Keep the Question in Front of You: A Conversation with Vijay Seshadri on Spirituality, Consciousness and Poetry

Though I close my laptop and go to walk the dog, I notice there’s something following me; all afternoon into the late evening. It’s consciousness.

I had just spoken with Vijay Seshadri, Pulitzer-prize winning poet of four collections and the current poetry editor of The Paris Review. Our conversation inevitably circled in on questions related to being. Existential questions, I suppose, I had put on the shelf.

As I walked the length of the dirt road outside my sister’s house, I heard these questions reverberate. What about God and humanity’s relationship to other conscious beings?

Among pods poking through roadside foliage, insects zipping past, and the sprinklers of the neighboring yard charting their path over evenly cut grass in the distance, I wondered: when did I stop paying attention to these things?

Seshadri credits his early spiritual formation to being the child of scientists, as well as 1960s America. The anti-war attitudes of the period alongside civil unrest, and an instinct to consider nature as sacred, developed in him what he would call “a tremendous unworldly-ness; the thing to do is to get away from the world because it is the world itself, and materiality itself, that is corrupt.”

“There was a real serious earnest desire to take human experience back to its roots and recognize what the underlying responsibilities were in relationship to the world. And that was very much a part of the initial ecology movement,” Seshadri says.

This could explain, perhaps, why Seshadri went on to spend most of his twenties living and working outside on the coast of the Northwest. But when asked about his spiritual beliefs, he replied, “I don’t quite know how I would characterize what I believe and what I don’t believe. Or how I would sort of…”

Who can relate?

Although Seshadri will say he has been a “fellow traveler” among Christianity, he retains an interest in mystical traditions, and remains a steadfast student of Philosophy, saying he could always “approach these topics with a certain amount of philosophical skepticism, but also really use that skepticism as a positive force.”

I was lucky to sit down virtually with Seshadri for a chat about existentialism, consciousness, poetry’s role among the unrest and dis-ease of our times, and the details of his new book of poems, That Was Now, This Is Then.  What did Seshadri have to say about being — in the here and now — which happened to be July 10th 2020? I asked the questions, and he asked them right back.

Scheppers: Tell me about the kind of spiritual upbringing you had early on? 

Seshadri: Very early on, I came across and felt the force of what is called the question of being. The way the question of being is formulated when it first occurs in western philosophy, in Parmenides, is why is there something instead of nothing at all? Why is all this here? Where did this come from?

I always loved the feeling that asking that question, and feeling its force, gave me. And I always thought, this is a religious experience when you can feel the force of that question. Because you understand the world as this numinous presence that is utterly mysterious.

Whitman famously says, “I and this mystery, here we stand.” And that sense of mysteriousness of things was something I always craved. And I still crave it.

Scheppers: That quote of Whitman’s, “I and this mystery here we stand” – where and when have you felt the presence of that?

Seshadri: Oh, it’s been a running feature of my life. It’s a state of consciousness. The force of that question, the question of being, comes upon you. And when it comes upon you, is when you least expect it, where you’re just on the edge of something and you see how incredible it is.

And, of course, the question of being is very much taken up by Heidegger and existentialists. And then…I was always in nature. And when you’re in nature, you come into contact with the sublime.

But interestingly enough, my life has settled into a pattern. And I tend to forget these things until the summertime. In the summertime, I go up to Vermont and you can really do a lot of star gazing. I always love it…So, of course, the cosmic question comes over you – you can’t really avoid it.

Scheppers: When you live in the city it’s easy to feel a lack of the sublime. Recently I drove to a friend’s horse ranch in South Dakota, and found myself crying with joy because I felt so starved of those experiences. 

Seshadri: It’s really easy to forget what we are. So easy. But then, when we know who we are, there’s nothing to do with it, right? It’s too vast and enormous and you have to come back to your own little life. Like, how am I going to pay the bills? Am I ever going to finish this book I’m writing?

Scheppers: How does your spirituality or attitude or mindset connect with your writing life? 

Seshadri: I just wrote the introduction for The Essential T.S. Eliot, and in that, at one point, I write that “The Wasteland” poses a question to which the only answer can be God. And that the rest of Eliot becomes a search for that answer.

It’s not quite clear whether Eliot finds that answer, even in the Four Quartets (1943). He becomes a Christian in the middle of the 1920s, but a lot of that is Christian identity–Christianity as culture, as civilization.

The real achievement of [Eliot’s] spiritual life, I think, is that he was always able to keep the question in front of him.

It was never an issue of finding the answer. Because the question isn’t even a question. It is only the limitations of our language that make us see it as a question, the limitations of our conceptualizations. The thing that is the real kind of unity of all the different forces in our life is actually something that is beyond our capacity to express.

