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Molasses and then Fracture

Grier Martin interviews
Karthik Sethuraman

 

Poetry associate editor Grier Martin recently had this exchange with Issue #48 featured poet Karthik Sethuraman. Here’s what Karthik had to say about translating literature, the creation of his chapbook, his approach to editing, and more… 
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Poetry associate editor Grier Martin recently had this exchange with Issue #48 featured poet Karthik Sethuraman. Here’s what Karthik had to say about translating literature, the creation of his chapbook, his approach to editing, and more.


In several of your featured poems you address family relationships. How does writing about these relationships affect you? Does it bring understanding, or relief? Do you feel that it has helped you to communicate with specific people, or is your aim to reach a wider readership?

In the first poem I ever published, titled “Notes for my love,” a poet recounts his parents’ arranged marriage. It was pseudo-autobiographical in the sense that some of the things mentioned in the poem could plausibly have happened to my own parents, but many things, upon close examination, were anachronistic and out of place. I think I was attempting to convey my own internal and possibly fictional conception of my family and “my love.”

When my parents read it, they pointed out resemblances but also a blanketing strangeness. As a whole, I think my approach to family in poetry is to examine this tension of sameness and estrangement, of how the poet is at once formed by and thrust away from family. I think some of these tensions arise from immigration and from being raised in a language and culture different from my parents’, but other tensions are those of time and distance. Definitely, being able to write about and examine family has helped me clarify how I might eventually shape my own.

 

One of the phrases I love from “Procession” is “a memory / I file into meter by meter…” There is something powerful about translating a memory into a poem. How does this process feel to you? Can it open up a memory, or somehow make it more vibrant, or reveal something to you?

I love this question! For me, “Procession” is about navigating the space a memory lives in, almost like opening a house and letting in some sunlight, or alternately, waiting on the porch in darkness for sunrise. “Procession” owes a lot to the late Stanley Plumly who it’s for and after. Specifically, it takes the structure of his poem “At Night.”

Plumly begins that poem asking, “When did I know that I’d have to carry it around / in order to have it when I need it, say in a pocket,” a question on how to carry memory. His poem then transitions to the process of lingering in and delimiting memory even as it vanishes. I wanted to further ask how I could learn more about lingering and potentially grasp at the remaining pieces of memory before their disappearance. I don’t know if a poem can open up a memory like the poet opens up the room in “Procession”, but I do hope that poems can blueprint memories — the textures of sunlight on the wall, levels of water in glasses, steps taken through houses no longer occupied. Read Plumly’s “At Night.”

 

“Ectoplasm” provides a unique perspective on self awareness. How did this poem come to you? Was it all at once, after a specific incident or after a certain period of solitude? What compelled you to write it?

I first wrote “Ectoplasm” in a relatively short period (maybe 15 minutes) during a workshop at City College (CCSF). We were discussing procedural approaches to poetry, and I instinctually mapped my own approach of creating poems to an internal dialogue. The form of the poem was different back then, but it still carried the same sense of stumbling into something gooey, a cracked egg or some kind of -plasm, and waiting. A while ago, I remember Victoria Chang vividly describing a sort of anti-process to writing, “I try and refuse the impulse to write for as long as possible until I feel that I am physically going to puncture and blow up.” For me, this anti-process more resembles a long period of molasses followed by some sharp fracture. Read Chang’s recommendation.

 

In “Ectoplasm” you write that “A shadow / drifts under the door / keeps me company / suggests words to say…” Can you talk more about this shadow? Is this often how you identify with your inner voice, or did this image only come to you for this piece?

Although the form of “Ectoplasm” has morphed many times, this line has been preserved pretty remarkably when I look back at the original. When I was building this line, I had just finished reading Jenny Xie’s Eye Level which stuck with me (or maybe against me). In particular, I revisited her poem “Inwardly” many times, committing to memory the end line, “So it goes: the seer mistaken for the seen.”

I would say that here, in “Ectoplasm”, the shadow is speaking to me and dictating as a poem might, the poet being drawn into speaking for an entity which only exists internally. That’s one of the difficulties, having to imagine and then decipher what my shadow might say. Another difficulty I strongly recognize is the door, and this pairs with the notion of a shell, a goo, something muffling the voice on the other side. Read Xie’s “Inwardly”.

 

You wrote “Unclad Roughness” after Forugh Farrokhzad. Your piece reminded me of a poem of hers – “On Earth” – that I read years ago and marked in an anthology of women poets sitting on my bookshelf. I admit I am not very familiar with her body of work, but now I find myself wanting to learn more. Can you talk about how her work has influenced you?

Abbas Kiarostami’s film The Wind Will Carry Us introduced me to her work — it takes its title from her poem of the same name. Shortly after watching the film, I started reading Sholeh Wolpé’s collection and translation of Farrokhzad’s work, Sin. In the foreword, Alicia Ostriker writes “Farrokhzad’s poetry is the shock of purity, of ice water, of a corpse rotting in broad daylight.”

