The Arts

Subcontinental Drift: An Interview With Poet Vijay Seshadri

The Pulitzer-winning poet speaks about his new book of poems, 'That Was Now, This Is Then', his Indian sensibility and protest poetry, among other things.

Indian-American poet Vijay Seshadri was a number of firsts for me. His was the first poetry event I attended on US soil. His 2014 collection 3 Sections was the first book I bought by exchanging dollars. He was the first poet I name-dropped when submitting to an American magazine, saying that my work “might be a fit with their publication” because they published his – it hadn’t occurred to me then that this was like asking Columbia Records to take my improv piece because they produced Thelonious Monk.

Seshadri has had his share of firsts. He’s the first poet of Indian origin to win a Pulitzer Prize (for 3 Sections in 2014). He’s the first poetry editor of South-Asian origin at Paris Review. Most notably, his poem, ‘The Disappearances’ was the first poem published in the New Yorker after the September 11 attacks. Although he had been writing poems all the way through his tryst with 1970s American counterculture, his brief residency in Lahore in the 1980s, and his immersion in the New York school of poets as he settled down in Brooklyn, Seshadri published his first collection, Wild Kingdom, in 1996, when he was 42 years old. Aside from making me feel better about nearing thirty without a book out, his life is testament to a poetry practice that’s as studied as it carries the immensity of life itself.

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University (left), presents the 2014 Poetry Prize to Vijay Seshadri. Photo: Pulitzer.org

Introducing Harper Collins’ new The Essential T.S. Eliot, Seshadri describes Eliot as, “like a character in a Henry James story, with a foot in America, a foot in Europe, and a hypertrophied brain living somewhere unmappable.” Reading it, my instant reaction was, methinks the poet doth project too much. Indeed, elsewhere in the essay, Seshadri writes, “like Flaubert’s God, Eliot is everywhere present in his work but nowhere apparent,” which is another line you can use to describe his own poems. Breaking only for a coffee refill, Seshadri and I spoke for two hours on a Zoom call last week, during which time he offered numerous similarly transcendentalist insights into his life and work.

Below is a condensed version of that conversation.

First of all, on behalf of The Wire, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. 

I go in cycles in my attention to India, though my background interest is always there… It usually takes a specific political controversy to get me absorbed, not just the perpetual default controversy that is the Indian experience at this moment. The Wire is an excellent outfit, though, and important to the country. I feel limited because I experience India through English, not through Kannada or Tamil, which are my mother tongues, because I’m illiterate in them, or through Hindi, which I know but am not fluent in. The Wire at least gives me comfort because I have a point of view shared by Indians.

Since you were socialised in entirely English-speaking surroundings after the age of five, how do you feel when you visit India?

I’ll answer that question through the prism of language. When I first get to Bangalore on a trip, I’m bewildered, but in a couple of weeks, the language comes flooding back from my deeper reservoirs of experience. My parents spoke both Kannada and Tamil to each other in the house – my father mostly Kannada, my mother both – and, of course, English. A lot of code-switching going on between them.

My knowledge of the languages over time became passive (and Tamil, which occupied the smallest part of the linguistic spectrum is at this point mostly gone from me). One of the great things about going to India, especially Bangalore, is the experience of that passive knowledge becoming active knowledge.

The situation with North Indian languages is different because I learned Hindi and Urdu as an adult. I lived in Lahore for about six months in the late 1980s. I was surrounded by a linguistic environment that was predominantly Punjabi, but with a strong Urdu presence. Urdu was the language I was acquiring there.

My experience of South Asia is complex, but it pales in the face of the actual linguistic complexity of the subcontinent. From the point of view of a linguist, India has to be the richest place in the world. That richness is the first experience I have when I go back – that is beyond the sensual richness.

Languages come with their own embodied behaviour. If not the language, even if not the culture, do you identify something abstract that’s an “Indian” sensibility in your poetry?

