“The purpose of poetry is to deal with unprecedented experience.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
V: Do I hear quacking in the background? Do you have a pet duck?
K: Haha. No, I don't. My dad is a poultry geneticist and he had a duck farm my entire life, so it's entirely possible that you're picking up on that through the ether. Do you have any questions before we dive in besides whether or not I've got a duck?
Not really. We sort of know each other.
Yeah, I think I probably know you more than you know me.
Well, I've read some of the interviews and I liked them. And you're of Iranian descent?
Yeah, I was born in Tehran, but I've lived in America since I was two and a half. And my mom is American, so there are layers, but yeah, I'm Persian.
Do you know Persian?
It was my first language, but we left when I was two and a half, and then my parents didn't speak it in the house because they wanted me to identify as American and be a football watching, steak-eater. By and large they were successful. I speak about as much as a two-year-old would speak and I understand about the same. I can't read it at all. It's a weird thing, too because if they had just spoken it an hour a week in the house, I would've kept it.
Ah. I studied it for a couple of years.
Oh, really? You studied Farsi?
In the late 80's when I was at Columbia in a Ph.D. program in Comp Lit and Middle Eastern Languages and Literature. I was actually studying Urdu, and studying Persian to buttress the Urdu.
Urdu and Farsi are super close, right?
Well, lexically they are very close. Urdu is a South Asian language, a lingua franca of South Asian Muslims—like Yiddish once was for European Jews—derived from medieval Indic languages, but with a large number of loan words from Arabic and Persian, and a couple of grammatical constructions, too. All of India was influenced by Persian civilization. There was more Persian poetry written in India than there was in Persia proper.
Really? I didn't know that.
All the classical Urdu poets also wrote Persian poems. It was the official language of India until 1834.
In the Mughal Empire, but then the British replaced it with English.
That's wild. I didn't know that. Were you studying South Asian Poetry?
I was mostly interested in the history of Islam in India, and the Hindu-Muslim conflict, and Partition, though my cover was that I was studying the poetry. I lived in Pakistan for a while, in Lahore, and studied Urdu there. My parents were Vaishnavites from deep in South India. That was their religion. I hate to call it Hinduism, because there's no such thing as Hinduism, but they were what the West would call Hindus. And they were orthodox, very orthodox.
See, this is speaking to my ignorance already because I've never heard that about Hinduism—what do you mean when you say Hinduism is not a thing?
Well, the term is the equivalent of a word like "Hellenism." Hellenism is the -ism of the Hellenic people, their way of life, their discourse, in a deep sense. Hinduism is the -ism of the people who live beyond the river that the Persians called Hind. The Greeks called that river Ind, or Indus, which is why Europe called the land beyond it India. So Hinduism basically just translates to "Indianism." It doesn't really define a religion because there's no official religion there, no creedal religion in the Middle Eastern sense. Apart from Islam, of course, and apart from Jainism and Buddhism, which grew out of Indianism, there are just many offshoots and elaborate ramifications of ancient Indo-European nature worship, which was subsequently named Hinduism by Westerners. Then the name was adopted by Indians themselves, through one of those unedifying processes of imperialism that we all know too much about. It would be better to call it santana dharma, the eternal dharma. Dharma is of course untranslatable, but it means approximately what the early Christians called logos.
So I don't like the word. Hinduism understood as a religion just doesn't capture the variety and complexity and the conceptual difference. An attempt was made to categorize it as a religion like the other religions, but it's not really. They made a category error in doing so.
I had no idea. I want to continue on this thread because I'm interested in it and I'm learning, but I also want to talk about your own poetry. About your flourishes as a poet—how you have, within the same poem, this dialectic between the grand huge scale and the very keenly observed specificity—what Alice Quinn called, "The combination of epic sweep and piercing, evocative detail." I think a way to get at both of those things is to follow whatever agitates your curiosity.
I've always been interested in how the macrocosm and the microcosm relate and how they connect with each other. I've always found dynamic shifts in scale exciting within a poem. I think, in some sense, the real activity of the poem is moving between different apprehensions of scale and different categories of order, and creating a shift in perspective between varying and even contradictory ways of experiencing things. I never consciously did that, but if I look back on the poems that I really like and that influenced me, they all harmonize different scales of reality. There's an excitement to that, definitely. We started by talking about Persia and India and the size of the world, and I do think that the fact that I moved from one civilization to another gave me the advantage of seeing a broader canvas.
I think that's fascinating.
Because I had a fixed and certain distance, I also had perspective. Perspective is created by seeing something from two different points of view, basically. You know, it's very hard to account for how this actually works itself out, either in someone's psyche or in someone's poetry, but I think it's really important, even though I can't account for it, and I can’t make sense of it to myself, and I probably won't ever be able to. There's only so much you can see of your own self because you're being yourself. So that self who is being the self is the one who's doing the seeing. You have the paradox of the observer—the observer is always interfering with the act of observation.
To work against the paradox of the observer—Stevens called the poet the "priest of the invisible." I've always loved that, the attendance to the unseeable self that implies. I love thinking of it as heightened in an immigrant narrative, and not just because it's flattering for me to think that I have this heightened awareness, but because—in my situation, I'm often observing people speaking Farsi, which is a language I barely understand, so I'm heightened to visual cues as to what's going on, and to single words that I can pick out and parse meaning from. And because I'm deeply invested in both cultures, there's a charge that exists between the two that might not be available to someone from a more homogenous background.
Absolutely. I mean, I don't think you necessarily have to come from the other side of the world to develop that consciousness early on, but it couldn't hurt in the development of that consciousness to come from one place and go to another, very different, place.
Yeah, I think a lot of poets have that perception of their own otherness, whether it's due to some psychological tumult, or ethnic, or sexual, or whatever. There's this long tradition of the feeling of being on the outside and looking in through the window. I think there's this certain potential for defamiliarization that that activates—when you're observing what is perceived to be normal, but you're not included in that normality.
I like the word defamiliarization—with respect to what Stevens said, and with respect to what any artist does. The process is one of defamiliarizing experience. Looking under it and seeing how radically strange it is, how it's informed by the invisible or the uncanny or both. I don't think Stevens ever felt—I mean Stevens knew so much French, but he'd never been to France. He was perfectly content to live in his northeastern corridor, but he certainly had an extraordinary power to defamiliarize himself and his experience.
I would say that ultimately all of these distinctions and differentiations which you see so much being made of in contemporary politics, and by reflection in literary life, are profoundly significant for collective life—for political and economic life—but aren’t as important for the life of the imagination as people make them out to be. They’re significant to poetry if they're advantageous to the poet. Even if the poet, in his or her or their life, is suffering psychological or social pain because of an identity imposed on them by society, from the point of view of poetry, that's just the trigger to something else, to that process of defamiliarization, of looking at your self and your experience from the outside in. And, suddenly, what seems to be fixed in scale is no longer fixed in scale. It becomes either huge or small, and that transformation of scale is part of the process of defamiliarization, or alienation, which makes the ordinary suddenly uncanny. Poets, whether they stay in one little village all of their lives, or travel across the world, have that in common. They enjoy that process of defamiliarization. It leads to a deeper intimacy with reality. And artists crave that. They long for it.
Yeah, I totally agree with you. I think that a less crafty way to talk about defamiliarization is to talk about wonder. I think that when people talk about your work, they often focus on what we've been talking about, the macro versus micro, the cosmological versus the quantum, but I think there's also deep wonder. One of my favorite poems from 3 Sections is "Guide for the Perplexed"—it reads tongue in cheek, but it also seems to me to be quite earnest. There's that moment where you're talking about the dead moths, "They are proof, if anyone still needs proof, that / awesome are the powers of humankind, / who have taken this selfsame moth / and endowed it with a gene from a jellyfish / so as to produce fluorescent silk!" There's this dialectic between big and small, humankind and the moth, but there's also this dialectic between science and wonder, knowing and the impossibility of knowing.
