Let’s begin with a question from the contributor with whom we last had a conversation, Molly McCully Brown. Molly asks, “What was the last poem you read that really changed things for you, that altered something about how you see yourself or the world, or made the ground shift underneath you?
RS: This semester, I taught “Lettuce” by Nick Sturm as part of a lesson on anaphora (shout out to Mikko Harvey, whose lesson I totally stole), and since then, it’s been one of those poems I chant lines from to myself almost daily. Formally, “Lettuce” altered the way I thought about anaphora, and I so admire how it leans on obsession in order to make a point about excess in this world—that even our excess is never enough, that, “There is / so much still to be done.” I die in the best way every time I read this line: “He tells you how bad it is for the lettuce / that we talk about art like work and love like economics.” Before this election, I was moved to tears by what’s articulated after that line break; I was at a point where I wasn’t writing poems often, and was much more focused on cultivating love actively in my daily life. So those lines were affirming, but they also served to remind me that the language we use to discuss art and love matters; because that’s the language with which we construct the stories we tell ourselves. It means something to say, “This year, I was a sponge. I absorbed all I could of this world and left my comfort zone in my reading practices,” instead of, “I only wrote X number of poems and could have written so many more.” Really, that one line of poetry made me so much more mindful. And now that we’re here—a week away from the inauguration—I’m fixated on what happens before the line break. Lettuce is transcendent, essential, and, obviously, subject to decisions humans do or don’t make concerning the environment. “Lettuce” is an insistent call for us to be better to our natural world, even as it reminds us that “the world is us kissing / under a sheet lettuce.” We can’t be part of the transcendent if we don’t “start / giving a shit lettuce.” This poem makes me want to be a better person. It makes me want to love beyond my all-too-human capacity.
You’ve described poetry itself as an empathy machine. Is there a metaphor through which you consider poetic process?
RS: Hmm. I don’t think this is a metaphor, so much as an observation from both teaching poetry and writing across genres myself. But my sense is that empathy doesn’t simply involve imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes. It involves really leaving your own experiences and attempting in whatever way to embody the experience of another. I think writing poems works much in the same way, especially when we’re writing personal poems. We can’t write through personal experience when we’re “too close to it” (that’s an oft-used teaching adage that used to really rile me up as an undergraduate)—and I think that’s because, to reach our experiences on the level of art and aesthetics, we have to be able to dissociate. To imagine we are someone else who is then imagining our own experiences. For me, at least, the poetic process is much more convoluted when I’m writing in the personal or confessional mode. I almost take on the persona of someone I’m not to reach the person I am—to move past fact and toward truth. I didn’t used to write poems this way, of course. It came, as all things do, from practice, and from reading widely, and from leaving myself behind every single time I came to a page. Meryl Streep, in her Golden Globes acceptance speech this week, said the most basic job of the actor is to embody the other, to acknowledge structures of privilege at work in doing so, and to seek to foster empathy. I think the same is true of poetry.
This fall, a lot of very conceptual poets visited Brown University (where I’m a freshman), and I’ve grown much more willing to approach a work on its own terms. What is your personal definition of the purpose of art? Do you think it is the work’s responsibility to invite its audience in, to give them context or explain itself in order to better communicate its message, do you think it’s the reader’s, or does it fall somewhere in-between?
RS: This is such an interesting question, Clare. It seems to me that art should always try to push us forward—that is, toward something unarticulated, unsayable, and true. For art to do that, it has to push the reader beyond their comfort zone. Even poems that make us happy, that move us to joy or praise—or poems that are conceptual and seek to challenge us intellectually—do so by, well, moving us. I think readers have to be willing to be moved toward the uncomfortable, the in-between. As readers, then, we can’t engage with art, or poetry, without doing the work—or, as you say, approaching the work on its own terms.
Honestly, though, I think this question is also one couched in the political, which is what makes it so compelling to think about in our current moment. Recently, I was listening an episode of Code Switch (a podcast by NPR that everyone should listen to), which highlighted the explanatory comma and this idea that people of color feel like we have to constantly explain our culture—or the cultures of others—to white Americans. And man do I feel with those podcast hosts, especially in terms of my poems and their subject matter. During my MFA I was told constantly to define Indian terms or phrases that appeared in my poems, and I felt very strongly—and still do—that that sort of explanatory comma is detrimental to the poem and can even be construed as insulting to the reader. I think readers should be willing to work—at least on the level of Googling terminology—for the poem at hand. But I also believe that the act of reading poetry or practicing art in any form is inherently a statement, political or otherwise. It seems to me that we want the same thing from our “ideal authors” that we do from our “ideal readers” and “ideal citizens.” We just want one another to be engaged, to be willing to do the work of active listening, to be open to learning something in the process of engaging with the text. So, yes, the responsibility definitely falls in between, I think, especially for those of us writing across cultures, across national boundaries, and toward a poetics that is more inclusive, more intersectional, and with the goal of spreading understanding and empathy.