I still remember the scene in Kiarostami’s film where the main character, a journalist from the city posing as an engineer, visits a young woman’s house asking for milk. They descend in darkness into her stables where she milks a cow by lamplight while he recites Farrokhzad’s poem to her. She’s in love, somewhat furtively, with an acquaintance of his. As they leave, she asks him how much Farrokhzad studied and how she wrote her poetry. We haven’t seen her face. Neither has the narrator. He asks for her name, for details of how she fell in love, but we’re rebuffed. She only inquires after the poetry and the poet.

I think Kiarostami alludes to Farrokhzad to highlight the inequity faced by women, in this case rural women, in Iran at the time — a commentary he hides from censorship in an underground poetry recital. Throughout the movie, the main character meanders, waiting for a climax, idleness almost his ally. Interestingly, as the main character himself admits, Farrokhzad was his opposite in her approach to poetry and to life in general.

As I worked through Wolpé’s selection of Farrokhzad’s poems, I fell in love with her sincerity. “Unclad Roughness,” its title taken from her poem My Lover, imagines how one might criticize a narrator’s wanderings and develops a dialogue from there.

 

In your biography you state that you read and translate poetry from the Tamil diaspora. Are there certain writers from this diaspora that particularly stand out to you? And how do you feel that reading and translating this poetry connects you or helps you to understand others affected by displacement?

As a first-generation immigrant, I feel a kinship with authors working from a non-anglocentric tradition. I also struggle constantly with what it means to be writing in English. This has two parts: one, understanding and dismantling English as an imperialism, and two, reconciling against my own loss of language. In seeking out poets from other languages, including my own Tamil, I try to do both: elevate voices and experiences that are displaced and follow some of my own connections to an origin.

Geetha Sukumaran’s translation and study of Ahilan, a Sri Lankan Tamil poet, in Then There Were No Witnesses has heavily informed these perspectives. In his work, Ahilan deploys traditional Tamil forms against the traumas of conflict and death surrounding the Sri Lankan civil war. The possibility of using history and language to confront systematic trauma keeps me hopeful. In my own work, including some modeled after Ahilan’s approach, I try to use these tools to probe at estrangement from family and the material and immaterial death of language.

 

You have a chapbook coming out entitled Prayer under eyelids. Could you talk a little about the process of writing and editing this work? What were your inspirations, and what challenges, if any, did you face?

The titular poem, “Prayer under eyelids,” came from a remark I wrote down in my notes, “I pray for eyelids.” I wanted something to guard the internal from the external, and I wanted some control over that separation. The earliest poems in the chapbook were drafted almost three years ago and the most recent about eight months ago. I’m not sure I have a clean thesis for the chapbook — if I do, I’m still refining it — but I did spend a lot of time imagining a poem as a kind of eyelid.

“Prayer under eyelids” builds off themes I’ve found in my own life, but it also relies on the work of many other poets and authors. We’ve already mentioned a few in this interview, but the chapbook additionally owes a lot to Monica Youn, Dean Rader, Roberto Bolaño, and M.K. Stoner, among others. Also, while drafting and editing, I listened repeatedly to Vienna Teng’s “Blue Caravan,” Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy,” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die.”

I probably redrafted each poem in the collection three or four times and reorganized it in total twice as many times as that. At one point, I was ready to take a break. The chapbook had been shortlisted for a few contests, and individual poems had been accepted, but it just didn’t seem to stick. When I received the call from J.K. Fowler at Nomadic Press, I was beyond ecstatic that Prayer under eyelids had found such a special home.

 

Do you have any routines or rituals involved in your writing process? Do you write better at certain times or in certain places? Have current events – stay at home orders and social distancing – affected this, and if so how have you been handling it? Are there any practices that are helping you during this time?

Earlier, I described my process as molasses and then fracture. The molasses bit takes a long time! By nature, I’m a solitary person and also a very slow one. I find myself sitting in different rooms, under different windows, and still struggling to understand and decipher my thoughts into some subsequent form. So I’ve fallen back to my usual artistic comforts — watching slow films, revisiting old albums, and trying some more at translation. I watched this strange film, The Return of Martin Guerre, about a man returning back from war in medieval France; late one night, I listened to Blondie’s Parallel Lines; I’ve started working on some translations of Malathi Maithri’s work. But, I haven’t written any new poems in the new year, and I’m growing to be okay with that.

 

Karthik Sethuraman
By Karthik Sethuraman

Karthik Sethuraman is an Indian-American living in California. His works have appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, Lunch Ticket, Berkeley Poetry Review, and Fugue, among others. One piece, “Saramakavi,” was performed at the Asian Art Museum where he was a Kearny Street Workshop writing fellow. His chapbook, Prayer under eyelids, is forthcoming from Nomadic Press. In addition to English language poetry, he spends time reading and translating from the broader Tamil diaspora.