A turn for the verse

DC | KUSUMITA DAS
Published Nov 23, 2014, 6:06 am IST
Updated Jan 13, 2016, 3:53 pm IST
India-born poet Vijay Seshadri won the prestigious 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his collection of poems 3 Sections
 PULITZER PRIZE WINNER VIJAY SESHADRI
  PULITZER PRIZE WINNER VIJAY SESHADRI

One of the toughest battles Vijay Seshadri had to fight in his journey towards becoming a poet was to break the news to his parents, his father especially. The Pulitzer-winning poet, who picked the prestigious award earlier this year for his book 3 Sections, describes his passion for poems in his boyhood days as a “love that dare not speak its name.” Recalling that time in his life, Seshadri says with a laugh, “For them (my parents) it was like having a gay son. My father belongs to the religion of science. He wanted me to become a mathematician or a physicist.”

But that was not to be. “I was very isolated as a child. I was always a reader. I read Kafka at the age of 14. And then slowly poetry took over,” Seshadri says.
He would also recite Kannada multiplication tables to fall asleep, he lets us know with a smile. It was not easy to rebel against his parents but maybe that’s something the teenage boy had got from his father. “My father was a natural rebel,” Seshadri says. “His radicalism translated into me. He made it possible for me to rebel against him.”

 

The poet goes on to reminisce more about his father and how he fought the odds to realise his dream to go to America. “He didn’t have the money to go to America. So he went to the tip of India, took a boat to Colombo to take a ship to New York. After being awarded his American PhD in chemistry, my father came back to India to collect my mother and me and move us to Canada, where he took up a post-doctoral fellowship with the National Research Council,” says the Bengaluru-born poet who left the country in 1959 at the age of five.

Seshadri spent his boyhood days in Columbus, Ohio and went on to live in various parts of the US such as Oregon where he worked as a commercial fisherman, San Francisco, where he drove a truck, before eventually moving to New York. His experiences as a fisherman found expression in his first collection of poems, Wild Kingdom and his second collection The Long Meadow won the 2003 James Laughlin Award. He has also worked as an editor, essayist and book reviewer for The New Yorker and the NYT Book Review.

While pursuing a master’s programme at the Columbia University, he got a fellowship to go to Lahore to study Urdu. “I wanted to get back in touch with India, as I was always interested in Indian languages. I got a fellowship from Columbia to go to Lahore, where I lived with an old couple. It was the year after Zia-ul-Haq died. Politically it was a strange period; there were Mujahedeen leaders everywhere. It was the beginning of antagonism over Kashmir. I also discovered then that there was more Persian poetry written in India than in Iran,” says Seshadri, who is an admirer of Mirza Ghalib’s works.

“His poetry is so natural and conversational. I am part of a tradition that begins with Wordsworth — poetry in the language of ordinary men. I’ve always felt that poems need to be conversational,” he says. Speaking of his own style Seshadri says, “Every writer fashions their own tradition. In my mid-20s when I sat down to write poetry, I knew modernism was over. And post-modernism complicated the situation for a writer, where everything was open to the writer. So I decided to turn orthodox and embraced American classicism like Elizabeth Bishop.”

It’s quite poetic that years after his idol Bishop was honoured the Pulitzer for poetry, Seshadri came to be bestowed with the same. Other names that fuelled his love for the verse include W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. “Yeats is untouchable. The power of metaphors, the muscles of his imagination are astounding. And Whitman is sonically so relaxed,” Seshadri says with almost a fan-boy gleam in his eyes.

And how does he create poetry, we ask. “I am a very unhappy writer,” Seshadri confesses with a chuckle. “There’s lot of groaning and pain. I sit in my underwear in my living room. I get more hideous every day. I write a line over and over. Almost like Jack Nicolson in The Shining.” More laughter ensues at this self-made comparison with a psychotic character from a horror film. “The ratio between my fragments to finished poems would be 10 to 1,” he adds. He continues, “Poetry is something that requires a community. You have to have an audience.Yes, there were times he fantasised about being a senator or even buying a baseball team. “But how much money you possibly need,” says the Pulitzer poet with a very satisfied grin.

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