Monday, October 20, 2008

Featured Poet: Ravi Shankar


Ravi Shankar is founding editor of the online journal of the arts Drunken Boat, and poet-in-residence at Central Connecticut State University. He has published or has work forthcoming in such journals as The Paris Review, Poets & Writers, AWP Writer's Chronicle, Indiana Review, Catamaran, Mississippi Review, Gulf Coast, and The Massachusetts Review. He has also been on panels for the Poets House and the Electronic Literature Organization, has held fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, MacDowell, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and has read at such venues as the National Arts Club, The Ear Inn, and Columbia University. He is currently reviewing poetry for the Contemporary Poetry Review and has just edited the anthology "Language for a New Century: Poetry from Asia, the Middle East and Beyond" (Norton, 2008).

Q: Name one collection of poetry that you wish you had written and why.

Though I don’t know – but can imagine - how corrosive abiding in Huffy Henry and Mister Bones for any extended period of time might be, I would love to have written John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs. With it’s syntactic leaps and conflation of diction, its bawdy comedy and its body mordancy, the book shimmers with irrepressible song. To be able to write this “unshedding bulky bole-proud blue-green moist thing made by savage & thoughtful surviving Henry,” and “to dream awhile toward the flashing & bursting tree” would be revelatory if I only one could keep the pole charged towards exultation and not terrific gloom.

Q: Describe the place/physical location where you write.

The attic of our house, built in the 1920’s on farmland along the banks of the Connecticut River, was later known as Pine Lane when it was lived in with Richard Sachs, the expert bicycle maker and the room still retains sloping roofs, baseboard heat and has a window that looks out on the small barn we use for our storage now fringed with smatterings of leaves. When I’m really purring along at top speed, I’m “double geeking,” writing, even working on multiple pieces, while researching and querying folk and sending documents back and forth from the Mac laptop where I do most of my writing to the PC to the printer or scanner. When the surfeit of task proves too distracting, I can push back the chair, with music from ITunes to syncopate the view.

On the desk there’s only space enough to fit a modicum of books. The loose volumes accumulated around the desk, which often change, include (clockwise) Issues 7-26 of the Paris Review, Edmond Jabés The Book of Margins, Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Jacques Lacan’s Ècrits, The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, Octavio Paz and Emily Dickinson, Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works, Lyric Postmodernisms edited by Reginald Shepherd, Henry Ferrini & Ken Riaf’s DVD Polis is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place, an issue of Bomb Magazine and Catamaran, Ellen Susman’s literary encyclopedia of sex, Dirty Words, in which I am “quickie.” The bookshelves behind me are filled with poetry collections and adjacent me with reference volumes, science books, philosophy, collected letters and nonfiction. The remaining books reside downstairs.

Next to the printer, filled with the backsides of bureaucratic papers ready to be repatriated, is a recent photograph of my daughter, Samara, and above her, a glitter painting, an icon really, of (hope! pray! but most of all, get out the vote!) the next president of the United States Barack Obama painted by Aaron Snifit as part of a campaign to raise money for the candidate. I have some other art in the room, a fragile lily pad of an abstraction painted by Rodney Harder, a surreal bust painted by my sister Rajni Shankar-Brown, and a Christ-like figure hanging on a field of spray paint that I bought from a delirious leering savant along the Charles Bridge in the malá strana neighborhood of Prague during my junior year abroad over a decade ago. In case inspiration flags, there’s a bed in the room next door and I generally bring meals up with me when I’m working, staying ensconced in this cozy space until something worth keeping has transpired.

Q: What South Asian themes are you interested in exploring in your work?

A pronged answer since I have a few immediate and few longer term projects in mind. I recently reviewed Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield’s translation of Mirabai (due out in the Contemporary Poetry Review in the winter) and I’m currently working with poet Priya Sarukkai-Chabria on a new translation of Andal which has begun me on the journey towards learning the Pallava script. Tamil is my mother tongue, a language I can access aurally but not textually and another of my projects is the transliterating of certain idiomatic phrases into a contemporary English vernacular. Finally, my subconscious teems with the mythological world brought to life by Amar Chitra Katha comics and in spry, leaping Hanuman and in the illustrated fables from the Panchatantra I’m convinced there’s something in them that entrances me the way fried food might call to someone at a county fair. Eventually, inshallah, those seeds will germinate into lush or spare shapes I can’t yet envision.

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