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First Asian American Awarded Pulitzer Prize in Poetry

img April 25, 2014 img Categories: Cultural, Featured, News

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Sarah Lawrence professor of writing and poetry and Graywolf Press author, Vijay Seshadris, recently became the first Asian American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his collection, Three Sections. Whether you view poetry as the highest echelon of expression or a rarified indulgence, from ancient China to the salons of Versaille, poetry has often been a benchmark of inclusion in the culture of a place and time. It’s very premise challenges our understanding. As Robert Frost put it: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”

While media reports have emphasized Seshadris being the first Asian American to earn this distinction for poetry, the Pulitzer Prize Board notes, simply, that his work “examine[s] human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless.” His style often plaits frothy philosophical musings into sordid or mundane sketches of modern life. Take for example his poem “Imaginary Number”:

“…to what
could the mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
be compared?

The soul,

like the square root of minus 1,
is an impossibility that has its uses.”

We might speculate whether “the mountain that remains” alludes to Mt. Meru, if only obliquely, before shifting gears into some “Gödel, Escher, Bach” styled existentialism—but it is worth asking whether we should frame Seshadris’ work in terms to culture? Born in Banglore, Seshadris moved to Columbus, Ohio, at the age of five and went on to earn degrees in writing from Oberlin and Columbia University, after being inspired by Thomas Pynchon and 60s and 70s American poetry at a young age. One would strain to read connections to his birth city into his work. There is little that evokes ancient Kannada literature of Banglore, or the modern tech hub now home to Google and Boeing research centers and hailed as the rock and metal capital of India.

I would suggest that Seshadris’ poetry is a well-curated cross-section of contemporary life and thought in Brooklyn. In terms of culture, you couldn’t get much more insular than poetry; and in that pecking order, Seshadris couldn’t have a more modish pedigree. He is the third Sarah Lawrence faculty member to win a Pulitzer in Poetry, and second author on Graywolf Press to claim a Pulitzer in three years. Works like “Surveillance Report”, might suggest social critique, but is more of an ironic exercise in self-observation. Works like “Purgatory, the Film” and “Purgatory the Sequel” might read like a voice-over from lifetime television, annotated with tid-bits of urban Zen— but “Rereading” is filled with compact and lyrical imagery, and seems to tell the wistful story of many lives in under 150 words. And yet, in a recent NPR interview Seshadris cautions, “No one tells the real story of their lives, including me.”

Walt Whitman wrote, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences.” Seshadris’ recognition is not a triumph of outsider poetry nor a nod to the “exotic East”; his is a well-wrought product of the American liberal arts machine. The question to those of us who love the arts and care about the advancement of Asian Americans, but whether or not we are committed to provide the accolades and economic incentives to encourage more bright people to the humanities. Los Angeles is still touted as a creative capital of the world, yet only one of 41 major productions from 2012 and 2013 was shot entirely in LA. Great art has never had anything to do with ethnicity, although it is about a culture of patronage.

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