As a child, Vivek Narayanan sensed the enormity of the world in the tall grass of his backyard. Before he could read, he discovered that words made shapes and patterns with their sounds. Today, the cadences of languages he once knew orchestrate his dreams.
Vivek Narayanan is a poet who constructs new topography for language, unconstrained by space and time. His words play, twist, and dance, honoring our erratic relationship with the many worlds we inhabit, and rejoicing in what will always be unknown. Vivek’s own center is a shifting one. He was born in Jharkhand, India, learned to walk in Tanzania, came of age in Zambia, furthered his education in the United States, taught anthropology in South Africa, wrote books of poetry in Delhi and Chennai, and most recently relocated to Fairfax, Virginia. In his poems, far-flung places live side by side, and the lines that demarcate our identities are pleasurably unreliable. Vivek’s two books of poetry are Universal Beach and Life and Times of Mr. S.
I spoke with Vivek at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where our conversation traversed through childhood quirks, the importance of irrationality, and the writer’s unearthly intuition.
TFT: What do you remember about your first house?
Vivek Narayanan: The earliest house I remember was in Zambia. I have a very intense memory of this house because we had at that age what seemed to me a kind of enormous backyard, filled with yellow grass. And at the end of the backyard was a tree. These proportions seemed to me much larger to me than they might seem now. Going out into that backyard by myself was very important to me as a child.
TFT: You’ve lived in India, Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa, as well as the USA. Where is home?
VN: The default answer often becomes where my parents live, which is Chennai. Chennai is interesting for me because its one of the few places that I have kept going back to all my life. I remember being there as a two-year-old, three-year-old, going back every year. I’ve continued to do that and have lived there for stretches of time. Chennai has a kind of solidity as a home only because I’ve seen it change over time, whereas many of the other places are fixed in the time in which I left them. We really in a very intense way seem to live in many places at the same time. Though I hadn’t planned it this way this was a theme of my first book of poems. What I realized is that several poems are set in many places at the same time. The whole idea of place seems to be in the plural -- the idea of a simultaneous existence.
TFT: This idea of a native place seems to be very important among Indians, especially. Where are you from often really means “what village, what caste, what mother tongue...” How can we think about origin in a way that is not so restrained, that acknowledges dislocation? That feels more 21st century?
VN: It’s awkward, but whenever anyone asks me “where are you from,” it always turns into a narrative. I can’t completely perform a kind of authentic identity in one place. I can perform the idea of being an Indian best, and that’s the way people understand me most easily. It makes me legible in a certain way. I think that what initially seems to happen is you shift from a static place to the idea of a narrative that is unfolding. I think you could approach many different questions of identity that way. If someone asks you what gender are you, it could be approached more meaningfully as a narrative. If someone asks you what your sexual orientation, or sexual preference is, perhaps it could be answered more meaningfully as a narrative. But it will have to mean that you don’t have allegiances across groups of people. That’s the other story behind this -- the pull of the nation state. That plays a big role in having to state our allegiances. Where you are from often becomes a kind of story about what state you hold allegiances to.
TFT: And then there is also this desire -- when you are constantly dislocating yourself -- to transplant yourself in your new place quite quickly. Do you have any habits, or rituals? Anything that you do every day?
VN: That would be the writing. And the writing desk. If I have a particular desk that I write on, I need to charge that space and that desk in particular ways. And that takes time.
TFT: Baptizing the new desk.
TFT: I remember things from my childhood… I would make lists of everything in my head, or walk through the woods and rename everything I saw in nature. Thinking about it now, I could call those writing exercises. What are your early memories with words?
VN: There was a whole thing about collecting twigs that became very important to me. I’m not sure why now, but I collected a whole bunch which I kept under my bed. That became this trio of words. Ichegum, mulugam, billibluegum. Ichegum was ice cream, mulu-cumbe was thorn twig in Tamil, and billibluegum was my teddy bear. My first words were in Swahili, but I’ve since completely forgotten Swahili. Since a young age I’ve had a vocabulary in languages that I don’t understand or can’t speak. I often have dreams where people are speaking languages that I don’t understand. I have the sound memory of various languages coexisting in my head. It’s almost like I have a better feel for the sound of languages than the nuts and bolts of using them.