I recently had a poem published in The New Yorker, “The “Estuary.” It’s replete with nature and its relationship to human activity and human society. And that poem has no answers, but it ends with three questions.

And, so, I would say, to stay in the interrogative mood is the real spirituality. People who say “this is what God is” or “there isn’t a God” are being foolish.

Pope Benedict was the last pope, right? He was a conservative, but said, if you’re truly an atheist or truly a believer, then you’re really close to each other. Because both of them have to deal with the power of what they don’t believe. The true believer always has to confront the fact that there’s no evidence for this. And the atheist always has to confront the fact that, well, how did all this come to be?

If you’re sincere in those beliefs, then you have to acknowledge the opposite of your beliefs. If you’re really an honest thinker about these things. You can’t really adjudicate in a way that’s satisfying to the rational mind what it is you believe and what it is you don’t believe. You just have to linger in that feeling.

And that’s probably what constitutes spirituality to me. It’s not resolution of any sort. It’s the ability to exist in irresolution.

Scheppers: Alongside spirituality, you have religion. I’m wondering whether you have a practice or ritual. Do you find philosophy (or writing) as a form of ritual? 

Seshadri: I think rituals are very important because they focus the mind. They give the mind clarity and commitment. If you’re going to church every week you are a part of a community. If you’re getting up every day and meditating, you are connecting yourself regularly to the world around you. They are really wonderful things. Unfortunately, my life has been ritual poor.

I get up and organize myself to write and I see writing as a practice, or I get up and do yoga or I meditate and do these things. I have faith, but I don’t really have focus or form.

As far as spirituality is concerned, I’ve always had probably a tremendous arrogance. And if there is a hell, I will probably be there burning in it.

When I was 17, I went to Oberlin and they had just established this independent study where they offered a month spent living in a farmhouse under the Trappist Rule. And so, I immersed myself in the mystical literature of East and West, but mostly West, and really kind of wrestled with those things.

But there was a monk there – a writer, and also a Jungian psychoanalyst who studied in Austria and Vienna. I told him that I was trying to legislate a spiritual experience, and he thought that was very funny. And he also thought, oh my god. Because, for him the central thing is the grace of God. It’s God’s grace, and God’s unilateral grace, that allows you to even connect yourself to God. You can’t just sit there and arrogate to yourself.

The spiritual experience of saying, okay I’m going to see the universe, is something that was certainly central to the way I thought about these things. So, I always felt that joining a church or being a part of a practice, which is collected, or becoming a part of a Buddhist order, leaving aside all the theological questions – I kind of always felt about myself that whatever it was, it was between me and God.

And that was reinforced because I grew up in this social and racial isolation, and so I did not think I belonged to any group. I was always tremendously isolated in school, so I never developed that bond to school institutions, which become the basis of one’s developing bonds to other institutions. So ritual practice, I think they are good for other people, but I always tend to feel like, well, I’m way beyond that.

There’s an interest I have in ideas that I’m always feeding. And that is my practice — that I’m always engaged with these big ideas, in reading the kind of texts I do, and touching reality through those texts, or through music. If I listen to Bach for example, that constitutes a spiritual practice for me. Or I look at art. I think I am probably within a practice in a sense as such a devoted consumer of visual arts, musical arts, or literature. I read deep and difficult texts and really enjoy reading them.

I mean, I think reading Moby-Dick is a practice, right? It’s great because it is such a metaphysical adventure. You know, the thoughts that Melville opens up are so profound and connect you to reality in such a profound way – and isn’t that what prayer is supposed to do? Isn’t that what meditation is supposed to do?

Scheppers (we had paused our conversation so Seshadri could walk a dog he was caring for): How was your walk?

Seshadri: So, as I was walking, I thought, well, you need some answer about this whole spirituality thing. And I haven’t been invasive, but I’ve been confused. What I can tell you is that all of these complicated theological considerations and issues in my mind have resolved in this way, and have made themselves apparent in this way: that in my poetry I’m obsessed with consciousness. And that we are conscious. That we are who we are. And we are conscious that we are conscious. And the mystery of that.

Certainly, people who commented on 3 Sections have pointed out that that’s what it was about.

And consciousness might be the receptacle of the divine or it might be the divine itself. But the attitudes are certainly not Western. They are eastern. Buddhism is preeminently about consciousness. And in the West, Heidegger comes down to it – dasein – the word for being in the world, being here. What he’s concerned about is that consciousness is such that it is the thing that takes care of things. And that’s what consciousness means – to be caring.

And I was thinking about it in relation to the dog, right? I was saying, well this is a practice. Taking the dog out, caring for this dog. You know, this dog is a perfect idiot. I mean, she’s just amazing – she still doesn’t know her own name. But I’m taking care of this dog. I think that’s – in fact, I have to give her some water.

