Our good friend, poet Ilya Kaminsky, knows contemporary poetry like no one else. We’re proud to be publishing his mini-reviews and one-question interviews with poets we admire.
“A true person, truly free, free from time and space” is a line from Vijay Seshadri that I keep repeating though I have read his beautiful and very moving That Was Now, This Is Then, months ago now. Why? Aside from this line’s truth, it is also how Seshadri’s poetry deals with silence, with the unspoken, how the ironies in his work (unlike so much irony we see in contemporary literature) are earned, contemplative life in his poems goes hand in hand with emotional intelligence. All of this is to say this book investigates solitude and grief and living in time in a way that is both disquieting and sensuous: “These moments ping / my optic nerve alive.” The voice in the poems is willing to speak directly, without patronizing. Even when speaking about clouds (“Look at the clouds. Look at how close they are”), he speaks about intimacy, with a clarity of perspective that is as moving as it is memorable.
ILYA KAMINSKY: There is a kind of directness in your book that I feel many of us are longing for these days, in the time of COVID, time of confusion, time of fear. What is that clarity in such a time, for you? And, what is the relationship between language and grief for you? In asking this, I recall Auden’s statement that speaking to the dead, breaking bread with the dead, is crucial for a lyric poet. What is your take on this?
VIJAY SESHADRI: I think my diction is the same as ever. I used to, though, think of all the elements of the poem as equal in the making of the artifact. The directness you sense probably derives from the fact that — especially in the center of this book — what I felt became more important, by an order of magnitude, than what I thought or imagined. More important than any metaphysical argument I wanted to make. Also, I think poets get more direct the older they get. This book is an elegiac book, but it’s also — and they’re not quite the same thing — a book “about” death. The presence of death, as people have said, wonderfully focuses thought and speech.
As you know, Ilya, grief is preverbal, an evolutionary reversal. It reduces all of us to an animal state, the state of a mammal with a spark of consciousness, which spark just serves to intensify the howling inside us. I think the process of writing in the face of it was for me, very much so, the process of using language not for its own sake — and language for its own sake is an important motivation, however much I’m committed to the subject matter, of most of my poems — but for its deepest instrumentality, to restore my thinking and my seeing in the face of that emotional groundswell. That’s what prompted those lines you quote, the act of recovery of the speculative part of myself. There was a sense writing the poem that if I couldn’t escape the feeling — and the feeling lasted a long time and kept coming back (and we never do escape it, really, we just forget for periods) — I could at least give it a composition, an inner order. It wasn’t therapy — I still feel as bad as ever — but a compulsion to understand, to recognize.
You mention Auden. He has so many insights, which are so casually tossed off, that are incredibly nutritious. To elaborate on what I take him to mean, there are murmuring conversations deep inside ourselves — of which our writing is the tape recording — that we’re always having with others, with society, with nature, with the universe, with being. Our conversations with the dead — and not just those we knew but those we didn’t know but identify with (writers we love, composers, artists, etc.) are probably the ones where our imagination is most completely itself.