Future Readers: A Micro-(inter)-view with Srikanth Reddy

Srikanth Reddy grew up in Chicago. He earned a BA from Harvard College, an MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa, and a PhD in English literature from Harvard University. He is the author of the poetry collections Underworld Lit (Wave Books, forthcoming 2020), Voyager (2011), and Facts for Visitors (2004).

Reddy employs a variety of forms, including syllabics, terza rima, and the prose poem; his poems are collagelike in their variety and inclusiveness. Facts for Visitors was in part composed when Reddy was away from home, and in an interview he described the book as being about the idea of home. Matthew Miller, reviewing the collection for Double Room on webdelsol.com, observed: “Reddy’s gravitational center is Southern India, but the poet’s collecting gaze circles out to Europe and further west, involving a host of references.”

Reddy’s poetry and criticism has appeared in Harper’sThe Guardian(UK), The New RepublicThe New York Times, and numerous other venues; in fall 2015, he delivered the Bagley Wright Lectures in Poetry. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Creative Capital Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Reddy is currently Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Chicago.

Lisa Olstein:What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Srikanth Reddy:  Illness urged this book into being, not without irony, because illness had been urging me out of being a few years earlier. The back-story is this: in the summer of 2008, my wife (the poet Suzanne Buffam) and I learned that we were expecting our first child; and three days later, I received an unexpected cancer diagnosis. So birth and death were sort of mixed up for a while there in my life. I was also going up for tenure at the university where I work, which had me in a state of mild but chronic panic. (You can see a few of my more memorable student evaluations from that period in the book). Looking back, the birth of our daughter and my cancer treatment supplied a kind of existential axis for Underworld Lit, while university life furnished another framework for the story—but really I think the whole thing is about a midlife crisis that I was unconsciously projecting onto the universe at the time.

LO:  “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

SR:  Quite the opposite—forms like the sonnet or more projective forms or even just a line of free verse feel, to me, like a prison for thought, I’m afraid! Obviously this has nothing to do with form itself; there are so many literary formalists, both traditional and experimental, whose writing I read with slavish devotion. It’s just that sometime after 9/11 I began to feel paralyzed by the prospect of writing “poetry,” whatever that means. For a while there, this meant I could only write by unwriting another text, through a process of erasure, but that’s a whole other story. Now I can see that there are many forms at work (or play) in Underworld Lit–like prose poetry, learning assessments, maps, drawings, and so on—but in some sense I feel like the question of formlessness is what really “sets the thought free” in this particular book. The Rorschach inkblots that run through the poem are one figure for this notion of formlessness, but the uncanny irregularity of a melanoma on one’s skin or the unstable borders of a failed state in our historical consciousness would be others. Those failures of form, and the transformations of one form into another—like rebirth, translation, recycling, etcetera—underwrite the poem, if it can be called a poem at all. 

LO:  What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

SR:  I expect my feelings about this question will change as soon as I’ve answered it, but for now I’d say the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and myself in Underworld Lit is a sort of parallax relation. I see myself in this “I,” but I’m also refracted, just a little aslant, in the poem. In some ways I feel closer to the character of Chen, who appears in the broken translation that eventually takes over the poem, than I do to the “I” of the book. Chen’s fumbling passage through a series of underworlds—from his encounter with death in the Mayan underworld to his experience of birth in the ancient Egyptian underworld to his reckoning with judgment in the Chinese underworld—says more about what I was going through, at the time, than any of the first-person passages about campus and home life in the poem.

LO:  Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

SR:  The reader I often imagined, while I was writing the book, was my daughter, Mira, who was too little to read anything beyond picture books when I started writing. So I felt like I was writing the book for a future reader. Now that she’s eleven, she probably could read the book, but she’s expressed little interest in doing so! That’s OK with me, though, because that means she continues to be a (possible) future reader someday. On a more universal level, I guess every book is written for future readers—Dante wrote the Inferno for us, in some sense–but writing something for a toddler who couldn’t yet read felt like writing toward the very idea of future persons in a uniquely intimate sort of way. And now, looking back, I’m not so sure Mira would like the book if she ever were to read it . . .

LO:  What felt riskiest to you about this work?

SR:  At this world-historical moment everything seems to be governed by risk. Every day poses a risk to our health; we face enormous financial and economic risks; many live with the risk of catastrophe in the form of extreme weather events, war, or displacement; and even our political process seems to be at risk in the coming election. Risk is always relative, or comparative; so to me writing a poem doesn’t feel terribly risky, compared with all of those other dangers we face as individuals and as a species. 

