Over the course of several weeks in May, when global affairs seemed particularly apocalyptic, I had the pleasure of corresponding with writer and professor Srikanth “Chicu” Reddy about his latest book, Underworld Lit (Wave Books, 2020), a delightfully strange and poignant reflection on lived and literary experiences that also journeys through culturally and formally multivalent underworlds. Throughout our exchanges, I found myself happily drawn into the current of his thinking, which is as contemplative and gracious as the writing in his book, and as free-ranging as it is deeply focused.
Jed Munson: In his introduction to a reading you gave at the Hammer in Los Angeles two years ago, Stephen Yenser describes the tension between lyric and narrative that runs through your work. Facts for Visitors features mostly lyric poems; your second collection Voyager, centers erasure poetry – that is, verse found in prose. Underworld Lit could be any number of things: lyric essay, prose poem, even fiction. What do you make of this evolution in your work?
Srikanth Reddy: That’s a great question, Jed, and one that I’ve been kind of blindly feeling my way through with each book, I suppose. I feel a great deal of nostalgia, in my own writing life, for the formal, psychological, phenomenological, and philosophical intensities of lyric; when I read a great line of poetry, be it by Basho or Emily Dickinson or Paul Celan, I’m reminded of verse’s seemingly boundless capacity to open new dimensions of thought and feeling within a brief span of syllables.
Yet I haven’t been able to write a line of poetry since my first book, written in my twenties, largely in a pre-9/11 world. Something about the pressure of ‘the real’ in a geopolitical sense came crashing down around many poets as the towers fell, and I couldn’t escape a sense of futility and narcissism whenever I tried to write a line of verse myself since then. Turning to erasure during the long period of literary masochism that went into producing Voyager was one way of re-entering literary practice for me – not through writing, but through the opposite of writing, or ‘erasing’ language from the world. I’ve said plenty about this process elsewhere and in Voyager itself, so I won’t go on about that procedure here, but I think I learned something from it – about word order and the order of the world, about politics and aesthetics, and about myself as a writer.
Once I came out the other side of Voyager, I felt a renewed sense of longing for writing as an expressive activity; the punishing formal constraint of erasing Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs multiple times left me hungry to simply write about my own life as openly and freely as possible. I thought it would feel like running free after limping around for seven years with a prisoner’s ball and chain around my ankles. So I began to write in prose – without formal artifice, I felt – about what I’d gone through, as a new father, an untenured academic, a cancer patient, a bewildered citizen of a nation at war, and so on, in the years since Voyager’s composition.
Oddly enough, that project quickly took on an elaborate fictional life of its own, as I found that I actually couldn’t return to writing about ‘myself’ after spending so much time in the trenches of impersonality. So Underworld Lit became a Borgesian sort of venture into life-writing, where translation – or a slapstick English translation of a French translation of an old Chinese tale, to be honest – became the vehicle for thinking about birth, death, and judgment in relation to my own lifeworld. I’m not sure if that makes any sense, but that’s how it felt to me.
And now that I’m done with it, I feel ready to return to verse again, at last – but verse mediated by translation practice, as I consider adapting the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, for a contemporary Anglophone audience. Ten times the length of the Odyssey and the Iliad combined, the Mahabharata is a poem that has ‘everything’ in it – so even if I still can’t write a line of poetry on my own after all these years, at least I can try to capture some of that cosmological dimension of poetry in a line of translation.
In those years between your first book and now, you may have departed from verse, at least in practice, but not, I imagine, from poetry. It’s as if the formal and methodological encounters you had along the way – with erasure, prose, and translation – by feinting from the production of verse, invoke an argument for non-verse to be read poetically, or as poetry. The word “prosaic,” which could describe Underworld Lit insofar as the book is composed of prose, can imply a lack of poetic quality or affect, as if the prosaic is in opposition to the poetic. Can a story be a poem? A poem a story?
Putting off the question of poetry vs. verse for a moment, I’d begin by saying that every poem, in its own way, tells a story; so yes, I think a poem is a story, only it may be a rather different narrative from what we find in literary fiction.
Obviously I’m not the first person to observe that every poem unfolds as a narrative sequence, be it the quest or journey of epic verse, or the more quiet interior dramas of lyric (with its narratives of perception, address, remembrance, introspection, and so on). We’re sometimes told, in studying the literary arts, to think of poetry as something separate from narrative writing – i.e., as ‘free’ of narration – but the mere fact that poems unfold in the real-time of reading, and their fundamentally sequential structure (one word after another, one line after another, one sentence after another), and the fact that meaning-making language (rather than, say, paint) is their aesthetic medium, bakes narrative into the deep structure of the form itself. The main difference, of course, is that poems don’t necessarily foreground the narrative technologies of characterization, plot, perspective, etcetera that govern the novel; but even then, any poem is spoken by a character, occupies a point of view, and moves forward and backward through time like any well-constructed plot. Likewise, any novel must concern itself with voice, mimesis, and various other seemingly ‘poetic’ issues in its construction. Rather than separating the two genres, then, you might say that narrative is one shared element that holds poetry and fiction together.
