This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview with Ravi Shankar is Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. (Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar, eds., W. W. Norton, 2008).
H. L. Hix: In your introduction to the “Slips and Atmospherics” section of the anthology, you note that the poems “are about multiplicity and escape” (120). I assume that you are not suggesting that they are escapist, but how would you characterize the difference (between work about escape and escapist work)?
Ravi Shankar: That section of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East and Beyond (W.W. Norton and Co.) is one of my personal favorite sections because it encompasses the work of Asian and Middle Eastern writers (including those from the Diaspora) who are pushing against the boundaries of form and received meanings. The kind of language and conceptual experiments that we might assume to be the exclusive purview of Western writers who’ve taken classes on post-structuralism and deconstruction is proved spectacularly false by poets like Rukimini Bhaya Nair who integrates the graphemic style of Sanskrit into English-language poetry, Yang Lian who appropriates characters from the 2,000 year old Seal script and combines it with characters that he has invented, and Filipino modernist giant José Garcia Villa, who punctuates his poem with commas the same way a pointillist painter would use dots of color on the canvas.
I characterizes their work as work that is “about escape,” because they circumvent the expected forms of meaning making that have been passed on, in whatever linguistic tradition they come from, for generations. Syntax can become a kind of prison, as can narrative structure, syllable count and lineation into stanza. What I mean by “escape” is that these poets are assembling a system of meaning from the ground up and that they are proving the truth of Gertrude Stein when she writes, “I took individual words and thought about them until I got their weight and volume complete and put them next to another word, and at this same time I found out very soon that there is no such thing as putting them together without sense. I made innumerable efforts to make words write without sense and found it impossible.” The tenuous, paratactic and lyrical sense that these poems provide are an escape from transparent confession, from contrived formalism, and from codified expressions of love, grief and longing.
Something that is “escapist” on the other hand, would look out at the world through sepia-tinted shades, amplifying certain elements while repressing others. A poem that doesn’t take seriously Keats’s notion of “negative capability,” of suspending our rational need for a totalizing answer in favor of abiding in the ambiguous and the contradictory, could be escapist. A poem where the narrative voice is so secure in itself that it never questions its presumptions could be escapist. A rhyming bit of occasional verse that allows its sonic imperatives to override its ontological purpose could be escapist. A rhapsodic pastoral poem that ignores the impact of man and machine, pollution and perception, on the natural world could be escapist. A poem that’s all glinting surface, linguistic wit and nonsensical collision, one that is uninterested in communication or in exploring the complexity of a mind in the world, could be escapist. And all of these I counterpoise to idea of escape as aesthetic strategy.
HH: In introducing the “Earth of Drowned Gods” section, you contrast the “enormous machines” that construct the “suffocating matrix of political ideologies” with the individual lives of “those who live under” and are affected by those machinations (196). What is the relationship between poetry’s role in documenting/recording those large-scale machinations, and its role in enabling us, at a smaller scale, to endure and contest the machinations?
RS: One of the great virtues and most often cited grievances with poetry is that it doesn’t earn any money; it is steadfastly outside of the closed circuit of commerce that other art forms, even peripherally, engage with. A friend of mine was recently lamenting that you “can’t even give a poetry book away.” What that says about the nature of our current literate readership (and the impact of the culture of narcissism on even those least predisposed to be affected by it) is fodder for another meditation. But I will aver that because a poem stands outside of most institutions of accretion and material wealth, it is free to comment on anything that deserves comment, to satirizes anything that deserves satire and to break the taboos that other genres might feel compelled to uphold. Therefore I think of poetry as perfect in contesting the machinations of institutions because it is literally beneath the gaze of those in power.
There’s a famous quote from one of Auden’s poems that “poetry makes nothing happen.” This line is often quoted without its proper context, so I’d like to provide it here:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to temper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
This excerpt speaks to me about the power of poetry in evading the gaze of executives (assuming that the poetry version of Jersey Shore is not forthcoming and there won’t soon be a reality TV show following a poet drum-beating trochaic stresses against his jeans while his inebriated language poet housemate throws darts at a wall-hanging covered with words). Sometimes the smallest voice, like Anne Frank in her diary, can provide the greatest testimony to the nature of reality at any given time or place. I think of the immense courage of Bei Dao and others bicycling to the Democracy Wall during the Cultural Revolution to post poems there that would buoy the spirit of millions. Or the poetry written by children in the concentration camps of World War II, like this excerpt from a poem written by Michael Flack in Terezin in1944: “If in barbed wire, things can bloom/ why couldn’t I? I will not die!” If that doesn’t speak truth to power, I don’t know what does.
