Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Reddy’s chapbook Readings in World Literature (Omnidawn Books). Recorded June 5th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Appropriated text has become a familiar part of your poetic practice. In Voyager, this takes a form resembling erasure poetry. For Readings in World Literature, something closer to citational practice appears. As in Craig Dworkin’s prose text Dure, citational processes arise amid an investigation at time whimsical, at times more grave, but consistently an investigation of pain, wounds, human frailty. Do these excerpted quotations in Readings take on the status of lacerations, scars (though those two themselves seem quite different)?
Srikanth Reddy: Well many people make a powerful case for those two phenomena, textuality and embodiment, being metaphors for each other. I don’t know that that’s the way my literary imagination works right now. But citation and quotation do interest me as practices arising out of a kind of woundedness. These wounds may be more psychic than physical or corporeal. So the speaker of this poem kind of shores up fragments against his ruins, though not ruins of the body so much as ruins of . . . an inwardness he tries to negotiate by consulting other works as a means of reconstituting identity for himself. Probably you could connect this process to scarring or lesions. But I have enough difficulty conveying a sense of my own embodiment as speaker without treating the poem itself as embodied presence.
AF: Part of what I’d wondered with embodiment: insistent references to mortality occur throughout this work. I’d. . . did you just want to say something?
SR: I’d say the work I now do and probably have done for a while is obsessed with mortality. The entry point into this mortal condition isn’t so much textual as—let me think. Perhaps the best way to discuss this would be through my own encounter with mortality. Doctors diagnosed me with melanoma, a nasty cancer, three years ago, the same week I learned my wife was pregnant with our first child. Fortunately, we caught my condition early and things seem OK, but questions of mortality have remained continuous with my autobiography.
AF: Should we address the extent to which these Readings provide an autobiographical narrative?
SR: I think that the experience of illness can prompt one to identify one’s work with one’s physical presence in the world. For me, that process sublimated into more rarefied questions of what poetry is. I guess I’d hope to divorce my poems from bodily existence since that gives them a better shot of enduring. Again, much interesting work does enact a convergence of textuality and physicality, but I’m perhaps too uncomfortable with my own body to do that.
AF: In terms of how this chapbook addresses mortality: awareness arrives not in some dramatic, transcendent finale but in any number of chilly asides. I’m looking at, say section 30, lines such as: “They are not learning. I am not teaching. Hades, who tucks everybody into bed in the end, is escorting us, still breathing, to the shore of the River Akheron.” Or section 32 ends: “What we deem reality is in fact fiction. What we deem fiction is in fact reality. And so on. I have never been good at dead languages. Even the living ones feel dead to me.” Again, this concludes: “The only theory that makes any sense is the one where the protagonist never returns.” Your quick, deadpan tone seems to call forth further reflection on the reader’s part. So I’m especially curious about the interstitial passage’s function as it relates to reflections on mortality. I’m thinking specifically of Nietzsche describing the philosopher’s role as . . . the philosopher plunges into a pool of ice, something like that. The philosopher brings back that which only can be caught by a quick grasp. Or Emerson tells us “The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.” Can you discuss here the roles of digression, juxtaposition, aphoristic concision—what these practices grant access to that we can’t find or couldn’t bear in longer forms?
SR: Longer forms can open space for aphorisms too, for flashes of insight. More and more I find that long work allows the poem to reflect a dailyness of experience and provides context for the surreal or nightmarish encounter with mortality, or similarly overwhelming scenes of awareness. Maybe this strays off topic, but the notion of an underworld remains a helpful tool for keeping in mind the world of the dead, the dead’s presence, directly underfoot. The underworld maps those vertical relations. It also provides for the possibility that our world increasingly resembles the underworld or an underworld. And this brush with disaster (in the form of illness) confirmed an intuition that I, we, are in some respects “already dead.” This feeling of being dead seems a pretty universal experience. One sometimes gets overtaken by the sense that mortality already has overtaken oneself. Keats mentions his posthumous existence while still alive. I consider these states of afterlife, or post-life, part of mortal experience. For me, encounters with those feelings provoke poetic utterance. So when you mention a digressive or interstitial turn to these moments, I’m gratified that you’ve tracked this in what I’ve written, but I would say, I guess, such moments seem omnipresent. That digressive turn, that sudden, dawning glance at posthumous life remains part of our everyday.