I’m Indian in the – and I use this term advisedly – colouration of my consciousness. What persists is the underlying vision that defines the Indian character, and what I would call an atmosphere of the self. One would assume that that – the vision – is the thing that leaves first when you’re translated from one culture to another. But in me, it seems to be what endures – a certain fatalism, a certain pessimism, what Walter Benjamin would call “the superstructure” of the culture. Indians are pretty cheerful in their day-to-day lives; energetic, vibrant. But the vision of the world that one associates with the Indian mind is one of reluctance and fatalism. That’s what my parents imprinted on me. Deep fatalism, and a commitment to duty, duty inevitable and inescapable, duty as the structure of the world. Dharma. In the elegy I wrote for my father, I mention that his favourite sentence was “It is what it is”—

Which is the title of Rumi’s discourses—

Yes. And Roman, too, in its stoicism. Not American at all.

It increasingly seems like there isn’t one America but many Americas, as if it’s a union of multitudes. India is also a forced union.

I don’t know about forced. The evolution of a nation of nations (the phrase comes from Whitman) seems inevitable in the development of modern societies, no matter how many crises we have to go through. What’s the alternative? It’s instructive to compare India and America because the contrasts are great and so are the similarities. They are both large, fragmentary societies held weakly (and by weakly I mean something like the weak force in physics) together by a democratic polity, one which because of its openness is always being threatened. Democratic polity constantly moves toward an entropic state, a state of maximum complexity. Indira Gandhi’s “fissiparous tendencies.” And it is the responsibility of all of us to fight those tendencies, but also our responsibility to celebrate openness, and enjoy it.

I see India and America as also, in their own ways, speaking back to British literary canon. What has been your experience with Indian literature?

It’s been an experience of Indian literature in English, so I guess your idea of speaking back applies there. I’m sad about my limits when it comes to Indian literature not in English. I don’t know Sanskrit. I don’t know Hindi well enough to, for example, read the Tulsi Ramayana easily. I don’t know Urdu well enough to read Qurratulain Hyder easily. So I have to encounter the mythology, ancient or modern, as mythology rather than as literature. I’ve read Urdu poetry and worked my way through the classical poetic tradition, but that was long ago, 30 years now. I’ve read Premchand and Nirala. I’m writing an introduction to a short-story collection, in translation, of Saadat Hasan Manto, which Archipelago Books is publishing. But those are just outcroppings in a vast sea of literature. I have a faint understanding of vernacular literature across the country.

Other than that, my encounter with Indian literature is dominantly through English. Of all the literature written in English that I know, Indian literature in English is probably is the most exotic for me; paradoxically, because in so many ways I know India so well. History, ritual, food, politics, religions. The narcissism of small differences, I would guess. I’m closer, of course, to the Indian diaspora. The first essay I wrote was about V.S. Naipaul. But the diaspora is probably best understood as a congeries of incomparable experiences.

How would you characterise the Indian sensibility in English, and how is it different from American sensibility?

I think it has a certain ruefulness and plangency to it, which American literature doesn’t have. The otherworldliness is not just a matter of substance but is imbued in the very tones of the writing, the poetry, the wordsmithing. The sensibility of the poet as being uniquely vulnerable to the world. Overall, there seems to be some sort of longing in the very vocables. If you think about Urdu, which like English is a lingua franca in South Asia, you feel the poignancy of its not having a home anymore. You can say English doesn’t really have a home in India either. It’s everywhere at the same time it’s nowhere. A deep homelessness for the English language in South Asia, as there is for Urdu, in spite of Urdu being the official language of Pakistan. That condition of the language is not inimical to the making of literature, though. In fact, it might make for poetry that’s more vivid and vital. Isn’t internal exile always the condition of the artist? I’m just asking, as the Americans say.

What I sense is in Indian poetry the poet’s act of expression is emphasized more than the actual poetics. Is that close to what you’re saying?