TFT: That reminds me again of children, and ofthe way kids read. Sounding out words, fumbling. In a way it’s making mistakes, but it’s also experimentation. How do you experiment?
VN: It’s an interesting question because it isn’t something I think about too much. It has been pointed out to me that I have different accents that I move in and out of. And the most common recurring accent is the one I got from my parents, the South Indian accent. People say I’m very persistent in the way I stick to South Indian ways of saying words, and that’s reflected in my poems. Maybe that’s what makes it confusing for other people because they can’t hear that South Indian accent. One of the ways in which I like to experiment is when I’ve written a poem I usually run it through one of those automatic voice things – like Microsoft Sam. And then I can hear it more clearly in that computer voice. Now they have one with an Indian accent – they’re trying to diversify. At first I thought this was an objective way to hear my poems. But then I realized it wasn’t really that.
TFT: Is there a way of approaching reading someone else’s work that is more wise?
VN: It’s primarily tone. For some reason I have now playing in my head a rap lyric by Guru, this rapper from the 90s. He says “A lot of cats got flavor, some got skills, but if you ask me, its mostly the voice.” So I would say it’s mostly the voice, the tone. And it requires a kind of generosity from the reader, to be able to make this adjustment, tune into this voice in first instance. I like to pick up a bunch of recordings of the poet and read along on the page. So I have that kind of simultaneity of listening and reading, and I can begin to understand the relationship, and the poets’ method of notation. If you think of poetry as a kind of notation, or transcription. I mentioned John Ashberry. He’s someone who I learned to read in this way, not through any critical armature. But the strange thing is that I did that for a while -- and then I’d gone to a couple of readings of his. At some point I had an imitation of his voice in my head (This is a common party trick for poets, by the way -- imitating John Ashberry). But once I had his voice in my head, found I couldn’t hear any recordings of him. It interfered with the John Ashberry I had in my head. I don’t listen to the recordings now. I can’t. So that’s the strange zone in which poetry exists and moves back and forth. The spoken voice, the written voice, and the voice that the reader produces in her head as she reads. That’s a third zone, the ghost voice that gets produced in your head as you read something.
TFT: I’ve found there’s a really lovely sense of uncertainty in your work. Not a hesitation with language, but a sense that the world is being remade, and there’s a loss in that, but also a kind of humor, and lightness, and absurdity about it. What is certain for you? And what is uncertain?
VN: I’ve always felt a kind of great deal of doubt and uncertainty as a writer. On many different levels. It would seem that many writers confess to this from time to time, even great writers. But somehow that isn’t always what comes out when people write. They tend to project a sense of authority or certainty that they don’t have. That’s something I’m trying to really not do in my creative writing or critical writing. I try to find a way to be vulnerable and find a voice, a tone, a frame by which one can communicate fact that one doesn’t know. And that the process of writing is far from certainty. Things are not settled, not clear. The way my own work looks to me – it seems to be always changing its faces, reading differently, all the time. Even when I produce a fixed text it keeps looking like different things to me. It’s a different object. I never know what face its going to present, whether I’m going to like it or not. It seems to be hard to settle. I’ve just felt that it’s a mistake to hide that. If you hide that you’re doing a disservice to the process.
TFT: And that is something that artists often strive to do-- convey the process in the final work. And may be one way of doing that is being more honest about your own tentativeness, or changeability. Inconsistency, even.
VN: Inconsistency, yes. It also may have something to do with my life, moving around, changing codes. Certain texts are legible in some contexts, and not in others. As someone who kind of moves around a lot, you have to take that on board. You don’t settle into one idea of an audience, of legibility, or clarity.