AF: Again here I appreciate the torqued perspective provided by aphorisms or digressions. As you broach this concept of the underworld or, presumably, overworld, two distinct vantages seem to gaze back upon each other, echoing various theorists’ depictions of the choreographed aphorism. But when you mention situating shorter instances amid a longer form, I’m curious in this particular project (which does offer any number of brilliant elliptical formulations) about the deliberate staging of translation, research, teaching. Could you discuss the role that the loosely embodied “I” plays in stitching together these very Auerbachian Readings in World Literature? Does the reader’s potential identification with this “I” allow for an experience of duration lacking in any single episode, allusion, digression?
SR: Yeah, I want this speaker to appear as intimate and personal as possible. So I have no problem referring to this poem’s speaker as myself. Of course, for many people this may seem a no-brainer, obvious, uncontroversial gesture to make. But after working on a series of erasure projects for seven years, to me that felt like a significant step. The second part of your question asks how this individual speaker engages the archives of knowledge, the scene of instruction into which many poets find ourselves parachuted as teachers. I’d wanted to address my own sense of unbelonging with regard to the field I work in every day—my feeling of preposterousness as I enter a classroom to teach a course on world literature to a diasporic group of students, who come from all over the world and often know much more about their various literary traditions than I possibly could. There’s an abjection that one experiences if one teaches with any kind of reverence toward one’s subject, since one ought to, on some level, feel hopelessly unqualified to teach even canonical books like Moby Dick or whatever. But I’ll try as a teacher to convert this state of unknowing into a negative capability, one that can enhance my relation to other persons in the classroom. For this particular writing project, I hope to develop a much longer book, and to arrive at some kind of rapprochement with the necessary impossibility of teaching.
AF: Hmm. I like the parallel between how an individual fragment or digression exists within a greater body of work and how that unbelonging or unknowing you’ve described (which could seem the abdication of your responsibilities as a teacher) actually takes place within a broader institutional context, one in which this position of unbelonging, when modeled for students, can pick up productive value.
SR: Right. Part of that involves acknowledging (not abdicating, but acknowledging) one’s lack of qualification, one’s democratic position on the same level as students. Teaching becomes an act of mutual exploration. Which is why, in that poem you quoted, when I say “They are not learning. I’m not teaching,” I mean to suggest that something different than pedagogy happens in my best classroom moments. These don’t offer a top-down model of transmitted knowledge but rather a mutual voyaging that often feels digressive. Your use of that term seems appropriate. The digressive excursion probably provides the best model of how learning happens for myself and my students.
AF: Our recognition of mortality place us not only in an abject state, but one that’s difficult to endure, maintain, extend. Here I’m curious about this chapbook’s relationship to humor, about Readings’ very funny attempts at a further redaction of Kafka, for example. Comedic instances occur throughout. Could you talk a bit about the role that humor plays within the pedagogical/anti-pedagogical depiction of your abjected professor protagonist?
SR: The comic turn has been a long time coming for me as a means of negotiating this abjection of mortality or illness, this unbelonging in relation to one’s own profession, in relation to political history as it happens right now. More and more, I take consolation in a comic reading of those phenomena. And that was a difficult transition because I’d always been inclined toward Vedic, or epic, or traditionally “ambitious” forms of addressing such problems. But as I enter my late-30s and arrive at a certain kind of detente with regard to those ambitions, I find that a comic register best allows one to explore the absurdity of the human condition and that the laughter generated can be productive—can allow one to carry on and feel pleasure. As a poet, I had felt myself increasingly dragged down by the undertow of all kinds of things, from our country’s foreign policy to my own personal experiences with mortality, to the pull of skepticism and negativity. Lately, however, the happiness and pleasure of laughing at those problems has made poetry once again a really alive place.
