(Ed. note: This is Part II of a three-part interview with Vijay Seshadri. Go here for Part I. sdh)
EW. You write in both poetry and nonfiction. How does an idea for writing end up becoming a piece in one form or the other?
VS. The prose I write is really — it’s about something. I have a subject, I have a topic. I've written essays about literary figures, or I have a specific period of my own experience that I want to render in straightforward narrative terms. The aspect of the irrational in that kind of writing is fairly well-controlled, whereas with poetry, I don’t think subject matter is primary. I think subject matter is — it’s not incidental, it’s not accidental, but the activity of writing is taking place somewhere else, and so it is not as if an idea will turn into prose or an idea will turn into poetry, and it is not as if I am sort of doing both all the time.
I am primarily a poet, and I am primarily engaged in working with language the way a poet does. Every once in a while, I say, “Oh, I should write about my experience as someone who loved baseball,” or “I should write a memoir of a friend of mine who was important to me and who died,” and that’s very conscious stuff. . . .
What happens in the writing of a poem is something floats out or whizzes by and you just try to grab it and hold on and see where it takes you. I know where I'm going in my prose, I don’t know where I’m going in my poetry, and I guess that's the difference between the two of them.
EW. The second section of 3 Sections is a personal essay, “Pacific Fishes of Canada,” and the third section is a poem that is titled “Personal Essay.” Do you think that prose and poetry inform each other in your work?
VS. Yes, but very much at the level of what we were talking about in [Alice Quinn’s Columbia MFA] class — which was making sentences and the different psychic reality engendered by different commitments to sentences. I am very much, in my pedagogy especially, trying to teach students about how powerful form is in function, in generating material. So I would say that there is that aspect of it: The prose puts you in a different rhythmic environment and therefore imposes upon you different choices and different tones than poetry, where you have a degree of rhythmic freedom and liberation brought on the line that the sentence does not give you.
I’m not saying one is better than the other. I don’t think one is better than the other; I think they're both interesting. I think the reason I had two long artifacts, one of which was poetry and one of which was prose, had to do very much with my kind of interest in the levels of interiority that one could afford that the other couldn’t afford, because everything in “Personal Essay” takes place in my mind, where there’s so much externality in “Pacific Fishes of Canada,” so much of an element of journalism, even. And so the personal almost sneaks up on you.
EW. I noticed that it’s two pages into “Pacific Fishes of Canada” before the “I” really makes an appearance. I thought you handled that really elegantly, moving from the beginning.
VS. Writing personal essays, you have to have some sort of architectural sense about what you're writing, and that’s true of journalism too, you need to have a floor plan. So I had made it very clear that I was going to enter personal experience and into the self, and I had to have a long sort of runway (of background information) so I could rise into that. Also, I had the obligation to render a world as clearly as I could, to give people a sense of history and geography and an environment. With a lyric poem, you can just do so much with metaphor, you can get through things so fast, and you don’t necessarily have that freedom in prose. You have other freedoms in prose that you don’t have in poetry.
EW. How does being an educator inform how you interact with language and writing?
VS. I’ve never been one of those people that subscribed to the notion that those who can’t do, teach. I don’t think it’s true at all. It certainly hasn’t been true for me in that teaching allows me to always be thinking about the basics of writing, so it always keeps my interest in writing refreshed. The problems are always very alive for me, the problems of writing, the problems of my writing and other people’s writing, and because I'm teaching new texts and great texts all the time, I’m always picking up knowledge, information, technique about great writing from teaching those texts.
Teaching at Sarah Lawrence takes a lot of time, though, and it takes a lot of energy. So that might be a small drawback relative to people who have other jobs. . . . We’re very lucky to be teaching, those of us who have to teach or do teach, because we get the summers off and that’s an incredible advantage for writers. Teaching, all and all, has been good for me. I used to be an editor, and I would work 48, 49 weeks a year, and, as a teacher, I work 30 to 32 weeks a year. That has been really an incredible luxury for my writing.
EW. What are some texts that you enjoy teaching?
VS. This semester, I’ve done a lot of new, interesting and wayward pieces of writing. I have taught both in my graduate class and my undergraduate class a wonderful piece of journalism from the 1980s by Susan Sheehan called “Missing Plane,” and it appeared in three issues of the New Yorker (in May 1986). It’s this incredibly detailed sort of account of what the title says it is, a missing plane, a missing World War II plane that was found in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. The first part of it is the discovery of the plane, the second part of it is the recreation of the identities of the people on the passenger manifest, and the third part of it goes back to the war and describes how the plane might have been lost. I’ve known that text for a long long time, and it’s known among people who are sort of connoisseurs of journalism, especially around the New Yorker, this is a legendary piece.
I try to introduce a lot of journalism, good journalism, into my nonfiction classes, and that’s all I teach at Sarah Lawrence. I will assign a text by Janet Malcolm, for example. We read The Journalist and the Murderer and we read Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, which is what The Journalist and the Murderer is about. . . . That was kind of fascinating, thinking about those issues of research and metajournalism. Janet Malcolm is a writer I admire very much.
I also taught kind of classic nonfiction writing, I gave them Joseph Mitchell, I gave them Orwell, people like that. . . . I also taught In Cold Blood for the first time, and that’s a book I’ve known and loved forever.
EW. If you taught poetry, what poems and poets would you want to include?
VS. Right now, I think I would be really interested in teaching a lot of contemporary poets. . . . When I am writing poems, I don’t want to read contemporary work, because I don’t want to be distracted. Usually I will read people who are really useful to me going backwards, from the 1970s back to — well, back to the beginning, but mostly for the past 100 years.
If I were teaching poetry now, I would use a lot of contemporary texts, and that’s something I never did. When I was teaching poetry, I felt that it was my job essentially to teach a literature course . . . that it was my job somehow to introduce people to the great canonical texts.
EW. Is that because students don’t get exposed to the contemporary poets as much?
VS. No. I think that young students, especially in MFA programs, they seem to be insufficiently aware of the past. For me, historically, I had to teach them about people they might night never encounter and show them how good they were. Someone like Alexander Pope, for example — I always felt that if you understood why Alexander Pope was one of the greatest poets in English who ever lived, then you would understand what poetry really is. Some (students) had barely heard of Pope.
. . . . I guess now I’m more agnostic with that. I don’t really know if it’s the case that in order to be able to write a poem, one needs to be able to appreciate Pope.
Tomorrow: Part III. Who do you read?
Elizabeth Walters is a writer, editor, and teacher. She lives in New York, where she is earning an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University.