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Pulitzer Prize winning author of ‘3 Sections’ on seeing the big picture with poetry

June 26, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
Vijay Seshadri says his early experience of being an immigrant allowed him to see the panorama of American society. The 2014 Pulitzer Prize poetry winner for his book “3 Sections” was born in Bangalore, India, and came to the U.S. when he was 5 years old, and eventually settled in New York. Jeffrey Brown talks to Seshadri about his approach to writing and what makes this a golden age of poetry.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: becoming an American, becoming a poet and now a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Jeffrey Brown is back with the story.

VIJAY SESHADRI, Winner, 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: “First, I had three apocalyptic visions, each more terrible than the last. The graves open and the sea rises to kill us all. Then the doorbell rang, and I went downstairs and signed for two packages, one just an envelope, but the other long and bulky, difficult to manage, both for my neighbor Gus.”

JEFFREY BROWN: The fantastic and the everyday.

Vijay Seshadri uses disparate worlds together in the beginning of his poem “This Morning.” It’s part of the collection “3 Sections,” which has won him this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

For a quarter-century, Seshadri’s poems have appeared in the pages of “The New Yorker” magazine, where he once served as a copy editor. And for much of that time, he’s also taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.

In fact, New York, especially the Brooklyn neighborhood where Seshadri’s lived for nearly 30 years, serves as the setting for much of his writing.

VIJAY SESHADRI: I’m always kind of looking at things.

And — and, I mean, detail serves two functions in poetry, right? It kind of — it allows to you create a world. And that’s what’s important. You have to kind of recreate the world. And that’s — that’s an old rhetorical obligation of all writers.

JEFFREY BROWN: What am I seeing here? What am I observing?

VIJAY SESHADRI: What are you observing?

For a poet, I think, yes, the details of the world are sufficient in and of themselves, just the beauty of the physical world.

JEFFREY BROWN: That world wasn’t always the city of New York. Seshadri was born in Bangalore, India, in 1954. His family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 5 years old, so that his father could pursue a postdoctorate fellowship in chemistry, first in Canada and then at Ohio State.

VIJAY SESHADRI: It was the America of the ’60s, and the new Asian immigrants tended to be clustered around academic institutions, which we were. And so the initial experience was one of isolation, and then the experience became, out of that isolation, developing a relationship to society.

JEFFREY BROWN: After graduating from Oberlin College, Seshadri headed to the Northwest, working in the fishing industry for five years and for two months doing research on a boat in the Bering Sea. He eventually found his which to New York to study writing at Columbia University and settled there.

The details from those years of adventure, as well as those spent raising a family, all find their way into his poetry.

VIJAY SESHADRI: I mean, the poem is a process of discovery. Sometimes, you kind of know, because you have the end. And the end is like a moment.

And then you have to build the poem to that. But most times, you just sort of go on your instincts. And I think this goes back also to my being an immigrant, that I tend to sort of gravitate to the big picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why is that connected to being an immigrant?

VIJAY SESHADRI: Because I think, if you’re an immigrant, you’re sort of on the fringe of society. You see society as a whole. You see panoramas.

You kind of want to take in the whole thing…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

VIJAY SESHADRI: … because you might not have any place in any particular aspect of the society you’re in, but you can embrace all of it.

“There’s drought on the mountain. Wildfires scour the hills, so the mammal crawls down the desiccated rills, searching for the fountain, which it founds, believe it or not, or sort of finds. The thin, silver sliver rises from an underground river and makes a few of the hot rocks steam and the pebbles hiss. Soon, the mammal will drink, but it has first to stop and think its reflexive impeccable thought. The thinking comes down to this, mystery, longing, thirst.”

JEFFREY BROWN: And just thinking about the Pulitzer is one of those moments when the public, I guess, is aware of poetry in America. What do you see?

VIJAY SESHADRI: What I see is this incredible explosion of writing, which is fantastic.

I mean, there’s so much good writing in this country, and it’s all over the place, and it’s various. It’s as various as the country itself. This is a golden age for American poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Vijay Seshadri, thanks again, and congratulations.

VIJAY SESHADRI: Thank you.