I met Vijay Seshadri at Dunkin’ Donuts. We sat in the patio, where a statue that looked like the Virgin Mary watched over us. He wanted to meet at Dunkin’ Donuts because it is a very South Asian franchise. Like motels, like 7/11s, brown people with roots in a mountain-fringed subcontinent tend to stand behind the counters. They disburse small tokens, keys or sugar, for small amounts of money.
In June, The Paris Review said that Seshadri would be its new poetry editor. Seshadri is a poet, essayist, and professor of writing at Sarah Lawrence College. He has published the poetry collections Wild Kingdom, The Long Meadow, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning 3 Sections.
“I never conceived of myself as becoming a poet, I just fell in love with poems, individual poems,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that is really great, and I would like to be able to do that.’”
The sixties were a cultural touchpoint for Seshadri. He remembers the poetry that emerged in the same breath as protests over Vietnam and civil rights. (In an aside, he asked me, “you know what the counterculture is, right?”) He reeled off a bookshelf’s worth of youthful influences: W.B. Yeats, Alan Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Robert Bly, the French and Spanish surrealists, and later, Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and Robert Lowell. It is the latter poets’ realism that more directly impacted his observant writing of the world around him.
When he was nearing thirty, Seshadri migrated from the unruly greens of the Pacific Northwest to New York City. Caught up in the adventurous ethos of the time, he had been trying his hand at fishing and logging. His first book, Wild Kingdom, reflects his familiarity with the outdoors. In one poem, “The Reappeared,” he writes about “the stars wobbling on their black thrones” and how “the borderless ocean scrawls and scrawls/ reiterations which repeat/ that it’s all the same.” His verse summons the vastness of nature. It is curious about the world’s expressions. Though encased in quiet assurance, his writing knows its place on a wider stage.
Now, he said, there is an emphasis on art that represents social identity.
Seshadri found that the idea of continuity with the Western canon no longer exists. Now, he said, there is an emphasis on art that represents social identity. And he does not disdain this change. Instead, he notes it with interest, a sign of how the art evolves.
“Just like demographics change the nature of political reality, they also change the nature of literary reality,” he said.
As an MFA student at Columbia University, Seshadri briefly embarked on a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, studying South Asian languages. His dive into these languages connects his work with a literary history that challenges the willful myopia of the diaspora. In 3 Sections, Seshadri alludes to the bulbul, the nightingale that sings of romance in Urdu and Farsi poetry. A hinge of the collection is “3 Urdu Poems,” which evokes the poets Mirza Ghalib and Momin Khan Momin. Calling upon this symbol and these poets today feels meaningful. Seshadri’s work reveals how history, just like nature, is bigger than us.
Seshadri also said that poetry was a means of getting at politics and Partition. He lived in Lahore—a stubborn path for someone who was born in post-Independence India. But there, history proved too big, too painful.
“I sort of decided that the whole subject matter was wearying and exhausting and filled with violence and seeming hopelessness,” he said.
Translating ghazals is more tied in with American academic endeavor than subcontinental practice.
He returned to New York, and some of the Urdu slipped away. And there’s beauty in how the memory of the ghazals he studied has lingered regardless. Since then, Seshadri has written about six unpublished ghazals and considered doing a set of fifty. For the moment, however, this project is on the backburner. He said that translating ghazals is more tied in with American academic endeavor than subcontinental practice. Plus, he mostly visits South India rather than regions where Urdu and Hindi are more commonly spoken.
“I wouldn’t even really go back to Pakistan at this point,” he said, “Lahore, of course, isn’t Urdu speaking. It’s Punjabi speaking. The great centers of Urdu are in India, or were in India. Urdu is sort of a language without a home anymore.”
Despite the sense of loss that accompanies uprootedness, Seshadri said that South Asian culture never wholly disappears.
“It just comes back in these weird fragments. It’s sort of always there. You can go down to Bangalore and you can hear Dakhni in many, many neighborhoods there. There are so many words in Kannada that come from Persian,” he said. “The polyglot India has always been the India. It’s always been this syncretic country in which people have notions of purity—‘we are the pure this, we are the pure that.'”
This is an unusual recognition—that language does not need to have a home to be housed. To me, as both a native Dakhni Urdu speaker and someone a few generations removed from it coming naturally, his acknowledgment of the intricacies of language feels redemptive. For Seshadri, purity is a fantasy because almost no one is pure in the way that they think they’re pure.
“The Milky Way is so much more interesting to me than India, because it’s incredible—a hundred billion stars, what could that possibly mean, right, you know?” he said. “That prompts such profound questions about meaning.”
As the interview went on, the late summer sun melted into a pink dusk. Seshadri’s wife walked past and he called out hello. Firefighters emptied out of Dunkin’ Donuts. I sipped on my milky coffee and thought about his poetry, but also the larger galaxies of nature, history, and language.