Published: January 1st, 2014
Vijay Seshadri is a Brooklyn-based essayist, literary critic, and acclaimed poet who was just awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He has edited for The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Book Review. He has taught various writing courses at Sarah Lawrence College and his poem, "The Disappearances," was published on the back cover of The New Yorker Magazine and later included in the anthology, The Best American Poetry 2003.
Howl: What made you want to be use poetry as your creative medium?
Seshadri: I think it happened because I fell in love with certain poems, not because I in any way "chose" the medium. The word “poetry” is an abstraction, but poems are concrete things one encounters in experience, living things. The more poems I fell in love with the more I moved in the direction of trying to write myself, trying to create artifacts like those that I was dazzled by. I never set out to be a poet, it happened because of the poems.
Howl: How do you feel about winning this year’s Pulitzer Prize?
Seshadri: Good, of course. We don't write for prizes – we'd probably make ourselves pretty unhappy if we did, because the risk-reward ratio in poetry-writing is pretty high, but it's nice to get this kind of recognition. It doesn't make the difficulty of the art go away, but it does comfort you with the knowledge that you are read by people, and will be read. And as an immigrant – though I came here so long ago, when Eisenhower was president and I was so small, I'm an unusual immigrant – it is particularly gratifying to get the Pulitzer, because it is the quintessential American literary prize, and so getting it makes me feel a real part of the country.
Howl: When you have free time, what do you like to do?
Seshadri: I'd like to say that I go bungee-jumping or climb Mount Everest, but in fact I spend most of my free time reading. I have a social life, like most people, but I don't have hobbies. I do go to museums and galleries, plays and concerts etc., but that is a form of reading to me. It feeds the writing directly, like reading does. I like to lie around on the beach in the summer, like a walrus.
Howl: What kind of writing environment do you prefer and why?
Seshadri: I like to write at home in the morning. I have rented studios in the past to write, but being in my own space is the best thing. I move around the apartment a lot, and work in various places.
Howl: Where do you prefer to delve for poetic inspiration and why?
Seshadri: Inspiration comes from the strangest places – that is its quality; it is external to you, and not governed by your will – so there is no specific area in my experience that I have found to be a particular source of it. Walking around, keeping your eyes and ears open, reading, again, listening to others and their stories, or just daydreaming (very important for creativity). You have to do it all.
Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?
Seshadri: The best advice I ever got was from a sculptor I knew when I was young. I was telling him that I wanted to be a writer, and he said, “A writer writes.” That's what a writer is, someone who writes. Sounds obvious, but of course all sorts of people say they are writers without writing, because they have profound thoughts or have had experiences that are worthy of being written about, and so many people want to be writers. It's easy to want to be a writer. But to BE a writer you have to write.
Howl: What is your writing and editing style like?
Seshadri: Very chaotic. I don't really know how I do it. I just sort of throw myself on the page and thrash around and groan and moan until I feel I have it right. I rewrite obsessively, lots of revision. The process of writing for me is almost the process of revision.
Howl: As an editor at The New Yorker, what did you look for in publishable work?
Seshadri: I wasn't an acquiring editor at The New Yorker – I didn't commission or buy work. I was a copy-editor, who worked on the pieces after they were bought, to clarify them. Copy-editors are the working class of the editorial process.
Howl: Some of your poetry takes on an almost scientific approach to philosophical themes like in “Imaginary Number” with:
“Consciousness observes and is appeased.
The soul scrambles across the screes.
like the square root of minus 1,
is an impossibility that has its uses.”
and in “The Disappearances” with:
“in a town with the one remembered street,
shaded by the buckeye and the sycamore -
the street long and true as a theorem,”
Where does this comfortingly logical approach to such poetically subjective topics come from? Perhaps your chemistry professor father?
Seshadri: Well, I wouldn't say that that is a "logical" approach, but merely that I draw what is called inspiration from scientific facts, and make metaphors out of scientific information. Making metaphors is not logical, it is the opposite of logic. How, really, is a street like a theorem? To say that or to say the soul is like the square root of minus 1 is a leap of the imagination.
Howl: What do you see as the current state of poetry in American society and where do you see it heading?
Seshadri: I see it as very healthy, vital, and astonishingly fecund. There is so much terrific work out there. I serve on various panels and am amazed at the quality of the work I encounter. Poetry is really the democratic art, and American poetry, rather than American politics, which seems mostly dysfunctional, is I think the real expression of the success of American democracy.