As editor of Green Mountains Review, I would like to extend deep gratitude to Vijay Seshadri for speaking with us about his new book This Was Now, That Was Then (Graywolf, 2020). Seshadri won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection 3 Sections in 2014. Currently, he is Poetry Editor at The Paris Review and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. He is also the editor of The Essential T.S. Eliot.
— E. Powell, May 13, 2021
Elizabeth Powell: Loss is a key element that’s investigated in these poems. Do your poems point you toward ways to understand grief, or is it the other way around for you, grief pointing you toward poems. I always like Rilke’s idea that we must live the questions. How did the propulsive thoughts of inner life help shape the arguments and ideas in these poems, especially ones like Cliffhanging and Collins Ferry Landing and City of Grief? What mysteries were laid bare for you in writing this book, things you didn’t know fully before?
Vijay Seshadri: Something compels poems, and the compulsion has to be a strong one. Mostly for me the compulsion starts with an image that’s incredibly suggestive or the rhythm of a phrase in which I see or hear something deep and rich that I can’t quite grasp, which I then go in search of. The search involves the other element, agency. The emotional reality of the poem tends to come well into the writing, and is usually the discovery of that that makes the poem a poem. With those elegies, though, the emotion came first and, that compelled the poems–or, to be more accurate, drove them, and me, whether I wanted to be driven or not. The writing, the shaping, as you put it, was really just the act of keeping, or trying to keep, my balance and not get swamped by the feelings. I think those poems for me were ways, also, to try to exhaust those feelings, to–though this is never really possible–move on, somehow. Interestingly, the poem you didn’t ask about, “Your Living Eyes,” which I think of as an anti-elegy, was effectively written, though not fully revised, in the months before my mother’s death, when her death was approaching. That was almost a spell poem, an incantation, an attempt at magic, to forestall what I knew was coming.
EP: Many times your poems invite the reader to (metaphorically) come and have tea with the speaker inside the speaker’s treehouse of mind, to sort out larger issues of being, memory, time, and the dailiness of modern life. Your use of irony throughout compels the reader to think about larger issues. Was your use of irony a way to emphasize critical ideas between what is said and what is meant?
VS: Irony is one of the master tropes of rhetoric. It’s not about making a joke, but, rather, a way to try to hold the multiplicity of our minds together. We’re all in our hypermodern world myriad-minded. We don’t think two things but five or six things about experience. We need all the tropes of rhetoric–metaphor, metonymy, etc.–to get at that multiplicity. There’s that great sentence from Stevens: “Mrs. Swensen’s Swedish baby might well have been German or Spanish” (or Nigerian or Laotian, for that matter). There are so many things going on in our heads, there’s so much between what is said and what is meant. Irony is a profound binding force that can put a whole landscape of implied meanings into play. I’ve been told by readers of mine that they wonder at certain points in my poems (a lot of my poems, by the way, are completely straight, and not ironic) am I being serious. They’re in doubt as to meaning and to intention. The irony has made the meaning and the stance unstable. I guess I would say, no, I’m not being serious in a simple sense but am in a deeper sense. I’m being playful, but play is deeply serious, deep play, even with dark material, tragic material, is at the center, I think, of real art.
EP:Many of the poems are conversational in a Romantic, compositional sense. The irony in the work also gives authority to the philosophical as it meets the daily. Is conversational poetry a result of a speaker’s yearning for intimacy with the reader in a way not unlike the speaker’s wanting ordinary, domestic intimacy with the departed father, watching a game show on the sofa?
VS: I always had the idea that I should talk to the reader and that I should talk eye to eye, should look them in the eye. Also, when I was really developing as a poet, I was steeped in jazz, which is very conversational, on many, many levels. And I grew up on the conversational poets: Yeats, Bishop, middle-period Lowell, Ashbery, Frost (a grab bag of influences, but they make sense to me), with the great example of the English Romantics behind them. Poems that used natural word order, prose word order. Natural word order has to have a human tone to bring it to life, and that tone for me has been the conversational tone. Those two ways of making a poem–natural word order and a conversational tone are interdependent. They bring the ear into play fully. I suppose what I just said might my subjectivity talking, because I guess you could say that natural word order can accommodate other tones too. But I like the demotic, the casual and conversational. Iit suits my experience and my allegiances, and though I love reading poets who have the hieratic tone–Allen Grossman, say, or Hart Crane, or Rilke–I resist it when I write. It doesn’t feel like me to me.
EP: Your use of form as a structure to delineate consciousness and enact it and unpack it is exquisite, specular in the sense that one is watching something extraordinary being executed. Can you talk a bit about your ideas of form as a revelation of content? How do you think about form both mentally, physically, spiritually or creatively?
VS: I think the quest of any formalist (and by formalist I don’t mean traditional form but form as in the shape and structure of the poem are understood as the ground of the possibility of the poem’s having meaning; Creeley and Oppen are formalists in precisely the same way as, say, Auden) is to bring the poem to the place where the distinction between form and content is obliterated. That’s the point at which the poem, this simple human gesture, becomes the same as the other objects in the universe–an animal, a cloud, an atom.