By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong
Recently, The Center for the Humanities at UC Merced hosted a poetry reading and book signing for Merritt Writing Program faculty member Vanesha Pravin, whose book Disorder was published in 2015 and won the American Academy of Arts & Sciences Sarton Poetry Prize. We spoke with Pravin about her training as a poet, her love of writing about everyday objects, and the influence of a transnational family with roots in Asia, Europe, Africa and North America:
In press for your award, Robert Pinsky noted, “a central challenge for American art has been the confluence of immigrant histories. Rising above the conventional approaches to that material, urgent and severe, Vanesha Pravin’s Disorder attains a global and historical perspective uniquely personal yet wide-ranging.” Could you discuss whether concepts of transnational or cosmopolitan identities have played a role in your development as a writer? If so, how?
The poems span four continents – North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. My mother went through four citizenships, my father went through three, and I also have two passports. Since I spent half of my childhood in England and the other half on the East Coast with parents who were mostly raised in Uganda and Tanzania, I feel like I’m a hybrid of different identities. These European, Indian, American Southern, and New England sensibilities all shape the way I interpret the world and capture this interpretation through language. Partly from the influence of different languages, but also having had, at one point, a British accent, and at another point a Southern accent, I’m sensitized to sound, rhythm, and cadence, and attuned to the sound patterns of language.
Several of the poems in Disorder take readers into the past based upon everyday objects the speaker in the poems encounters, such as the trading cards from boxers from 1910 in The Pharmacist’s House. Can you discuss the role objects have in your writing? Do they seem to have a life of their own?
Many objects have longer lifespans than humans. When the speaker finds the trading cards, she is thinking about their origin, too. Who bought these cards? The boy who spent hours sifting through them and then, in time, abandoned them, moved away, forgot about them, aged and died. When you hold vintage objects, you’re reminded of your own mortality because when you think about the objects in their original settings, you’re aware that they have outlived their owners. So yes, the objects do seem to have a life of their own. When you’re dusting an object like the wooden elephant in the opening poem, you have a whole range of associations that that particular object triggers for you, but the object also exists independently of your own associations. It usually means something very different for another observer who projects a different set of associations onto it. In that respect, the object can be like a talisman for the different people who possess it.
How long have you been writing poetry and when did you first consider yourself a poet?
I’ve been writing poetry since I was a child (with long breaks since then), but I didn’t commit to it as a vocation until I was a young adult.
What kind of training do you have as a poet? Did you study under particular poets? How did they influence you?
I learned a lot from reading widely and studying books on prosody throughout my formative years. I also took creative writing workshops and classes, and attended readings by poets like Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Glück. Later I took poetry workshops with David St. John and Holly Prado, and worked one-on-one with the poet Laurel Ann Bogan. Then I went to grad school at Boston University, where the training was rigorous and I was able to study under Robert Pinsky, Maggie Dietz, and Louise Glück.
Each writer has taught me something invaluable that has shaped me as a poet. Laurel Ann Bogen taught me how to “find the poem.” Sometimes the poem gets buried and you have to dig it out from the mass of text. You might have written a page and a half, but the poem only comes alive in the 3rd stanza and the rest is superfluous, so you have to ruthlessly cut. At BU I was pleasantly surprised, shocked even, at how generous my professors were with their time, giving us extensive feedback and critiquing our revisions. Robert Pinsky was wonderful – an incredibly supportive mentor. I’ll never forget a long letter he sent me with spot-on feedback, which was instrumental in helping me think through the blocks in my work. He advised me to go Zen with certain poems because he thought the readers needed a break between the more intense poems, and that turned out to be essential in figuring out the organization for my book. Robert also introduced me to the work of poets I’d never heard of, like Fulke Greville. Maggie Dietz was also a great teacher. She led workshops on topics like meter and publication, and through those workshops I became much more aware of the subtleties of craft. She also taught me the value of exercising restraint, which really influenced me when I was shaping Disorder. Louise Glück was a force and terrifyingly psychic when it came to dissecting the work. She once spent 50 minutes critiquing one of my poems — I felt like I was going to pass out by the end, but I absorbed it all and internalized the feedback in such a way that the poem took a radical new turn during revision. Louise would also conference with grad students on weekends, spending an hour with each of us. She was also very supportive of my thesis. You hold on to those words of encouragement after you leave BU, during the long droughts where nothing happens and you process rejection after rejection.
In the back of Disorder is an appendix: a family tree. Why did you decide to include this element in your book?
The book has so many characters that it would have been difficult for most readers to map out the relationships without the tree. I struggled for a long time trying to find the right order for the poems. It didn’t work well to have the poems arranged chronologically. So the poems jump back and forth in time – the juxtapositions of past and present turned out to be essential in creating both momentum and highlighting the constant intrusion of the past into the present. So, since the reader already has to do some work figuring out the timeline, I wanted the tree there to at least provide some clarity about who the characters are.
Several poems in Disorder discuss first and second wives in the family history of the speaker. Could you comment on writing about the complicated relationships among women in families depicted in your book?
Well, we’re talking about a time and a culture where you did what you had to do to survive. As a descendent, I was born in a time when I was able to take a Women’s Studies class at 16, so I had to be careful not to write exclusively and patronizingly from the perspective of a 21st century, educated woman. The second wife is also 16-years-old, the daughter of a poor farmer who can’t afford to keep her, and he arranges a marriage for her. From a young age, she is made aware that, as a girl, she is a burden to the father who must find another home for her. She is expected to develop the coping mechanisms and adapt to this awkward situation, and also to respect the first wife, her elder. Poverty doesn’t grant you the luxury of stewing in your feelings. The first wife is also forced to face the reality of her situation – since she can’t bear children, she understands that she must find an alternative and accept the new family dynamic. She knows the second wife will finally bring children into the family. Obviously, there weren’t many options for women in that era, so these women developed the means to acclimate and minimize the drama. There weren’t the daily catfights that you might see in a contemporary reality TV show.
In the case of the two wives in Disorder, after the children come, there is also the daily grind of survival with the additional pressure of young children, so it was imperative that they find a way to make it work and get on with the business of living. The second wife, by nature, was levelheaded and not a complainer, and any resentment harbored by the first wife did not interfere with their joint efforts to run the household. So the challenge for me was to write from their perspectives, and not to turn it into an ethnographic study.
In several poems, including “Sleep, Wake, Sleep,” you write about the Central Valley. How does the local landscape and its peoples influence your poetry?
I spent a lot of time walking through fields and orchards, and taking country drives just to clear my mind. It’s meditative — observing the things of the world that go unnoticed. I love the stimulation of cities, but I also love being refreshed by a space where there isn’t a single human being in sight. Although the Central Valley landscape is the backbone of that poem, it’s not really about the Central Valley – and with any mention of people, I was referring to humans in general. Writing “Sleep, Wake, Sleep,” I was thinking of those drives out in the middle of nowhere where the sky overtakes the land and you can successfully, almost effortlessly, distance yourself from the network of humans. You see maybe a town on the horizon, and you feel insulated from the sort of madness that comes from rampant over-sharing, which has become a poor substitute for authentic connection. That madness in our culture is muted by time spent in the natural world.
What are you working on now as a writer?
I’ve got a few projects that I’m working on, but I’m focused on revising another collection of poems. It’s a very different animal from Disorder, so I’m not applying the same writing strategies and criteria that I relied on for that book. This means I have to be somewhat ruthless with my own work, discarding what I would have gladly preserved in the past. This is simultaneously an invigorating and unnerving experience, to acknowledge that I’m right back at the beginning, hunting for meaning and sense.