On the other hand, the book is about a time in my life when I felt “at risk” in many ways—professionally, medically, and emotionally. Whatever comedy there is to be found in the poem involves watching its protagonist risk failure as a teacher, as a father, as a translator, and so on. It isn’t a particularly heroic form of risk-taking—you could say this character simply flounders through his various responsibilities and predicaments—but he survives those risks, like someone in a slapstick movie, in spite of his failures and ignorance, or maybe because of them.

Then there’s also some risk, I guess, in writing about different cultures, especially now, when race and related issues are so understandably fraught in our society. But that’s a necessary risk for our political and historical moment, I think. There’s lots more to say about this, and in many ways the book is ‘about’ the problem of cultural difference—in the humanities curriculum, in American society, in literary translation, in the history of empire and decolonization, and so on—but maybe I ought to let the poem speak for itself when it comes to those questions.

LO:  How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

SR:  There’s a scene early on in the book where a student asks the protagonist to state his ideology in the classroom. He replies, ineptly, “Pro-recycling, anti-genocide?” Some sense of right and wrong haunts the poem—Chen’s story-within-the-story culminates in an underworld trial scene—but the narrative itself emerges through a series of earthly mistakes. Errors of translation, professional gaffes, parenting failures, and so on. Maybe the ethics of the poem, if there is such a thing, would ask us to trust in error, or to allow ourselves to be led by our mistakes, like the motorized airport staircase that escorts Chen through the underworld.

LO:  What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

SR:  Mis-hearing things plays an important role in the poem, now that I think about it. At one point, the protagonist asks Siri to tell him about the Jesuit Sinologist Leon Wieger, but the phone thinks he’s asking about the Uighur people of western China; so he accidentally ends up learning about the kidnapping, torture, and displacement of a Chinese Muslim during the war on terror (and it occurs to me, now, that terror rhymes with error). To a machine, Wieger and Uighur sound the same, though they may signify very different things; and that curious dialectic of sameness and difference is what shapes our tragicomic world in many respects. Mistaking Wieger, the colonialist missionary and translator of Chinese texts, for the Uighur people, who continue to suffer the aftershocks of imperialism and nationalism to this day, allows one to see political and historical connections that might not have otherwise been discernible to the narrator. And of course it’s not just sounds that we hear differently; that’s only one aspect of our tendency to view the same thing—namely, the world—very differently from one another. Everything’s an inkblot. 

LO:  As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

SR:  There are so many different forms and scales and modalities of time that we live in, mostly unconsciously, and that becomes a sort of motif or running joke in the book; the narrator watches leaves falling in “real time” out the window in the opening pages, and pretty soon “real time” is overtaken by “world historical time” in a classroom scene, and eventually all sorts of time begin to float through the book, from “post-traumatic proto-narratological time” to “optokinetic space-time” and so on. 

Meanwhile the manifold ways that we experience time—our phenomenologies of time—co-exist with chronologies that transcend individual experience. History, geological time, astronomical time, the cosmological cycles of world religions, etcetera. The epic, as a genre, is one of humanity’s ways of folding those various scales of time into language—from the rhythmic prosody of the metrical foot to the macro-histories of a civilization’s rise and fall. Thinking back on it, I’d say the poem’s preoccupation with epic as a form of human expression—and with the descent to the underworld at the heart of many traditions—is a concern with time’s multiplicity within the singularity of lived experience.

LO:  How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture?

SR:  Dante’s Divine Comedy offered a basic structural framework for the book; the poem is in three parts of 33 sections, moving from “Fall Term” to “Winter Term” to “Spring Term,” sort of like the movement from hell to purgatory to paradise—though without the triumphant sense of arrival that concludes Dante’s trilogy. I felt like something more cyclical would be truer to my own experience, and to what I wanted to say about birth, death, judgment, and lots of other things. So the book ends with a brief coda, titled “Summer,” which returns us to a new school year about to begin again. In that way it’s sort of about learning, progress, and repetition; but it also appealed to me as a three-part structure because I’ve always been drawn to that as a writer. Why be satisfied with only one, when you can have three underworlds? 

LO:  What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm?

SR:  My spouse, Suzanne Buffam, kept me company throughout the writing of the book, and to be honest, I should name her as its co-author. She’s great company. Any good parts are hers.

LO:  How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

I’m drifting through an underworld of indolence now, waiting for the pandemic to end, the votes to be counted, and another summer to come. Meanwhile I’m fiddling with a few lectures on poetry that I hope to put together into a book next year, and planning to translate the ancient Indian epic, Mahabharata, which should take the rest of my life to finish.