To quote British poet Angela Leighton writing on Auden’s oft-quoted phrase, it “turns, by a tiny inflection, a redistribution of its stresses, into its opposite: ‘poetry makes nothing HAPPEN.’ By this accentual difference, ‘nothing’ shades into a subject, and happens. This is an event, and its ‘happening’ sums up the ways of poetry. Intransitive and tautological, nothing is neither a thing, nor no thing, but a continuous event.” Or in the hands of Wallace Stevens what the listener in the snow beholds, the invisible and sheer fact of his or her existence, or what the Buddhist call Śūnyatā, the emptiness that leads to the cultivation of insight. What a poem does, being so miniscule that it enters our body as heart-song, is imperceptibly transform us into a greater awareness of the world around us. A sharpening of the senses, a temporary lifting of the veil of discursive perception that freezes the ever-moving world into permanent edifice, and a revelation of the inwardness of another being; these are just some of the ways in which poetry can help us endure the hyper-accelerated world of information and capital in which we daily drown. In spite of all of this, we—the irreducibly divine part of ourselves—survive as a way of happening, a mouth, and therefore it’s incumbent upon us to provide witness.
HH: The penultimate paragraph of your introduction to the “This House, My Bones” section (384-85) notes one thing we receive from “being presented with many versions of place and origin,” namely illumination of “our shared humanity.” I hear, though, a suggestion that we not only receive something, but are obligated to something, namely generativity (a word I take from the first sentence of the paragraph). Am I right about that obligation, and if so would you be willing to speak to it further?
RS: Yes absolutely. I think that a serious engagement with art comes with a concomitant obligation towards transformation, whether on the perceptual, ethical, spiritual or linguistic level. Unless it’s on the news, how often do we think about those suffering in Africa or suppressed by a dictator in Asia? In fact, isn’t it easier to think about the world in shorthand, in stereotype that allows us to make broad generalizations without having to engage with the problematic aspect of another’s consciousness, which carries with it a claim for as much happiness and comfort that we ourselves, mainly through no choice of our own, might possess? So poetry can be a force that forces us to engage with the reality of someone else living on the other side of the globe from us. And I believe this engagement is not passive but active; that when we truly inhabit the mind and the potential deprivation of someone we don’t know, we are required to act in some way, whether that’s to write a poem or to donate to a charitable organization. That’s what I consider the generative imperative of poetry, such that the art doesn’t become a onanistic and closed exercise but one that opens up into the larger world.
One of the primary reasons we put Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East and Beyond together was to react to 9/11, which devastated all three editors enormously. And yet in what followed, the depiction of the East as intolerant and violent, the conflation of those from India with those from Pakistan with those from Afghanistan with those from Iraq, the caricature of individuals as terrorists or gurus, and the fear-mongering and virulent xenophobia propagated and capitalized on by politicians with their own agenda, we felt compelled to react in some way, to show that we shared more in common than we differed with each other, that the principles of love, safety, community and interdependence were as pertinent for Kurds as they were for Americans. We hope that those who engage with this anthology will come to realize that there is no East (in fact what we call the Far East is the Near North for the Australians) with a capital “E.” That there are as many different beliefs and personalities abroad as there are at home. And our hope is that with this revelation comes the imperative to speak out, to change the dialogue of “us versus them,” to begin to try to understand another culture, even the reasons why they might loathe us, rather than stay closeted in fear. And this imperative is generative. It asks us not to take our own independence for granted any more but to reach out empathetically through space with the recognition, that we—this human experiment—are bound up together, much closer than we might ever have imagined before.
Ravi Shankar is the founding editor and Executive Director of Drunken Boat, one of the world’s oldest electronic journals of the arts. He has published or edited seven books and chapbooks of poetry, including the 2010 National Poetry Review Prize winner, Deepening Groove. Along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he edited W.W. Norton’s Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond, called “a beautiful achievement for world literature” by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. He has won a Pushcart Prize, been featured in The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education, appeared as a commentator on the BBC and NPR, received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and has performed his work around the world. He is currently Chairman of the Connecticut Young Writers Trust, on the faculty of the first international MFA Program at City University of Hong Kong and an Associate Professor of English at CCSU.