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Book News: A Q&A With Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet Vijay Seshadri

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

Of all the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes announced Monday, perhaps the most unexpected was the poetry collection 3 Sectionsby Vijay Seshadri, which largely passed under the critical radar. (Donna Tartt's brick of a novel, The Goldfinch,also was honored, as wereDan Fagin's nonfiction work Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation and Alan Taylor's widely praised history The Internal Enemy:Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.The full list of winners is here.) The committee called Seshadri's work "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."

The best of his poems swing from the epic to the mundane, like his poem "This Morning." He writes:

"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--"

Another poem, "Memoir," reflects wryly on the embarrassments small and large that make up a life:

"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..."

In an email interview with NPR on Monday night, Seshadri discussed winning the Pulitzer, where he finds inspiration, and the "impossibility" of the soul:

What does this prize mean for you? In my favorite poem from this collection, you write that "the real story of a life is the story of its humiliations." Does a success like the Pulitzer help mitigate that feeling?

There is an element in that poem that is psychologically naked, but also one that is tongue-in-cheek, so it's hard to say. I kind of feel, I guess, that I couldn't have written that poem if I had not already mitigated in some way those feelings, and resolved those experiences of humiliations (which are not the ones I list in the poem; those are stand-ins). I still haven't told the real story of my life in that sense, so of course Orwell is right (though the first line--"Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their lives"-- is a paraphrase of what he actually says). No one tells the real story of their lives, including me. The Pulitzer is tremendous honor, but it somehow seems to me to have to do not with my past but my future, which is of course something I have to discover.

When and why did you begin writing poetry?

When I was about sixteen and first encountered contemporary American poetry, the poetry of the sixties and early seventies, which was inseparable in my mind from the transformations and the energy of that period. I still think of the contemporary poets I read when I was sixteen, seventeen, twenty as Parnassian. I know some of them personally now, and they still seem mythic to me.

How do you begin to write a poem? What inspires you?

I usually start with a phrase that seems to be mysterious to me, though others might see it as commonplace, a phrase that sounds clean, uncluttered, and suggests a whole complicated experience. Then the process becomes the experience that seems to lie buried in the music of the phrase.

"The soul/ Like the square root of minus 1/ is an impossibility that has its uses." This is the kind of line that I read poetry for. What does it mean? What were you thinking when you wrote it?

It's is a piece of mathematical knowledge that the square root of minus 1 — which IS an impossibility, as the definition of the square of anything is that it is a positive number — has uses. It's called the imaginary number, and it is crucial to solving complicated equations in many fields. I guess what I was saying about the soul is that it is like the imaginary number because it makes sense of so many things even though from the perspective of a rationality that I mostly, though not completely, embrace it is an impossibility. There's no evidence for it.

And in other Book News...

  • New research suggests that reading comprehension is higher among students who read printed books than those who read digital texts. Too many interactive features, the researchers found, distract from the words on the screen. Heather Ruetschlin Schugar and Jordan T. Schugar of West Chester University presented their findings at a conference last week. The New York Timesnotes, "While their findings are suggestive, they are preliminary and based on small samples of students."
  • For The Awl,Willy Blackmore writes about the several identities of his grandfather, John Farrar of the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and the ways that history can be rewritten: "There was the shy bookworm my mother described, and the charismatic young literary star who drank with F. Scott Fitzgerald my uncle remembered being told stories about. The Skull and Bones member. The World War II spy. The man who took Carl Jung's hand at an open window in his study and astral projected over the skies of Manhattan. The short-tempered redhead. The gay, closeted alcoholic. The failed poet. The fading not-quite retiree who read manuscripts at his apartment on 96th Street until he died." (Blackmore told NPR that he hopes to write a book on the topic, and sees the essay as "sort of a prelude to a book proposal.")
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    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.
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