(Ed. note: This is Part III of an inteview with Vijay Seshadri. Go here for Parts I & II. sdh.)
EW. Are there certain poets you go to again and again in your own reading?
VS. Lately, actually, I have been returning to the poets who I call the great suicides in American literature, and by those poets I mean Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Weldon Kees, and Hart Crane. And they all seem to possess something that is interesting to me, and they represent a sort of psychological reality which is compelling to contemplate. I’ve always read those poets and I’ve always admired them, but now I tend to see something in them that I could actually make use of for myself. So those are sort of the poets I’ve been circling around and thinking about, thinking about both their successes and their failures and why. And Plath is so interesting. And there are so many ways in which she’s interesting which haven’t been properly explicated, I think. So much of her effects aren’t really accounted for.
EW. When you say Plath’s effects aren’t accounted for — are there things that people are overlooking?
VS. In conversations I’ve had, in accounts I’ve read of her in essays and reviews and stuff, nobody seems to talk about the effects and what they portend. Nobody’s ever really accounted in things that I have read the relationship between the psychological storm she was experiencing and the work she was writing. And that is really an extraordinary thing, those last poems she wrote — I think 30 of them in one month, and you look at those and you say, what is going on there? And there’s still a large body of readers who reject her, repudiate her, who find something — who push her away, push that work away. That’s interesting to me too.
EW. Are there any poems you have written that you were especially happy or relieved to finish, or that left you especially satisfied when you finished them?
VS. I love all my poems, of course. I don’t want any of them to think that I love it less than I love other poems. But there’s a poem in my first book (Wild Kingdom), it’s called “Lifeline,” which I was particularly happy to have finished. It was one of those poems that was not only a burden and a chore but took me to a new level of control and understanding of literature. And it was written at a time when I was particularly troubled and taxed by my existence, by money problems, not having any sense of direction, and a lot of those things are translated into the poem in an interesting way.
I love that first book of mine, and it really didn’t get much attention. This book (3 Sections) is getting all the attention, and that book got almost none, so I particularly think about that poem within it. It’s about someone who gets lost in the woods; it has a plot that is a very simple one. It actually appeared in Best American Poetry (in 1997).
VS. I had to have that. I mean, that comes right from Berryman. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved 77 Dream Songs, that book, and the 7 and the 7 are numbers. So I would never have had the 3 spelled out. And that’s a particularly beautiful 3 (in the design), I think.
EW. How do you view the state of poetry in America or the world today — what things excite you, what concerns do you have?
VS. I think there’s a lot of discourse about how this or that is a problem in American poetry. I mean, my experience of it — and I’ve served on lots of panels and kind of across the country — is that the art is flourishing as it never has before. And that might not be reflected in the sales of poetry books, but I don’t think the sales of poetry books are an indication of the health of the art. I think an indication of the health of the art is how many good poets there are. And in every region there are poetic cultures, and it’s very much the practice of poetry and the extent of the poetry that is determining the health of American poetry.
I think in terms of the larger culture, there’s something so American about that. The nature of American democracy allows people to realize that yes, they too have a personal relationship to creation. And they turn to poetry to explore that creation. . . .
I’ve always heard this complaint about MFA programs, but the MFA programs have done their jobs. They’ve produced an extensive amount of great poets over the past years. It’s just been a real flowering.
Elizabeth Walters is a writer, editor and teacher. She lives in New York City, where she is earning an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University.