That poem seems abstract. It doesn’t seem to be coming from anywhere or going anywhere, but it was a deliberate, conscious attempt to somehow express, and at the same time invoke, astonishment. It is astonishing. Humans farm this caterpillar for its cocoon and make these fantastic materials out of it, which are so much a part of the luxury of the world. When I thought about that, I thought, "How was that possible? How could that happen?" Of course there are myths that surround it—the one famously of the Japanese princess who was drinking tea under a tree when a caterpillar dropped into her bowl. She looked at the unraveling cocoon and she thought, "Oh, that's very beautiful. Maybe we can make a kimono with it." From that small desire, assuming it happened that way—if it's apocryphal or not, we'll never know—this enormous activity developed, and it extended over time, and became intertwined with the history of the world, the history of Asia. As you quoted, the poem moves to the splicing of jellyfish genes to the Bombyx mori moth, from whose cocoon silk is made, to create fluorescent silk. Amazing in itself that that can be done. You could spend your life trying to bring people to the recognition of how amazing things are. You could sit there and say, "That's going to be the activity of my poetry."
Yes! Yes. I feel like there has to be some sense of curiosity or wonder at the core of it, right? And how do you teach that? You can teach the craft stuff and the rhetorical stuff and the structural scaffolding. But I think if there is anything about poetry that might be truly unteachable, it might have to do with that sustainable internal wonder engine.
When I teach, I try to get people to expose the entirety of the impulse or the emotion that led them to what they are writing. I try to get them to just sit with it for a while rather than acting on it immediately. Sometimes people feel an exhilaration with an emotion or an insight or a vision and they have to get things down on the page, and so they tend to rush it. I think a part of the investigation, which really involves just becoming more familiar with yourself, is to live with the impulse, live with the idea for a little bit more than poets tend to do when they're just starting out.
The impulse to write a poem or to make a piece of music or a piece of art is rooted in a sense of wonder, and it's in that wonder that the macroscopic and the microscopic merge and unify and become one thing—which is the classic Blakean mystical moment when you see in the cosmos something small and in something small, the cosmos. And one of the things I tend to argue to writers is, well, your idea is probably more complicated in terms of its scale than you think it is, and maybe you should just let its size take shape rather than trying to capture it too quickly. And there are so many ways you can trap an idea, right? You can turn it into something that's a piece of moralizing; you can turn it into something that's kind of a joke. You can do a lot of things to it, but those are all reductive.
Yeah. Earlier on in the conversation you talked about how there is this turning in contemporary poetry more towards discussions of backgrounds of the poets or identity poetics, and I wanted to sort of probe into that idea a little more. Was there ever a point, maybe early on, before people knew what your interests were as a poet, where you felt like people were expecting more identity politics from you as a writer of color, and less talk on things like the useful impossibility of having a soul?
That's such a complicated question, but one of the interesting things about it is that it's so contemporary.
How do you mean that?
It's a part of current literary discourse, discourse over the past twenty-five or thirty years. And it grows out of confessionalism, which itself is pretty recent and was something new when I became interested in poetry as a kid. It was still new then to think that the central material of the poet was what happened to the poet in his or her or their life, directly apprehended and addressed autobiographically in some way. That was newly understood to be the source of drama and interest—the byproduct of a therapeutic, self-help ethos. There was a more traditional idea of poetry that was strong then, an idea of poetry that would lead to the kind of poem Wallace Stevens wrote, or a poem that would give you a picture of the world, an idea of a poem where identity, socially or psychologically conceived, was just a stepping stone, if it had a place at all, to the imagination. Poetry changed from that earlier idea, and I guess for the better, overall, though a lot has been lost. And because of that change, one's personal historical circumstances—whether those had social or sexual or racial inflections, or intensely psychological inflections—were the wellspring of the material. That way of looking at poetry didn’t become entirely dominant, and there are certainly lots of exceptions to the rule, but it was the major transformation in the era in which I’ve been reading poetry, from the late 60’s on. And so I think, in some sense, when my work was reviewed, and when people said things about it, I would always hear surprise: "Well, he's not writing about being an Indian." Which really isn’t true. Race is a theme that is very much a part of my first book, and it exists in the background of all my books—and this sort of vision of collective communal life, that my historical experience gives me—
Yeah, and a stratified humanity, and the various ways that humanity is taxonomized is an interest of all three books.