So I don’t see the genres as fundamentally different, though they are formally different. This is where your question about prose as opposed to verse becomes important. A lot of my favorite prose feels deeply poetic to me, both in its stylistic features and in its overall exploratory unfolding; a writer like Cesar Aira, for example, seems to me as much a poet as a fiction writer – you never know how one sentence will follow another, one scene another, but the work as a whole is guided forward by a lyric sensibility. (And sadly enough, much poetry seems to me, all too often, prosaic). Writing Underworld Lit in prose sections allowed me to work with the elements of fiction – plot, scene, and so on – while maintaining a focus on voice, image, inwardness, and various other elements that have always gone into the writing of verse. I suppose I wanted to have it all, in some ways, as I felt my way through this book; and though I ended up falling far short of my aims as a storyteller, I did come to think of literary art more simply as writing, irreducible to poetry, fiction, or any other generic category. Or maybe poetry is the broadest imaginative and expressive mode available to us, as Shelley thought – so a novel, a sonnet, or even an artful lay-up on the basketball court might all be described as ‘poetic.’
Another tension in your work, especially prominent in Underworld Lit, is that of poetry and academy. You hold an MFA in poetry from Iowa, a PhD in English from Harvard, and have been teaching both creative writing and literature courses at the University of Chicago since 2003. How do you navigate “critical” and “creative” designations in your writing?
Oh, this is another one of those oppositions (like poetry versus prose) that I always feel tempted to just sort of collapse into one another. Maybe it’s because the terms themselves feel inadequate. I’ve never liked “creative writing” as a name for what I teach and do; it feels like an insult to all other forms of writing, from journalism to scholarship to any number of other pursuits, which are of course deeply creative – in fact, I myself frequently borrow stylistic, tonal, and formal features of ‘non-literary’ forms of writing (like encyclopedias, historical texts, and so on) more often than I borrow from contemporary poetry in my own writing more and more lately.
And I don’t really feel like “critical” thinking or “criticism” is what I hope to do, even when I’m writing a book review or teaching my students how to close read a poem. Obviously I fall short of this all the time, but I think what I’d aim for, as a poet and as someone who writes about poetry, is something more like ‘critique’ in the philosophical sense. So I’d like to imagine a poem as a form of critique – not necessarily of pure reason, or of political economy, though it can involve those subjects – but a critique of identity itself, and of the ways that identity intersects with history, environment, other identities (including the nonhuman), and possible futures. Even as I say this, however, I find myself asking – is it all only about critique? Of course the answer is no – poems praise, lament, and simply sing their subjects, among innumerable other expressive functions. But I think critique is something I often return to as a function of poetry, and I think that’s related to the formal dimensions and features of the art, as well as its medium, language.
Another way of thinking about this question would be to talk about the social and personal dimensions of what it means to be a writer at an academic institution – and in many ways, that is what drove me to write Underworld Lit. My own feelings of inadequacy as a teacher, as an intellectual, or as a citizen of the academic community had a lot to do with the writing of the poem; and I think many poets or novelists feel those inadequacies in a university context, where we’re surrounded by brilliant scholars with all sorts of specialized knowledge and competences that we may feel lacking in ourselves. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish, and one that I hope plays out in the book itself . . .
At the core of Underworld Lit is a “projective translation” of Leon Wieger’s Folk-lore Chinois Moderne, your translation of a translation, which you describe/d earlier as “slapstick.” Humor, or perhaps better put, lightness, animates other parts of the book as well, though not without gravity. There’s a question in here somewhere but I can’t quite find it. Maybe your answer will help?
Maybe slapstick is a good place to begin thinking about your question, Jed; though I can’t claim to know anything about slapstick in terms of its film or performance history, I do feel like it’s a defining feature of my own life, whenever I step into the kitchen or try to ‘work out’ or teach a class on some subject that’s a bit over my head. Maybe slapstick is all about being in over one’s head, existentially; you see that in Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati all the time. But there’s also a kind of unwitting resilience to those characters, where they somehow seem to emerge from danger more or less intact, again and again. In some ways, that’s how I feel about living right now in our purgatorial times. We’re all in over our heads – like residents of the underworld, dimly aware of another world above – but we’re also blissfully (or willfully) oblivious to so many perils around us, because that obliviousness allows us to keep moving, like Wile E. Coyote, even when there’s no longer any solid ground underfoot.
