Last year I dreamed that one-by-one Ravi's friends approached me to point out that he was rich. My response was "You mean that cheapskate?" followed by anecdotal evidence of a time he failed to pony up cash when it was desperately needed. It was one of those repeating loop dreams, new friend, exact same conversation. But maybe those dream friends were on to something because in April I dreamed that Ravi took me to India to show me a fantastic mansion made almost entirely of glass that his father engineered and built--not only do I consistently dream of poets, as you can discern from my Shafer Hall dream, sometimes I dream of poets' fathers too. Anyway, Ravi really wanted me to be impressed with this spectacle, but I was tired and just wanted to check my e-mail. When I went inside my father was there which surprised me cause he's not the kind of guy who'd take a trip to India. I was concerned what my father would eat since he's a picky eater.
Ravi Shankar is Associate Professor and Poet-in-Residence at Central Connecticut State University and the founding editor of the international online journal of the arts, Drunken Boat. He has published a book of poems, Instrumentality (Cherry Grove), named a finalist for the 2005 Connecticut Book Awards, and with Reb Livingston, a collaborative chapbook, Wanton Textiles (No Tell Books, 2006). He has appeared as a commentator on NPR, BBC and Wesleyan Radio and read his work in many places, including the Asia Society, St. Mark's Poetry Project and the National Arts Club. He currently serves on the Advisory Council for the Connecticut Center for the Book and along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he edited Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond (W.W Norton & Co.).
Reb: Your most recent books are Wanton Textiles (co-written with me) and Language for a New Century (co-edited with Tina Change and Nathalie Handal). Why do you get so much help putting together books? Wallace Stevens didn't make books with lady poets. Why can't you be more like Wallace Stevens?
Ravi: Well, for starters, Wallace Stevens couldn’t hold his liquor and at holiday parties at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, would mouth off to his officemates, then get his secretary to type up his subsequent letters of apology. I also can’t hold my liquor but I’m very rarely invited to office parties anymore and remember the sound of patent leather loafers on a broadloom with hushed reverence. Unlike Uncle Wally, when I was lurking behind the potted plants and sneaking phone calls from a branflake-colored cubicle, I was a member of a vast, intercontinental art movement never appropriately written about or even properly acknowledged: temp art (circa 1995-2002), that is poems and art made by those subversive workers hired on a temporary basis from pilfered company supplies and scanned, xeroxed and faxed out to fellow temp artists similarly making collages of Post-it Notes, scotch tape and white out, secretly sticking it to the man. Like Mon Oncle, I believed even back then that style is not something applied but something that permeates.
I offer that up as evidence that my collaborative drive is not gender-based, though clearly I must be something of a masochist to work with so many strong women. Poor Ravi, a friend once quipped, he has more wives than he knows what to do with it, but I resisted that analysis, which smelled vaguely of pickled misogyny and envy; rather, say I’m lazier than a three toed sloth on a Lunesta bender (or rather a one-legged man in a percoset-addled haze; but more on that later), that I’m stirred into motion by other minds, am a natural exquisite corpse, filmmaker on a set of words, conjoiner and confabulator both. I’ve written collaborations with Jim Daniels, Monica de la Torré, Vernon Frazer, Camille Dungy, Terri Witek, Sean Thomas Dougherty, among others.
Who’d Wallace Stevens collaborate with? Besides Ernest Hemingway’s fist? The thin men of Haddam, unfortunately, were not really his friends.
Reb: You recently had surgery on a ruptured achilles heel and no doubt will be spending your summer sitting on your sofa, popping percocets and getting fat. How will this inform/deform your writing? Wallace Stevens never ruptured his achilles heel.
Ravi: OK, so I took an unfair swipe at the Emperor of the Emperor of Ice Cream there, and I should admit that Stevens that met Marcel Duchamp at Walter Arsenberg’s salon and the title of many of the poems from Harmonium possibly came from Duchamp’s own titles. And Stevens was all over the Cubists. Not to mention that famous meeting of Stevens and Marianne Moore at Mount Holyoke in 1943 that led to a few poems and a mutual admiration society. But I bet even on one leg, which now has the telltale Popeye bulge of the crutch-worthy (while the other calf atrophies to jello), I could beat Stevens in the sixty-yard dash. As a youth, I won the Presidential Fitness Award three years in a row after all and could broad jump like an electrified frog. Just last year, in fact, I was the leading scorer and rebounder of the winning basketball team of the Jewish Community Center’s veteran’s league.
Ah, jumping and scoring! Salsa dancing and shoe scuffing. I remember you fondly. Now I am just settling into a slower mode of being in the world and while I have been forewarned by a handful of people, most notably you, that I will swell up like a zeppelin if I don’t lay off the croissants and summer ale, I think that this sedentary spell of books and DVDs and writing and, yes, even getting fat, will be good for me, since I’ve been manic these last few months promoting Language for a New Century. I hope that my inner Buddha tunes me to a static-free frequency, that I listen to my dreams and my breath, that wildness overgrows the distraction with spokes and spirals made from fibers of silence.
By the way, I’ve switched from percoset to vikaden to scotch to teeth-gritting and visualization to a motorized ice cooler running veins of water to my foot to propped pillows to bad noir novels and nothing seems to work as well as ironic self-pity.
Ravi: Now I am loathe to report this, but I have long cheated on poetry with other genres. I even wrote a six-part series on “Trends in Cheese” for Zooba.com, an ill-fated online encyclopedia from the halcyon days of the internet bubble. Now like you, when I see the word zooba, I think of the definition from the Urban Slang Dictionary, “colorful zebra striped baggy pants made of very thin cotton. This clothing preference is typical of large and hairy Mediterranean men who are also wearing a wife-beater, gold neckace and tan boots.” But no, in this case I was paid a mean sum to surmise how a shepherd (a Mediterranean man most likely) left his milk out a bit too long on a summer day and received a curdled surprise, how rennet, found in the fourth stomach of a calf, coagulates milk, and why the rinds of certain stinky cheeses are washed in port and salt water to intensify the odor. The website, needless to say, no longer exists.
I also wrote a couple of music reviews for Time Out New York, reviewed books for the Contemporary Poetry Review, published an epistolary essay in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, had a one-act play performed by Arthur Kopit’s actors at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, have a secret closeted novel that may never see the light of day, and most recently, I reviewed Anne Waldman and Anselm Hollo for the Quarterly Conversation . You might say then that I write lots of work that few other people want to read!
But did you know that there’s a society called the Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens that is memorializing the two mile walk Stevens took from home to office with stone markers etched with one stanza each from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird”? Right down Asylum Avenue. Now that might be a better than a bust. It’s certainly better than a stretch of interstate. Who but a poet who could claim such distinction?
Years ago I realized a sad truth as I attempted to push my apprentice novel forward to another pivotal happening: I can describe the overheating engine down to its tiniest defective thermo-sensor, can out-milk metaphors from language than a farmer can from the udders of his prize sow, can even lob darts of psychological insight so dead on in trajectory the bull’s eye turns stone-blind in fear, but I can’t for the life of me figure out the larger contrivances of plot device and character development. Give me the compressed syllable, a musical lozenge to dissolve on my tongue. Let the massive percussive receive missives in cursive from the muse all night long. But don’t chide me with all that other mess, the way my father would send me newspaper clippings about computer classes at the local polytechnic claiming, “it’s never too late!” Like it or not, intuitively and effusively, for better or worse, in praise and enraged, until death does its part, damn it, I’m a poet.