Poetry News

Vijay Seshadri & Kaveh Akbar Apprehend Senses of Scale at Divedapper

By Harriet Staff


Kaveh Akbar continues his winning interview-streak in this conversation with Vijay Seshadri at Divedapper. They talk about Hinduism ("the term is the equivalent of a word like 'Hellenism'"), dynamic shifts in scale within a poem, defamiliarization leading to a deeper intimacy with reality, current literary discourse, and more. Some:

[Kaveh Akbar:] ...I think that a less crafty way to talk about defamiliarization is to talk about wonder. I think that when people talk about your work, they often focus on what we've been talking about, the macro versus micro, the cosmological versus the quantum, but I think there's also deep wonder. One of my favorite poems from 3 Sections is "Guide for the Perplexed"—it reads tongue in cheek, but it also seems to me to be quite earnest. There's that moment where you're talking about the dead moths, "They are proof, if anyone still needs proof, that / awesome are the powers of humankind, / who have taken this selfsame moth / and endowed it with a gene from a jellyfish / so as to produce fluorescent silk!" There's this dialectic between big and small, humankind and the moth, but there's also this dialectic between science and wonder, knowing and the impossibility of knowing.

[Vijay Seshadri:] That poem seems abstract. It doesn’t seem to be coming from anywhere or going anywhere, but it was a deliberate, conscious attempt to somehow express, and at the same time invoke, astonishment. It is astonishing. Humans farm this caterpillar for its cocoon and make these fantastic materials out of it, which are so much a part of the luxury of the world. When I thought about that, I thought, "How was that possible? How could that happen?" Of course there are myths that surround it—the one famously of the Japanese princess who was drinking tea under a tree when a caterpillar dropped into her bowl. She looked at the unraveling cocoon and she thought, "Oh, that's very beautiful. Maybe we can make a kimono with it." From that small desire, assuming it happened that way—if it's apocryphal or not, we'll never know—this enormous activity developed, and it extended over time, and became intertwined with the history of the world, the history of Asia. As you quoted, the poem moves to the splicing of jellyfish genes to the Bombyx mori moth, from whose cocoon silk is made, to create fluorescent silk. Amazing in itself that that can be done. You could spend your life trying to bring people to the recognition of how amazing things are. You could sit there and say, "That's going to be the activity of my poetry."

Yes! Yes. I feel like there has to be some sense of curiosity or wonder at the core of it, right? And how do you teach that? You can teach the craft stuff and the rhetorical stuff and the structural scaffolding. But I think if there is anything about poetry that might be truly unteachable, it might have to do with that sustainable internal wonder engine.

When I teach, I try to get people to expose the entirety of the impulse or the emotion that led them to what they are writing. I try to get them to just sit with it for a while rather than acting on it immediately. Sometimes people feel an exhilaration with an emotion or an insight or a vision and they have to get things down on the page, and so they tend to rush it. I think a part of the investigation, which really involves just becoming more familiar with yourself, is to live with the impulse, live with the idea for a little bit more than poets tend to do when they're just starting out.

Read the full interview at Divedapper.

Originally Published: September 29th, 2016