AF: On this topic of laughter as mode of engagement, I’m curious if you conceived of this chapbook specifically for the art exhibition cited in your acknowledgements page. And even if you didn’t, your text seems the “call” for that “Call and Response” show. So the questions arise: did any particular content or approach seem appropriate for the “response”? Was affirmation in some more abstract sense called forth? I remember specific call-and-response episodes from the Readings themselves, such as in Section 7, when the “I” gets asked “Is it you?” and provides the perfect reply, “I think so.” Or Section 10: “Qu’est ceci?” Chen asked. “Voici,” said the servant.” More generally, how do implicit or explicit call-and-response processes play out in this chapbook’s thematics?
SR: That makes me think of your own stuff. As a writer I myself remain far more uncomfortable with the give and take of call-and-response. I tend to curl up in my little study carrel or wherever I can escape the rest of the world and try to grind writing out of some place within. For me, any kind of call is cause for anxiety. But when this project came up in D.C., I appreciated it as an occasion just say to myself: I need to start writing. This was the perfect kind of call because I really didn’t know what form the response would take, who would respond, or anything of the sort. I simply knew that a visual artist would produce something related to the poem. Then of course I was bowled over and delighted when I saw Job Bobby Benjamin’s sculptural installation that arose in response to what I’d written. That piece responded only to the first seven or eight sections of the chapbook. That’s all I had completed at the time. But what you ask goes even deeper into the nature of this poem, in that there are certain moments when the speaker gets called upon. Those begin as instances of extreme awkwardness for this speaker. I put the speaker in those situations again and again because I’d wanted to explore that kind of discomfort. Students call upon a teacher to account for himself and he can’t. I consider these scenes of self-recognition—where the speaker comes to learn something in his own classroom because of this call or claim his students make upon him. I’ve learned a lot from that type of call-and-response of teaching, which seems a metaphor for many kinds of relations.
AF: That echoes questions this chapbook poses (and happily does not answer) regarding what is the proper content of “Readings in World Literature.” Or actually, does the chapbook pose this question? Does it deliberately evade this question? Does it provide an indirect answer, as the dynamics of individual life, family life, gradually propel the narrative forward, even amid more labyrinthine intellectual and poetic reveries?
SR: That’s the challenge of trying to continue with this book. I don’t consider it finished by any means. Part of me wants to push through those questions and let the underworld in which the speaker finds himself fill with light and become a kind of paradise. Or at least purgatory, I hope. It’s too easy, artistically, to wallow in a morass of uncertainty. And because this project runs parallels to my own experience, I would like to use it as a means of moving forward into more positive affective relations to my work and my mortality and all kinds of things. But much remains to be seen. New problems arise amid the effort to construct a forward-moving narrative, resolving such questions. Narrativity brings a whole other set of issues that complicate the writing of poetry.
AF: Certain lines seem to offer a Brechtian effect, foregrounding their constructed nature, perhaps pointing towards some higher realism beyond the immediate narrative purview of the poem. I’m thinking of how, after snappy dialogue in Section 19, we encounter the line, “The room had assumed the tenebrous gloom of a star chamber.” Here I love the echoing vowels and anachronistic diction. Again, I don’t use this word pejoratively, when I say “excess,” but does that excessive assonance or detail or metaphoric heft—which interrupts our absorption of transparent narrative—does that, in some way, present its own drama (the narrative of narrativity amid time’s mute, ceaseless progress, or something)?