You’ve cited lineation and enjambment as aesthetically important to your poetry. What do you personally try to accomplish in each line? In your opinion, what makes a successful line?
RS: Very early on in my poetry education, I encountered the idea that if a poem’s enjambments are effective, each line of the poem is a unit, and reads as its own little poem. That stuck with me, and dictates my approach to lineation and enjambment to this day. I love the idea that once you reach the end of the line, you can either move on to the line below it, or jump back to the beginning of the line. The notion of the line as fragmented yet cyclical is appealing to me—especially as an Indian American who is fascinated by the idea of reincarnation, yet wholly skeptical of it simultaneously. I’m similarly obsessed with the ampersand, because it approximates the form of an infinity symbol, while simultaneously breaking, undermining the notion of continuity. I also think that successful lines in a free verse poem vary in their strategies. If line one destabilizes, line two might serve to lyricize. Barbara Hernstein Smith says in Poetic Closure that reading a poem is an engagement with constant instability. I treat my line breaks accordingly.
Let’s talk about your debut collection, GILT, forthcoming from YesYes Books (congratulations!). How did the book come together, and what’s one thing it’s made you realize about your work?
RS: (Thank you!) GILT began as my MFA thesis during my time at The Ohio State University, but it includes poems that date back to my sophomore year in college. So it’s been in the works for quite some time, and really none of the poems in the book were generated with the “goal” of belonging in a manuscript. In that sense, I think it’s a book that could only have been written as I grew to embrace my identity as a first generation Indian woman. Really, writing these poems—owning my experiences as a survivor of sexual assault, as someone who grew up completely imbued in systems of supremacy, as someone who once tried desperately to be seen as anything other than an “other”—has completely changed me as a person. And more than that, it’s changed how I view art, what I value in art, and what I strive for in my own work. It’s made me realize that the personal and the political can’t be parsed out cleanly, and that for those of us (so many of us) whose identities are inseparable from the way we navigate this world, our art is often a reflection of that truth. And furthermore, that art engaging with those issues—issues like trauma, assimilation, immigration, and violence—can serve as a vehicle for change. It made me realize that my work isn’t about being comfortable, and that instability is its/our very strength.
You, of course, are also a photographer. How did you become interested in photography? What do images accomplish that words can’t (and vice versa)? What are the similarities and differences between how you approach your poetic and photographic practices?
RS: Because I attended an arts high school, I was exposed to a wide range of art forms early on, and photography was one I fell in love with long before I fell for poetry. Though I took the class on a total whim, working in the dark room at the young age of sixteen really fueled my obsession with and patience for process. Making tens or twenties of a print just to get the lighting right, or to accentuate that one highlight above the subject’s cheek—that feels so much like the work poets do in revision. You tweak, then you delete, then you tweak again and throw the poem or negative in a drawer for a year. Both mediums take dedication, patience, and an anti-capitalistic view of productivity. You may only make one poem, or one print, every few months, so you have to be comfortable with using your time for something other than monetary gain. I guess maybe I’ve always loved getting obsessed & wasting my time.
Really, though, I love this question about story: what stories images can tell that words fail to, and vice versa. When I applied for graduate school, I thought that very question would be central to my work, and to my eventual thesis. What I found, though, the more I wrote ekphrastic poetry, and the more I considered the individual poem as a fragment, an attempt at rendering a holistic experience, is that photography and poetry are in fact quite similar. Both offer a glimpse, a moment, of or within a broader experience or narrative. Both engage lyrically (imagistically, briefly) with the world. Both provide the artist with limited tools with which to render their subjects. For me, the question is less about how one medium fails, and more about their shared attempt to hold so much of the world inside such a small space. I suppose poetry is the medium I’m favoring at this moment because access is an issue with photography that is less inconvenient with text is one’s tool. I can write poem after poem engaging with my heritage without having to foot the bill for a ticket to India (which I definitely cannot afford right now); but I do have to work harder to recall, sitting at my desk in South Carolina, the exact nuances and details of the landscape I’m imagining. So much of my photographic practice relies on immediate engagement. Poetry allows me to delay & distort & deviate from the actual.
