming everything. Who knows what it’s doing, we don’t really understand it. We’re at the beginning of it still.
BLVR: So, when you employ the “I” in your poetry is that you or not you? I don’t always assume the “I” in a poem is the poet, like I assume the “I” in nonfiction is the writer. But, maybe because I’ve read some of your nonfiction, I feel like the “I” in your poetry is you.
VS: Well, language itself is a mask. It’s the first mask in the series of invented selves—they’ve come right out of language. The way you speak changes you, because when you are speaking, you are representing yourself in a certain way.
In 3 Sections, there’s a long prose piece. When my publisher Fiona McCrae and I were having a conversation at a reading that launched the book at a bookstore in Brooklyn, she said, “Well, the person in the essay seems to be the real you, Vijay.” Which is the person whom she knew, the person to whom she had talked to for the past twenty years. And that seemed to be the real me to her, whereas the person in the poems seemed to be a fiction of some sort. And I said, “Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.”
You have to go back to this issue of genres, right? Genres have a history and impose a historical character upon the writer. What is interesting in the poem involves a certain kind of dramatization of the self that you don’t have to engage in in the essay. In fact, the essay is a more social medium than the poem. So, in some sense, the social self that Fiona knew, who had communicated with her all this time, was one she recognized in the essay. But when she looked to the poems, I seemed to be a different person. I seemed to be crazier, right? But poems are places where you can be crazier, where you’re actually allowed to be crazier, where you’re supposed to be crazier.
II. I CONTAIN MULTITUDES (AND EVERYTHING IS MULTITUDES)
BLVR: If you applied the poetry persona to your nonfiction writing, would that violate the genre’s history?
VS: Again, we have to get back to the question of how we are going to talk about these things. We could start, for example, with a dualism. I could say that in the essay, as it has developed historically, success is determined by the writer’s ability to express, through an individual voice, a collective experience—you are speaking individually but you are representing collectively. Let’s just say for rhetorical purposes that the lyric poem is expressing a radically individual experience in a collective voice… So the obligation is entirely different. Now, if you have those two poles and as a writer you’re sliding back and forth between them, you-the-essayist might become very individual and you-the-poet might grow much closer to the essayist. So, in some sense, where the self finds itself along that spectrum is what determines the nature of the artifact it produces.
Fiona, when she read the essay, said, “Oh, that’s really you, Vijay.” But maybe what I was doing was somehow expressing, in that essay, a collective experience, an experience that she could share, and doing so in a highly individuated voice so that her psychological response was more complex.
I think it’s fruitful for writers to think about this stuff. I think it helps them to locate themselves in their own writing. And especially in a world that’s pretty bewildering in the number of different models it provides for you.
So I don’t know who the self is in those poems as opposed to who the self is in those essays. I’m agnostic about the notion that there is one self. I would say that when I write prose I’m a more socially responsible person. I’m much more a citizen of the world. But the instability of the poetry, the emotional jaggedness, is also me. Whitman said he contained multitudes, and so do we all. Do you read Fernando Pessoa?
BLVR: I almost always have to say no when anyone asks, “Do you read So-and-so?” I swear I read, but the answer is always no.
VS: Pessoa is very interesting. He was not one, but four or five of the greatest twentieth-century Portuguese writers. He created what he called heteronyms. The most important one was Alberto Caeiro, who just appeared in him around the time of the First World War. And Pessoa, as Albert Caeiro, wrote poems. And there was an accountant named Bernardo Soares. All of these people were fully formed poetic identities, they had fully formed bibliographies and biographies. They had different life spans. They would review one another’s work. Pessoa created a bunch of other heteronyms. There’s something like eighty of them. Some of them are women. And they’re all fully formed—they’re not personas, not masks. They’re fully formed poetic identities.
BLVR: That’s intense.
VS: Yes. So, when you think about it, it was an incredibly fruitful way to engage the human self, imaginative in the extreme, and modernist. All these ideas about identity, of course, fit perfectly into the social media wonderland we live in. They seem to really connect. There’s a science-fiction aspect to our contemporary life. What’s virtual, what’s real…
BLVR: Pop culture seems to be focused on multiverses, too, so it’s not just what’s happening with technology, it’s also: “I contain multitudes and everything is multitudes.”
VS: Yes. These new theories of the universe, that there are multiple universes just bubbling up constantly—it’s all pretty wild. And I think we have a political environment that seems to be very confused and seems to latch onto old ideas, while at the same time we have an explosion of new thinking and new ideas, so many that they never really get synthesized.
