“The Space at the Crossing:” An Interview with Karthik Sethuraman

Karthik Sethuraman is an Indian-American living in California. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, AAWW, Hot Metal Bridge, and Fairy Tale Review, among others. One work, Saramakavi, was performed at the Asian Art Museum where he was a KSW writing fellow. His chapbook, Prayer Under Eyelids, is available from Nomadic Press.

Aekta Khubchandani: Karthik, it’s such a joy to be in conversation with you! Hearty congratulations on Prayer Under Eyelids. It made me miss my family back home in Bombay. The book opens with this beautiful metaphor of a picture—“the picture of / the going in a wallet / the picture of the gone / on a wall”. This metaphor develops through the pages in “the sunwashed photograph my father kept” and later in “I frame family portraits.” How did this morphing of image and death come about?

Karthik Sethuraman: This anecdote is potentially apocryphal, but I distinctly remember being in middle school and overhearing the story of a family friend who cut out his grandmother’s face from family photographs after she’d died.

I’m reminded too of Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay, “You remember too much, / my mother said to me recently. // Why hold onto all that? And I said, / Where can I put it down?”

These two fragments are pretty distinct, but as I wrote, I felt strongly that we all accumulate images over our lives and struggle so much to maintain them. In some sense, I wanted to investigate whether poetry could be a part of this maintenance process, this process of dealing with each picture and with the constituents in each picture and with their changing lives.

Fundamentally, a picture and its memory are frozen, but individuals melt and decay. I can’t imagine cutting my grandmother out of my memories, but I can imagine not wanting to revisit them, instead wanting to lock them away for safekeeping, for some brighter summer day. Ultimately, I think the poet, like the picturist and the archivist, is doomed to be a steward of memory, and I wanted to see how poetry would respond to the morphing conditions and demands under which memory lives. 

AK: In an interview with Grier Martin for Mud Season Review, you spoke about examining the tension of sameness and estrangement, how the poet is formed by and thrust away from family, how some of these tensions arise from immigration and from being raised in a language and culture different from your parents’. I kept returning to these lines in your poem, “who am I leaving for, where am I running to / isn’t home the place where the food / smells at least the most like my memories”. What/where is home for you? Did that meaning change or expand after writing this book?

KS: I’m hopeful that home is a place we construct and which in turn constructs us. As I wrote Prayer Under Eyelids, I was acting partly in a documentary role, trying to capture fleeting and possibly imagined representations of my home, and partly in a novelistic role, trying to write out what a home could be.

Earlier in my journey, I leaned much more heavily in the documentary direction, but as the collection grew, I started pushing out the boundaries of a home into more than memories and retellings. I hoped that this would help my home become dynamic and not embalmed in time and place. And I hoped also that this would give homes agency; too often, I found myself blaming and burdening the concept of home rather than building from and expanding it.

For a while now, I’ve been considering this Russian proverb, “Дома и стены помогают” — loosely, “At home, even the walls help.” I imagine something like a living castle with brooding spires and flowering drawbridges and a moat that offers to critique my poems. And I imagine nestling into it even as it nestles into me.

AK: Through the book’s journey, I felt that the narrator tries to define love in context to his family and their happenings. For example, in Country Roads — “I think this is love. Something / cavernous. Scars on either side of // our navels, we balloon into the gap / between us. Hands at ease on our hips,” in The River — “I pretend he told his siblings, over the telephone, that to love is to love alone,” and in Prayer for Sleepless Mornings — “I stop her love is the word we use to describe / the thing that begins and ends all things.” And these poems are interlaced with the gravity of death and prayer. Can you talk about this tension?

KS: I don’t really have a thesis on love. Well, I want to edit myself: I might have a simple one. Love is functional.

I’m using functional in the same way that a theoretician might use functional: love is what functions as love. I haven’t had any success in describing love without describing its manifestation.

When the narrator professes his love for his family but later confides an inability to communicate or demonstrate this love, where does this lead? I think abstractions are extremely useful, but I also want to rely on the functional-ness I brought up earlier. At the risk of seeming like a hypocrite, love is what love does, and I would challenge the narrator to determine how exactly he functions in that capacity. The introduction of death and prayer into this conflict further complicate the narrator’s capacities: how can he love someone who is no longer available to be loved; how can he love someone who he didn’t love while they were alive? In some of the poems in the collection, prayer is presented as an answer to or a refuge from these questions, but I think love is the process of coming to terms with these failures repeatedly.

AK: I wanted to talk about Saramakavi that takes from the Tamil elegy practice, and the lines from Telescope — “I grew tired of / asking so I took my bones / and lodged them in the mechanism / of the earth.” You mentioned Ahilan’s Saramakavikal, which confronts trauma resulting from Sri Lankan civil war and Geetha Sukumaran’s translations and studies in Then There Were No Witnesses, both of which inform your work. Can you share more about the coming together of the Saramakavi section and why you chose to end the book with it?