If there’s a common spiritual mood to Indian life – Westerners think Indians are “spiritual” in act and in mood – I think I sense it in the English poetry in India. There’s a longing destabilising the poet’s relationship to material life. The sense of internal exile is strong. I feel those tones strongly in Arvind Krishna Mehrotra or Jayanta Mahapatra, or in Jeet Thayil.

I was going to ask you about Jeet. He seems to have interviewed you for Poets & Writers back in 2004. He did the MFA at Sarah Lawrence, right? Was he your student?

Yes, he was – a brilliant and wonderful student, though to call him a student is to misspeak since he was already a fully formed, highly experienced writer. I thought he was going to stay in America. He had, as one of the citizens of the diaspora who come to America as adults, a relationship to India that remained deeply forceful. India drew him back. He’s flourished as a writer because of it. He became an international writer from India more easily than he would have been able to become an international writer from America.

Jeet Thayil. Photo: Reuters

That’s quite a statement, that there’s an ease to becoming an international writer from India than in America. What empirical difference facilitates that ease?

America is inward-looking these days, its wealth makes it inward-looking. The consciousness possessed by the rest of the world – and I guess I mean by that the middle-class world – is so much more globalised. America is economically globalised, or America globalises others—and that itself is such a problem for Americans because they remain inward-looking. Most people in America understand that ours is a self-centred culture. I don’t know to what extent I’m capable of generalising about India, but it seems both necessary and inevitable that Indians look outward. Of course, India in its history has often turned inward. It doesn’t have that luxury anymore as far as I can tell. Jeet Thayil is certainly an example of the new India. There’s a fluidity to his interactions with the world that you don’t find very much in the US. A new rather than an old cosmopolitanism. When Goethe was talking about Weltliteratur, he was thinking of Jeet.

Do writers who publish in the New Yorker or the Paris Review have the new or the old cosmopolitanism?

Well, I think those magazines are where the new cosmopolitanism might be taking root and growing. But America is self-sufficient, it can go a long way with the fuel it has in its tank. Of course, there’s cosmopolitanism in America, but the essential America is local, environmentally specific. And there’s a tremendous inner crisis in America now, so I think the writers are inward-looking too. It wasn’t always the case. In the n1970s, it wasn’t.

One of the standout things I caught from other interviews of yours is that you were part of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s. Can you talk a little bit about this encounter?

Looking back, it seems inevitable because I didn’t have a place in American society then. We came to the US at the beginning of the 60s, after two years in Canada. There weren’t Indian communities then that I could use as a means by which to assimilate into the larger culture. And then, through the 60s, the country was faced with tremendous political upheaval. Tragic, with cities burning and the Vietnam war, but also this tremendous energy, the energy of a new consciousness being born. Not really having a home in mainstream American culture, it was natural that I would find one in this budding counterculture, which was more progressive than anything that the US has seen since, especially when it came to accepting people who were different. Difference itself became a positive value. So it was not at all crazy for me, in 1974 or 1975, to be hitchhiking across America, finding a place among long-haired, shaggy people who were going back to nature.

Were you also long-haired and shaggy?

Yes. I have a long-haired and shaggy photograph that, when the PBS Newshour interviewed me after I won the Pulitzer, they showed on the TV clip.

Can we use that picture with this interview?

Sure.

Vijay Seshadri, during his ‘long-haired and shaggy’ days. Photo provided by Vijay Seshadri

What kind of activities were you involved in, when you were part of the counterculture?