I feel this slapstick condition on so many levels in my own life, but in Underworld Lit, it comes out most acutely in the narrator’s misadventures in translation. He’s obviously unqualified to translate an old Chinese tale – (knowing no Chinese whatsoever) – but he goes ahead and launches on a translation of a French translation of this Qing dynasty short story, because he thinks it might fit into his syllabus on underworld literature, and because the story itself speaks to him. Of course when I speak of the narrator of Underworld Lit in the third person, I’m also talking about myself; I first came across the story of Chenn from Hou-tcheou-fou in a footnote on a website called Hell Online; and when I looked up that online citation in the university library, I found that the only available version of the text was Leon Wieger’s early 20th Century French translation from some obscure Chinese original. I’ve never formally studied French myself, but armed with Google Translate I started to fake my way through an English translation of Wieger’s French translation, and pretty soon I found myself caught up in Chen’s story.
That story is itself kind of a slapstick farce, in which a minor scholar-official from the late Ming Dynasty is summoned to the underworld to answer for war crimes he’d committed in a previous life. I decided to simply amplify my difficulties in translating Wieger’s French, and make a comedy out of my misunderstandings and errors as a translator. Most obviously, the motorized airport staircase that transports Chen through my version of the tale is a mistranslation of Wieger’s slightly antiquated French word, “satellite,” which can mean a spirit, a vassal nation, an orbiting object, or, in today’s world, portable gateway equipment. From those mistranslations of individual words, I began to allow Chen himself to pratfall his way through the story, eventually stumbling into the Mayan underworld, through the Egyptian underworld, and back into the Chinese underworld where he ultimately faces judgment for his past life.
So while I allowed my own errors to open up new narrative worlds within my translation, there was also a kind of design to it all. Slapstick is a funny kind of performance built out of mistakes, or apparent mistakes – Chaplin skates across the screen causing mayhem unbeknownst to him – and yet it’s all quite carefully planned. I wouldn’t say I had an ‘master plan’ for my translation mapped out in advance, but it began to assume an overall design (moving from Chen’s encounter with death to his experience of childbirth to his final ‘judgement’) that sort of made sense to me in the end. In some ways, I think that’s the kind of unpremeditated pattern our slapstick lives follow in retrospect; we pratfall our way through it all, but looking back, there was a story with a beginning, middle, and an end to it.
On the subject of historical present tense as a scholarly convention, the speaker of Underworld Lit writes “. . . every writer, living or dead, is forever suspended in a crepuscular present indicative” (163). This kind of suspended temporality is ever-present in your book. Chen’s intermittent memories of/from the future, for instance, disorder the sense of vantage and diegesis throughout his journey. From where in time and space, relative to Chen, did you, Chicu, write Underworld Lit?
Maybe the best way for me to try to begin answering your question is to describe my ‘real-time’ experience of writing the book. When I began Underworld Lit in the spring of 2012, I was in the midst of the crisis that opens the book – I was an untenured father of a small child, and I still wasn’t quite out of the woods with regard to my cancer diagnosis. So I started to write the book in the present tense, with some shifts into the past to indicate events that had happened a few days earlier – but largely the narrative framework was an ongoing present, more or less.
Then, over time, as I put away the project and resumed it after various stretches of time, I began to feel farther and farther away from that original crisis – it was receding into the past – but I still felt attached to the continuous present as a narratorial mode. I think it might be that writing in a loose present tense (with slippages into past-tense narration) allowed me to keep the crisis ‘alive’ for myself as a writer. It felt a little wrong to do so, but it also felt temporally out of joint in a way that seemed consistent with the uncanniness of what haunted this speaker. So I kept writing about past events as if they were present, because that’s what ‘haunting’ is, I think.
That temporal dissonance – writing about the past in the present tense – caused all sorts of narrative ‘glitches’ along the way, which I started to try to incorporate into the book itself. That’s one reason why the poem keeps making little jokes about various frameworks of time, from the “real time” of leaves falling in one’s backyard to the “world-historical time” of classroom discussion to the “opto-kinetic spacetime” of Chen’s eyes adjusting to the darkness of night by the Nile River and so on. But those little glitches, where you see the ubiquitous problem of time and narration briefly flicker into view, also sparked larger systemic shifts in the temporal framework of Chen’s journey, where he not only moves through various regional underworlds (Central American, Middle Eastern, Asian) but also through historical periods (Cold War era Guatemalan highlands, late Middle Kingdom Egypt, China in the 24th Century AD). Looking back, it’s funny how my own conflation of a personal past and present-tense narration had such large-scale narratological consequences for telling Chen’s story, but it kind of makes sense because the narrator sort of projects all of the past-present-future anxieties he’s experiencing about his own life into the “projective translation” of Chen’s tale.
So there all all kinds of consequences to those little slippages in how one narrates one’s own life to oneself and to others – whether you dwell in the past as if it were present, or if you can only live in an eternal ‘now,’ or if both past and present are unavailable to you because you compulsively project yourself into unknowable and ungovernable futures. Maybe that’s one thing I learned from writing the book, though I still haven’t figured out how to live in the present with the sort of focus it demands.
August 4, 2020
Jed Munson is a graduate of Wesleyan University. He was born in Madison, Wisconsin.