Behind the Scenes with Ravi Shankar
Ravi Shankar is the force behind Drunken Boat, and one of the first contributors to our second issue. We first met at Oulipo in New York, co-sponsored by Drunken Boat. Here is the fruit of our recent conversation:
LEE BERMAN: Could you talk about the process of writing “Louis & Zelda,” in particular any formal constraints employed?
RAVI SHANKAR: Absolutely — in fact the poem that eventually ended up being written was quite distinct from what I had initially envisioned, which was a tritina with the added constraint that each stanza need include a colon. I’ll include the poem here, simply because it’s a piece that continues to resonate for me, though it was not suitable for UpRightDown because it was insistently lyrical and not narrative.
An Unverifiable Theorem
The gun once introduced must be forgotten
because its snub-nose gives a pocket the weight
of syllogism: no posthumous event can affect us.
Or, say, after it occurs, death cannot affect us:
it’s impossible to imagine what we have forgotten
when who we were no longer has any real weight.
Stripped of consciousness a body has the weight
of water evaporating from a lake: breath leaving us.
Once introduced the gun cannot be forgotten.
The weight of the forgotten: not what leaves us.
When I heard back from UpRightDown, I was told that I needed to tell the story of episode one, by including all or most of the narrative elements. So it was back to the drawing board and I decided to take a completely different tack. In the case of “Louis & Zelda,” my constraint was very simple: writing the entire piece as one sentence, a nervous system populated by a ganglia of clauses, each expanding upon and extending into the details of the first episode. I created a back story, fleshed out my impressions of the characters, give them a certain psychological dimension and complexity, with the hope that I might harness the momentum of the narrative to end, as Raymond Chandler might have counseled, on the pivotal gun. One breathless sentence, parsed into couplets and ending with a colon.
LEE BERMAN: Let’s talk about narrative poetry. Is the distinction narrative vs. lyrical (or prose vs. verse) important or valid to you? What was it like to turn a given narrative (plot episode 1) into verse?
RAVI SHANKAR: A source no less eminent than Helen Vendler has divided all poetry into lyric or narrative (sending aside the epic mode for now), so it’s a division that surely resonates for me. The lyric poem leaps, while the narrative poem develops; the space of the lyric is interiority, while that of the narrative is the external world; lyric poetry, to crib Walter Pater, aspires to the condition of music, while narrative poetry seeks out story; the lyric is about emotion and narrative, motion. Of course neither mode exists in a vacuum and they interpenetrate in most great works of poetry, but still I find it valuable to think in terms of song and story.
It was a challenge to turn a narrative into narrative poetry, simply because my predominant method is (neo)lyric; therefore I exploited enjambments and internal rhymes, allusion and analogy, all as means of differentiating my poem from the prose episode, even while telling the same story.
LEE BERMAN: As founding editor of Drunken Boat, you’ve been cross-fertilizing among the various arts (prose, verse, video, fiction, photography, web art, etc.) for years. Any advice for us novices at UpRightDown?
RAVI SHANKAR: First and most obviously, persistence is key. We just published our tenth anniversary issue this spring, yet pushing each issue out has been less certain than giving birth to a child. It feels every time like an impossibility, and it takes a great concurrence of magic and effort, sprinkled with a healthy dose of things beyond our control; for example, we published audio tapes of an interview with Norman Mailer because I happened to be teaching with one of his biographers and he had these audio tapes languishing in shoeboxes in his attic, which we then digitized. And in order to spread the word about our magazine we had to engage in guerilla-marketing, from dropping off postcards at bookstores around the world to emailing countless writers, artists and arts organizations. There’s nothing wrong with a good dose of shameless self-promotion.
Next, take advantage of the vast network of distribution and mechanisms of exhibition available online. We’re committed both to the egalitarian distribution of art and literature and to publishing work that could not appear in print. Our paradigm is essentially different than that of our print counterparts and keeping that always foremost in our minds helps us move forward. We publish audio of a poet reading alongside a poem, we LOVE works that use the medium of the web as part of their compositional strategy and we welcome work and readers from around the globe.
Finally, live events. We like to supplement our publication with performances, or in the John Cage vernacular, happenings, that bring together writers, artists, video and sound artists. These events give the journal a vitality that we would otherwise lack and help bring together the disparate worlds of multimedia arts in a tangible form.
LEE BERMAN: What is your earliest experience of poetry (reading it, writing it)?
RAVI SHANKAR: Most likely my earliest experience with poetry was attending ritual Hindu ceremonies with my parents, where most of the liturgy was in Sanksrit. Hearing the syllables of an ancient language whose connotative meaning I could not grasp yet whose music bubbled in my bloodstream and profoundly moved me was probably one of the foundational moments in my creative life. I realized then, even though I was not conscious of it, the power of orality, of the breath and of sound moving through the air, and those lessons propelled me into my first novice poems.
LEE BERMAN: Name the one book you would take with you to a desert island.
RAVI SHANKAR: I’m tempted to play the Borges card and take some Library of Babel with me, that book that contains all other books, though that’s unfeasible and a cop out. Wow — when I’m confronted with such a question it brings me to the limits of my own erudition — do I take a book I’ve read multiple times and gleaned new insight from each time, like Moby Dick, about which Alfred Kazin said “gives us the happiness that only great vigor inspires”; do I take a book I’ve always meant to read but shamefully never have, like Finnegans Wake or Remembrance of Things Past? Do I take something like the Rig Veda or the Bhagavad Gita that provides the recurrent spiritual tropes of my heritage, else those thinkers, some Heraclitus or Emerson, who have spoken most poignantly to me? In the end, I could not choose, so I think I would take the one book that in a sense does contain all the others — the Revised Webster Unabridged Dictionary of 1913. I would spend my time on that island as a lexicographer and a wordsmith, poring over etymologies and mouthing pronunciations until I was ultimately washed over by sand crabs.
LEE BERMAN: Name the one movie you would take with you to a desert island.
RAVI SHANKAR: Hmm…well, if forced to make a choice, I think I’d take Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy: Blue/White/Red. For one, Kieslowski is a true master, for another the trilogy’s re-imagination of the political ideals of the French flag –liberty, equality, fraternity — still resonate for me on multiple viewings. I love how the films work together and separately, with lucidity and ambiguity, in narrative and in metaphor. They are for me the cinematic embodiment of Keats’s idea of negative capability and take the tropes of the comedy, the drama and the romance and turn them completely on their head. Plus Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irène Jacob are sexy as hell and stranded on a desert island, I think I just might find such company useful.
LEE BERMAN: Name the one web site you would take with you to a desert island.
RAVI SHANKAR: Of course this answer will be seen as equally evasive as the Borgesian response to a desert-island book, but I would have to say, after thinking of and discarding many sites that encompass music, literature, politics and culture, that I would bring along Google. That’s pretty lame I know, and yet in my daily creative life, the multifaceted search engine has transformed the way I work in such a fundamental way that I can’t imagine life without having such a resource at my fingertips. So, sheepishly, I have to go with that most orthodox of responses.
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