Vijay Seshadri, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection 3 Sections (Graywolf Press, 2013), recently took time away from a schedule full of teaching and fielding media requests to respond to our own interview request. In announcing the honor earlier this month, the Pulitzer Board cited 3 Sections as “a compelling collection of poems that examine human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless.” Seshadri has published three other books of poetry, The Long Meadow (Graywolf, 2004), Wild Kingdom (Graywolf, 1996), and The Disappearances (HarperCollins India 2007), a collection of selected poems that marked the first time he was published in his native country of India. Seshadri was born in Bangalore, moved to the United States as a child and earned a BA from Oberlin and an MFA from Columbia University. He teaches undergraduate and graduate nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Ed note: this interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length. sdh)
EW: First, congratulations on winning the Pulitzer!
VS. Thank you really much. It’s really quite an amazing experience. I hope you get to have it some day.
EW: How has it changed your life so far?
VS:I’m getting an amazing number of calls and messages of congratulations from friends from every part of my life, from 40 years ago on. That’s been really gratifying, and then media requests, especially from India, where it turns out I wound up on the front page of every newspaper, or this is what one of my correspondents told me, and there are a lot of newspapers in India.
The number of messages I received on Facebook was amazing, and I don’t know how to use Facebook, although I have it. That cyberspace conversation that everyone is engaged in — you really see the scope when something like this happens.
EW:Could you talk a little bit about your composing process — how an idea starts and becomes a piece of writing?
VS: Usually I start out instinctively with a phrase that sounds right to me, because it’s clean, it’s uncluttered and it sort of suggests a whole experience that I can excavate. That’s basically the genesis of most of my poems.
Every once in a while, I will start out with a concept. I’ll start out with an idea, say, that I’m going to write a poem about writing, or I’m going to write a poem that changes the grammatical subtext midstream (as in the shift from the first to the third person in “The Descent of Man,” printed in 3 Sections and first published on the website of the Academy of American Poets). Often those exercises don’t turn out to be successes, but sometimes they do.
I think when you’re starting out as a poet, you want your inspiration to be predictable. And as you grow more accustomed to writing, you recognize that inspiration takes many different forms, many different logical forms, many different experiential forms. You relax about the idea that you don’t know where the poem is going to come from. Because you don’t know, and you can’t ever know, where a poem is going to come from. . . . At this point, I have given up trying to control the process. . . .
A phrase suddenly pops into my mind, and that phrase — the poem is generated out of the development of that phrase into other phrases.
EW. Do you hold yourself to a writing routine?
VS. I have little notebooks where I jot things down, and that happens just about at any time. But that’s just the beginning of composition, and composition basically takes place, for me, in the morning, and it usually takes place if I don’t teach. When I teach at Sarah Lawrence, I usually have conferences also during the day, because we have a tutorial system, so it’s unlikely that I get anything done during those days.
I get up and then I work and my process is — I guess people looking at it from the outside would say that I’m a frustrated writer in the sense that my ratio of unfinished pieces to finished pieces is about 10 to 1, which is very, very high, I think. Many of my fragments are pretty large, and I always hold out the hope of finishing them, and that still may happen with a lot of material. But most writing does not lead anywhere for me, and it takes a certain resilience and capacity for endurance for me to continue.
There are periods when I don’t write at all, but I’m always reading. That’s the one constant — I am always steeped in literature in one way or another, and talking about writing and thinking about writing as a teacher. So in some sense, even when I’m not finishing anything, I really feel like I’m engaged in the art.
Tomorrow: Poetry? Prose? Both?
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.