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Author shares writing background, advice in New Canaan

Published 10:04 pm, Thursday, August 28, 2014

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  • Vijay Seshadri, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, speaks about his work at New Canaan Library in New Canaan, Conn., Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014. The author also performed readings from his fourth and latest collection of poetry, "3 Sections." Photo: Nelson Oliveira / New Canaan News
    Vijay Seshadri, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, speaks about his work at New Canaan Library in New Canaan, Conn., Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014. The author also performed readings from his fourth and latest collection of poetry, "3 Sections." Photo: Nelson Oliveira

 

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"Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.
If I wrote that story now--
radioactive to the end of time--
people, I swear, your eyes would fall out, you couldn't peel
the gloves fast enough
from your hands scorched by the firestorms of that shame.
Your poor hands. Your poor eyes
to see me weeping in my room
or boring the tall blonde to death ... "

-- "Memoir," Vijay Seshadri
Page 1 of 1

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Vijay Seshadri told a crowd of nearly 100 people at New Canaan Library Aug. 21 that they should never abandon an unfinished project.

"There are long periods of spaces and then there are periods of flood," he said. "And those periods of flood might gather up fragments of poems that haven't been finished that are really good ideas but never sort of gelled into something living. And then suddenly, they will come alive."

The New York-based author, essayist and literary critic spoke about and read from his 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poetry, "3 Sections." Between the readings, he also talked about how he became a poet and gave advice on writing.

"If you're a writer, never give up on any idea," Seshadri said. "Just make sure that all of the things that you have, however unpromising they might seem to you, get visited once in a while because you never know when something's just going to spring to life. Then it's not really like you're doing it, you're just watching it happen. The process is really mysterious and interesting."

Critics have described Seshadri's work as strange, ironic and thoughtful. Many of his poems are filled with humor, but Seshadri noted that "underneath all the joking, there's some militancy."

The Pulitzer committee described "3 Sections" as "a compelling collection of poems that examine human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless."

In the book, Seshadri writes about the apocalyptic and the ordinary, many times in the same poem, as in "This Morning:"

"First I had three

apocalyptic visions, each more terrible than the last.

The graves open, and the sea rises to kill us all.

Then the doorbell rang, and I went downstairs and signed for two packages."

During the event, which was co-sponsored by the Stamford-based Mayapple Center for Humanities, Seshadri also read from previously published collections, including "The Long Meadow," winner of the James Laughlin Award, and introduced a few new poems. "3 Sections" is his fourth collection of poetry.

His essays, reviews and memoir fragments have appeared in The New Yorker, where he previously served as editor, The New York Times Book Review and other publications.

Although poetry is his passion, Seshadri said writing doesn't always come easily.

"I'm a tortured writer. I write every day, but I very rarely get anything done," he said. "The ratio of my unfinished poems, some of which are pretty large fragments, to finished poems are about 10 to one."

The author said he was "probably about 16" when he wrote his first poem. But he'd known he wanted to be a writer since he was 14, something his scientist-filled family didn't really support at that point.

"It was expected that I was going to become a scientist, too, preferably a mathematician," he said. "So when I was writing, for a long, long time " that was something I was really conflicted about. I knew it would constitute a really serious rebellion against my parents. So I wrote fiction because I thought fiction would seem more normal than poetry. You can actually make money from it."

While living in the San Francisco Bay area in his 20s, Seshari said, he "was overdeveloped as a consumer of fiction and underdeveloped as a teller of my own story," which prevented him from finishing his fiction.

"That was a source of real frustration to me because at that time, I had conceived a real burning literary ambition, and out of that frustration, I sort of fell into silence," he said.

"So I removed myself from the Bay Area and went elsewhere, licked my wounds, healed myself, and when I got back into writing, it just happened to be poetry."

It wasn't until Seshadri "actually started seriously pursuing a career in literature" that his family fully supported his decision, he said.

The poet was born in Bangalore, India, in 1954, and came to the U.S. when he was 5 years old. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where his father taught chemistry at The Ohio State University. Today, Seshadri is a professor of writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

Asked about the state of American poetry, he was somewhat optimistic.

"It's astonishing how much good poetry there is in the country and how various it is," he told the audience. "At the same time, the ways in which poetry is distributed and the ways in which people fashion their lives as poets (are) fraught in the country. I don't know what the solution for that is, but as far as the state of the art itself, it's extremely healthy and it's surprisingly various."

Audience members filling the library's Adrian Lamb Room seemed honored to listen to such a prominent poet.

Rose Horowitz, of Weston, said that although Seshadri's delivery was "kind of reserved," his poems are "very evocative and ironic."

"I think it was great to hear from a poet like that," she said. "I haven't seen many prominent names like him come to Connecticut."

Norwalk resident Regina Krummel agreed, saying his poetry is "very well constructed."

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson