Poetry Is Seduction
India, April 25 -- 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. …