TFT: Uncertainty is also integral to curiosity. You’re never quite, sure so you always have this pursuit, this need to learn, to remake. I think that can be so vital. Are you familiar with the South African artist William Kentridge? He talks about the need to cultivate irrational thinking. A necessary stupidity. Does that resonate with you?
VN: It does. I think that it means that the writer is reaching beyond the limits of what she knows. She has to do that, but also perhaps she has to reach just beyond it. That makes a powerful combination. Stevens’ idea of the poem as something that almost eludes the intelligence. The question of irrationality is a very important one. For various reasons the realm of art is the last realm of polite or regular society where that is permissible. If there’s any kind of definition of an artist in terms of how society thinks of an artist today – it would be the idea that it is ok for them to be a little irrational, or a little insane. It permits that. It’s the last place in where you’re allowed to not make sense. Either to yourself or others.
When I’m writing, I sometimes feel, after I finish, I feel that I wasn’t there. That I wasn’t present for it in a particular way. Sometimes what I’ve written looks to me a bit strange. Sometimes it takes me a while to figure out what I’ve said. It’s a strange experience because suddenly one year later I realize what I meant, and it seems very clear!
TFT: It’s accidental -- not in a perfunctory way, but accidental in that you might not be conscious in a way you understand.
VN: Yeah, it’s this idea of form itself having a kind of intelligence in it. The idea of meaning for me is overrated. I’m not always interested in what a text means, I’m interested in what it is doing. You might have a similar experience when you’re cutting together a radio piece. Where do you put that cut. I don’t think it’s a logical or rational process – its intuitive – you’re feeling for the sense of form that’s acting on it, and you’re trusting that. That’s an ancient practice. You could trace it back to rituals, ritualistic speech. Form becomes so much more highlighted than the meaning. And maybe that is also what Kentridge is talking about. This idea that an intuitive sense of form is going to pay off.
TFT: I know you're involved in the Sarai program at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi (CSDS). And you also have a background in anthropology. Can you talk about these worlds, and that work?
VN: A place like Sarai has been very important to me in that it legitimates this dialogue where the work that artists, performers, writers do is as important as that of social scientists. And that there can be a kind of productive engagement between these kinds of fields, towards an imagining of something new. A world that may not be so carved up as it is now.
When I first joined Sarai I was working for the independent fellowship program, where anybody who wanted to do research could submit a proposal – they didn’t have to belong to any formal institution. And that really turned up a whole bunch of people (who keep turning up). Maybe they work in a bank or run a family company, doing this or that, but also have some side project like translating a 600 page tome – they’re intellectually alive. Curiously because the whole idea of education in India narrowed so much, and that engineering and medicine or accountancy were considered the only legitimate fields, people were pushed into those kinds of professions. And their intellectual lives continued, but in an auto-didactic, untutored, wild way.
TFT: I know it is impossible to talk about Indian writing or poetry as thought it is a singular thing, but do you see any trends or patterns among poets writing in English?
VN: One thing we've been talking about, say with older poets, is that our relationship to language seems to be different. I’ve had an older poet tell me that when he reads my work he feels that language can do a hell of a lot. So – it seems from an earlier generation, language was something more transparent. It had a more transparent relationship with the truth. An utterance had a certain value and weight to it. Poetry was carved from that approach to the importance of language. For me and others from my generation, we have more a sense of language already being some kind of broken and imperfect instrument. It is kind of meaningless and even dishonest for me to produce these simple utterances that will have same oracular weight. It is going to be a struggle with language to get at reality, and I’m going to lose. Not that I shouldn’t try - in a strange way it sort of opens it up, and I can be more playful, more messy with language. I don’t have this notion that I can eventually arrive at something like a completely weighty utterance – it is always going to be undermined. My strategy is working with this thing that is already in incommensurable with what I want to say. And then the fact that I’m working in the English which anyway will not do everything I want to do, because there are all these other languages sitting side by side. So I feel permission to be more playful. The younger poets living in this internet age, in this glut of language -- we're thinking about it differently.
