A Lens That Doesn’t Veil the View: Amit Majmudar in Conversation

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1. The much-anticipated release of your fourth poetry collection What He Did in Solitary is sure to register as a significant event in contemporary American poetry. What are some elements of What He Did In Solitary that you view as distinctive from your earlier work?

AM: A book’s release is hardly an event—I’ve hardly marked when past ones came and went, but I can always hope the latest finds some sympathetic ears and kindred minds. Its continuities are yours to guess; I work, like Goethe, ohne hast, ohne ras at “fragments of a great confession”—yet each fragment is a whole, and of a set. If I have deepened my poetic speech or spread the sweep of my noetic reach, you know, not I—a poet never knows himself without descending into prose. These poems may be heavier: less chaff, more heft. (Though all my poems are game to laugh.)

2. One of the great pleasures of reading your work is arriving at insights along with you as wordplay leads you toward discoveries. An especially memorable instance of this in What He Did in Solitary occurs in “Vocative” when the speaker asserts that “English is my native / anguish.” Would you elaborate for us on the role that wordplay performs in your process?

AM: All wordplay is serendipitous, a tightrope walk. The drop’s precipitous, the altitudes attainable as great. The multivalences of words create a polysemic, fluctuating field of meanings where a single “goose” can yield multiple golden eggs—and in each one, a different baby bird. I love a pun because it discombobulates logic while preserving logic, in Shakespearean style; these glitches in our speech can throw a switch in us, so that we can’t tell which is which. The words escape their meaning into sound—the same poetic “flight” that gets a poem off the ground.

3. In addition to your pursuits as a novelist, poet, and translator, you are a nuclear radiologist and a family man with three young children. Anybody who has an opportunity to interview Amit Majmudar would be remiss in not asking the question on every writer’s mind: How do you manage to generate such a remarkable quantity of work, and at such a consistently superlative quality, in multiple genres?

AM: My generative process? Harum-scarum. I neither break my poems nor repair them. Most come to me at one go—what you read is what I wrote. I let the language lead. Sometimes I fix a couplet here or there, but even touch-ups, honestly, are rare; I’d rather chip at an unchiseled marble. A cerulean warbler never revises its warble.

4. Many of your poems abound with action, characters, scenes, dialogue, and a forward-driving narrative tension. As readers make their way through What He Did in Solitary, they encounter numerous kinds of stories, personal, cultural, historical, and mythological. How do you view the role of storytelling in poetry, and what are some insights you might offer us about the process of balancing narrative and lyric impulses as you shape a poem? 

AM: I do think of poetry as having lost long-form storytelling to prose; that is why I generally don’t pursue the “verse novel,” or launch into long epics. The way poetry is read has changed too much; you can retrain your audience only up to a point. But frankly the successful long narrative poems of the recent past, like Longfellow or Byron, have less “poetry” in them than these hallucinatory incantatory Cormac McCarthy novels. The latter are in prose, but Blood Meridian is mindboggling to me, far more mindboggling than most poems from the same decade. In fact, I can’t think of a single book of poems published in the entire 1980’s that I respect more than the prose poetry of Blood Meridian.

Having said that, I think the narrative and lyric impulses are not clearly divided in me. One goads the other. The same goes for many other dichotomies, like “head” and “heart” or “reason” and “emotion,” or science-religion, or poetry-prose. These are false dichotomies, to me at least. It’s all brain function, different centers lighting up on functional MRI. Prose fiction and poetry, too, are all ways of sequencing words. These days, let’s face it, you can just throw a bunch of linebreaks into prose, and people will agree it’s a poem. We Americans are not demanding in that sense. We don’t have any criteria of exclusion. We are (forgive the out-of-fashion word) licentious.

Incidentally, narrative underlies even those poets whom we think of as primarily lyric poets, if only because we have their back story in mind as we read their poems. Plath was the best example of this. Byron’s poetic reputation faltered as his mesmerizing personal presence and thrilling biography receded into the past, and we were left with the clear and present mediocrity of so much of his verse. Don Juan has aged the best, but it was precisely the work that his contemporaries hated because it didn’t fit with their biographical picture of him. It broke with the narrative, as we say.

5. Throughout What He Did in Solitary, as in your previous collections, you explore your background as an Indian American while resisting overly simplistic determinations about the relationship between art and identity. In your poem “How Do I say That, Where Is That From,” for example, the speaker desires to possess a “white name” that is as “white as a wall / on which the art / is noticed from the very start.” How do the ideas explored in this poem relate to your work as a writer in a larger sense?

