Ravi Shankar is an Asian American poet.
By BRYAN THAO WORRA
AAP staff writer
Ravi Shankar is an Asian American poet. He was raised in Manassas, VA.
Shankar is the poet-in-residence at Central Connecticut State University and the founding editor of the online journal of the arts, Drunken Boat. His first book, Instrumentality, was published by Cherry Grove in May 2004, and was a finalist for the 2005 Connecticut Book Awards. He co-wrote Wanton Textiles (No Tell Books, 2006) with Reb Livingston. His chapbook Voluptuous Bristle, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2010.
Shankar’s poetry has been published in such places as The Massachusetts Review, The Cortland Review, and The New Hampshire Review. He co-edited an anthology of contemporary Arab and Asian poetry, along with poets Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, published by Norton in Spring 2008.
Asian American Press recently had an opportunity to speak with him about his work:
Asian American Press: We often talk about how artists got started, but what keeps you going?
Ravi Shankar: Insatiable curiosity plied with amazement at the varieties of beauty peppered with quirky facets that only language can reveal. I also think artists often adopt but don’t often discuss the posthumous perspective, the life looked at from the vantage point of the unliving. There one maps out a sense of destiny that in quotidian life manifests itself as daily choices. To choose to sit with yourself and open your mind is a cathartic act which defines who I might envision to be. In writing I hope to transfix a shared bit of lyric wisdom that we might store and pass as map.
And then doing something like I did last night at Real Art Ways, a terrific art-space in Hartford, which was launch a book with three other poets in a packed room, bobbing on waves of appreciation, to have my own work introduced by Connecticut poet laureate Dick Allen, makes the entire endeavor worthwhile. To be recognized, even by a select but insightful few, makes the writing a double reward.
AAP: What’s been very satisfying project for you recently? And where do you feel you’ve pushed yourself in your latest work?
RS: The completion of my collection of post-pastorals which was a sequence of sixty poems I wrote, all four tercets, all dealing with some aspect of natural or artificial life irradiated through an investigation of the very act of perception. These poem have their roots in Theocritus and Virgil but rather than being populated by shepherds and muses they are peopled by the irreducible entities that surround us. A selection from this series makes up my chapbook Seamless Matter and is a good part of my full-length collection Deepening Groove. But I’m probably most satisfied that I’m not writing in tercets anymore!
My more recent work like a poem on my dislike of bananas coming out in the upcoming Southern Review, this zuihitsu which came out in India’s Caravan: http://caravanmagazine.in/MailThisStory.aspx?StoryId=219 or this trio of poems that appeared in the Brooklyn Rail: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2006/09/poetry/ravi-shankar are more indicative of the direction my work is moving now and I feel like I’m pushing deeper through the use of new forms.
AAP: What are some of the themes you’ve enjoyed exploring through your art lately?
RS: Arc, minerals, storm systems, contractions, loss, gratitude, to name a few.
AAP: When do you know a piece is finished?
RS: Listen to the weight in the gut, like the feeling of an hour spent in the company of someone you are falling in love with, a fullness, satisfying as turning a chunk of agate around in the hand. When nothing jangles, let it sing.
AAP: What’s your artistic process like for you as you start developing a new piece?
RS: I fish, let the wire of words loop in the pond of the page, waiting for something to wiggle. A memory, a twine of twittering, a new fact, wait for it to bloom and spread tendrils that verge towards the heart, to the self who would speak to you when you stop speaking. That’s the space I write towards and I let language in its cornices gleam to seem such sure sound that the writing astounds. That’s my hope and prayer.
Other times, I cut and paste, collage, mull, print out and draw on, just to see what happens. The most important thing is being open to the moment with fullness of being.
AAP: How important is risk for Asian American artists?
RS: Very important. I might warrant even to say crucial. Simply because we continue to be under-represented in the arts world and so we become, irrespective of how we feel, emblematic and it’s up to us to rupture the stereotypes that have so saturated the dominant culture. It’s important to push into and out of one’s heritage, to proclaim with aplomb that we are Asians and we are not consigned to chopsticks, curry and chapals.
We are as freaky, as imaginative, as hard to pin down, as gem-lustrous, as bawdy, as able to write about what we want as any other writer. We need to push the boundaries of our expression to show the world that we are, like Nabokov, messengers between cultures but as American, plagued and gifted by this democracy, as any one else. Perhaps even more so. Therefore we need to push through expectation, both internalized and projected onto us by the industry, to make art that matters. If not us, then who?
AAP: What’s your next project you’d like to take on?
RS: I am in the midst of two projects now, working with visual artist Adriane Colburn on a children’s book about Yellow Yellow, a genius black bear who lives in the Adirondacks, and translating Aandaal, a 8th century Tamil poet/saint and visionary mystic female poet who wrote all her poems before the age of 13 with poet Priya Sarukkai Chabria!
These are poets I’m currently working on and hope to finish this year. I also have an anthology in mind to assemble, which is outtakes and alternate versions of work that were drafted out of novels we know. I am, as ever, very interested in collaboration and look forward to working with other artists and writers. We also have a full plate at Drunken Boat, http://www.drunkenboat.com, including upcoming folios on Homemade/Handmade artifacts, Literary Video Games, and Exploration.
But perhaps most interesting to your readership will be this, which I hope you’ll submit to: Open the City: Drunken Boat, alongside the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, seek works in a variety of media (poems, artworks, essays, photography, translations, architectural blueprints, videos, web work, mixed media, documentary, theatrical production) that respond to the question of Asian and Middle Eastern-American populations in urban spaces.
These can take a particular city as point of departure, can verge to cities around the world, engaging with the notion of how the forces of displacement and accretion intersect to create identity in a particular environment. We envision Chinatown, Little India, mosques in metropolitan areas, ethnic groceries, foreign film theaters, etc. all as possible sites for investigation. Deadline: October 1st. Make sure to select Asian-Americans on the City as your submission’s genre.