And the world is changing rapidly now. That’s what I was saying when I was a kid, right? “The world is changing so rapidly!” Who thought it could change so much more rapidly than it was changing then? But now, it is, by many orders of magnitude.
In the face of all that, you probably have to split yourself in various ways just in order to survive, and to think of yourself as a multitude, which is why Pessoa’s so interesting.
BLVR: I recently heard something about the way that the brain processes information—I don’t know if it’s an accepted neurological fact or not—that all information has to travel through the identity part of the brain first. So, I wonder how that works for someone like Pessoa…
VS: It’s kind of complicated for me because I grew up a stranger in this society, although I was very much embedded in it, too. There were very few Indians, very few Asians, in America at that time. Society imposes an identity on you because of the way you look. Your struggle as a self has to do with an identity being imposed on you that you know is not your identity. You don’t think of yourself as your external representation, or even your national origin or anything like that. You don’t reduce yourself to that. That’s kind of unthinkable.
That external self seems to be more or less accidental. We all think of ourselves as our subjectivity, our consciousness, right? And so that problem of the self was always a big problem for me, always a big issue. And it’s doubled for the immigrant because the immigrant tends to come from an older world—and we came from a stable, ordered society where we historically had always had a place, in a fairly rigid, hierarchical order, an ancient Indian order. And my parents had just stepped out of a very old Indian world when they came here. We had a sense of our own status in the world, which is taken away from you when you’re an immigrant.
When you’re an immigrant, you’re at the bottom of the ladder. You might not be at the bottom of the ladder economically. We weren’t. We were middle-class people, and my father was an academic, a scientist. Those contradictions led me to feel that the role in society I was given didn’t jive with my sense of myself. I think, in fact, that is the case with most people. Everybody feels themselves to be in an original relationship to creation, and feels confined by their social role.
But I think it was really kind of apparent to me growing up that this was the problem. In some sense, I was attracted to creating personas, and to being in literature where you can live another life. I read Pride and Prejudice, and I am Elizabeth Bennett. I’m not Darcy. I’m Elizabeth because Elizabeth is the consciousness of the book. And I didn’t feel that I couldn’t be one with Elizabeth Bennett because Elizabeth Bennett was a white woman living in Regency England and I was an Indian kid in mid-twentieth-century Ohio. So, am I Elizabeth Bennett or am I not? It’s not a question I’ve ever answered.
BLVR: You’re touching on another preoccupation of mine—parts versus their whole, individuality versus universality. We have a self, and we’re in a body, separate from everyone else, or at least we feel like we are, and at the same time, we can be Elizabeth Bennett. And as your reader, I am you. Is that a mind trip? Is it something that you consider?
VS: I think it’s strange to think this way for people who are living in the world and whose survival is dependent upon their representing and acting out a certain self—a lawyer or a politician, for example. But for a writer, it’s exactly the opposite. It shouldn’t be strange for us—the way everybody else lives is strange for us. Because, in a sense, our business as writers is to be other people, even if you’re writing essays, even if you’re writing lyrical poems that are just about your own experience. In some way, the richness of that poem is dependent upon your ability to somehow imaginatively transgress what other people consider borders and boundaries of identity.
Take someone like Duke Ellington. He was a black man living in the beginning and the middle of the twentieth century. He thought of himself as an aristocrat. Nobody could tell Duke Ellington, “You’re not an aristocrat, man, because you’re black.” And his music is aristocratic music. It’s not demotic music. And, certainly, the business of artists is not to be reductive but to look at things and see everything in its individuality and its uniqueness.
So yes, this whole thing about the self, about the nature of identity, it’s obviously an issue. There was that whole period where people would question if one had the right to write about the sufferings of other people if one hadn’t experienced those sufferings. Whether, for example, a white middle-class woman who had an elite education had a right to write about an African woman having a baby without the benefit of medical attention. But it seems to me that it is dangerous to literature to think that she couldn’t. It’s also dangerous to humanity, because they’re not that different.
There’s a controversy that surrounds Sylvia Plath, having to do with the claim that she was using the sufferings of others. She uses the Holocaust to dramatize her own inner life… And there, you get into a very interesting and complicated and, for me, still unresolvable rhetorical issue: How far can you extend your metaphorical relationships to experiences like that?
…And I don’t know which side I fall on. I’m not quite sure. Sometimes I will say, “Oh, but she needed something like this to use as a metaphor, because only something that is so harrowing and so awful could describe what she was actually feeling.” And I believe that she was feeling her life as if she were being sent to a concentration camp… But other times I say, “No, no, no, no, no.”
