An Interview with Poet Ravi Shankar

By Ravi Shankar on 9.16.09

This is a guest interview with Ravi Shankar by Nicole Lalime.

I have had the pleasure to both study under and work for poet Ravi Shankar at Central Connecticut State University. I took Ravi’s semester-long poetry workshop three years ago, and afterwards he asked me to help him finish piecing together what was at the time an anthology-in-progress, Language for a New Century. The anthology, which Ravi edited with poets Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, was conceived as a rebuttal to the misrepresentation of the Middle East and Asia by the mass media after 9/11.

What immediately drew me to the project was the sheer immensity of it: 400 poets from 61 countries. I was also excited about the anthology’s structure, poems organized by theme rather than country or region. My favorite group of poems is in the “Slips and Atmospherics” section, which showcases more experimental pieces that highlight how language allows us to connect in ways we might not have realized. I consider myself lucky to have been involved with this project, and to have seen the undying energy that it takes to compile such an astonishing body of work.

Ravi was kind enough to answer a few questions about the anthology for Poems Out Loud.

Lalime: What drove the decision to organize the book into nine thematic sections, rather than by country or region? Were those themes/concepts thought up before the poems came in, or were the poems organized into those nine sections after the fact?

Shankar: We came upon this idea from the inception of the anthology onwards. Very early on in our editing process, we noticed that the poems seemed to be having a conversation with each other. A woman poet in Afghanistan was saying something very similar to a Korean-American poet from Brooklyn, who similarly echoed the inflections of a freedom fighter from Tibet. We felt that, in a sense, we were creating this anthology in order to let all of these voices intermingle, rub up productively against each other as if all these poets were at a global cocktail party, commenting on the shared human issues that make poetry timeless and resonant. We also felt that the traditional modes of taxonomy, arranging poems by country, chronology or alphabetically replicated the very kinds of division that we were working against. It was crucial to us that these poets be read simply as poets before they are seen as representative of a particular nation-state or identified with a given culture or ideology.

During our seven-year editorial process, we sat with atlases, literary journals in many languages, and scores and scores of poems. Relevantly, these poems began to cluster together around these nine primary themes so the organization was organic to our process of reading and discussing the work. Our agent Sarah Jane Freymann had the idea that we might introduce each of these sections with a personal essay by one of us, and I think these pieces immensely help the reader enter into the work.

Lalime: What do you think was gained or lost by organizing the book as such? In the same vein, what do you think the benefits or losses are of being labeled as a poet by ethnicity?

Shankar: One of the chief gains is the in the tapestry of voices that ecstatically point outwards instead of closing things down. Whether shortlisted for a Nobel Prize, like Syrian poet Adonis, or having just published her first book, like Indian-American poet Monica Ferrell, each poet is represented by only one poem in the collection which forces the reader, if intrigued, to go out in search of more poems. Another gain is that the tropes that arise from the themed sections are truly universal and underscore the certainty that the logic of “us versus them,” is a doomed fallacy, that we are each in our subjective consciousness given the same gifts and curses of life, whether in India or Sudan or the United States. The thematic organization underscores our shared humanity. A final gain would be for educators; we felt that this anthology could be taught from and that one of the ways to read work that is foreign to a student is to situate it in a discernable way. We feel that the themed sections allow the book to be easier to teach, since discussion questions can arise very naturally from the organization.

One loss might be for the specialist who would like to be able to read the work of the poets living in one country or in one era against one another, but we do include a country list as an index at the back of the collection. Another loss might be in the blurring of identity that comes with including writers from the Diaspora alongside native poets, for who’s to say a fifth generation Syrian American has much in common with someone living in Syria now; but again, that tension was productive in our minds. In the end, we felt that the gains far outweighed the losses.

Lalime: How important do you think that title or classification of ethnicity is, especially in terms of art?

Shankar: The question of ethnicity is a prickly one, particularly because the collection was edited by hyphenated-Americans. Tina Chang is Chinese-American, I am Indian-American, and Nathalie Handal, while born in Palestine, is a citizen of the world. The project actually began with poets in the Diaspora and moved outwards into poets writing in their original languages. The idea of ethnic representation is double-edged because on the one hand, it helps create community and brings together writers who might have similar experiences but on the other hand, it can delimit content, promulgate stereotypes and be a less useful lens with which to regard the work.

Personally, I can’t think of where I could be without an organization like the Asian American Writers Workshop, and yet I have much more akin with Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens than any Indian poets, ancient or contemporary. The truth, much as we’d like it not to be, is that we don’t yet live in a post-racial world and that Asian Americans have dealt with the model minority myth and other racist formulations that continue to persist today. Arab Americans are not even recognized as a discrete category by the US Census Bureau yet and under the Patriot Act could be arrested and questioned without probably cause.

In the context of our anthology, we asked each poet to self-identify, which accounts for the country listing in the index. Interestingly enough, certain poets, like those from India felt more kinship with their linguistic heritage and wanted that to be listed next to their nationality, while others, like those from Tibet, were strident only that they be listed as a sovereign entity, particularly when their indepence and right to self-determination was not recognized by China. Then we had a poet like C. Dale Young who is Latino, Chinese, Indian, and Caucasian! Such a poet shows us clearly how limiting notions of ethnicity can be when determining one’s identity.

Lalime: How did you tackle the complexities of translation with this anthology? Did the poets have their own translators or did you seek them out yourself? What effect do you believe translation has on poetry and its perception?

