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Ravi Shankar
Ravi Shankar is Executive Director of Drunken Boat and author/editor of seven books and chapbooks of poetry
Interests: poetry, literature, web art, postcolonialism, soccer, basketball, cooking, Indian culture, mythology
Recent Activity
My last blog post for BAP so thanks to all of you for following along as my literary adventures took me from Jackson Hole, Wyoming back to Connecticut, where the state flower is the Mountain Laurel, state animal is the sperm whale, state fossil the Eubrontes Giganteus (some sort of carnivorous biped though it's one of the rare examples of a track [picture below] without any kind of fossil record), and whose state motto is "Qui Transtulit Sustinet," or "He Who Transplanted Still Sustains." That motto seems to get at the itinerant nature of the state's population, that even with a root system branching back to New York, Boston or the Old World, the flowering is still abundant, even though I rather prefer Connecticut's unofficial motto, "Like Massachusetts, Only Dirtier and With Less Character." The current poet laureate of the state is Dick Allen, whom I consider a friend, and who offered this definition for the making of a poem that I find ever-compelling, "To make something that lasts eternally isn’t possible for humans. Still, some poems “last” quite a while, at least long enough to affect those like me whose lives have been changed by poems. . . I’m trying to make something that lasts in this way. Why? Because like all humans I’ve been given the gift of consciousness, the chance to live on the incredible and mysterious planet, in this incredibly mysterious universe, and I want to—in my small way—offer something in return for the gift.... I’ve written in other genres, but from the beginning it was mainly poetry, probably because of poetry’s concentrations, its ability to make such sudden associative leaps, its sounds and how by following the rhythms and rhymes, consonance and assonance can guide you into images you never expected." Of course I can never think of Connecticut without the whimsical metaphysical shadow of Wallace Stevens falling like a Pinchot sycamore on the literary landscape, Stevens whose presence in the state finally has been memorialized in Hartford by the intrepid organization, the Friends & Enemies of Wallace Stevens, which has installed thirteen granite stones each with a stanza of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" on it, allowing the walker to retrace the poet's steps from where he worked at The Hartford building at 690 Asylum Avenue, to his former home at 118 Westerly Terrace. For their annual reading, they just had two amazing poets, Susan Howe and Liz Willis read, an event I would have been at if I wasn't en route to Wyoming. Liz Willis has written a couple of terrific books and won the Boston Review poetry contest a few years ago with one poem in particular, "Bohemian Rhapsody" which I found magical in its simplicity. Here are the last four couplets of that poem: The letters come directly to the point like a Guide for the Perplexed. The boy so insect-like, so young. The letter behind its piece of green silk. An appointment floating toward you with nothing to... Continue reading
Posted Jul 2, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Fireworks, like mothers, are loved universally. Ever since the Han Dynasty, everyone from a Wall Street investment banker to a Mongolian yak-herder would stop with a jaw hung in astonishment to see that special ratio of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur combust in a green bamboo shoot. Pao chuk or "bursting bamboo" gave way to huo yao, the addictive, impossible-to-look-away-from "fire drug" (or gunpowder). In some cultures, like Trinidad & Tobago the bamboo bursting continues: While at the other end of the spectrum, if this display on the occasion of China's 60th anniversary and the new high-speed rail from Beijing to Shanghai are any indication, the 21st century has began with a bang in the East. Since the fourth of July impends, the promise of fireworks hang in the air, reminding me of how a poem can explode in transformative music. When it's working on every level, its syntax embodying its ideas, the voice inevitable and surprising in its trajectory, the sonic dimension intetwined with image like a grain of salt its mineral composition, then a poem can scintillate in the air like a flare of light to remain pressed in the mind's nightsky for longer than an evening. And of course explosions have their darker sides like this devastaingly well-wrought lyric by Philip Larkin, which I love for the way the hard Anglo-Saxon syllables ring to indict the mining companies in the town he grew up in without ever skewing towards the polemic or over-dramatizing the emotion. The Explosion On the day of the explosion