Gods Arrive Where We Pay Attention: A Conversation with Avni Vyas

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Little God is Avni Vyas’s first poetry collection, but its vibe is decidedly mature, a gift fashioned from hard-won wisdom, what mystics have called “the dark night of the soul.”

As Vyas explains in her introduction, the near-death of a parent and a lost pregnancy inform the collection. Even if those losses are not what Little God is about, the Little God figure, a sort of “angry child” summoned by grief, responds to the existential questions of a more conventionally voiced poet. In some poems, they are in dialogue; in others, his pithy sagacity fills the entire poem. Through a book whose origin story is part of its charm—handwritten using both the poet’s dominant and non-dominant hands, over a short period of time, in response to very specific, very real things happening—Vyas has performed a nearly impossible feat and made the timeless subject of grief new. In their precision of reference (this is a deeply Florida book), these poems honor the way every loss is unique and personal. They also invite the reader to ask themselves questions that I, for one, had long forgotten I knew how to ask or answer, such as, What does it really mean to need another person?

I met Avni Vyas just over a decade ago when we were both studying at Florida State University, and she and I have orbited one another as fellow poets and friends ever since. I was delighted to talk with her over email this summer about her debut collection, Little God, forthcoming later this month from Burrow Press.

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The Rumpus: Little God is a book that sings in so many registers for me. The collection’s title suggests that you’ll engage with myth, as does the introduction where you write, “Like many desi kids, I grew up with stories of Lord Krishna’s childhood.” In the pages that follow, alongside Krishna, we find Shiva and Vishnu, Ekalavya’s missing thumb, a parade of ants, Charon’s ferry to hell, Saturn eating his children. Sometimes, you use the imagery of myth rather than naming various gods and stories, like in the “blue circuitry” of your poem, “Little God Explains Comedy.” Are these references some of the “almosts” that you suggest point to past or possible lives in your book’s introduction?

Avni Vyas: One of the wonderful parts of mythology is its resonant images across cultures and stories. I opted not to catalog these references in order to invite a kind of repurposing (rather than retelling) of the mythologies. I hope this approach leaves an accessible gap for the reader’s imagination as well as points of reference. The two don’t always have to connect in order to work. The “almosts” mentioned in the introduction are possibilities, rather than retellings, but I think your question connects the two. Here, mythologies offer lyric possibilities, and certainly offer frames for the speaker and Little God to interact on the page.

Rumpus: How do you balance classical mythology with more contemporary notes, like songs by Jeff Buckley and Herbie Hancock, beach yoga with white people, frozen daiquiris, a lover who “whips up a mean risotto,” and Tofutti Cuties?

Vyas: After four years of high school Latin, mythology and classical references filter through my brain the way cuss words and candy might. One of the more fun parts about engaging with this poetic tradition is considering how classical culture and popular culture interact with one another. Wonder Woman’s island of Themyscira is a reference to the capital city of the Amazons in Greek mythology. Hindu deities are maximalized in the Western tradition, too. How many of us are overwhelmed by Buddhas and Ganeshas in a hot yoga studio? How many “Namastay in bed” graphic tees should Target need to sell for the cultural assimilation to be complete? Because of the way our culture operates, the need for content is ongoing, often tripping over the same mythos by way of superhero marketing campaigns.

I think the references in Little God demonstrate the chaos of overlap rather than present new information about lesser-known myths. The mythologies and popular culture balance each other in that they inform the poems’ world: a contemporary place where we are confronted by influences from all over, and rather than sift them apart, the poems seek pleasure in the strange ways these influences interact.

Rumpus: In the universe of this book, what is a god? I found that my ideas about what these poems meant by “god” were in flux throughout the book.

Vyas: According to some traditions, there’s a saying that Hinduism is a faith of a billion gods. Though I don’t actively practice, I like this sentiment on a practical level. As poets, we’re trained to pay attention. Mary Oliver suggests it is our “endless and proper work.” Mark Strand says, “[I]t’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.” This sentiment feels so much more quotidian (rather than reverent or awe-struck), which I think for many of us, allows us to see ourselves more generously as witnesses in our own lives. So if poetry and faith are a kind of attenuating, returning to the original thought of a billion gods, then that which we pay attention to, informs us.

You know that Buddhist practice of metta meditation, of projecting thoughts of loving-kindness onto inanimate objects like a rock or furniture? The idea is that you become better at developing those feelings (loving-kindness, appreciation, etc.) through practice. We know some version of this to be true around writing and writing practice, but I think it’s also true of looking for gods, and attuning our receptivity. In the universe of these poems, gods arrive where we pay attention. In one poem, a duck shows up as kind of a substitute god and instructs the speaker “to un-god and re-god as needed. / To need.” So at its most basic, a god is something we can find anywhere because we’ve been practicing the art of reverence elsewhere in our lives.

