The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Vijay Seshadri about his latest collection That Was Now, This Is Then (Graywolf Press, October 2020), obsolescence in poems, submitting to the human condition, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Molly Spencer, Kimberly Grey, torrin a. greathouse, Erin Belieu, Adrienne Christian, Threa Almontaser, Kayleb Rae Candrilli, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Just to start, I wanted to thank you for the poem “Nemesis” because I don’t often get to remember the Snoopy cartoons very often these days and that was a nice little throwback to my childhood.
Vijay Seshadri: That was a fun poem to write, and one of those that just slide out.
Brian S: It seems like one of those characters that was everywhere for a long time and has just faded a lot in recent years.
Vijay Seshadri: I know. I wondered if people would remember
Brian S: Way back when I was in graduate school, a professor warned a class about “writing obsolescence into your poems,” and it’s one of the pieces of advice I’ve tried strenuously to ignore ever since. Because who can know what images will survive?
Do you think in those kinds of longterm ways about your poems when you’re writing them? Do you wonder, will this be appreciated by people a century from now?
Vijay Seshadri: It’s not bad advice. But, no, I don’t think in those ways naturally. I think in those ways editorially, and then try to orient the poem to the moment. But I don’t feel I have to do that with every poem. Some are just emanations of the life we’ve lived.
Do you teach?
Brian S: I’ve taught undergrads in the past. These days I’m teaching composition and technical writing, and first grade to my kids as they go to school online. Oddly, not teaching poetry has made more room for my own writing for the last couple of years.
Vijay Seshadri: When you’re in touch with undergrads you develop a sense of what is obsolete and what is not.
Brian S: That is absolutely true.
In my piece about choosing the collection for Poetry Book Club, I wrote about “Enlightenment”—it felt slippery to me, like it was hinting at allusions but then moving away from them. So, in a way, the complete opposite of “Nemesis.” I found myself thinking of the Buddha but then the poem spread out in a really unexpected way for me. Can you talk some about how that poem came together for you?
Vijay Seshadri: I think it was the middle that came first. The image of giving an umbrella to a woman at the mercy of the weather; the rest of it seemed to flow out of the title and around the image. It doesn’t seem that way in the poem, but poems look so different to the writer than they do to the reader.
But the Buddha is definitely there at the beginning and the end.
Brian S: I’m glad to hear that Buddha was in there, because my knowledge of the tradition is not deep and I didn’t want to make an ass of myself with that jump.
The lines I kept coming back to were the ones right before the umbrella, about finding a cure, and then finding a cure for the cure. You really encompass a lot of the human condition in just those few words. That even attempts to make improvements, done with good intent, will often cause new problems to arise that then need to be fixed.
Annata Tempinski: Yes, I agree Brian! I found that “encompass a lot of the human condition” in Vijay’s poems.
Vijay Seshadri: I always wanted to get away from the human condition when I wrote and always couldn’t manage it. In this book, I just gave up and submitted to it.
Brian S: That’s interesting. Why did you want to get away from it?
Annata Tempinski: It is a successful surrender, then. Is it like wanting to get away from reality (of being human) for a while. Like not wanting to watch “true story” movies?
Vijay Seshadri: I think the temptation to abstraction has always been strong for me—Stevens, Ashbery—but I wind up back in history, collective history or my personal history.
Eliot said that poetry is an escape from personality and emotion.
Annata Tempinski: Yes, a chance to express yourself in a different way. To play a different character.
Brian S: So, this time you decided to submit to personality and emotion rather than escape from it?
Vijay Seshadri: I think I was neutral about it. It’s interesting that we’ve talked about two poems from the first section of the book, which for me was where I was still struggling with the old tension. Those are the earliest poems. The elegies in the middle were the ones where the character of the book made itself apparent, and those poems were a straightforward struggle with powerful emotions. So with them I didn’t feel the need to conceptualize the poem. I just wrote them, sort of in the teeth of emotion rather than any sense I could escape emotion.