Shadows pointed towards the pithead. In the sun the slagheap slept. Down the lane came men in pitboots Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke, Shouldering off the freshened silence. One chased after rabbits; lost them; Came back with a nest of lark's eggs; Showed them; lodged them in the grasses. So they passed in beards and moleskins, Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter, Through the tall gates standing open. At noon, there came a tremor; cows Stopped chewing for a second; sun, scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed. The dead go on before us, they Are sitting in God's house in comfort, We shall see them face to face - Plain as lettering in the chapels It was said, and for a second Wives saw men of the explosion Larger than in life they managed - Gold as on a coin, or walking Somehow from the sun towards them, One showing the eggs unbroken. But before I can contemplate the Fourth, I have to put the final touches on a syllabus for a summer class I'm teaching that begins next week. It's a World Literature Class entitled "Hypertext, Graphic Novels and Pulp Fiction: Genre-Bending in Asian Literature." I'm excited about the content of the class because there's enough finally within Asian literature and its intersection with popular media to make for a compelling course. We're reading Edogawa Rampo, the father of Japanese detective fiction with his punning pen name that alludes to Edgar Allen Poe, a figure so... Continue reading
Posted Jul 1, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Let’s begin with oral poetry, which I ended the last blog post on, because I neglected to note that the cowboy poets have nothing on the Basques who sell tickets in the tens of thousands for their oral poetry competition, broadcast on national television, to name the Bertsolari Txapelketa, the national championship of bertsolaritza, a complicated Basque oral tradition of improvisational poetry that’s composed on the stage to compete in an appropriate melody constructed by the poets, three cycles (or sequences of bertsos) of poems that respond dramatically to the challenges posed by the emcees. And let’s not forget the Tibetan epic King Gesar, perhaps the longest epic poem ever conceived, whose many “incarnations span the Tibetan and Mongolian languages, Buddhist and non-Buddhist paradigms, verse and prose, and oral and written forms of composition… No “complete” version of King Gesar has ever been recorded.” Nothing totalizing exists but luckily we can still hear parts of it today. Now to change tracks completely, I need begin by confessing to being a detail in a recent piece in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle by poet and SUNY Nassau professor Pramila Venkateswaran about Recent Trends in South Asian American Poetry. This admission prefaces my response to it, so let me be the first to acknowledge the taint in my lenses, if it exists, since no poet likes to be told they have a most successful poem or that they have written an academic’s volume when it’s clear they haven’t been very deeply investigated or even fully read. Made aware of this possible defensive posture, I’m actively working against it, I promise you, because there’s much in Venktaswaran’s readings of Meena Alexander and particularly Reetika Vazirani to admire. Having co-edited Reetika Vazirani’s posthumous book Radha Says with Leslie McGrath, and having helped publish it for Drunken Boat, I was pleased to see this perceptive reading of her earlier work: “She [Vazirani] goes beyond the immigrant tale to delve into the language that embodies the fragmentation of the exile. Multiple voices, broken lines of conversation—almost like long distance conversations that are cut off when phone lines go dead – mix of languages, quotes from letters and from the past that reappear, and observations in the present tense make her poems dynamic and ever-shifting.” That’s a deft embodiment of the form of World Hotel, an impulse towards verbal fracture and white space that would grow ever more extreme in her last collection. However my main problem with the essay is that there’s nothing recent about it. It’s a roundup of the usual suspects who constituted and indeed broke necessary ground for a generation of South Asian poets over two decades ago. A.K. Ramanujan, Chitra Divakaruni, Meena Alexander, Reetika Vazirani, and Agha Shahid Ali, Vijay Seshadri thrown in as the conceptual bracket, someone who has “distanced himself from the immigrant theme,” as if that’s unanticipated or that Seshadri should have felt such compulsory obligation. They are all iconic poets - two of whom have tragically passed on -... Continue reading
Posted Jun 29, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks Lisa and Tina! And yes Prageeta was good to meet Jayme. I still need to get out to Montana sometime to say hello.