Caring for something allows you to be aware of that thing in such a way that the awareness expands and expands and expands. If there’s anything that you could point to and say this corresponds to spirituality, it would be that. This kind of involvement in the world can be expanded to the point where it encompasses larger and larger aspects of the world. I mean the act of writing a poem is the act of becoming aware of your experience in some way. And knowing what the essence of that experience is.

Scheppers: I’d like to know about your new book set to release in October, That Was Now, This Is Then (Graywolf Press). How did this book come together?

Seshadri: The central gravitational force of the book are a series of elegies: one to my mother, a large one to my father, and one to my friend Tom Lux. Those are the three people. They contain the center of the book. The rest of the book is really about my real encounter with death and time. Death and time are imbricated in each other. And you know it is only through death that you recognize the passage of time.

So, it is very much a book about time, but deeply a book full of feeling.

Through that whole period when I was writing 3 Sections, I was taking care of my parents, and so when they died, I thought, I’ve been through the whole caregiving thing, now I’m going to be the abstract poet that I wanted to be. Instead, I wrote exactly the opposite. Very, very personal. I couldn’t dictate to myself what the poems were going to be.  They were going to be this, or they weren’t going to be anything at all.

Scheppers: Tell me about the elegies to your parents.

Seshadri: The long one to my father just came out in APR and the one to my mother was published in Salmagundi Magazine a few years ago, and it isn’t really an elegy in the sense that it’s kind of set in a time before she died.

I had written an earlier elegy to my father, thinking, Ok, they are dead, I’ll write these elegies to them, and that will be it, and I will move on, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?

But with my father, what happened was that, interestingly enough, I went to Yaddo last June, the artist colony, supposedly famously haunted…And I kept dreaming about my father.

We had a reading soon after that and I told the audience that I’d been having these dreams every night about my father when I’d been at Yaddo, which is a place haunted by ghosts. And I know why he was haunting me, it was because I had written him a poem after he died. And I’d written my mother a poem after she died, or right before she died. And the poem to my mother was better than the poem to my father. My father was haunting me because he was getting really angry in comparison to that.

Although, the difference between my father and my mother was this: My mother didn’t quite need me to write her a poem. She was such a triumphant person. She had had terrible things happen to her in her life, but she had somehow overcome them.  My father was deeply wounded by experience, so in fact, the real truth of the genesis of the longer poem that came out of the shorter one was, I wrote the short one because I didn’t really want to think about my father’s pain. Because my father’s pain was my pain, but then the pain wouldn’t…I mean the whole image of being haunted by him is a way of allegorizing that. It was always there. I could feel his life out for him. And my sister and I both kind of feel this way for him.

Scheppers: Where are you finding peace in your life right now?

Seshadri: Well, I’m not finding it in reading the news. I’m not finding it in thinking about the election. I’m finding it in reading and listening to music. Reading a lot across a range. And in the class I taught today. I really felt, Oh, I miss teaching. I don’t like this zoom thing, but I realize a lot of the instability I’ve been feeling is because I don’t think I have a job to protect me from all the things that are going on in the outside world. I don’t have daily considerations that I have to attend to that anchor me somehow. But preparing for the class, organizing it, teaching it…and then having a couple of conferences after with individual students, was just so relaxing. Here we are, we are talking about literature! It was just so much what I needed and what I’d been missing.

Scheppers: Right now in the world, the pandemic has set the stage for many people, especially Americans, to be reflective in their own participation in racial injustice and the system of white supremacy. Where have you felt called to any kind of action and conversation around this topic? Is there a particular kind of action you’re hoping people take?

Seshadri: I have been doing a lot of incidental writing having to do with this. I don’t think I have a large contribution to do with this. And if I did, it would be writing. I would write about these things. But my experience about racial injustice has been, on the one hand, so intimate, and so complex, because I remember the sixties when cities were burning. And as a person of color, growing up in the Midwest, I was kind of exposed to a lot of this experience and certainly the psychological violence that people undergo has always been a feature of my life. I have complicated feelings about it and this is not a time for complicated feelings. You know?

There’s a question of whether poets have as a role at a time like this. I’ve read a lot of poems that have to do either with COVID or racial injustice and they don’t seem to really strike me as having added anything to me.

I think what’s been good in the literary arts in this period is journalism. I mean there’s been a lot of bad journalism. But some of the good journalism has been not just good, but great.

And the whole situation is still white hot. It’s still extremely volatile out there. And there’s so many things that are piled on. And, so yeah, I wouldn’t even go near that question, because there’s no real answer to the question.

Scheppers: Well, maybe your answer could be in the form of a question, which would seem in keeping with your style. 

Seshadri: Yes, it is good to live with questions. What is the question? Wittgenstein famously says “one must put the question marks deep enough down.”

And it’s really a question now of whether we are putting the question marks down deep enough.

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