When you are sitting down to write, how do you block out—or, perhaps, honor—critical voices or thoughts about what you can and can’t say? Have you developed strategies over time?
RS: Because so much of my work involves reconciling my own trauma alongside (and as a result of) systemic trauma—as in work that engages with the torture and rape of women accused of witchcraft in rural India, or work addressing gang rape cross-culturally—my hardest job when I come to the page is to honor voices, whether they’re internal, cautionary voices, or those of the women whose experiences I’m attempting to access. Something I’m always cautious of is lyricizing violence, even as I’m trying to bring the lyric and the violent into a shared space, for the reader to consider how the two coexist—how music sometimes is the only solace, and we shouldn’t search for further justification (I’m thinking specifically of poems like “Stasis,” wherein writing a poem of, about, and out of rape is a lyrical battle cry, more than anything else; wherein music is necessitated by violence, even when the speaker who has experienced great trauma wishes for nothing but silence). But in terms of strategies when considering critical voices, or the voices I’m engaging with through persona, or through apostrophe, I’ve gotta say: I don’t have one. To me, it’s more important—and largely more respectful—to meet each voice and each poem on their terms, much in the sense I referred to earlier when discussing readers and where we meet the poems we encounter. For example, my poem, “Holi: Equinox Approaches” is an elegy, through and through, for a woman who was gang raped as public display in her village. Writing that poem, my inner critic was cautious of romanticizing or casting that fucking awful event as linguistically “pretty” in any way. On the other hand, my second book, summonings, includes a series of persona poems from the perspective of an accused witch in India. My inner critic as I’m writing those poems cautions against appropriation, and is constantly thinking about how to balance the portrayal of my self in the persona poem with the accurate and research-based portrayal of these women and their actual experiences. I guess one strategy I’ve developed while writing the new poems is to leave the realm of persona when the level of violence I’m exploring becomes overwhelming—to recast the rhetorical approach of the poem, such that I’m writing towards an absence. I really believe that poetry’s job isn’t to shy away when we arrive at those moments. If all poems did is engage with what we know, and stop short of trauma or grief “we simply can’t imagine,” how can we ever reach the point where we actively empathize? I think it’s far more productive to write into that space of incomprehensibility, to use language as a weapon to combat the silence my fellow women and POCs are being forced into across this globe.
Last summer, you served as a mentor for the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program. What was your favorite thing to teach, and what was your favorite thing to learn?
RS: Oh man, that whole experience was a complete blast. My mentees were (and still are!) so intelligent, engaged, passionate, and visionary. But enough gushing (for now). My favorite day, no matter the student demographic or age range, is the day I teach persona. Obviously, I have a penchant for persona as a tool in my own writing, but I think that especially for young writers, it provides this sweet spot in terms of distance from their own experiences, while simultaneously allowing them to reengage the personal on terms that don’t seem so, well, personal. And every time I work in an intimate capacity with younger poets outside of the classroom, I’m reminded just how valuable one-on-one instruction is, especially in this field. Interestingly enough, I wound up restructuring my poetry syllabus for the following fall semester based on the progress of my mentees, and delayed workshop until the very last weeks of the class. In the future, I’d like to delay workshop until the second level of poetry classes at any level. Mentoring reminded me that what’s most important is getting students—and ourselves!—to generate, to write our truths fearlessly and bravely. I think critique can undercut that current detrimentally at times, especially when writers are at a relatively young stage in their development.
Indian American poet Raena Shirali lives in Charleston, SC, where she teaches English at College of Charleston. Her first book, GILT, is forthcoming with YesYes Books in 2017. She received her MFA in poetry from The Ohio State University. Shirali’s poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Better: Culture & Lit, The Boiler, Crab Orchard Review, Crazyhorse, Four Way Review, Indiana Review, Muzzle Magazine, Ninth Letter, The Nervous Breakdown, Pleiades, and many more. Her honors and awards include the 2014 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, recognition as a finalist for the 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and a 2013 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Most recently, she was awarded a 2016 Pushcart Prize for her poetry, recognized as a finalist for the 2016 Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Prize, and won the 2016 Cosmonauts Avenue Poetry Prize judged by Claudia Rankine. She was recently awarded the 2017 spring Philip Roth Residency at the Stadler Center for Poetry, & currently serves as a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine. Her obsessions include coasts, gold, & red wine.