KS: With Saramakavi, I wanted to acknowledge the ordinary struggles we grieve. When a grandmother passes, a narrator finds her in a rice cooker or on the clothesline or turning the door knob. The tamil elegiac practice was so natural here since it tries to build a representative portrait of what we lose — so often, valorization goes hand in hand with diminishment. Telescope, I hope, comments on the intentionality of the Saramakavi practice; of the poet making a choice to use those familiar characteristics in protest against both monumentalization and anonymization.

I owe a lot to Ahilan’s work and Sukumaran’s translation — they confront the bloody horrors of war with this elegiac practice. A body takes on the mundane details of its previous life. The clothes and accessories left behind speak with the accents of their wearers. A person’s death is mourned through the intimacies of their life.

In ending the collection with Saramakavi, I hoped to do justice to Ahilan’s practice while documenting the everyday deaths that accompany immigrants and their children, the deaths of kin and language, of relation and proprioception, and of ordinariness.

AK: Identity comes to mind when I read “… she whispers take care / or be safe // the words we want / but cannot speak / to ourselves” from the poem I see my father look both ways before crossing the street. It made me wonder about the narrator’s safety in prayer and the confines of his family. Can you talk more about this?

KS: First, I need to thank Ling Yu and Fiona Sze-Lorrain. Yu’s wonderful poem, Toucheng, translated by Sze-Lorrain, is written as an “Elegy for F.” She ends the poem as the narrator passes Toucheng aboard a train, “a conductor punches the tickets and not knowing why / he says thank you and bon voyage / the words I want to tell you”. I was immediately struck by this, that an intermediary could allow communication between two people who can no longer communicate. In I see my father…, I wanted to ask whether our prayers, and more broadly, our rituals, could create a similar bridge, a bridge across fragmented language.

In one reading, take care and be safe are unavailable to the narrator and his father because of a loss, or a lack, of language. I think lack and loss are different: they signify dissimilar types of barriers that can arise in intergenerational relationships. A son might lose language as he moves away while a father might lack the language necessary to express himself. But ritual crosses these distances: we know the story of the child coming home at dark to a heaping plate of food from a mother or grandmother, and just for that night, everything is as it should be. Maybe, in I see my father…, the narrator and his father still pray for each other even when they can no longer communicate.

AK: You spend time reading and translating from the broader Tamil diaspora. And when I read the lines “One ray stretches into memory another / into fiction I occupy the space at the crossing”, I thought of memory as Tamil, your first language, and fiction as English. If this feels true in any way, how is it being at the crossing? Do you carry metaphors from one language to the other?

KS: I was singing my son to sleep a few months ago. His favorite song to listen to was Rahman’s Vennilave Vennilave. Some minutes in, this line repeats, “எட்டாத உயரத்தில் நிலவை வைத்தவன் யாரு?” Literally, “Who put the moon at a height where I couldn’t reach it?”

As with most lullabies, we listened to this song for a few weeks before he grew out of it, and during those weeks, I wrote a poem titled, Notes on Waking. That poem begins, “When did I put it there, / in that space above the cupboard / just out of reach.”

I don’t know if I carry metaphors or other linguistic devices over from one language to another, but I certainly carry fragments. For me, the unit of poetry is a conceptual fragment, a group of words that conveys an idea, for example, someone placing something out of reach. Operating in multiple languages has definitely helped me source, experiment with, and deploy these conceptual fragments.

I love your notion of the poet living in the crossing. I’d say I live in a crossing too, but not necessarily one where memory and fiction compete. My crossing more resembles some kind of information interchange: all of these fragments from lullabies and poems, essays and children’s shows, and Tamil and English intersect. I’ve always felt that my responsibility was to parse and create at least partially disentangled lineages.

AK: I’m very excited about the full-length manuscript you’re working on! What can we expect for your upcoming book?

KS: Thank you very much! I’m very happy that I’ve been able to spend more time in the spaces in and around Prayer Under Eyelids. I began writing the earliest poems in the collection four years ago; at the time, I was working through the griefs and estrangements of losing language, leaving place, and growing into disparate cultures and communities. It was a deeply personal process.

But last summer, my wife and I welcomed our son into the world — even the word welcome is so strange here; the three of us spent our first week inside the hospital, quarantined in a small room during the first wave of the pandemic. And so, over the course of a few months, my project became infinitely less solipsistic — we had a crying, rolling, laughing, eating being who was making his way in the world, and my wife and I became cartographers.

My full-length collection, tentatively Family Generating Machine, treads on the same path. I hope to keep asking how poems can not just describe families but generate them. As with other machines, I also want to know how they were manufactured and what causes them to fail. Finally, I’m trying to differentiate between incidental machines and intentional machines — those which we find and those which we create.

I’ll leave you with a little teaser about Daniil Kharms, the Soviet absurdist poet and the subject of one of the poems in the collection, Kharms in a Machine. “[Daniil Kharms] kept a large machine at home made of found scrap. Often asked what it did, Kharms would respond, ‘Nothing. It’s just a machine.’”


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