Brian S: I sensed that with “Collins Ferry Landing,” especially the prose poem section in the middle. That section felt to me like any attempt to try to make it “look like a poem” would inevitably weaken it, so it had to be prose to fully express that emotion.
Vijay Seshadri: Writing that poem really gave me a sense of the inner nature of grief—a sense that it is howling, but the howling has a lot of complexity to it, a lot of musical structure.
Brian S: But it also needed to be bounded by the more traditionally poetic sections to keep it from spilling out all over the place. It gave me a reason/need to revisit the death of my own father, who I had a very complicated relationship with. It’s something I’m still dealing with over six years later.
Annata Tempinski: One of my favorite lines is the last one in the Goya poem, “…where he will paint us in silent pastels.” Vijay, can you talk about writing the “Meeting (Thick)” and “Meeting (Thin)” poems?
Vijay Seshadri: I could never be satisfied with either version of “Meeting.” The poem was in a state of quantum flux. I’d cast it one way and it didn’t feel right and then cast it the other and it didn’t feel right. I finally, out of frustration, put both versions in. There is a difference of one word.
Brian S: Right, you substitute “uninflected” for “thin,” which was an interesting switch I thought, since both words seem to me to be connected to flatness.
Vijay Seshadri: With “Collins Ferry Landing,” it was simply that the feeling itself was a sphere, so it had to have three different point of view, so to speak, three different approaches to capture all of it.
I’ve never had that experience of uncertainty as I did with “Meeting.” Really odd for me.
Brian S: And that parenthetical near the end, “(which shows you that I’m sincere)” was a jarring, in a good way, moment for me in the poem. A breaking of the fourth wall in a sense.
Vijay Seshadri: I look at those poems in the first section and they all feel as if they’re the product of fragments of feeling and meaning, and that the meaning sort of gathers itself in the second section.
“Meeting” has a disenchantment to it. The poems in the middle are stricken but not disenchanted. They’ve come to recognize and accept loss somehow.
Brian S: And then the third section begins with the poem “The Idol of the Tribe,” which is about control and disassembling and ends with the line “you’ve been sacrificed.” Very much a sense of moving to the next thing.
I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out exactly what was being taken apart before I realized that it didn’t really matter what the thing was, just that it was being taken apart.
Vijay Seshadri: That’s a dark poem, too, but it has a rush of energy. The point of the idol is that it’s something that’s worshipped. In the Mosaic tradition, which includes Islam, an idol is worshipped in place of God. I didn’t mean to reflect that directly; there’s nothing theological about the poem. But I did want to channel the energy of the drama.
Annata Tempinski: What was the inspiration for “Man and Woman Talking”? I picture a theater play reading that one.
Vijay Seshadri: I was trying to write a play, or mimic a play. That first scene was a total gift—one of those moments when a piece of a poem comes unbidden. And then I knew those two characters and writing the rest was very easy, too. And it’s political only in this sense—that describes an impasse in current society that can’t be resolved, that seems fundamental. Polarization is everywhere, and I wanted to represent that without taking sides, and with a desire to render its complexity.
Brian S: We’re coming close to the end of the hour, and I always like to ask who you’ve been reading lately. Anyone we should add to our ever-growing to be read piles?
Vijay Seshadri: I just read There There, by Tommy Orange, and I’m reading the new translation of the great Fernando Pessoa heteronym (alter ego) Alberto Caeiro, which New Directions just published. It’s helping me a lot. American poetry?—I’m the poetry editor of the Paris Review now, so I’m reading lots of American poetry, in galleys, on Submittable, stuff people I know are sending me. I’m kind of drowning in poetry now, and the names are too numerous to mention.
Brian S: The number of books I get in a given week for The Rumpus is just overwhelming, even though I’ve been at it for over ten years now. So much poetry being published right now which young me would have been astounded by. Thanks so much for joining us tonight, and for this wonderful book.
Vijay Seshadri: Thanks for having me, both of you.
Photograph of Vijay Seshadri by Lisa Pines.