I graduated from college, in 1974. I went home for a while, had a summer job, saved some money, and that September, I hitchhiked to California. My parents were disapproving. Looking back, I realise that they were probably heartbroken that I was leaving, but they were quiet about it. I loved my parents very much, we were a close-knit family, but when you’re 20, your parents’ feelings don’t enter into your consciousness as deeply as they should, in the way they should. I wound up in the Bay Area, where I had a friend who was driving a truck for a wholesale book company in Oakland. They supplied all the college bookstores in the Bay Area, in the Peninsula, into the Valley. My friend was leaving that job and he turned it over to me, so I did that for a year and moved to San Francisco, where I stayed until 1977, working as a bicycle messenger, a carpenter, a floor-refinisher. After that, until I came back east in 1982, I lived on the Central Oregon coast, though I would come back to San Francisco for chunks of time, in the winter. I have a poem in the new book called ‘Visiting San Francisco’, which is about going there recently and trying to regain my past. I worked in the salmon fishing industry in Oregon. It was the great adventure of my life. I stayed there for five years; I clung to that life, that countercultural life, even though I knew I couldn’t sustain it. I had to grow up, settle down, try to learn to accept the world as it was. What that settling down became was the pursuit of my literary ambitions, which is why I came back to New York. By that time, the counterculture had melted away.

How would you describe your approach to the lyric?

In terms of lived experience. My early influences were radical ones, radical for that time, anyway. John Ashbery, for example, who was in mid-career then. But I wasn’t ultra the way Ashbery was when I was immersed in him. I knew my Wordsworth, too. And I saw what they had in common. Ashbery’s and Wordsworth’s poems seem to be not only investigations but also representations of consciousness on the page, the tracing on the page of the movement of consciousness. But given my racial experience, my intimacy with history (one of the great luxuries of coming from the communities they came from is that Wordsworth, Ashbery, and even more so a poet like Wallace Stevens, in whom I was also immersed, are free, relatively, from history, history doesn’t bear down on them) I came to realize I couldn’t be the kind of poet they were. When I came to New York in the beginning of the 80s, I saw myself as a creature determined by these big historical forces, race being one of them. I went back to reading political poets like Auden, who were rooted in a realistic rather than surrealistic tradition, at the centre of which is narrative. As I turned to narrative, I returned to middle-period Lowell and all of Elizabeth Bishop. Robert Frost. Weldon Kees. A whole bunch of contemporaries. But I retained the Ashbery – I don’t know what to call it – compulsion toward consciousness, the almost Buddhistic sense that only consciousness is real. I think that’s the interpenetration in my poems – a strong late-developing feeling for narrative elements in poetry combined with an early interest in the kind of thing represented by Ashbery and the New York School. I’m also a great reader of James Schuyler.

Vijay Seshadri
That Was Now, This Is Then: Poems
Graywolf Press (October 2020)

One of the ways I experienced your new book was by picturing the poems as dramatic monologues. The immediate invocation is Shakespearean theatre, but I also wonder how much oral Indian tradition is to be credited, since you said somewhere that you used to be read the Ramayana as a child.

Our family and our community were steeped in Indian religious knowledge. They were orthodox people, highly orthodox. That element was certainly a part of my early consciousness in India, and it was retained to a certain extent all the way through my life in America. My parents were politically radical, but also pious – that wonderful South Indian contradiction. I don’t think those traditions of hearing and recitation from the religious tradition are significant for me.

The folk wisdom is, though. My mother had an Indian proverb available for every situation. Orality in my work comes from the conversational tone that was a central feature of English Romanticism and became a part of the American plain style. I follow natural word order. It is as if I am speaking. Also, at the time I was making myself into a poet, I was strongly influenced by American jazz, which is a speaking music. The conversational tone in American poetics is literary and sophisticated – sentimental, self-conscious and not naïve, as Schiller would have it. Not just a diction derived from the patterns of human speech itself, from how people speak on the street, from “the language of ordinary men,” but a diction refracted in a dense, self-aware collective literary consciousness. Romanticism, and we’re still in the Romantic age here in America, was an artistic and a political revolution, a demotic and a democratic revolution. Language becomes construed as if it were speech, as if it were conversation. But the language is elaborately figured in a way speech never is. You find this in most poetic traditions, though it’s not made an ideology in them. Mirza Ghalib is talking to us. Mir Taqi Mir is natural – intimacy of speech is crucial to his achievement. They’re not really talking to you, the patterning is too rich. They just seem as if they are. It’s a subtle rhetorical trick.

