INTERVIEW WITH PULITZER WINNER MR. VIJAY SESHADRI

LANGUAGE, FORM OF COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS 

 

Firstly, let me to ask you do you prefer poems of publication?

I write a lot but I don’t publish a lot. I’m working to finish many of the fragments I have, as my conception of what a poem should be is changing, and changing in such a way that it is accommodating the fragmentary and elusive more. I’ve only published a hundred or so poems, but I think my rate of publication is going to rise over the coming years.

How do you define language?

I think language is consciousness itself, not merely its medium but its essence. But these are dark, mysterious waters.

Give us some artistic explanation of poetry, in a few sentences.

Poetry is language organized by rhythmic energy in which the ratio of implicit meaning to explicit meaning is very high, tending in  the most sublime cases toward infinity. To give a counterexample, journalism, which can also be great art, has an explicit-to-implicit-meaning ratio that is close to 1 to 1.

What about joining contemporary to tradition?

I’m someone who reads across languages and deep into the history of English poetry. Poets all the way back to Chaucer don’t feel archaic to me, but contemporary. They feel, in fact, in some cases, more contemporary than living poets, because of course their poetry is living, and is very vital. So I guess I would agree with T. S. Eliot that part of the job of the artist is to join and develop a tradition. But you could also say that part of the job of an organism is to have a genetic code. An organism IS in some sense its genetic code, and an artist IS in some sense his or her or their (for artists who don’t identify themselves by gender polarities) tradition.

What places are lyrical in Brooklyn?

Along the water’s edge up and down the harbor is always lyrical. Some of the warehouse neighborhoods, in Bushwick and around the Gowanus Canal have a real beauty to them. But I enjoy those places as a person, not as a poet, necessarily. As a poet, recollection in tranquillity is the source of lyricism for me.

As to classic poets and poems, give us favorites.

The list is long, but Song of Myself is probably my favorite work of literature. I always read Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats, Blake. I’m reading The Triumph of Life a lot these days. I’m reading Lorca and Jimenez in Spanish. I’m reading and translating the great Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib.

You are quite philosophical in your attitudes?

Philosophy was my subject in college, but it created an attitude rather than a subject matter in my writing. I think of philosophy as a highly technical discipline, like mathematics. I don’t think I philosophize in my poems at all. Rather I tell stories that occur on a metaphysical plane, if that isn’t claiming too much for myself.

Poetry must be made by all and not by one?

Yes. Poetry is the articulation of the collective, the universal, consciousness, as embodied in language, examining the minute particulars of experience.

Imagination in the writing process?

The imagination is central. Everything proceeds from it. The illusion of confession is just that, an illusion. However realistic a poem may seem, if it a real poem it springs from the imaginary, not the real. As Muhammad Ali said, without an imagination you cannot fly.

What about your other books?

As I said I’ve written a lot, even though I’ve published only sparely and sporadically, so each of my books is a kind of selected poems, though each has aesthetic unity. “Wild Kingdom” is a book the background of which is nature primarily and, secondarily, the exile from nature into a cityscape riven by racial differentiation. It has a strong political quality to it. “The Long Meadow” is in its largest conception–though of course I didn’t write it with this consciously in mind; it just came out–about the relationship between myth and meaning. That is a rubric only, but one that comprehends most of the poems in the book. And in using the word myth, I’m including its earliest denotation: in ancient Greek the word “mythos” simply means plot, as in a story. Both those books are story-driven books.

How do you see speech?

I don’t think speech, language, can escape meaning. I don’t think it can be reduced to it’s inner structural relationships, as some language poets try do, independent of what words represent. I’m a representational poet, and a realist.

Is speech like society?

Well, I would say that language is collective, it is the form and the substance of the collective consciousness, so language probably IS society is some sense. Language, to mangle Wittgenstein a little, is a game we can only play with others–even when we think we are talking to ourselves we are playing it with others.

 

Note. Interview made from February to June 2016. 

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