BLVR: “You couldn’t possibly…”
VS: Yeah, and it’s like, on which day am I waking up and feeling sympathetic to Sylvia Plath and which day am I feeling that she’s just shocking, appalling? And, somehow, the achievement of the poems arises from the fact that you can actually feel one thing one day and feel another thing another day.
BLVR: What about in your own work? How do you draw the line in using material from your life and the people in it?
VS: There are places where I’ve come close to my line, and maybe gone over it. I knew because it was making me uncomfortable to use the material. And yet, nonetheless, I was, like writers are, attracted to it because I knew it was good material. So there’s a real ambivalence about it. And there’s one specific poem in my new book that I’m—I actually am pretty uncomfortable about right now because soon, I’m going to see the person whose experience I appropriated, even though it’s very disguised, no one else knows. But she knows, and I know.
BLVR: Have you discussed it with her?
VS: No, no, no. I’ve been avoiding her and it, imagining that she hasn’t read the book. But I feel like she has.
BLVR: Have you done it in a more overt way?
VS: No, I’ve never done it to this level of discomfort. I did things in my second book that might be construed as appropriation in the morally ambiguous sense—there’s a long essay, a long memoir fragment that is about my father in the 1960s and his obsession with the Civil War and our family trips to Civil War battlefields. The facts are indisputable, but he feels dubious about it. He read it about ten years ago when I wrote it. He said, “Well, yeah these things happened, but the way you tell it is all wrong.” Now, that’s a little more subtle, right? Because he’s happy I told the story. He just says, “Well, you and your mother always exaggerate.” That’s the way he put it. It was much more normal than I made it out to be… You must feel the temptation, right, if you’re writing nonfiction and then you’re using personal material?
BLVR: Yeah. On my way here, I got an email from a friend who is very concerned about something I’m writing—several tragedies from our childhood. I have, what I think, are thoughtful and important and lovely things to say about what happened, and to not do it… When I studied with Phillip Lopate, he said to me, “Stop thinking of yourself as a nice person and then you can be a writer.”
VS: Yeah, I think you have to bring people to reason with things like that. It is your material, too. And this has gone on long before this period of nonfiction writing. It’s been part of literary life. We’re constantly processing the experiences around us. Writers have been stepping on the toes of people and using their experiences from the get-go. And that’s a weird line in the sand, the political line: Okay, you cannot do this because this person is black and you are white. Or because this person is a woman and you’re a man. Because this person is African and you’re American.
BLVR: I never tire of the subject, because, like you said, it’s unresolvable.
VS: Right, but also, you are just representing reality. It’s important to be clear to yourself if you are doing that to get published or if you’re doing it because you’re compelled as an artist to do it. I mean, it might be wrong to do it for the sake of art, too, but the moral dilemma is far more complex.
I think Phillip Lopate is right in that way when he tells you that you have to stop thinking of yourself as a nice person. You have to be strong enough to say, “This is what I do as a writer, and it’s different than what I do as a son, a friend, a social being.” We’re back to the idea of all the different selves that we are, right? The self that is the writer is different than the self that is the friend.
VS: And they don’t quite understand that. They feel that because you’re their friend, you’re totally there with them. But you were never totally there with them. You were always there as a social being, no matter how intimate your interaction was.
BLVR: In your poetry, do you feel a bit more hidden? I know you said that you feel uncomfortable with what you wrote about your friend.
VS: Yes. I think that when you reveal things that are going to cause pain, you have rhetorical resources in poetry. In this case, the poem is called “Knowing”—and this is the real cunning of the writer—the person is introduced by the line: “My wife knows a woman terrified of going blind.” That’s the situation my friend is in. She’s my friend, and my wife only knows her because I introduced my wife to her many years ago. But I distanced my relationship in that way. Because if I said I know a woman terrified of going blind, somehow I wouldn’t have been able to make the poem go.
If I were to use other people, something I get from them, it’s pretty innocuous, and I don’t think they would object. But here, it’s a serious thing, and it makes me feel sad. But, it didn’t stop me. I guess I’m not a nice person. But I’m nice enough that I feel uncomfortable about it. And maybe that’s the best you can hope for from me.
III. FEEDING THE OBSESSION
BLVR: How did you start writing? I’ve read you have also been a logger and fisherman.
VS: I didn’t do much logging. I did a lot of tree planting in the winter.
BLVR: A lot of what?