The reason I say “dramatic monologues” is because sometimes your staging feels like we’re in a Greek tragedy, sometimes we’re in an American western, and sometimes in an Indian epic. In one poem, you describe yourself as, “standing at the crossroads of time and space, shirtless, shoeless, but dressed in a nice suit, on the outside looking in.” Is this your wardrobe (and worldview)?

That’s in a long prose section in the elegy to my father. That’s a poem driven by grief, but it was written a few years after my father died, and by that time, I was able to think about the elegy theatrically. Also, the feelings were so painful that they had to be counterbalanced by images that had irony or a sense of humour to them. That image was designed to make sure that the reader understood I wasn’t taking myself too seriously, grieving or not. And if there was a mystical experience indicated by those lines, I was rendering it with a certain detachment, skepticism and self-knowledge. That practice of irony, which is a notion of double consciousness – you’re saying something and meaning something else – is central to the making of my poems. I’m rendering experience and reflecting on it at the same time, which creates a special contract, private contract with the reader, which is that the reader is to understand you’re somehow representing reality. This is a picture of the world, but at the same time, it’s an artifact of your own making. That doubleness is a part of all creation. Creation is about the thing that is made and the thing, the consciousness that is making it. The doubleness is a crucial literary creation. And the indirection – making a character out of yourself; making characters different than you. The fictive or the dramatic plays into the sincerity of the poem. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson said. Obliquities, indirections, paradoxically, are the means the poem has to establish its sincerity, its truthfulness, and then that sincerity has to be made lively somehow.

On one hand, there’s transcendental wisdom in your poetry. On the other hand, the poem to which I most associate you, more than even ‘The Disappearances’, your famous September 11 poem, is ‘Imaginary Number’. I have seen you as a rare poet who writes about stuff like relativity, space-time continuum and all that. How does science enter your work?

I’m always surprised when this is pointed out, because it seems like we all have this vocabulary and knowledge, but it doesn’t wind up in poetry. The knowledge of our time should wind up in poetry. If you read Whitman, he was on top of the new astronomical developments in his century. He knew there were millions of suns. Coleridge was like that, too. He was steeped in natural history. I don’t understand why poetry is separate from that discourse. Science is a source of fantastic metaphors. For example, the last poem in the new book has the phrase “spooky action at a distance.” It’s amazing that it’s verifiable that there is this thing called quantum entanglement, an immediate interaction, occurring between particles that are vastly separated. It seems so wild, but experiments verify it? I don’t have the mathematics to really understand, of course, but I can come close enough to understand it to use it in a poem.

Speaking of not understanding, there are two poems in the new book—’Meeting (Thick)’ and ‘Meeting (Thin)’—which had the same lines with different line breaks, unless I’m missing something.

One word is different. I use “thin” in one, and “uninflected” in the other.

With that one word different, and with different line breaks, how do they become different poems?

The question is what becomes of poetic form in the age of free verse? Is it arbitrary? Is it inevitable? I wrote that poem with one shape, inner and outer. I was unsatisfied, and I wrote it in the other shape. I could never decide which one I liked better. It was very frustrating. The poem was in a state of quantum flux, if you will. So, just out of frustration, I put both versions in the book. In other poems, the line breaks seem inevitable. They are a part of the fabric of the rhythm. With this one, I felt this universe, that universe, in a world of multiverses.

I read somewhere that you said a lyric is something that can’t be paraphrased, which is practically a virtue of mine. But do you think that’s foundational to poetry? Some poems are very direct that they are almost statements, some can be summarised easily, and we are living in a time when Bob Dylan won the Nobel, so I wonder how all this speaks to your conception of the lyric.

What you can generally say is that any work of art, if it is a work of art, can be nothing but itself – what is said can only be said in this way. Now, does it seem to be fundamental, or is it actually fundamental?

Is there a distinction between seeming and being inevitable?