AM: To want a “white name” in my brown one’s place does not imply the wish to self-efface. I want a lens that doesn’t veil the view; I want to be more clearly seen by you, as soul, as self, as a mind at play, you name it. I predate my Name; a name can be a lie. Sometimes an identitarian’s “I am” is just a grifter’s move, a scheme, a sham, a way of claiming some auctoritas for verses that, if tested, wouldn’t pass. You’ll note I never strike a “Victim” pose—I am too proud to do so, I suppose, although it’s not just that. I am the lesser if I fixate on every past oppressor. Imperialists from more than one confession have made my forebears suffer their aggression: the British Raj, before that, Muslim warlords. But I’m here now, and I am facing forwards. My ghazals and my iambs use the art of my oppressors to express my heart. Whether it’s Rudyard Kipling or it’s Rumi, their forms become my forms, and native to me.

6. In Dothead, your previous poetry collection, you introduced readers to the sonzal, a verse form of your own invention that comprises a hybrid of the sonnet and the ghazal. Throughout What He Did In Solitary, you engage with the sonzal again and apply your use of it in even more innovative directions. How did you develop the sonzal?

AM: I do experiments in bursts, and so the sonzals here were written long ago, coeval with the ones in Dothead—though it’s nice to know it seems that I advance. The sonzal, ringing changes, rings in chance by coaxing two poetic forms to dance. I write them with a perfect loss of will. The form creates the vacuum I must fill.

7. In “Neurology of Love,” a striking poem in What He Did in Solitary, we encounter these lines: “Stand outside in the rain long enough, / and patter will give way to pattern. / What’s a pattern anyway, he wonders, / but the repetition of a mistake?” Readers familiar with your work will hear in these lines an echo of your poem “Pattern and Snarl,” which appears in Dothead. What do you view as the role of “mistakes” and “snarls” in the artistic process?

AM: In all things, serendipity is key. A pattern, to please us, has to shake free not of its snarls, but of its regularity while still avowing its patternity. Its quiddity, its oddity, its pluck emerges when it merges logic, delight, and luck.

8. In a time when the poetry world is dominated by collections centered on single topics, also called “project books,” your work stands out for its considerable range. Would you elaborate both on your approach to finding subject matter for individual poems and on your overall vision for the ordering of poems in What He Did in Solitary ? 

AM: The Book is several chapbooks, bound together, each chapbook with a triolet to tether and to foreshadow what’s to come—a theme and variations.

All the poems seem free-standing when I’m in the flush of writing (I’m zeroed in on getting down the right thing), but afterwards, I hear harmonics, links, allusions, all like pearls on a string. These sundries in a single wonder fuse, adorning one another, and the Muse. Though it’s not a unity that I devise, their unity’s apparent to the eyes.

9. You frequently combine humor and gravitas in your work, as in the poems “Deaths of the Eminent Philosophers” and “Apocalypse Shopping List” in What He Did in Solitary. Are there any particular influences from the long tradition of humorous verse in the English-language literary lineage that have been especially important in shaping your work?

AM: I read no light verse—wit, in my work, tends to work the language toward darker ends—but I do think wit intrinsically poetic. Why? Compression is its sole aesthetic.

10. Another aspect of your background that makes you unique in contemporary letters is your distance from the path followed by so many young writers today, which often involves earning graduate degrees in writing, working with literary mentors in institutional settings, and seeking academic positions. What have you found to be some of the benefits and/or drawbacks of existing outside of the academic-literary complex?

AM: Alas, there’s no escaping toil, save for Rupi Kaur, who’s everybody’s favorite. You have to get some day job or another, and teaching is as good as any other. What’s more, it gives you opportunities to schmooze, which every poet ought to seize: The densely networked poets get the fame. I’ve published everywhere, and yet my name is nowhere known; I’ve won no major prize, unseen by most contemporary eyes. “Midwestern Hindu radiologist” is a very easy bio to resist the charms of; add to that the fact that I’m self-taught—my only mentors are dead poets and thinkers who have written before me. But I don’t write for everyone; often I close out the world entirely and focus on a sound, a theme, an image, a form. Hence the title of the new collection. I’ve set up my sound stage between my ears. Every poem is a way of saying: “I am over here”—that is, “in solitary”—but not confined, not imprisoned. Paradoxically perhaps, it’s the strictures and structures of verse that set me free.