Q & A: Vijay Seshadri
Are you a big Al Green fan?
Yes. Isn’t everyone? I hadn’t listened to him, or thought of him, even, in at least a decade before I wrote the poem, though. I went back and did listen to him, and he really holds up. But I’ve never learned about writing from Al Green to the extent I have from other singers, especially Ella Fitzgerald—not just in her phrasing and intonation and musical accuracy but in the way she embodies deep aesthetic choices and allegiances phrase by phrase and note by note. I listen to her all the time so as to remember what to strive for. There might be soul singers who are as balanced as Ella, but I don’t think of Al Green as one of them. Controlled, yes, but not balanced.
What do you think happens when we die?
No assertion or implication in the poem should be construed as applying to anything outside the dramatic development of the poem itself. But I’ve never been averse to the idea that it’s just as philosophically presumptuous, as much a leap of faith, to insist that the end of the body is the end of the self as it is to insist the opposite. It’s better for poetry, and for the imagination generally, to be neutral about those issues. Let the experts decide. On the other hand, I’ve noticed blog accounts recently of people asking famous contemporary atheists who have just been given a terminal diagnosis, or are clearly approaching the grave, whether they now believe in God. That seems to me to be a sign of how degraded our discourse has become—not only insulting to the person, and to serious thought, but to the dignity of death.
Why was there no music for so long in the house, in this poem?
I didn’t mean anything by that. I was just pointing back to the source material. You remember when Maria comes to the von Trapp household as the governess: the children aren’t allowed to sing because the father is still mourning his wife.
What languages do your dead speak?
I had a dream last year about a friend who died a long time ago. At first, after he died, I dreamed about him fairly often, but as time wore on, less and less, and for years hadn’t dreamt of him at all. Then he reappeared, and he was speaking an odd language. I’d at that time just read Borges commending somewhere Seneca’s “black” Latin, from which his (Borges’s) Castilian descended, and I remember saying to myself in the dream, “Oh, he’s speaking black Latin.” But it didn’t sound like Latin or Spanish. It didn’t sound like any language I’d ever encountered. The strange thing was I understood every word.