exercising his intellect

Vijay Seshadri, poet

Vijay Seshadry

For the past eight summers Vijay Seshadri has left his Brooklyn apartment to teach poetry at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center. This year Seshadri returned with a Pulitzer Prize in hand for his new collection “3 Sections.” Seshadri, a former editor at the New Yorker, is a professor at Sarah Lawrence College.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

SESHADRI: Right now, I’m reading “Moral Imagination,” a new collection of essays by David Bromwich and his “The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke,” about the 18th century Irish statesman and philosopher. It’s a slow reading process. When Bromwich mentions a Burke essay, I have to read the essay by Burke.


BOOKS: Had you read a lot by or about Burke before?

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SESHADRI: I’d read “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” and “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” I knew about his speeches on the East India Co. He attacked it and defended the Indians, so Indians tend to have a soft spot for him.

BOOKS: Are the Bromwich books typical of your reading?

SESHADRI: These books require one to exercise one’s intellect at a high level. My reading tends to be that way, but I mostly read fiction, some history and nonfiction, and, of course, lots and lots of poetry. I don’t read that much contemporary work though I just ordered this Norwegian guy’s book, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle.” I also have the essay collection “The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison. I’m reading Saskia Hamilton’s new poetry collection, “Corridor” and “The Knight’s Tale,” the first story in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” I read a lot of short stories.

BOOKS: Who are your favorite short story writers?


SESHADRI: Alice Munro is fantastic. I reread John Cheever and Frank O’Connor’s stories. I recently reread J.D. Salinger’s “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” Wow, what a great piece of writing that story is. I have poems I reread all the time, too. Reading those is like listening to music. You don’t listen to your favorite CD just once, whether it’s Bach or Frank Zappa.

BOOKS: Which poets do you return to?

SESHADRI: The ones I call “The Great Suicides’’: Hart Crane, Weldon Kees, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman. I always reread Yeats, who really influenced me. There are contemporary poets who I reread, but I can’t mention their names because people I hadn’t mentioned would get angry.

BOOKS: Have you always been a rereader?

SESHADRI: Yeah. I would just fall in love with books and attach myself to them. For example, I reread the Christmas dinner scene in Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” over and over. That scene is the pinnacle of western narrative art.


BOOKS: Is there any kind of book you would never pick up?

‘I have poems I reread all the time, too. Reading those is like listening to music. You don’t listen to your favorite CD just once, whether it’s Bach or Frank Zappa.’

SESHADRI: Romances. I’ve never read romances or chick-lit, if they still call it that, though one of my favorite books of all time is Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” That’s certainly a romance.

BOOKS: Were you bookish as a kid?

SESHADRI: I’d been in an Anglican school in Bangalore. When my family moved to the United States I was skipped a couple of grades. I was kind of isolated because I was very different and much younger and smaller. I became one of those weird little kids. In those days you didn’t have video games so kids like myself read a lot. I read “The Bobbsey Twins” and “Hardy Boys.” My first canonical book was Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo,” an abridged version with beautiful illustration. By 14 I was reading Goethe, and from there I read deeply into the literary canon.

BOOKS: Do you read children’s literature now?

SESHADRI: I do. I like classics like “My Friend Flicka” by Mary O’Hara and “The Yearling” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I think those are beautifully written. I read things like C.S. Forester’s “Horatio Hornblower” books.

BOOKS: Does summer affect your reading?

SESHADRI: I never think about summer reading as opposed to winter reading, or serious reading as opposed to nonserious reading. It’s all pretty serious.

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