One of the more intriguing aspects of being in Wyoming for this Easterner has been exposure to cowboy culture. Parts of the West retain in their vast spaces a tunnel to the past of the land and thanks to some locals, I was given clues on how to distinguish between genuine and poseur cowboys. For one thing, a real cowboy never enters an establishment with a cowboy hat on his head. Also, he when he takes his hat off, he places it with the hole to the sky, so as not to let the luck fall out. Indeed real cowboys have their own list of etiquette, which includes never turning your horse's tail to a cow, never touching another person's tack and - rather obviously - keeping the branding to your own cattle. Other famous codes include Gene Autry's earnest wisdom ("The cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage") and the genius comic epigrams of Will Rogers who has a few of my favorite bits of advice: The quickest way to double your money is to fold it and put it back in your pocket; Never kick a cow chip on a hot day; and of course, if you're riding ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it's still there. But what I didn't fully realize until my trip out West was how popular poetry is to these ranchmen. And in case, it's hard to discern, here's a poseur cowboy: Cowboy poetry in America dates back to the time of the long-distance cattle drives from Texas to Kansas that followed the Civil War, as a kind of entertainment and diversion for lonely trailhands and itinerant cattle-herders gathered around a fire. You can read a good history of the movement in this essay by Rod Miller in RATTLE and Western and Cowboy Poetry at the Bar-D Ranch is clearly the Dial of the movement, including a Lariat Laureate, gatherings and festivals and a rural library project where you can suggest libraries, particularly those serving ranching communities. From the looks of it, cowboy poetry is one of the healthiest segments of contemporary poetry, with it's own raging debate between the formalists and the free versers. As Miller details, the cowboy poetry world changed in 1985, "the year a few folklorists, led by Hal Cannon and Jim Griffith, put together the first cowboy poetry “gathering” in Elko, Nevada. Folklorists throughout the West scoured cattle ranches and rodeo arenas, bunkhouses and bars in search of cowboys who recited and wrote poems about the life they lived. A handful were invited to the high-desert cowtown to recite their own compositions and classic poems for a few hundred onlookers.The idea took hold like a lariat dallied hard around a saddle horn. The event—officially designated by Congress as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering but known in cowboy poetry circles simply as “Elko”—celebrated its 25th anniversary in January, 2009." Elko is a tough ticket... Continue reading
Posted Jun 28, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks Lisa! I think it's important to agitate on behalf of those without a voice, however we can. Glad to hear your thoughts. Best, Ravi Sent from my iPhone
Hi all - glad to be the guest blogger for this week and in fact writing this first entry on the last day of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference where I was poetry faculty for the last few days. Beyond the cowboys, the Teton Mountains and the wandering pronghorn elk, there was also a lot of writing and talk about writing taking place. Yesterday I was the leader of one of these sessions with poet Laurie Kutchins and our subject was Uprising: the Role of Poetry in Revolution. We began the session by sharing the good news that after 80 days in prison, Chinese dissident artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei had been freed. Unfortunately he refused to speak publically and shut down his Twitter account. Mr. Ai is the son of the famous modern Chinese poet Ai Qing, who like his son was an outspoken critic of the regime. As a result, he spent time interned in labor camps and was censored by the authorities. It's with bated breath we wait to hear Mr. Ai speak openly and freely again. As he famously carved on one of his artworks, "Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just the barbaric one." Keeping him in mind, we read one of the foremost Misty poets, Bei Dao and his poem "Wintering" in a translation by Tao Naikan and Simon Patton. The poem begins: Waking up: the northern pine forest— The urgent drum beats of the earth The alcohol of sunlights stored in the tree trunks Is stirring the ice of darkness As the heart and the wolf pack howl to each other As poet Michael Palmer has said about his work, "Bei Dao has followed a path of resistance that abjures overt political rhetoric while simultaneously keeping faith with his passionate belief in social reform and freedom of the creative imagination." We get that sense in this poem, which is rich in imagery of the natural world, seeded with the poignancy of its decline. One of the members of the workshop wondered if Bei Dao might have been familiar with Sylvia Plath's poem "Wintering" (I think not), which has a similar mood, "This is the room I have never been in/ This is the room I could never breathe in/ The black bunched in there like a bat." Bei Dao chose to remain in exile after the massacre at Tiananmen Square and his presence in the world has continued to be one that adovcates for freedom of expression. He refounded and continues to edit Jintian (Today) and reads his work around the world. The next poet we looked at was Saadi Youssef, one of the most important poets of the Arab world and someone else who spent time imprisioned in Iraq and laer in exile for his outspoken beliefs. He has also translated many writers into Arabic, such as Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca, Wole Soyinka, V.S. Napaul and George Orwell. We read his poem "America, America," a remarkably... Continue reading
Posted Jun 26, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Jun 23, 2011