Poetry co-editor Aurora Nowak recently had this exchange with Issue #41 featured poet Arjun Parikh. Here’s what Arjun had to say about his writing process, the importance of tone, the value of writing workshops, and more.
We’d like to know about your writing process. Can you share what challenges you most when starting a new poem? Have you ever experienced a poem that came easily to you?
I moved this question to the beginning because it felt like something I needed to address before answering the rest of the questions. When I first read these questions, I was taken aback. I was moved, but I was also scared. I was not sure how I would answer them all; it felt, in a sense, like you understood my work better than I did.
I write to let go, to learn about the world around me. For me, then, writing is sort of like creative journaling. I write every night, after everyone has gone to sleep. I put some music on and I just let it happen. I usually start with something I noticed during the day, or something I felt. I never, never write with an ending in mind. I write until I feel like I have said what I needed to and then close the journal. Then, a couple of times a month, I
thumb through my journal and see if there is anything decent to work with. If there is, I take as long as I need to shape the piece and then I send it away to a literary magazine that I like.
What I find most challenging is knowing when I am done and when I need to push through. I often hit a point where I feel like the piece is done, but I have more to say. Or, more accurately, I feel as though I’m still holding something in. I would love to say that I’ve figured this out, but I’m not sure that’s true. The first draft of a given poem usually comes easily. The hard work comes when I have to edit, because my first drafts tend to be extremely messy.
Your poetry is about such somber subject matter like the demise of a relationship, repressed expression, and death. Yet you manage to make light of each situation with sensory cues such as an inflating balloon, a cooked meal, or not so fancy kissing techniques. How did you come to juxtapose this range of topics?
This was the hardest question for me to answer, because I’m not sure I know. As I mentioned before, I just take something I’ve been thinking about and run with it.
Within a particular poem, the contrast between subject matter and sensory cues likely comes from there being no relationship between what I notice and what I’m feeling on a given day. I take notes throughout the day on things I find interesting, generally from whatever I’m reading or from whatever I see during the day. These notes tend to become a vehicle of sorts for whatever I’ve been thinking about.
I know that Whiskey started with something about a balloon (I think I had seen one flying away on some snowy day in New York). At the time, I was working through a breakup, so that’s where the topic came from. As for the rest of it, I don’t know where it comes from. I love stories – I probably read more fiction than I do poetry – so, I’m always asking myself ‘What happens next?’ It’s easy to maintain the tone of a poem all the way through because there’s usually a fairly particular, bizarre atmosphere present from the
beginning. It’s not hard to see when whatever I decide what happens next doesn’t fit in the world I’ve entered.
In your poem “I Will Bring the Whiskey,” you “pop” everything from a relationship, to communication styles, to shadows and kisses. The piece depicts various emotions from happiness to sorrow, step by step. How were you able to go about putting the reader through such an emotional rollercoaster?
I tend to exaggerate the essence of whatever or whoever I’m writing about. The relationship I wrote about in this piece was explosive at its best moments and at its worst. There wasn’t a fight or thing that happened that ended it all – the poem isn’t about that. The relationship was an emotional rollercoaster, and Whiskey is the entire relationship condensed into a few lines. I wasn’t trying to put the reader through anything, I was just trying to figure out what happened with us.
Despite the fact that “I Will Bring the Whiskey” pushes the boundaries of form, it retains a structure that commands the reader’s attention. What was the original intent for this poem? Do you think it achieves what you had in mind for it?
My intent was to tell the story of a relationship. The structure of the poem, in my mind, reflects how relationships of all kind work: we talk and we touch, and then, in the spaces in between, everything changes. The spaces between lines are there so that there is room for the balloon to rise. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make a poem’s structure really reflect its content, and I think I did accomplish as much in Whiskey. If you were to blur all of the words so that all you can see is the shape, you might still be able to guess at what’s going on.
I think I was successful in telling some version of the story of that relationship. I don’t think, however, that I necessarily figured anything out for myself, and that’s okay. And that’s reflected in the relationship between the lines “most drink. Few tell/the truth” and the title.
“Ethics” is an incredibly witty and playful poem. Not only is this a poem, but it is a narrative with a pun for the reader to metaphorically walk (or swim) into. We also admired the use of Greek gods as characters to tell the tale. Please share what inspired this poem, and why you chose to craft it with such delicacy.