SR: That sounds good. I kept in mind while writing this poem the possibility that the poem itself, or any piece of literature, can provide a text of the world or can conceal the subtext of a more real world, a more real experience. At a certain point in this poem (which I’ve tried to make as life-like as possible), I wanted to acknowledge a still deeper reality beneath it. That relation between the “real real” and the “symbolic real” of this poem seemed quite similar to the relationship between our culture’s sense of the empirical world and various cultures’ notions of an underworld. Something always lurks beneath this text, beneath this poem, something that feels more bare, raw, unspeakably real. So these moments when the writing starts to sound more artificial or Brechtian, as you say, pointing to the overall artifice become moments when I hope to affirm this underworld subtending the work. The poem’s surface offers just one level of the many worlds you encounter. That’s not new, of course. Percy Shelley thought that the perceived world is just a veil of appearances, behind which stands another world. I wanted to thematize that at certain points.
AF: Again the interstitial allows for complex, convoluted vantages. Also, as you’ve briefly mentioned, you include references to the US occupation of Iraq, Guantanamo Prison, oil spills. You’ll provide that level of a political history happening within or alongside the personal narrative. But then here’s another example of those loaded lines I described: “Sunk into the deep sea bed like a page awaiting translation, a wrecked tanker oxidizes below.” These extravagant analogical sequences appear. Those pivots I find so interesting. And finally Borges surfaces in goggles and flippers. Was this inevitable from the start?
SR: Well you know, probably, and I’m not making any news as yet another poet obsessed with Borges and Kafka and Dante. Of course Borges, Kafka and Dante lived in entirely different places, historical periods, societies but I think that a shared sense of the constructedness and fragility of reality circulates through all of their work. The everyday social tissue we subsist on constantly gets ruptured. Maybe this takes us back to the scar metaphor. That sense of fragility draws me.
AF: I didn’t even ask—there really is a class “Readings in World Literature?” You taught such a course? But the broader question is: ultimately this chapbook does, to some extent, present what it advertises, right? Is there, to some extent, the implication that a dense or reflexive enough autobiographical work by a contemporary poet will provide a reading in world literature?
SR: Yeah. I don’t know if I’ll keep the title, but that is a class I taught at the university. I excerpt actual student evaluations from the course. Of course I had to dig deep to find those negative evaluations! But yes, that’s real. I taught “The Epic of Gilgamesh” alongside epics from various ancient cultures. And while reading about encounters with the underworld, I felt that the protagonists of these poems (Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, the Odyssey, etc.) kind of touched bottom with a sense of my own mortality—because of where I was with my own illness and the birth of my daughter, and all kinds of dramatic personal events. I’ve grown to feel that the more intimate and personal a poem becomes, the more it attracts me. Again, that might be a no-brainer to many people wiser than myself, but I’ve spent much time invested in a modernist, impersonal tradition of writing, so for me this seemed a revelation.
AF: With the figure of Borges still in mind, can we finish by discussing (and I’m glad we didn’t start with this) your chapbook’s status as poetry? I’m perfectly happy to grant, to acknowledge that status. But given the constructed scenes of inquiry, given your departing musings about dream and reality, what precludes us from considering this fiction or, in a more convoluted sense, non-fiction? What here does poetry distinctly provide?
SR: For me, what’s important is that the imaginative writing has traction for readers. I don’t profess a deep commitment to the lyric as the model for what confirms something as poetic or to any number of prosodic or technical registers and indices for what marks something as a poem. I think I probably have a more (I don’t know why he keeps coming up) Shelleyan notion of poetry as an imaginative faculty that subtends all kinds of different practices, from a basketball layup to a ballet performance. If such performances can arise out of the poetic faculty, then I have no problem categorizing Beckett, a Beckett play like Acts Without Words, as poetic. Or a Barthelme short story as being a poem. Similarly, I loosely consider this chapbook poetic—because I pay lots of attention just to syllables, basically, and that acute investment in language seems enough.
Srikanth Reddy is the author of two books of poetry—”Facts for Visitors” and “Voyager“—as well as a book-length poetic collaboration with Dan Beachy-Quick, titled “Conversities.” A chapbook, “Readings in World Literature,” was published by Omnidawn Press in 2012. He is also the author of “Changing Subjects,” a scholarly study of digression in 20th Century American poetry. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the doctoral program in English at Harvard University, Reddy is currently an assistant professor at the University of Chicago.