Rumpus: I’m glad you brought up the line “to un-god and re-god as needed. / To need,” which I had circled. Your answer leads me to think that Little God can be read as a kind of dialogue between the self and one’s god-infused surroundings. Yet as a reader, I felt that the book’s revelatory lines were nearly always given to the god-speaker, whose lines are often italicized, rather than the human being moving through these poems, typically their narrator. For instance: “He slaps his tiny, / god-sized knee. / Are you helping, / tears of laughter / rolling now, anything at all?” How would you describe the project of “the speaker”? How do you see Little God fitting within the lyric tradition?

Vyas: One of the challenges of these poems was their composition (by hand, ambidextrously), which jarred my previous sense of lyric writing. With other poems, I found myself using lyric sensibility to serve the poems’ argument or shape. Perhaps I’m simplifying my own approach, but the lyric mode felt ornamental at times. Many of the poems in Little God are cast as a conversation between two parties, and I think the lyric component invites itself in the assertion of who is speaking. Since the poems are more compact than what I’m used to writing, the lyric mode also compresses against whoever is speaking. This means that Little God often gets the revelatory lines, like you pointed out, and the speaker must receive them. In this way, you could think of the speaker as playing the “straight man” to a comic counterpart. Another way to think of the dynamic is that of a child and a caretaker. Little God throws tantrums, elides the speaker’s pain, and demands recognition. The speaker endures this treatment because, on some level, it’s inescapable.

I wish I could say the speaker is an entirely fictional character, but many of the speaker’s experiences and outlooks are based on my own. I’m a person who often wants to have the last word. It’s an infuriating character flaw. At the time of fine-tuning this project, I was seeking a way to be more receptive to language, the absurdity of the Little God character, to see whether the speaker could hold an uncomfortable response rather than manipulate her own response. It was my own way of testing my boundaries around receiving and listening. What if, for some wonderful or asinine reason, I don’t get the last word?

Letting the speaker not have the last word, the revelatory lines, is hopefully rooted in humility. It’s not quite passivity since the speaker gets something Little God doesn’t: the possibility to change. The speaker is more receptive, adaptable, and thus, capable of transformation.

Rumpus: The forms the poems in Little God take were also striking, often two- or three-beat lines, mainly broken according to syntax. But that isn’t necessarily an Avni Vyas line, which can go much longer and break differently. There are also moments in the book where you deviate from the short line, but it’s hard not to see the pattern. What was it like establishing that pattern? Did you try out other lines or forms?

Vyas: Establishing a condensed lyric line challenged my sensibilities as a writer. You noted this approach isn’t necessarily “an Avni Vyas line,” which tends to be rangier. Part of this emerged from unique writing constraints. My non-dominant hand had less to say in early drafts, so the lines arrived terse, almost clipped. The shorter lines led to further compression in revision, from sentences to fragments, from ideas to concrete nouns. Initially, this compression came from self-consciousness. With shorter lines, I questioned how long a reader would spend in each poem, and what felt essential to share. As a chronic over-sharer, I heeded the advice of mentors who urged me to make my point quickly. Once the point arrived, how much longer did I want to keep a reader there? I still don’t know if I’ve arrived at a satisfying answer, but the line length helped the poems determine their timing in a more meaningful way. Paying attention to each unit of the sentence, rather than the stanza as a whole, allowed for a more pleasurable process with enjambment and diction in the writing process.

Rumpus: Your introduction of the constraint of writing with a non-dominant hand sounds like an Oulipian exercise, but it also makes sense given all the ways Little God suggests we should let go, whether that’s being receptive to any of the billion gods around us or by acknowledging grief, another force in your book. Poetry has a long history with grief as subject. Is there a relationship for you between grief and the process of writing itself?

Vyas: Grief played a large role in this collection. I love Anne Carson‘s insight on this subject: ”Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

For me, grief, rage, and humor intermingled seamlessly throughout Little God. In our discussion of Barnburner, you expressed a similar rage in your poems, particularly around social injustice and misogyny, as a reaction to the normalized violence we’ve come to accept. In Little God, I hoped to use the ambidextrous composition to speak more directly to the grief and rage I was carrying.

Shortly before writing these poems, my father’s health took a turn for the worse. After a series of complicated surgeries, he made a tenuous recovery in a long-term care facility when he contracted a lung infection that we thought was going to kill him. We didn’t know whether he would regain enough physical strength to come home, or whether he would need to stay in a medical setting for the rest of his days. My mother spent every day in the hospital with him, bringing flowers, befriending the medical team, playing his favorite music on her phone. Whenever I had breaks from teaching, I was with her in the hospital. I’d spend extra time with the medical team gathering information on his condition, and compose long updates for the rest of the family. It became my job to contextualize any good news realistically; my mom’s job was to retain hope.

So, she prayed. In place of prayer, I wrote letters to my father. I took my guitar to the hospital and sang for him, though he was unconscious for most of it. I took long walks and absorbed everything around me because it all felt important.

