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Interview with SRIKANTH REDDY
Amatoritsero Ede: How does your Asian-American literary/cultural background impact your poetry? Is your influence mainly North-American?
Srikanth Reddy: This is a very hard question, especially because I spent such a long time deliberately avoiding any intersection of my poetic writing with my Asian-American cultural background. I guess I wanted to avoid the traps of identity politics, and the limitations placed on young writers by a reading public (and publishing industry) that rewards hackneyed, familiar approaches to the problem of postcolonial or otherwise marginalized forms of identity. But ultimately I found it impossible to avoid the subject, and in fact limiting in other ways to deny this aspect of my identity as a writer. So I think I ended up approaching the problem obliquely, not by aligning myself with any Asian-American literary precursor, but rather with writers like T.S. Eliot, who inflect their poetics in part through the lens of Asian thought. Thus while my influences are mainly American, they’re skewed toward the East in the sense that a writer like Eliot finds approaches to his literary destinations via the Upanishads (at the end of the Waste Land) or the Bhagavad-Gita (in Four Quartets).
A.E.: One notes that in the collection, Facts for Visitors, you adopt traditional free verse as well as the prose poem. Don’t you think that the prose poem might, speaking generally, compromise the syntax of poetry?
S.R.: No, I don’t think the prose poem – or any other form, for that matter, whether it be an experimental form like the calligram or a traditional form like terza rima – can compromise the syntax of poetry, primarily because poetry doesn’t display any fixed syntax whatsoever in my conception of the art. Gertrude Stein opened up a new syntax within poetic practice, as did Gerard Manley Hopkins. In fact, the danger in writing a prose poem is that one might fail to explore the syntactical elements of poetry with sufficient abandon! In other words, a prose poem might somehow fail to be poetic enough because of the temptation to simply write in a prosaic grammar or syntax within the form.
A.E.: I note that you read Sanskrit. There is a great tradition of writings, Vedic literature, traditional and modern poetry, and so on, in the Orients, especially texts inaccessible except in Sanskrit. Has such texts influenced your work.
S.R.: Alas, no. When I studied Sanskrit eight years ago during my time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I barely achieved a proficiency that enabled me at the time to parse some passages of the Bhagavad-Gita. By now I’ve lost almost all of that, though I imagine it might come back fairly quickly with practice. So those older traditions are pretty much cut off to me except in translation, and even then I’m horribly ignorant of Sanskrit poetry, much to my shame. But the thing that the study of Sanskrit did open up for me, I think, is a broadened sense of the history of languages, and a more complex notion of how etymologies work. This temporal framework has broadly influenced my way of thinking about the art of poetry, its durability across history – across the rise and fall of civilizations and empires – and of the mutability of the signifiers that we as poets use as our primary building materials.
A.E.: How does being an academic - or at least having an academic training – interfere with or enhance writing poetry?
S.R.: Well, one way that being an academic interferes with my writing is the demand that it places on my time. But really I don’t see how that’s any different from working at a bank or an insurance company or waiting tables for that matter. My writing has been enriched, however, by being continually exposed to people who love literature, who have made it their lives’ work to investigate the art and the history of the art. Most complex I think is the way in which one can profit from exposure to the ongoing theoretical work on poetry and the difficulties that overexposure to theoretical concerns can pose to the practicing writer. If there is a selva oscura that I find myself facing today as a writer, it’s the dark woods of theory; I find my writing enriched by the encounter with contemporary thinking about poetics, but I also find it hard to stay true to my original impulse for writing poems, which should always remain, as Stevens claims, to add another page to the handbook of heartbreak.
A.E.: Would you suggest a degree in creative writing for an aspiring writer/poet? What is the necessary ratio of talent and the mechanics imparted by creative writing degrees?
S.R.: Though it seems increasingly fashionable to criticize MFA programs, I do think they can be valuable sanctuaries for people who want to devote a few years of their lives to the writing of poetry. I don’t know of any necessary ratio of talent to mechanics involved in this process, but I’d say that the one thing that these programs can impart is further knowledge of various techniques, schools, traditions, and theories of the art. I don’t see how this is a bad thing. Some people say that MFA programs churn out commodified, pre-fabricated literary products, but really it seems like you’d have to be a terribly weak-minded writer to simply produce a conveyor-belt version of what your teachers expect from you. This isn’t to say you have to attend an MFA program to write good poetry; it’s just that I don’t think an MFA disqualifies you from writing original work. In fact, sometimes it can help.
A.E.: Again on form: I note the, shall I call it postmodernisms in your work, the use of the sign ‘&’ instead of graphemes, apart from prose poem form; some poets also makes use of slashes and other signs, figures, graphs. Are these an announcement of a political impulse, much like modernism – dada, for example, was political answer to the illusions engendered after World War 1?
S.R.: If the use of the ampersand is the primary signifier of my postmodernism, I would count myself lucky! Actually, I think the ampersand is pretty much a cosmetic whim that I indulged in, having more to do with the typographical zeitgeist of the moment when the book came out than anything else. I don’t buy into the use of graphs or radical typographical experimentation in contemporary poetry myself as a writer, by and large. I think of poems as made out of language, not ink or paper, and thus as basically immaterial. This is unfashionable in some postmodern circles, where the emphasis is placed on the materiality of the textual artefact, and where a position like mine might seem ‘essentialist’ in some conservative or liberal humanist sense. (I don’t think I’m conservative, though I do agree with many principles of liberal humanism). I agree with Shelley that poetry is unique among the arts precisely because it is unencumbered by the materiality of its medium – a poet is more free to do things with language than a sculptor is with clay – and that this is the strength and, dare I say, ‘supremacy’ of the art.