TFT: Are you particularly attached to physical book?
VN: Well I'm attached to the idea of coexistence. I read online, I read on my e-reader, I read physical books. There’s a real beauty and weight to the physical book that I like. I don’t believe in the end of the printed book. But I’m not against online books in that sense. When I left the US I stopped publishing in print journals here. Because it didn't make sense for me to find my poems appear in journals all the way over there and meet an audience of eight hundred people. So I switched almost exclusively to publishing in online journals. The sense of simultaneity -- to publish something and have it read online all over the world at the same time. That I really liked. And so then when an American edition of my first book was published in 2011, one thing I asked was whether they could make a free online copy available. So my first book exists as printed copy that you can pay for, and an online copy that is circulating and dispersing and breaking up.
Because I really feel that is something to how language fundamentally works. There’s something wrong with the idea of copyrighting a poem.
TFT: We’ve talked a bit about multilingualism in India -- the beauty of the Indian street, where you have languages flowing in and out of each other, and where it is common to be bilingual or trilingual, to different degrees. You may have a stronger understanding of one language and a less strong understanding of another, but they’re all in and out of your life all the time, without delineating so clearly. How can this oral multilingualism translate itself into the physical book?
VN: I think it's happening more in scripts other than the roman script. For instance, I know a Tamil author who has whole paragraphs of his book in English, in the Tamil script.
There are two things. One, you can tap into common pool of words that enough people know. So certain Hindi words that even people in Tamil Nadu would know. You can deploy these words and be understood easily.
The second thing is thinking about what it means to make a text where the reader is not going to understand every word. One example is one of my favorite novels, Sozaboy, by Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. It is in English as well as Lagos pidgin. And it has a long glossary at back. So if you’re someone who’s not from that culture, you can enter this book. But it takes a bit more work because you have to get used to working with glossaries as you read. Another idea is the idea of google translation and machine translation. I have a hunch that powerful things will come out of that. If you don’t understand something, there are different ways in which you can run it through these google things. So you’ll have this multilingual text but at some point, depending on your position as the reader, you’re going to have to negotiate different tools like glossaries or google translate.
Third thing – there’s a poem that I perversely call the greatest Indian post-colonial poem. It is a great poem, written in the 60’s by Arun Kolatkar and it is called Main manager ko bola. It is written in what is sometimes called Bombaiyya, which is Hindi basically, but sort of bad Hindi, with its own grammatical rules. And it has a porousness of English words in it. And there’s a whole interaction between the English and Hindi in this poem. As it happens all the English words denote power: manager, rules, police. (You realize that for a lot of Indians the English words that feature in their heads are these symbols of the state and so forth). The thing about this poem is that it presents itself as a transcription of a bunch of things people say.
There are three narratives in the poem, and it presents itself as someone talking. What Kolatkar is dealing with is the transcription of the oral to the written. But transcription is not an easy or obvious process at all – in fact it is a process of making and remaking and shaping. I don’t know if you ever transcribe podcasts - have you found it a fascinating process? What do you keep, not keep, how do you represent the spoken on page…. This is another way – to think about this transcription of the oral, not as a robotic notation but in fact something that requires reinvention and remaking. Those kinds of practices will help us move closer towards bringing together the oral multilingualism and the written monolingualism.
TFT: There is also a necessary letting go, and acceptance that you won’t understand everything on the page, just as you may not understand everything as you’re walking down the street.
VN: Yes. It is going to require a very different kind of reading.
As told to Meara Sharma, a writer and sound documentarian, who co-produces Almirah Radio with Henry Peck
Vivek Narayanan is a poet, critic, and co-editor of Almost Island.
When we choose to spend the day walking in the mountains or to cover a page of our best notebook with doodles, or places leaves in a flower vase to give the arrangement 'texture', colour-code our bookshelves, bake our own bread, wait long years before our rhododendron grows, perhaps we are committing a folly.Read More
By Meara Sharma and Henry Peck, Issue 21, Folly: A wise fool, March 2013