VS: Tree planting, in the Coast Range. I worked on a logging crew for a short while, but it was brutal, dangerous work. The Coast Range is very steep, the mountains are steep, the ones that are logged. I wound up there—a place that was an unlikely place for me to wind up—this way.
I was always a reader. In the fifth grade, I got some sort of prize for having read hundreds of books from the library. I had been skipped a couple of grades, and I was an Indian kid growing up in Ohio in the 60s, and so I really didn’t have much social status. Reading was of course, in those days before personal computers, what nerdy kids did. Although I wasn’t really a nerd—I was just tremendously isolated. I was an ordinary person who was accidentally isolated, rather than someone who’s isolated by their very nature.
So, I guess the idea my parents had was that I was going to become a scientist or doctor or a mathematician. That’s what they expected, that’s the milieu I came from, and that’s what everybody else did in our family. When I got to Oberlin, I started in mathematics and moved into philosophy. I was interested in philosophy, and still am, but I was always secretly a poet. And I was encouraged there. My poetry was encouraged, and I really didn’t know what to do when I graduated, so I hitchhiked out west. I worked and I—
BLVR: What do you mean, you hitchhiked out West?
VS: Well, in those days you could do that.
BLVR: But was this a plan?
VS: I was really wild and impulsive and wanted to go out West. In those days, you didn’t come back to New York. New York was bankrupt. I got to the city eight years later and it was still graffiti-covered trains, violence—we still had Needle Park. Bryant Park was full of rats and junkies. It was great compared to what it is now—what it is now is a reservoir for global real-estate capital pouring in from all parts of the world. It was gritty, and in its own way, fantastic then. But in 1974, when I graduated from college, the adventure wasn’t New York; it was, for me, anyway, the West. You went out west, you went out to the new world, because the old world had been discredited by Vietnam and by race riots and all that trauma.
I lived in the Bay Area for a while, and had my romantic ups and downs and had my heart trampled on by this one particular woman. And at the same time, I was trying to write a novel, one that was really ambitious. I was into the French New Wave writers and American writers like John Hawkes and early Pynchon, the Pynchon of V. I should have written a coming-of-age story. Instead, I was trying to write this thing that was too elaborate.
After that, I wound up in Oregon, and when I was in Oregon, I was working in the fishing industry, doing various things, and thinking about what I should do with my life. I started writing poetry again. Then, after I went to the Bering Sea, which is what I describe in 3 Sections, I saw that I wasliving the novel that I couldn’t write. So I decided to go back to the East Coast, to Columbia University. I also wanted to get back East and, for the first time, really start learning about India. New York seemed to be the place to go for that, because it was, even then, a real international city.
And it worked out the way I wanted it to, because when I was at Columbia, I started studying Indian languages in the MFA program, and the Indic scholars gave me a fellowship to finish my MFA. Then they asked me to do a PhD, and I was in a doctoral program in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures there for a while. I went to Pakistan, where I decided not to finish the PhD, which is something I regret.
But at that time, India wasn’t what it is now. The India-Pakistan was fraught and strange. It seemed too difficult to go back there. And I’d come to New York to be a poet and that’s what I thought I should do.
From there—Alice Quinn [current director of the Poetry Society of America and poetry editor at the New Yorker from 1987-2007] had published a couple of my poems in the New Yorker and I needed a job because my wife and I had just had a kid. I’d been doing a lot of freelance editorial work and surviving that way. Alice helped me get a job at the New Yorker,and I was there through the ’90s. In ’98, I started teaching at Sarah Lawrence. And that’s the story in a capsule.
All this time, because I’d done all this other stuff, I wasn’t producing much poetry. I was writing a lot but finishing very little. And that continued. So, I’ve only published three books and the equivalent of about a book of essays in magazines. I’m at this point now where I’m committed to producing a lot.
Phillip Roth said something wonderful. I know I’m misquoting it, but in the Paris Review interview, he’s asked—this was when he was living up a wayward part of Connecticut, not Greenwich or a place like that—the interviewer asked him what he did up there, and he said something like, “I write all day and I read all night to feed the obsession.” I read that and thought, That is the perfect life.
Laura Standley’s work has appeared in The Guardian, The Observer, American Contemporary Art magazine, Vitamin W, The Rocky Mountain Oil Journal and 303 Magazine where she was the editor in chief for six years. She was the managing editor of issue 52 of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and is the co-founder of the literary blog, Catch & Release. She is currently living in Brooklyn and writing a book about a series of overdoses that happened in her hometown of Denver, Colorado.
Photograph by Lisa Pines