FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH VIDYAN RAVINTHIRAN

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

VIDYAN RAVINTHIRAN: I was encouraged by my Sri Lankan Tamil parents to consider literature a wonderful thing: I began trying to write versions of Keats’s odes. This changed when I was given the 2002 Forward Book of Poetry by a friend of my mum’s. I had these old-fashioned ideas about what a poem should be, which I struggled to square with the excitements of free verse. I’m still interested in writing both freely and formally, and in combining unlike forms, and distant-seeming experiences: my first book, Grun-tu-molani, was really the equivalent of the Ravinthiran family Christmas. We have a roast, potatoes, stuffing, gravy, veg, but also a thousand curries… Everything you could want.

FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

VR: I’m not sure I ever feel that I am ‘a poet’ – more someone who sometimes writes poems! It can feel like experimenting with language, and moving things around, and as if at times there isn’t so much to do: the richness and interest is out there in the world, and in the words themselves, so you’ve just got to bring it out. As I was falling asleep a few nights ago, the phrase ‘petals in droves’ came to me; and ‘it’s in the past’ seems a phrase to lineate, and dwell upon… I don’t know where these orts could lead, if anywhere, but it’s all part of the adventure.

Writing poems is difficult but it’s also pleasurable: to be honest, I’m a little skeptical of the ostentatious agonies of the ‘major’ (usually male, white) poet, positioning himself like a sculptor working with an intransigent element, asking us to admire the sweat rivering down his straining muscles…

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

VR: This collection is personal (which doesn’t mean, ‘confessional’: it isn’t a blog). I wasn’t sure if it would rise above its idiosyncrasies and feel significant to other readers. So it’s a huge boost to be shortlisted: it means a lot to me. 

FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?

VR: I always thought I’d become a weirder, more experimental poet as I went on. But that didn’t happen, and sometimes you’ve got to write what comes to you, and through you, rather than persist with the original plan. I began writing sonnets to my wife, privately – they genuinely were for her ears only. It was a time in my life when I didn’t feel confident of being listened to, I didn’t know if my voice would carry outside our home. Gradually I realised some of these poems (not all of them) might interest others too. My title is from Philip Larkin, who uses the pronoun ‘we’ unanxiously, feeling he can speak, if not universally, then at least on behalf of a community. Which is harder to assume these days. But what I’ve tried is to enlarge that pronoun beyond the situation of two people in love, so that readers, of whatever background (this is a book concerned with race, gender and class) might feel included.

I decided to organise the book with two sonnets to a page, so poems themselves could enter into communication. I did worry about writing to a woman who remains silent: a Muse-figure and not a person. Men have been doing this for centuries. But if anyone wants Jenny (Holden)’s thoughts, they can read her award-winning fiction. Or talk to her, and be enlivened and transformed, as I have been. (Well, okay, not to the same extent: hands off my wife!) On the back of the book you’ll find her depiction, and transformation, of a detail from the woodcut on the cover: a picture of the two of us. So at least a sliver of her creativity emerges here. And there’s one poem, about miscarriage, in which I had to include something beautiful, and supportive, and brave, which she said to me: ‘This is happening to you too.’

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

VR: Elizabeth Bishop, Arun Kolatkar, and the Romantics (Keats, Shelley). I’m fascinated by poetic form, and how it relates to a combination of thought, and feeling, which occurs uniquely within poems. These poets write of power and politics and race and nationhood and gender and all sorts – but they also have a wonderful sensitivity to language, and the skill to align details luminously. And they’re part of a conversation, involving people from all over the world, which has continued down the ages.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

VR: I’ve got to get away from sonnets! I’m writing more fragmentarily now, a style that’s come of reading Isaac Rosenberg. I’m interested – in the age of the tweet and the status update – in how minimal a poem can be. It’s a way of trying to elude or exceed the predictable arcs: Rae Armantrout is an inspiration to me.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

VR: Read poetry by people who aren’t like you. Who may be of a different gender, race, nationality – or who may have lived a long time ago. Or: who may look like you, and speak the same language as you, and be similar to you in all the tedious ‘identity’-centred ways—but whose poetry is estrangingly weird to you, to the point of being jarring!

All sorts of connections are possible: A.K. Ramanujan discovered in ancient Tamil verse characteristics which reminded him of Marianne Moore. There may be people you don’t like, or whose views you don’t agree with (I certainly don’t share Larkin’s), but whose poetry can become momentous for you. I do worry about how the tribalism of the poetry world can reproduce the tribalisms of our politics.