You can’t decide whether it seems, or is, right? It all boils down to something like ‘Meeting (Thick)’ and ‘Meeting (Thin)’. It’s also important to qualify the notion “unparaphraseable” because there are poems that can be paraphrased, but they also seem inevitable because that’s the perfect form in which that insight into the world is expressed. If you take the end of the poem ‘Soliloquy’, before the last turn a fortune cookie is quoted: “Life cries out BE.” And the line after that is “O ancient sages of the Middle Kingdom,”—Middle Kingdom is what the Chinese were called—“of course, of course…” Can that be paraphrased? No, it can’t, because it’s a dramatic gesture. Poetry differs from other forms of writing in that it’s a symbolic action. The thought might be a prosaic thought, but the words aren’t the thought, and the thought is part of an action that’s also a thought. Actions can’t be paraphrased.

If all thoughts are actions, can anything be paraphrased?

Translation is interesting in this regard. One of the things you said you wanted to ask me was why I didn’t rhyme in my translation of Mirza Ghalib. I thought that was a naïve question, Karthik. If you think about what the Urdu ghazal is, you have to think about it in terms of the language in which it’s written. The Urdu ghazal sounds natural because it’s part of a certain syntax, a certain word order, and the word order is subject-object-verb. In Urdu, the verb comes at the end of the sentence, which makes it easy for an Urdu poet to write a ghazal. The radif and the qaafiya, the repeating end sounds, are easy to come by. The ghazal seems inevitable, natural, because of the nature of that word order. In English, the word-order is subject-verb-object, which always makes the ghazal in English—if you’re trying to duplicate the form—sound bad. I have never read a ghazal that obeyed the form in English that I was satisfied with.

I echo your view. Every poet I have read attempting a ghazal in English has tried to rhyme, including Indian poets. Sorry I came across as naïve, but I’m glad you have put a finger on why I have always found ghazals in English to sound ridiculous.

In Urdu or Persian, you wouldn’t feel that. Knowing that the languages were too far apart, and the form was too particular and exquisite to get from one to the other without mangling other parts of the verse, I decided to translate the person rather than the poem. I wanted to get the underlying symbolic gestures of the person, the places where Ghalib, for example, emphasizes, and these emphases are meaningful and significant and deep and profound. Those elements, and the way he represents his character on the page, tend to go into making the poem unique.

Vijay Seshadri. Photo: Twitter/@parisreview

The book ends almost in a crescendo with ‘Soliloquy’. This was a defining moment for me—“My body is a temple wherein my spirit, in which I also believe like any normal person, is sublimely housed. Then, why on a train platform, before the engine barrels in, do I feel a thrill rising from my groin to my solar plexus and imagine jumping?” It seems to capture, with some ominousness, existence as just a sort of fence-sitting between being and non-being.

I think that poem is double, triple, quadruple in a lot of ways. You have to take the title seriously, which refers to the most famous soliloquy in the English language. The poem is about the verb “to be,” in the way Hamlet’s soliloquy is. It’s also a meditation on suicide, and it directly refers to another Hamlet soliloquy in the middle—“what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty and form, how like an angel.” The character of the poem is not Hamlet, but you can’t read that poem without the memory of Hamlet and those paradoxes. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, the speaker of the poem is a sales representative who has a Midwestern circuit, from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to Columbus to Indianapolis to Muncie. Irony comes into play because he’s thinking about these profound things in the way Hamlet is, but he’s living a quotidian life, a very American life. And the poem dangles at the end: “of course, of course…”

With ellipses, right.

Haven’t you ever felt the impulse to jump?

Many times, many times. Never a visceral impulse, but I think in theory, as a concept or a sort of intellectualism, I have experienced that many times.

Imagination leaps ahead of itself. It’s commonplace if you ask people, whether it’s a height where they get the impulse to jump, or if it’s a train pulling into the station. A huge number of people.

Traffic and trains, I can relate to. The urge to jump is coupled with a visceral fear that I’d recoil from and walk away.

Psychologists have said that the impulse to jump from a height actually derives from the fear of heights.

