The Person Is Not The Body: An Interview with Rushi Vyas
Rushi Vyas and I connected at AWP in 2016 over the use of sound and rhythm in poetry. Vyas learned Sanskrit mantras from a young age that charged his poems with precision of pulse and echo. Indeed, the chant features prominently in his work, whether in directly quoting prayers or in repetition and formal considerations, producing a sonic and spiritual haunting threaded throughout his poems.
In 2020 during lockdown and the rise of Hindu fascism in India, we collaborated on a chapbook called Between Us, Not Half A Saint in order to speak back to the murderous anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit regime fomenting riots.
Vyas’s first collection, When I Reach For Your Pulse, centers the unthinkable, the death of a parent by suicide and a son’s survival despite this earthquake. We discuss his debut collection that began to form a decade ago while he was working toward his MFA from Colorado University in Boulder. Presently living in Aotearoa, Vyas’s work speaks through oceans of grief to show his readers what living can mean for survivors.
The Rumpus: This collection is so complex and so thematically tight as it probes the mind of a survivor of a parent’s suicide. How did the concept of writing this collection occur to you? What was the journey of this collection like for you?
Rushi Vyas: Writing a collection with this thematic specificity was not my goal. This is a first collection in the sense that it reflects the beginning of my journey into the practice of poetry. It just so happened—and this probably isn’t coincidental—that I began seriously reading and writing poems while I was working as a career counselor around 2012, which was the year leading up to my dad’s death. While the earliest drafts of a few of these poems came in 2013, the bulk of them were written between 2015-2020 during my MFA in Colorado and in the years following. During this period, I was experimenting all the time, making a lot of mess. At the beginning of my last semester, my teacher Ruth Ellen Kocher encouraged me to print out every poem-ish thing I had written over the last few years and to sort that work into piles. At that point, I didn’t really have a vision for a book. But what became clear as I was going through those poems, was I had an obsession: My poems returned, again and again, to the moment of finding my dad—my Bapu—and to the pasts and futures that revealed or obscured themselves in that witnessing.
I think, as writers, we only have so much choice. Obsessions emerge from our lived experience. The choice we have is whether, or how, to welcome those experiences in the act of writing. I wanted desperately to write something that did not have to do with my father, with my family. But when I finally said, yes, to what my subconscious was insistent upon, this book came into shape. Many of the poems’ early drafts erupted from the subconscious. But all of these poems have gone through many drafts since then. So it was a mix of learning to follow my subconscious, weed through the mess to listen to what the poems actually wanted to say, and then working up the courage myself to actually go there.
While the content is thematically tight, I spent a lot of time after the initial draft rearranging and rewriting the poems. Each rejection or finalist nod led to a new arrangement. Even now, I feel like the poems are still teaching me things about my mindset when writing them, or about the absences—the things I didn’t yet have the skillset to write into. I wanted my orbital, interior journey to be in the book, and so opted to have a few recurrences of poems and many refrains to show the revisionary process of living in the wake of suicide.
Rumpus: One thing that strikes me as unique to your collection is your attention to sound and rhythm. You include Sanskrit mantras in the collection as ritual punctuations here that remind me of the specificity of timed prayers. How does this kind of attention inform your practice of poetry?
Vyas: Sound and rhythm often drive my writing. I think that ties back to my mother teaching me Sanskrit mantras in the car, in call and response fashion, while driving around suburban Ohio. The minivan, a Plymouth Voyager, was a refuge from the violence of our home. There’s a poem “Attachment” in the book that was my first attempt at drawing this line, trying to make sense of what sort of tutelage or instruction was happening in the car when she taught me slokas and mantras.
Growing up, I did not learn how to speak my parents’ languages such as Gujarati and Hindi. My connection to any cultural inheritance was through the Sanskrit slokas my mother taught me. She put so much emphasis on pronunciation, but wouldn’t provide a direct translation. She would give me something loose like, “We say this mantra to the deity that lives in the sun,” or “This one is to Lord Shiva.” But, sound was prioritized over meaning. I think that emphasis on the sonic is such a poetic impulse. You don’t have to get a poem to be moved by it. So, my poetics were loosely formed decades before I started writing poetry, through this attention to sound which now translates to rhythm and syntax, too.
For the “Morning Chant” poems in the manuscript, the verses that flank the anglophone text are from a long chant, The Guru Gita, that I used to recite early most mornings through my twenties. I have many notebooks of poetic experiments playing with these verses—homophonic (mis-)translations, verses following the syllabic structure (often lines of either to sixteen syllables). And so I think that play, that mess, is behind a lot of work in the book even though it isn’t literally present.