A.E.: Do you think there are any stylistic dangers or gains involved in these postmodernisms?
S.R.: I do think there are stylistic dangers involved in fetishizing the materiality of the text, but I hope that I avoid them as much as possible. One danger I see would involve confusing poetry with pictorial art. Right now I think a lot of young poets are more interested in constructing poems that ‘look interesting’ on the page rather than writing poems that truly devastate the reader with the force of their contents. The fetishization of the visual aspect of a poem is often accompanied by a corresponding neglect of the content of the poem.
A.E.: The blurb of Facts for Visitors, announces the influence of Wallace Stevens (not necessarily in a direct way) and surprisingly, Joseph Conrad! What is the place of Conrad in a postcolonial-leaning text such as yours? Can you give us an idea what you think the blurb writer was talking about: does he mean the collection reacts to Conrad indirectly, questions him, modifies him etc?
S.R.: Conrad’s influence is mainly felt in a sequence of poems, “Ninth Circle,” that I basically tried to bury or hide in the middle of the manuscript. They’re narrative poems about a journey downriver in an unspecified allegorical postcolonial landscape. As such they’re deeply influenced by my reading of “Heart of Darkness,” but also, in a sense, by the film “Apocalypse Now” as well. I think I tried to bury these poems because I ended up feeling that this sort of postcolonial narrative wasn’t where I wanted to go as a writer – that this approach wouldn’t satisfy my ongoing poetic concerns – and this is also why I ended up re-naming these poems “Ninth Circle,” placing them at the center of the inferno of self-doubt and self-accusation that spirals through the book. I also, incidentally, adore Conrad’s prose style, and I think of him as an influence on my own approach to the representation of otherwise indistinct or ethically-hazy elements of experience.
A.E.: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has been reread by postcolonial critics, Chinua Achebe, Notable amongst them, of being a racist text promoting imperial ideology. This is similar to critical re-readings of Shakespeare – especially The Tempest, the Caliban/Prospero dichotomy. There is a brief moment in your “Monsoon Eclogue”, where Lord Rama appears. It reminds of the use of myth or religious symbolism in Elliot. How much are we to see or expect the mythic-religious in your future work.
S.R.: I don’t think I will explore Hindu myth to any great extent in my future writing, simply because that mythology and iconography isn’t embedded deeply in my unconscious. I was raised in the U.S. by Indian-born parents who introduced me to certain aspects of their cultural heritage but who also wanted me to assimilate into American society – thus they did not encourage my sister or me to speak Telugu, their native tongue, at home. So in a way I feel like the reference to Rama dates back to an earlier point in my writing life when I was still trying to negotiate the expectation that I would write about India – a point that I hope I’ve progressed beyond by today. Now I’d like to be free to write about the world rather than restricted to any particular part of it, and if India enters into that exploration then I’d hope that I would be able to acknowledge the fact that I’m as much a visitor there as I would be in Europe or South America or China or Africa, albeit a visitor with a strange sort of connection to the place.
A.E.: As a matter of fact one could suggest that your poetry blends the modern and the postmodern? Would you agree your work exists at an interstice of all those blends? Do you note any conscious or unconscious gains or dangers from this in terms of craft?
S.R.: I don’t really know what the postmodern is, in the end, so it’s hard to answer this question. In fact, who even knows what the modern is? But I do think we’re on the verge of a new conception of the literary present, and that this conception will involve naming what’s been happening since World War II in a positive, rather than a negative, sense. To call the present “post-modern” is to define it in relation to what it is not (i.e., modern). I think this illustrates an imaginative poverty in conceptualizing what’s happening now. Perhaps we’re not really post-modern at all, but simply working through the implications of the modernist moment in a way that is continuous with Pound’s and Stein’s and Stravinsky’s experiments. But then again maybe we’re doing something that’s different in kind. One thing I’d like to do would be to think about ways of conceptualizing this moment, naming it, and thus moving beyond the nomenclature of “post-anything.” But that would take a lot of time away from the writing of poems!
A.E.: These definitions are no fixed entities. By the postmodern in poetics, I mean those divergences from the modernist trend in poetry that is notable with the present-day avant-garde; those things we spoke of above, the ambersand, graphics/drawings - sometimes to the detriment of content etc. The term, postmodern, is merely generic. True the modernist movement might still well be unfolding. But the fact is that today we have a clear departure from traditional modernist stylistics such as free verse or imagism. Most poems in the ‘postmodernist’ mode prefer the narrative form, the prose form - which as you said is in danger of emphasising form to the detriment of content. In short what I mean here by the postmodern is that which deliberatively rejects the modern, and sometimes does not really care about craft, content; it is reactionary and very formalist. It is in this term I deploy the term. Srikanth, thank you for taking the time.
S.R.: Thank you, Ama – it’s been a real pleasure.