Sure, sure. I felt that my experience was kind of unprecedented and that’s why I turned to poetry. That was another advantage of the radical dislocation of my immigrant history—I felt that unprecedentedness, at least internally, imaginatively. But also, to a certain extent, from the point of view of politics, too, because my family came here when there was almost no immigration, before the immigration laws changed, in 1965. My father had come here in the mid-50's and he got his Ph.D. and he brought us here, to Canada, and in the early 60's we moved to Ohio. So it wasn't really the collective social immigrant experience that first struck me about this dislocation, but the dislocation experienced as a kind of radical existential phenomenon that determined the way I responded.
I thought that, well, my experience is unprecedented, and the purpose of poetry is to deal with unprecedented experience. That's why anybody writes poetry. Their absolute radical individuality is what they have to figure out. Nobody can help you with it. You have to come up with your intellectual and imaginative and linguistic resources to deal with this thing that nobody else can figure out but you. I always was suspicious of received tropes and narratives having to do with my experience, whether they were immigrant narratives, whether they were racial narratives. The real issue for me was consciousness itself and how consciousness is responding to experience and the interplay between experience and consciousness that is unique to an individual. I've never really known what to do with people who say to me, "Well, you don’t write about India." I'll tell you a story if you have time.
Yes, absolutely. Please!
Well, when my first book, Wild Kingdom, came out, I read with Shashi Tharoor. Shashi Tharoor is an Indian novelist, who writes in English. He was living in New York then and was working for the United Nations. We were invited to read by a group called, as I remember, the Network of Young Indian Professionals, in 1997 or 1998, around then. And basically this was sort of an identity-formation group, but it was also a social club, made up mostly of the children of Indian immigrants to America. They had jobs in the financial world, or as lawyers, or as doctors, or as IT types, and they were, from my impression of them, all in their mid- to late-twenties or early thirties. But because they were a group with a recent immigrant past they were, like most such groups in American history, earnest. They seemed to feel that their social activity had to have a higher purpose. They made concessions to seriousness. That is, or at least so it seemed to me, their events weren’t put on as parties, they had to have a socially salutary purpose. So they would program culture before they had their party, and Shashi and I were invited to read for one of these occasions. After we read, there was a Q and A, and a young woman got up and said to me, challengingly, "There's nothing about India in your book”—which is true; and, moreover, much of that book takes place in the woods and on the ocean of the Pacific Northwest, and the urban poems in the book, the ones that take society as context, are energized not by nationality but by race elementally conceived, by blackness and whiteness. And I came up with something that I thought was quite brilliant. I said, "India in my poetry serves the same function as God does in Pascal's universe. It is everywhere present, but nowhere apparent."
Oh, that's wonderful. I love that. It reminds me of that Allen Grossman line, "A poem is about something the way a cat is about a house." It's infused in every atom of the thing, but it doesn't necessarily have to be named.
And it's actually true.
I know, I didn't think you were being glib or anything. I think it's a beautiful and very true way to say that. Do you want to talk about what you're working on now and what’s next? I know you typically—what was it eight years between the first and the second, and nine years between the second and the third, so I know that the next one probably isn't right around the corner, but do you want to talk about what's coming?
This book is going to come out much more quickly, I think.
That's great news! I'm thrilled to hear that for the most selfish reasons.
I'm really pushing to get it done. For the last seven years, I've been the primary caregiver of my parents. And they both passed away in the past year.
I'm sorry to hear that.
And I feel like there's a lot of time I have to make up. And I'm very active in doing that. I have a shape for it, and I have a lot of material. So the poetry is going well. But I'm also writing prose, and that's not going that well. In fact, I agreed to write an essay for a publication and I'm supposed to get it done in the next few days, and it's not anywhere close to being finished.
I need to throw myself into "Oh, shit" mode. I’ve just been in Vermont all this summer riding my bicycle and reading novels. But my big goal is to get a book of poetry out in the next year and a half.
Oh, that's amazing. I'm excited and can't wait to throw myself into it. Thank you so much for this conversation.
It’s been a pleasure.
Interview Posted: September 26, 2016
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