The practice of this chant is knotted with many layers of complexity. On one hand, the practice felt like a connection to that fugitive, educational time in the car with my mom. On another, I go through waves of struggling with an awareness of how Brahminism hides behind the keeping of such sacred knowledge. What does it mean for me—an American born to parents who benefitted from Brahmin lineage—to be trying to recover some sense of cultural practice in diaspora? While so many of our cultural practices are knotted with these tensions between the spiritual and the political—complicated further by the inflammation of Hindutva and Hindu fascism in India under Modi—I was so attracted to the Kashmir Shaivist ideal of what it would be to live in the experience of seeing the divine in everyone and everything. This vision for love was so much more capacious than the conditional, evangelical Christian love espoused by many who surrounded me in Ohio. The chant became an anchoring practice to remind me to approach each relationship in my life trying to sense the sacred in others, an antidote to the inheritance of my father’s paranoid looking-over-the-shoulder approach to relationships (even if such a view of the world is a sensible survival tactic for brown folks in the US).
Rumpus: The title poem “When I Reach for Your Pulse” does some interesting work with the seen and the unseen, the hidden and the visible, the breath and the breathless. Can you speak a little bit about your decisions around what to “tell” and what to omit?
Vyas: This is an interesting poem to show my own process and change as a poet. And my attempt to embrace risk. Initially, I wrote this poem in response to the ubiquity of “the body” and materiality in writing today. When I found my father, one undeniable fact is that the person is not the body. The body remains, but the person is gone. I had this in the back of my mind when I wrote the first draft of this poem and brought it to my first ever poetry workshop in 2016. The serial poem in progress was extremely abstract, ungrounded, and titled “Space.” I wanted to allow emptiness to have a voice—that space between electrons which physicists say actually occupies ninety-nine percent of our cells themselves.
I started by representing the word space with literal blank space on the page. I’ve been very lucky to be surrounded by brilliant poets in every workshop space I’ve been in—this one was no exception. My peers in Ruth Ellen’s 2016 workshop at Colorado, rather than shunning the piece in its rawness, could sense I was hiding behind that white space—avoiding something—rather than letting the void speak. So I let myself go deeper into the practice, which eventually involved writing the gesture behind the impulse, what Bhanu Kapil calls the light touch, the reach for the pulse. I hope this poem allows the imaginative speculations about what life is, what existence and consciousness are, into the confrontation with mortality and suicide in a way that is tactile, guided and interrupted by breath. Of course, the body is in this poem, but I hope it allows room for the invisible aspects of experience and loss to speak. I chose to keep the second incarnation of the poem (or to bring back an earlier incarnation) in the book to honor the cyclical nature and constant flux of our personalities, desires, and positions. This choice is also a choice against my perfectionist inheritance, to rebel against the Log kya kahenge? voice inside me that cautions me against risk, or worries what others think. It is an attempt to publicly honor the experimentation and uncertainty inherent in making.
Rumpus: There is a pained relationship between the speakers and the father, even when in the italicized “Suicide Note in absentia” sections where the speaker inhabits the father’s persona. Such emotional investment from a poet for such personal matters is usually not seen as worth discussing but you bring this to the fore with fearlessness. To me, there is a resistance the speaker has to toxic masculinity forced on them, and part of this is to admit pain where it shines. Can you speak a little about your decisions regarding this?
Vyas: Thank you for speaking to “fearlessness,” a term I did not think of in relation to this poem. I wrote the first draft of this poem in the woods in Nederland, Colorado over a few days. My dad did not leave a suicide note and there is this absence that we who survive—mainly my mom, sister, and I—have to live with.
For much of my life, I thought I wanted my dad to die. There’s a poem that I ended up taking out of the collection, but that has an earlier version published in The Journal as “Magic Lantern.” The speaker in that poem moves between first and third person, between remembering childhood projections of the father dying and grappling with his death in the present. Many others also have parents who are more figures of terror than of love. But I knew love was present—just warped by the performance of masculinity, the pressure of patriarchal inheritance, the stress of immigration, the anxiety of assimilation, and perceiving a world of threat all around him.
In lieu of ever getting beyond the surface level with my dad, my father, my Bapu while he was alive, I thought one way to honor him in a book (that he would have hated me publishing) was to try and imagine his experience of what happened. One thing that people say when someone dies by suicide is, “At least they aren’t suffering anymore.” And what I hope this book can speak to a little bit is, “Well, why are so many people suffering?” It’s pretty clear that the gender roles and cultural expectations that hardened my father’s worldview were a large part of his suffering. In moments of exhaustion, my Dad would show fleeting moments of tenderness such as softly patting my hair—a flicker documented in “Double Slit.” Those fleeting moments would be quickly followed by another bout of anger, threats, stoicism, and intimidation. “Suicide Note in absentia” was my way to spend a weekend trying to speak to the dead, give him a chance to speak back. Obviously, the speaker of this poem is not my dad, but clearly me trying, straining, lying on the floor, weeping, to channel him. But that’s all we are left with.
