Reetika Vazirani
September 1999

 

Reetika Vazirani is the author of White Elephants (Beacon, 1996) and is the Banister Writer-in-Residence at Sweet Briar College. She was educated at Wellesley College and the University of Virginia where she was a Henry Hoyns teaching fellow. She has also taught in the graduate workshop at the University of Oregon. She has received a 1999 Pushcart Prize, a 1998 Poets & Writers Exchange Award, a "Discovery"/THE NATION award, and fellowships from the Watson Foundation, the Sewanee Writers' Conference and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Her work is included in the Bread Loaf Anthology of New American Writers, The Beacon Best of 1999, and others. More than one hundred poems have appeared in journals such as Agni, Callaloo, The Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, Ploughshares, Partisan Review, TriQuarterly, and are forthcoming in The Paris Review. She has completed three additional manuscripts of poetry. She is a Contributing and Advisory Editor for Shenandoah.

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I never expected to be a writer, let alone a writer of poetry. When I was much younger, I expected I would become a surgeon, raise a family, and spend my spare time speaking French. I am nothing I expected I would be. Now, through some strange luck and doggedness too, I am a writer, and I make my living by teaching writing.

On the other hand, I was always a reader and more than that a copyist. I suppose that, as an immigrant, I had very little else to distract me when my family first came to this country in 1968. I needed to learn English, and I could spend my time on that as I did not ski, ice skate, roller skate, swim, or do much of anything else for that matter. But I know I felt that reading was the most magical way to spend my time. I would copy verbatim anything I wish I had written. And so in fact I would write it, copy it, and that is how I became a writer. I was a scribe first. . . .

Years later, after finding poetry through a series of crises really, I could never find any poems with my voice in it. I wanted to read something different, and I could not find those poems. So when I was about twenty-five, I began writing my own. In 1987 I was reading a lot of poetry and studying with Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, and A. K. Ramanujan. I found a sequence by each one of them I wish I had written; "Schooner Flight," "Clearances," "A Part of Speech"; and Ramanujan's extraordinary translations from Tamil in Poems of Love and War. For the next eight years I wrote and rewrote what became my first book White Elephants (Beacon, 1996). I wanted to absorb as much as I could from these three writers who widened the circumference of English-language poetry. I have no end of gratitude for my lucky circumstances, having studied with poets so squarely rooted in the English tradition, and who brought to it influences which are changing the language from their own old and varied traditions. What I thought was a small garden of English verse seemed to me by 1987 to include the world.

I believe my project in White Elephants was to plumb if I could some of the mysteries and wonders of the pentameter. There has been a lot of noise about "formal" poetry and about writing sonnets in particular, but for me the sonnet came out of an urgent need to learn how to end a poem. A writer in Derek's workshop, George Kalogeris, a beautiful writer and translator from Greek, suggested that if I wanted to learn how to end poems well, why not stick to the length of a sonnet. So I did. My "experiment" with the sonnet had more to do with needing what I thought was an arbitrary but manageable breath. Now having worked in that length for so long, I appreciate the plasticity of the form and the discipline I got from working in that beautiful square. This was probably the best way for me to start writing poetry; because in coming to poetry through Walcott, Heaney, Brodsky, and Ramanujan, I believe I also came at it through Keats-Hopkins-Yeats Hardy-Frost-Larkin; and I have learned that there is nothing uniquely British about the pentameter or about the sonnet. It is as Anglo-Indian as it is Spanish. It is a vessel waiting for a writer's inner accent to arrive. That's why I've never felt part of any conservative sweep riding over contemporary poetry; but enough of that.

White Elephants also began and ended as a funeral for my father. There was no closure on that event for my family, just as when I began to write poems, there seemed no proper way to end one. In going through the pentameter, going through certain forms, I found ways to put ends to both.

As I was finishing my first book, I was also reading poems translated into English by some of the most marvelous translatorspoets of this century. The Keeley-Sherrard translations of Cavafy and Seferis are among my favorites, along with D.M. Thomas's Ahkmatova, the Carpenter's Zbigniew Herbert, Annette Smith's translations of Cesaire. I've been reading Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Pessoa translated by Edwin Honig and others. I began translating a remarkable poet from Madagascar, Jacques Rabemanenjara. And I learned that if a measured pentameter is difficult for me to write, a freer verse line is much harder; and I tried to learn from Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath, James Wright. Frank O'Hara makes a large impression on me. I found Eliot Weinberger's terrific anthology American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (Marsilio). Though there aren't enough women in this volume, it is I believe one of the most exciting collections I have read.

