Award-winning writer Vijay Seshadri discusses the writing process, and the mysteries inherent in crafting world-renowned poetry.
Vijay Seshadri teaches at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Photograph by Bill Miles
“A writer doesn’t dream about writing. A writer writes.”—Vijay Seshadri
One might expect a writer as accomplished as Vijay Seshadri to simply snap a finger and summon brilliant words from empty air, as if by instant and effortless magic. In reality, he describes, the act of creating a poem, article or book manuscript is much less mystical and much harder work.
“When it comes to writing, there’s really no process that I’ve been able to discern, other than constantly beating my head against a wall of text until I can make it yield something,” says Seshadri. “To be a successful writer, you have to develop the stamina to sit with a difficult problem—of the poem, essay or short story—until you can wrestle it to the ground. And that’s something that you acquire over time.”
Such a perspective is based on hard-won experience. Born in Bengaluru in 1954, Seshadri moved to Columbus, Ohio, as a young child and first aspired to a wordsmith future at age 14. “I wanted to be a writer because I read and read and read,” he says. “That’s all kids like me did in those days. There was no Internet or computers for us to rely on.” Seshadri discovered contemporary poetry as he was entering college, and crafted his first poem that same semester.
In 1982, Seshadri moved to New York City and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University, through which he started studying Indian languages. Simultaneously, his poems were being published in several renowned magazines. He then entered the university’s Ph.D. program in Middle Eastern Languages and Literature, through which he studied Persian and Urdu. A South Asian study trip to Lahore, Pakistan, convinced Seshadri that a shift away from his Ph.D. program was needed. “I was interested in South Asian politics; the history of partition, in particular. But, I decided on that trip that I most definitely did not want to pursue an academic career,” he says.
Seshadri returned to New York, unemployed and unsure of his next step. Fortunately, he found an opportunity with The New Yorker, a literary and cultural magazine that had published several of his poems over the years. Seshadri worked as a copy editor with the magazine from 1993 to 2000. At the same time, he began teaching poetry at various schools in the New York area, all while his poems continued to win publications and gain acclaim. In 1998, he joined the Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, first as a guest faculty and then, in 2000, as a regular faculty member. He has been instructing aspiring writers there ever since.
Throughout his career, Seshadri’s creativity, perspective and work ethics have earned him success that few poets achieve. Among other accomplishments, he received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, arguably the most prestigious award of its kind. His winning work, “3 Sections,” was described by the Pulitzer committee as “a compelling collection of poems that examine human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless.”
He has also received grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
To young writers, who hope to achieve similar success through their creativity, Seshadri’s primary advice is simple: read. “You write to exercise the obsession of your imagination and you read to feed that obsession,” he says. “You can’t be a writer without being a reader.” Furthermore, Seshadri reiterates, successful aspirations are rooted in actions. “Writers should always be striving to produce things,” he continues. “They should also find communities of like-minded writers, because I don’t think that a writer writes in isolation, but in relationship to smaller and larger communities. And, they should always strive to share and publish their work.”
When it comes to writing itself, Seshadri says, a combination of tenacity, patience and flexibility is key. “I still don’t really understand how you write a poem,” he adds, with a laugh. “Sometimes, you just work at it, even writing the same text over and over again until it’s done. Other times, it’s easy, like taking dictation. But it’s never quite the same with any piece of writing.”
The process of writing can be long, hard and painful, continues Seshadri, “but it can also be a way of restoring the balance that human experience has taken away from you. It’s healing, restorative and truly exciting.”
In August 2019, Seshadri was announced as the 12th poetry editor of The Paris Review, a literary magazine featuring original writing, art and in-depth interviews with well-known writers. In an interview to NPR after the appointment, he said that editing can really broaden one’s aesthetic. “The lack of repetitiveness and lack of familiarity is exciting and bewildering in some way,” he said, specially when he’s going through unsolicited submissions at the Review and discovering exciting voices. “You kind of feel that something new is happening, among all of this chaos and turmoil.”
In 2020, Seshadri released a new collection of poems titled, “That Was Now, This Is Then.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.
This article was originally published in November 2018