I used to cling to a hope, often while chanting, that through some miracle he would one day wake up “enlightened” like in some of the stories I heard growing up, and become instantly accountable for his actions. I’ll always wonder what those last moments were like for him. You’re right, there’s a lot of emotional investment in this book and in particular in this piece. I had to go there for my own heart to heal and not hide behind a callous [persona]. I also had to go there to reveal that patriarchal, masculine performativity kills, not just those who aren’t cis-men, but cis-men too—to quote Fred Moten—“however much more softly.”
Rumpus: Which poets and which books were instrumental in your thinking through form and content as you wrote and polished these poems?
Vyas: Content-wise, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of and Chloe Honum’s The Tulip-Flame came to me at very different times, but left a huge impact. I saw Diana read in Colorado after I finished the first draft of the book. Ghost Of had just come out and it was reassuring to see another Asian American poet writing into the heavy grief of familial suicide. While I had already been playing with the form in “When I Reach for Your Pulse,” Diana’s reading of the silences in the void of cut-out photographs encouraged me to keep going with my own formal play. And when I was moving to Aotearoa, I came across the now US-based poet Chloe Honum whose stunning, sharp, first book The Tulip Flame, moves through grieving a mother’s suicide in gorgeous lyric. There’s a line from Chloe’s poem “Spring” that I quote in the book. And I should mention Dawn Lundy Martin’s Discipline, because the first line in the book comes from her, and what follows in my poem “Effigy” is a completely different response to the provocation she wrote: “I waited all my life for my father to die.”
Formally, I do not think I could list everything that has helped me think through this book. Ruth Ellen Kocher helped me find the book, and I am so grateful to her for pushing me to go there and for allowing me to feel safe enough to do so. Craig Santos Perez offered some important insights into the manuscript for me at VONA Voices. Here are some books I kept near me particularly for this book, some of which might be obvious and others might seem so different from my work: King Me by Roger Reeves; play dead by francine j. harris; Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture by Lisa Robertson; The Taxidermist’s Cut by one Rajiv Mohabir [interviewed in The Rumpus in October 2021]; Solar Maximum by Sueyeun Juliette Lee; Companion Grasses by Brian Teare; Whereas by Layli Long Soldier; Duende by Tracy K. Smith; Frank Bidart’s long persona poems; Elegy by Larry Levis; Field Theories by Samiya Bashir; Christopher Gilbert; Ecodeviance by CA Conrad; and Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil, to name a few. And I have to mention some brilliant poets whose books are still waiting to be in the world, and whose poems I have learned so much from: Ansley Clark, Whitney Kerutis, Hannah Perrin King, Danny Ruiz, Natalie Sharp, Colin Walker, El Williams III, and CL Young.
Rumpus: What do you wish you knew when you were just starting this book? What advice would you give to others (or even a younger Rushi) about writing poetry?
Vyas: You don’t need to know where your poems are going. Though this book is thematically focused on my family narrative, it didn’t begin that way and I did not intend it as such. I remember feeling a lot of anxiety during my MFA that I did not have a “project” whereas many of my peers were working on project books. I think “project books” can be helpful to give someone questions of focus and allow for a durational exploration of something. But so can wandering through experience with a notebook beside you and surrounding yourself with people who are interested in language, art, and/or how we live. I think because funding for arts is so tied to grant proposals—inside and outside of the university—many books coming out today seem to be project books. But there is room for collections of poems. And, your poems might come together, like mine did, around a certain theme or project. But the wandering, for me, was necessary.
Also, like my friend El often says, listen to your poems and go where they ask you to go. Having written a book that is so directly centered around a very personal traumatic moment, I am always interested in conversations around such work. I’ve noticed some discussions cautioning against writing about one’s own traumas. There will be a lot of people with a lot of opinions on whether you should write through traumatic experience or not, particularly if you are a writer of color. There will be many different opinions from writers you admire on how one should go about writing through your experience in a publishing world still dominated by white editors. Yes, writers of color should be able to write about whatever they need to. We should never feel the need to write through trauma narratives as a “price of entry.” Go wherever any writer can go! Play! Yet, if creative work carries some power toward cultural transformation, sometimes we might feel it is beneficial to write through such narratives.
I was not able to find another book of poetry that could help me make sense of my father’s suicide and abuses with culturally specific context. And so I had to write this book, not as some “price for admission” to the white writing world, but because of who I am and how I move through experience. I wanted to publish it for the communities I live in. I needed to write these poems for my survival, to face what has shaped my life to this point, and to begin carving a path forward out of some of the harmful inheritances many of us find ourselves entrapped in. Therapy accompanied my writing, but the writing helped walk me into new connections across time and space. Trust where you, your pen, and body need to go.
Author photo by Tessa Romano