My project since White Elephants has been to travel to a different region of technique in American poetry. I've finished three new manuscripts, and in each I have a different project. In one, Inventing My Mother, I was looking for a place to take the sonnet; and I wanted very much to do something with Berryman's skylights in sonnets, his three 6line dream song stanza. I wanted to fuse that innovative impulse with the speed and propulsion of Frank O'Hara's line. I had spent so many years slowing down my line to get the teaspoon by teaspoon effect of an Eliot-like line. More recently I am interested in speed. Inventing My Mother is really my tribute to Berryman, O'Hara, Plath, and Lorde. Also, I wanted to tell a long story in sequence; I have recreated a life, one which spans and bridges an Anglo-Indian political drama with contemporary American life. My overall project I suppose says something about the way I perceive the effects of colonialism on migration and immigration. Immigration to me is of the great stories of the 20th and 21st centuries. At any rate, it's the story I know best: and I have to write about what I know: a sense of alienation and adventure going on at the same time, the story of what it's like to be from more than one place. I do write for myself and my own ear, with an eye to the larger issues which concern me: the ways race and gender have affected who I am and what I know about the world.

Another manuscript, It’s Me I’m Not Home, also contains all kinds of "formal" apparatus villanelles, pantoums, a sestina, ghazals, and so forth. In this collection I travel from these beautiful handed down templates and musical wonders to the sort of line I love by Pessoa and Drummond de Andrade a kind of quirky dramatic monologue which contains so many shifts in tone and breath. I can't really explain it, but I am deeply moved towards Portuguese and Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian authors. I was the Interim Managing Editor of Callaloo for its special issue on Afro-Brazilian arts, and that has had a deep effect on me. I am also deeply moved by many Spanish poets, especially Antonio Machado. Machado said, a man who talks honestly to himself hopes one day to talk to God. I love very much the tone of his poems and of the other poets I've mentioned: the flat, labored authenticity, and the elation that moves between sadness and contemplation but somehow always skirts the dull despair of a modern sense of exile and self exile. It’s Me I’m Not Home contains my sense of gratitude to Jean Rhys, Billie Holiday, Maria Callas, Frank O'Hara, Mirabai, Marvin Gaye and so many others. This collection is also in some ways a spoof on contemporary American romance and courtship, dating, navigating one's way through the random, seemingly arbitrary ways we seem to meet our friends and lovers these days of a society unhinged and in some ways more open and accepting, and in some ways more precarious and off-kilter than it was hundreds of years ago.

Finally, I've just finished a manuscript this summer, Radha & Ghalib, which I've written most often in the voices of characters taken from Indian Moghul painting (miniatures), folktales, myth, and history. It's the work of a ventriloquist, and I have simply written down what I've heard. My favorite section is the last one in the voice of Rada, who was Lord Krishna's mortal lover. In my poems she speaks of her own views of erotic love colliding with divine love, and her experience with a socalled God. Ghalib, an Urdu poet of India, also speaks. He, to me, is the male extension of the voice of Mrs. Biswas, a character in White Elephants. One of my favorite writers of monologues is Robert Browning. I also adore Richard Howard's Untitled Subjects and Randall Jarrell's female voices in "Next Day" and "Woman at the Washington Zoo" and so on. I write monologues because I always hear characters in my head, and I haven't yet been able to finish a novel. And I'm always looking for monologues in female voices. I want to read more and more of them, so I write them.

Robert Bly said in his introduction to his translations of Garcia Lorca and Jimenez, poetry is an "art that fights for the values of reverie, the feminine, and the spirit." America is now my country and my home, but I find myself always looking for ways to withstand its culture of material waste and excess, its insatiable national project to manufacture, sell, and dispose of its valuable resources. So poetry is a way for me to survive in a hyper-commercial world. It gives me a way to be quiet and thankful. Chekhov said, "Art prepares the soul for tenderness." Poetry is where I go because it's too difficult for me to be without it when I look around and see domestic violence, environmental catastrophe, and the wild-dog commerce of the Dow Jones. Poetry is as close as I get to the concepts of yoga: awareness and breathing, clarity and release.

Right now I'm interested in the novels by Gayl Jones. I want to learn how to write a novel. I'm reading poems by George Oppen. I think one of the most interesting, complicated, and important poets is Nathaniel Mackey.

I am always learning something about writing from teaching college students, which is my pleasure and privilege. I'm delighted I can make something of a living from my passions. I love being in touch with other writers; I've met so many I adore.

In summing up my influences, I've shifted from the male poets of the Farrar, Straus & Giroux list to the writers of the New Directions list. I'm always looking for new things to learn. I want to learn something from everybody.


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