Speaking of death, the last thing I wanted to ask you – and I saved it for last because this has been brought up first in most previous interviews – is about your poem ‘The Disappearances’, was on the back page of the New Yorker right after 9/11. The poem is like a boomerang, taking the reader on this journey through bleakness and bringing them back on an arc towards hope. One line I found striking in the poem is, “This is you when the President died / the day is brilliant and cold.” I read it as articulating a kitchen-sink reality where the day is otherwise brilliant despite Kennedy having been assassinated, thus reflecting the physical distance one feels from a political event. Is there a political statement, or am I reading into it too much?

It’s purely descriptive. The paradox of that weekend. It was the Saturday I was referring to. President Kennedy was assassinated on a Friday. There are a lot of people around who remember how strikingly bright it was in the eastern United States for a late fall day in November. The day he was assassinated was cloudy in Columbus, Ohio. And if you look at pictures from the funeral in Washington, DC, you’ll see incredible sunlight pouring down as the cortege is going to the cemetery. All across the eastern United States, it was like that. People who experienced it remembered that immediately. It was unforgettable, just like 9/11. Anyone who experienced it will remember exactly where they were, exactly what was happening. It’s seared in the consciousness of Americans of that period.

What heartens me about the poem was that it was an instance of poetry directly speaking to the people. The poem itself is a demonstration of that, but more so was the choice to publish it. Having at one point worked on the editorial staff of the New Yorker, and now editing the poetry in the Paris Review, how do you make publishing decisions in a political climate where every day there seems to be an event of significance from a news standpoint, both in Donald Trump’s America and Narendra Modi’s India?

What made ‘The Disappearances’ effective was that it wasn’t directly related to 9/11. It was a serendipitous intersection that no one could have predicted, and no editor could have anticipated. It just so happened that they had bought that poem that summer. I had written it in July, they bought it in August, and then September 11 happened. I don’t as an editor go out looking for poems that directly address day-to-day events. I look for poems that are addressing the underlying elements, human situations particularised. It seems like a lot of people are writing protest poetry now, and there’s good reason to protest. However much I’m driven and defined as we all are by the horrible circumstances of this moment, somehow I can separate my political judgment from my poetic judgment. In fact, I don’t think it benefits poetry at all that it should be made to serve political judgment.

The publishing of poetry has seen a shift towards creating an ecosystem of social justice. Would you see that as contradicting the mission of poetry?

This is a complicated issue. I got into poetry because of anti-Vietnam War politics. American poets in the 60s were at the forefront of the anti-war movement, especially on campuses, building the anti-war movement with poetry readings. David Ray and Robert Bly started an organisation called Writers Against the War in Vietnam. Very early, 1963, way before the real escalation started in the Johnson administration. Poetry was a huge part of the protest of the 60s, it was essential to it, and that’s how I came to discover contemporary American poetry and started thinking of myself as a poet. So I’m not at all averse to the poetry of protest, or the poetry of witness. I just haven’t found examples of it that really satisfy me. I found some, and we have published them.

Any examples that come to mind?

We published a Cheswayo Mphanza poem—he lives in America, but he’s African—about visiting David Livingstone’s statue. David Livingstone, of course, was a figure of the 19th century British imperial experience in Africa. We published a Nicole Sealey poem, an erasure of the Ferguson Report, which was an account of the killing of Michael Brown by the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, and of the demonstrations in the aftermath of that killing. The killing and the demonstrations happened in 2014. Both of those poems we published address the contemporary moment, and neither is directly about the contemporary moment. The Mphanza poem wasn’t about taking down a statue of a Confederate general in Virginia in August or in June. The poem had to do with the attitude of the speaker toward a statue in Africa. Nicole Sealey wasn’t talking about George Floyd; she was talking about Michael Brown. But those were very much, obviously, poems of this moment.

Karthik Purushothaman is a writer who grew up in Tamil Nadu and now lives in the United States. His work has appeared in journals such as BoulevardHyperallergic anRattle.