By Suman Chhabra, Eye on India Head Blogger
Eye on India’s 2016 Festival opened with a reading by Vijay Seshadri at the Poetry Foundation on September 15th.
Steve Young, Program Director of the Poetry Foundation, welcomed the audience and introduced Eye on India’s Founder, Anuradha Behari. Behari spoke about the Jaipur Literature Festival, and how Eye on India’s Words on Water series was inspired by the JLF. She emphasized the importance of the Words on Water conversations that spark “ideas that take us on a journey.”
Seshadri began the evening on a political note, though he had thought he “would not be provocative in any sort of way.” He remarked that he could not help but engage in a civil dialogue due to the upcoming presidential election. The first few poems he read reflected on immigration in its various forms. Seshadri’s work examined this term through Arizona’s immigration laws to the immigration of a soul.
He read a new poem “Commas dashes ellipses full stops question marks” for the first time. Though many of his works were grave, some, like this piece, imbibed a lightness. Seshadri laughed when telling the audience that he has never been picked for jury duty in New York. Despite being called over the past 30 years, he has never been chosen. Those present appreciated his comments about each poem. They both enlightened the meaning of his pieces as well as gave an understanding of the author. A phrase from this particular poem: “apocalyptic focus” represents Seshadri’s reading and explanation of his work.
Before reading “Bright Copper Kettles” Seshadri joked that Millennials don’t even know from where the title originates, to which Steve Young responded that the poem, previously published in Poetry, was one of his favorite things. The poem itself drifted away from the (mostly) jolly musical asking, “who knew the dead were so polite?”
The last poem of the night was “Light Verse” a piece Seshadri was asked to write by The New York Times on the subject of daylight savings time. The audience laughed, anticipating a silly piece for a seemingly surface level subject matter, yet Seshadri’s poem surprised in its depth, describing, “mind and day…out of sync.”
Matthew Shenoda, chair of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago, joined Seshadri for the second half of the event. He asked Seshadri about being the first Asian to win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in relation to breaking the expectations of his Indian upbringing. Seshadri remarked that his parents did expect him to make a career in the sciences because that is all they knew from their own experience. And while he did study mathematics, then philosophy, he also hitchhiked west and worked in the fishing industry for 5 years in his twenties. “When I came back, I was an extra good son.” His relationship with parents was strained, but began to open up when Seshadri was accepted into Columbia for grad school. It was a marker of success his parents, like many immigrant parents, could understand.
Shenoda asked Seshadri about individualism and its relationship to identity. Seshadri moved to the United States from Bangalore when he was 5 years old. His experience of America at that time was of a middle class country, one in which he witnesses his parents strip away their Indian identity. He likened this stripping away of identity, an “existential starkness or nakedness”, to Kafka’s Gregor. Gregor, the main character of The Metamorphosis, in becoming an insect, had his humanity stripped away from him. When asked if he felt the constraints of being identified as Indian, or as an Indian writer, Seshadri replied that he “refuses to perform that identity.”
Seshadri’s reading was at times deliberate and at times conversational, and overall effective. His poems and conversation touched on politics, not only of the U.S., but also of one’s identity.
In closing, Seshadri responded to an audience member who asked what advice he tells his students: “This is a country where you can be an artist.”
Photo Credit: Carla Carrasco Ocampo