Shankar: Robert Frost famously said, “poetry is what gets lost in translation,” and I have to agree and disagree with his edict. I think that with any translation there’s a concomitant loss and gain: while you lose the inflections of the original language and a specific vernacular and idiomatic expressions, you gain a whole new audience and a new mode of looking at the work in question. Language for a New Century includes poets writing in over 40 different languages and we dealt with almost each poet on a case-by-case basis.

In some cases, like with the celebrated Korean poet Ko Un, we worked with his official translators, but in other cases, like with one of Bangladesh’s most important poets Nirmalendu Goon, we looked at multiple translations of the same poem, trying to find the one version that worked best in English. In certain countries, like India, though it has such a proliferation of languages (21 official languages apart from English and Hindi), it was considerably easier to find translations because of its history of colonization. But in a country like Cambodia, we had a lot of difficulty, directly traceable to the effect of Pol Pot’s regime on the country; he exterminated nearly a fifth of Cambodia’s population in less than a decade, especially by wiping out the artists, writers, and intellectuals. Pair that with the fact that Khmer is an atonal language without any articles, pronouns, plurals and possessives, and finding any Cambodian poems that worked in English was quite a challenge indeed. In other cases, like with the Central Asian poets from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, very few translations existed and we had to commission translators to take on these poets. In some cases, the editors would do second translations, working closely with the translators to insure that they were as strong in English as possible.

Lalime: You mention in the introductory essay to “This House, My Bones” some of the struggles you faced, both in America and India, feeling like an outsider. How have those experiences informed your work, and how have you come to reconcile those feelings (or have you)?

Shankar: Funnily enough, I was just discussing this subject with friends over dinner the other day. Now it’s seemingly very hip to be Indian; Deepak Chopra is on the news discussing Michael Jackson’s death, Arvind Adiga won the Booker Prize for White Tiger, Slumdog Millionaire swept the Oscars and there’s bound to be some place even in the backwaters where you can do yoga or find a decent aloo gobi. But when I was growing up, it was far different. I was ridiculed both in America and in India for being an ABCD—American Born Confused Desi.

In fact, the poem I include in the anthology deals with this subject explicitly. I’ll include it here:

Exile

There's nowhere else I'd rather not be than here,
But here I am nonetheless, dispossessed,
Though not quite, because I never owned
What's been taken from me, never have belonged
In and to a place, a people, a common history,
Even as a child when I was slurred in school —
Towel head, dot boy, camel jockey —
None of the abuse was precise: only Sikhs
Wear turbans, widows and young girls bindis,
Not one species of camel is indigenous to India…
If, as Simone Weil writes, to be rooted
Is the most important and least recognized need
Of the human soul, behold: I am an epiphyte.
I conjure sustenance from thin air and the smell
Of both camphor and meatloaf equally repel me. 
I've worn a lungi pulled between my legs,
Done designer drugs while subwoofers throbbed,
Sipped masala chai steaming from a tin cup,
Drive a Dodge across the Verrazano in rush hour,
And always to some degree felt extraneous,
Like a meteorite happened upon bingo night.
This alien feeling, honed in alonenes to an edge,
Uses me to carve an appropriate mask each morning.
I'm still unsure what effect it has on my soul.

As the oldest male child of first-generation Indian parents, the notion that I wanted to be a poet was implausible—everyone knows that there are only three jobs in life: doctor, lawyer, engineer. Poet is somewhere between trash collector and rodeo clown on the spectrum of what-the-hell-are-you-thinking-about? My parents to this very day are not quite certain of what I do besides teach at University. Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to assimilate and so distanced myself from my Indian heritage, but as I’ve grown older, more comfortable in my own skin, I’ve begun to embrace my ancestry and the richness of having two cultures from which to make an identity. I’ve begun working on some translations from the Sanskrit as well as translations from my mother tongue, Tamil, and have made numerous trips to India. Putting the anthology together also helped my bridge the divide and put me in touch with a number of Indian poets with whom I’ve forged friendships. We launched the book in Mumbai, Chennai, and New Delhi and truth be told, I’m probably as reconciled now as I’ll ever be.

Lalime: What was the most challenging aspect of compiling this book?

Shankar Tina, Nathalie, and I have often wished there was a documentary film crew following us around during the seven years it took us to put together the anthology. We became closer than family, slept over at one another’s houses and had epic fights that threatened to scuttle the entire project. We lived and breathed this book as we put it together, so there was no one aspect that was challenging as much as there were many. Personally, some of the things I found most challenging included becoming knowledgeable about the literary traditions of sixty-one different countries, tracking down permissions for poets as far flung as the foothills of the Himalayas and unreachable by postal mail let alone email, and editing the book so that it constituted a real conversation between these disparate poets. What I found most excruciating was probably cutting out certain poets who we would have loved to include except for the limitations of our page count. Yet since the book has been out, it’s all been worth it—we’ve launched the anthology in India, China, Singapore, the Philippines, the UK and around the US—and most gratifyingly we’ve met many of our contributors with whom we had corresponded for such a long time. We feel that Language for a New Century will justify our labors by being relevant for a long time.

Nicole Lalime attends Central Connecticut State University and lives in Hartford, CT.

Language for a New Century links:
RainTaxi review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Asian American Poetry blog review
Barnes and Noble Review review

topics: Interviews