I remember walking down Broadway and thinking that a woman in some fashion ad looked like a goddess, in that she was glowing in the way that gods and goddesses do in movies. I started to wonder how to reconcile dated notions of female purity with the expectation that women be impossibly flawless. I remember wondering if goddesses wore makeup, and how the gods would feel about it. I imagined that at least some gods would
have a problem with it, and, because I had been reading Homer’s Odyssey at the time, I had been thinking about Greek gods. I imagined a deliberation between a few of the gods and ran with it.
Ethics required great care because its subject matter is so delicate. Everyone in the poem except for Aphrodite is implicated in the bigotry, though some more obviously than others. Once I got to the editing stage, I knew I wanted the deliberation to be an ultra-distilled version of the kind of conversation you’d hear between men at a bar talking about how women should dress and look.
Ethics continues its humorous attitude with lines like “Resident hippie, Dionysus responded in a drunken stupor ‘Not a democracy!’ A majority nodded in agreement.” How did you manage to maintain the tone throughout the piece?
I just gave the gods a little alcohol and let them speak. I feel like the “human” sides of all characters in mythology are very recognizable. Everyone knows a Dionysus, a Hephaestus, a Hermes. I know the deliberation seems absurd, but it didn’t feel that way while I was writing it. Caricatures of characters that are already so extreme just tend to be pretty ridiculous.
The tone wasn’t so hard to maintain because of the narrative style. When you write with “and then” in mind, I find that it’s very easy to spot something that doesn’t seem to fit in the poem, whether because it’s too tame or because it’s too much.
Obituary for Gerald could be an obituary about anyone. Specifically this prose poem mentions that by the end of his life, Gerald has made it to “Macaw” in the encyclopedia. Why Gerald? Why not Agnes or Frederick or James? And how did you come to draw this character’s inner world so vividly?
I actually originally wrote the poem about myself – I thought it might be fun to imagine my obituary. But I needed some distance from myself, if that makes sense.
So I imagined myself with a few more screws loose and Gerald is what I ended up with. I’m obsessive in a random way. I’m currently on a Russian literature kick, and a couple of months ago I was making my way through all of the Caldecott and Newberry winners. I’m the same way with music, for example. I’ll listen to exclusively Ludovico Einaudi for a few weeks and then only Lady Gaga after that. And the impetus for each “obsession” is often pretty minor. I wanted to bring that out in the obituary. Everything you know about Gerald from the obituary feels so random but it’s not – it just feels that way when you don’t know the story of how he got to each piece. Once I finished the first draft, I knew I needed to give him a name.
I believe that people are shaped in part by their names, from the way a name sounds and feels to what it says about the parents. You have to imagine, for example, that a parent that names a child something out-there will raise a somewhat out-there child. Once I gave myself some distance from the poem, my name didn’t fit anymore, which was sort of the point.
I spent some time thinking of new names, and Gerald seemed to fit. It’s such a particular name; it suggests so much. Once I named the character Gerald while editing, everything fell into place. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time with Gerald, but I can’t imagine him with a different name at this point. When I look at the piece and imagine a different name in there – Frederick, maybe – I feel like I’d have to change the story.
As you know, MSR was the offspring of a writing workshop. Do you have any workshop experiences, positive or not, that you might to share with our readers?
I owe so much to workshops. I wrote a little in high school, but I never put much time into it. I didn’t really even think about poetry until the second semester of my freshman year, when, on a whim, I took a beginning poetry workshop with Emily Fragos at NYU. Before that class, I hadn’t read any poetry beyond a few Shakespeare sonnets.
My poetry that semester, of course, was terrible. It was borderline unreadable, and everyone in the class knew it. Still, everyone was so supportive, especially Emily. I spent the next couple of years reading poetry and writing every night. I learned the most from Rilke, actually – I remember a three-month period were I tried to read everything he wrote.
Then, in my last semester at NYU (Spring 2018), I took Emily’s Advanced Poetry Workshop. We were a small group – I think there were seven of us in total. There was little obvious snobbery in that group – they made everyone feel included. Anyway, they seemed to like what I was bringing in, so, after our first workshop, I made their suggested edits and submitted the poem. I had several acceptances over the next few months, and many of them were written for that workshop.
I doubt I’d be doing this interview without the encouragement I received from that workshop. I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to participate in another, but I hope I can soon.