Poet Ravi Shankar on displacement as a source of parody

Poet Ravi Shankar on displacement as a source of parody

I once dared to declare that one day we will see Ravi Shankar receive the Pulitzer Prize. It was not said to praise him, but to insist on the enduring quality of Shankar’s work.

His poetic craft is ‘Brahmin’s ears tuned to mantra recital’, but in English! With his command over the music of English, his natural language, he can work with rhymes, rhythms, intonations, words, and a variety of poetic forms with an ease of a maestro. He slips from Sanskrit poetic forms to the Western ones with no handicaps; sometimes, they both fighting to be singular. The range of subjects he touches and the cultural contexts he can use in a breath are both incredible!

He says, “In the common parlance, I'm ABCD, an American Born Confused Desi, someone whose very displacement is a source of parody.” This parody has two angles in his life. He makes mistakes and suffers in one; in the other the racist American attitudes inflict the pains and insults he has to endure. In poems, he is in his inner world. In prose, like his latest book, ‘Correctional’, he is combating the outer, harsh space of reality. Do not forget; the brown life matters too! Buy this book and read it: not only is it a heart-shattering memoir of displacements but also a verdict on the racism in American institutions.

Ravi Shankar, PhD, a winner of the National Poetry Review Prize, is a poet, editor, translator and professor who has published 15 books. He has appeared in the ‘New York Times’, the BBC, and PBS, and won fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. Shankar has taught at many universities around the world. His memoir ‘Correctional’ is forthcoming from University of Wisconsin Press.

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A little help from the Poet:

American poet William Carlos Williams used to say, “If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem,” and I think that advice, coming from a physician-poet, should be prescribed to all readers of poetry who have been made to feel they are not smart enough to engage with the secret nooks and crevices of meaning and metaphor in a poem.

The fact is there is no one way to engage with a poem — you might enjoy the melody of the syllables; you might feel the pulse of emotion breaking through the surface of the words like a breaching whale; you might admire the shape and form and facets of a well-wrought poem, holding it to the light the way you might a hand-sized sculpture; you might even revel in the mystery, in the reaching towards what you don’t yet know, but that you feel about to be birthed inside of you.

Poems are like prayer in that there is room for faith and doubt, and poems are like films in the panning and zooming of perspective and the resplendence of the image. Finally, poetry teaches us to slow down, to closely read and reread, to cultivate greater attention to the world around us and to our own breath and body. If even temporarily, a poem can unhook us from the litany of anxieties and stresses in our lives, then the encounter has been a success.

Q

How are the diaspora poets different from the US to their counterparts in the UK and the other parts of the world? With your international standing, how do you see yourself perceived around the world as a diaspora poet?

A

Being a poet sanctions your inner word nerd, so I think about how etymologically, the “diaspora” is related to dispersion and scattering, the settling of people far from their homeland, which – in a very real spiritual sense if not always a physical one – is the essence of the human condition.

So I am first and foremost a human poet; however my heritage is South Indian and that culture colours my perceptions. I hope that my work can illuminate some aspects of an ancient, complex system of belief while also showing the silliness of ever reducing any culture to turgid generalisations.

I hope my readers are sensitive to their own relative privilege and difference and to the varieties of English, plural, spoken around the world. I do think in both the US and UK there’s a social responsibility to being a poet of colour and speaking out against discrimination and racism in its many forms. The particulars diverge in each place but the impetus remains to same – to find common ground and to hone the lyrical mind to encompass glorious difference. I just expect my readers and fellow poets to meet me where they are and use my words to build a bridge between the visible and invisible, to follow me to the very edge of the enchanted crystal verbal precipice of music and form where I dare you to look up and down.

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Q

What are the dominant themes or preoccupations in your poems? How western and Indic are they? Can you illustrate that with some examples? What makes your poems universal?

A

Like Vyasa, the sage who, according to tradition, composed the Upanishads, my interest is the nature of reality, how and why we have come to inhabit this physical form at this particular moment in time and what our connection to the vast organic life around us and the mysterious interstellar life in the distance might be. That might be considered an Indic preoccupation, but it is also a Western one, for the poems I write are composed of Emily Dickinson’s unbereft orchards and Rumi’s dance of being broken open as well as Frank O’Hara’s catastrophe of the personality and Tracy K. Smith’s unconscious roving heart.

I have translated the ‘Gayatri Mantra’ as the manifest and unmanifest wave and ray of breath and used gayatrification as a verb in a poem, but I have also written about Mulberry Row where Thomas Jefferson’s slaves lived and the subway in Brooklyn. Perhaps what makes my poems universal is their specificity and song, which though mine in some sense, belong to us all in another, as all poetry does irrespective of tongue or time.

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Q

Tell us about your various projects, including the ‘Drunken Boat’ and your new book.

A

My New and Selected Poems available in India as ‘Durable Transit’ (Poetrywala) and in Australia as ‘The Many Uses of Mint’ (Recent Works Press) marks a departure for me in my life and work.

My current project is a memoir ‘Correctional’ due out with University of Wisconsin Press in October 2021. This book delves into my parents’ immigration from South India to the US and my own unexpected encounters with the American criminal justice system and the difference to poetry is not in the intensity of language, but in the duration and in the revisions, which took years and required another excruciating layer of unpeeling and revelation. It’s the most crucial work I have ever done.

‘Drunken Boat’ the online journal and press I founded in 1999 is also transforming and doing more social justice work with the Glass House Shelter Project and continuing to publish books. Recently we published Meridian a collaboration with APWT in Fall 2021 we plan to publish three Indian poets: Arundhati Subramaniam, Anand Thakore and the sadly deceased Deepanker Khiwani. I also received my PhD from the University of Sydney and have a critical examination of prison memoirs written by American men of colour under advance contract, though I’m sure I will return to poems.

Yogesh Patel MBE runs Skylark Publication UK as well as the non-profit Word Masala project to promote South Asian diaspora literature. One of Britain’s oldest and most revered literary institutions (since 1732), The London Magazine has just published, ‘The Rapids’, a collection of poems by him.

Along with the Freedom of the City of London, Patel is a recipient of many awards including as Poet of Honour at New York University in April 2019. In this regular series for ‘iGlobal’, he profiles Global Indian poets from around the world.

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