Miraculously, he survived. He was able to transfer to another facility where he could do physical therapy and regain strength.

Eventually, months after the first draft of Little God was composed, he came home.

As Dad’s health improved, I learned I was pregnant. We shared the news with our families at around eleven weeks, and then the following week, I learned the pregnancy was not viable. There was no room in my family for me to adequately express what was happening to me, to feel relief for my father’s health while simultaneously experiencing a tremendous loss of my own.

While my partner did what he could to offer support, I was shredded. I’d held myself together for so long, and now there was nothing left for me. I gave myself room to feel it all: the implacable rage and unfairness, the physical and hormonal rollercoaster in my body. My family didn’t realize what a miscarriage can do: it’s not just a heavy period that you get over a week later. Your hormones are in flux and you can’t get through a day without multiple breakdowns. You move through the motions of your normal life but your body demands rest and recovery. You need other people tending to you, but when that is an unfamiliar role for you; it doesn’t occur to others to offer it. Even if it did, your tragedy is an aside: your father needs all the support he can get.

To cope, I shared my loss every way I could. I wrote about it. I mentioned it in passing. I had long phone conversations and walks with friends, who were amazing in this respect. They made room for the sadness, anger, and flashbacks of other failures in my life. Their patience was incredibly healing. Through their love and persistence, the figure of Little God emerged. He is a consilience of love and rage who operates by the forces of need and immediacy, like a child, or like the weather. His logic is playful, liberating, and a way through my own grief.

So, these conversations with Little God arose as a way to move into grief and loss, but also to consider grief as a numinous shade of love. It’s everywhere. Grief, to me, looks like the natural world: mercurial, insistent, ageless, and wise.

Rumpus: Little God immediately announces itself as a project book, in contrast to a more mixtape-like selection of poems. In the book’s introduction, you shared that you wrote daily with a group, but what was it like for you making that into a book? Did it feel different to consider the book as a whole during its writing, versus going poem by poem? I’m also interested in learning more about the poems with titles, and those without.

Vyas: This was such a challenge! How does a book project become a book? I also struggle with the poems-as-mixtape approach because it’s tough to see the larger themes transition across individual poems, so the framework of a book project offers a useful conceit. Then came the challenge of knowing how the narrative threads interact in a meaningful way. After sharing the project with Burrow Press, editor Ryan Rivas was an invaluable resource in helping shape the order and arc of the book. We identified some overarching themes (grief, a failed relationship, a new relationship, nature, identity). Poems in which Little God speaks exclusively received a title. The poems in which the speaker interacts with Little God remained untitled. We used Little God’s monologues to set arcs throughout the book, using his voice as a circular return to the lyric moment. Then, the overall order of the collection helped create a shape to the relationship between the speaker and Little God, which is the primary relationship in this book.

The early drafts worked with around sixty poems, and we cut the ones that didn’t facilitate these arcs, which opened up narrative space for new poems to bridge ideas while centralizing the speaker and Little God’s dynamic. This process took a few passes, but Ryan’s editorial insight helped me understand the collection as an experience for an outside reader while providing space from the origin points of many of these poems. Seeing the poems coalesce into their own narrative, rather than a tangled, non-linear semi-biography, was a wonderful relief. I could read the book on its own terms at that point. Editors and readers are a privilege in this way.

Rumpus: Readers of Little God will also be intrigued by Mimi Cirbusova’s cover art and the illustrations that appear throughout, a practice that is less common in poetry books. Why did you decide to include illustrations, and how did you find Cirbusova?

Vyas: The images were a happy possibility, thanks to Burrow Press. They invited author input, so I got in touch with Mimi, whose work I love for its Florida appeal. Mimi and I met through friends years ago, and we had spoken about the prospect of collaborating before. Her interests in all things Florida (history, flora, fauna) and her passion for connecting with the natural world already inspired me.

I shared the manuscript with her so she could develop her own imagery around the poems, and then we met a few times to dig deep about what these connections could look like. The illustrations are Mimi’s imaginative interpretations. For her, Little God takes the form of an ibis, so you’ll see those feature prominently in the illustrations. It felt good for this book to live in someone else’s imagination, for the poems to interact with a reader and artist on their own terms. Mimi’s illustrations add texture and cohesion to the collection rather than summarize specific poems or scenes. This was also part of the “letting go” that Little God was pushing me to do.

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Photograph of Avni Vyas by Avni Vyas.


Erin Hoover is the author of Barnburner (Elixir Press, 2018), winner of a Florida Book Award in Poetry. Her poems are published or forthcoming in journals such as the Cincinnati Review, Poetry Northwest, and Shenandoah, and anthologized in Best American Poetry and Best New Poets. Hoover teaches poetry at Tennessee Tech as an assistant professor. She serves on the executive committee of the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference. More from this author →