SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Couldn't we all use a little poetry? "That Was Now, This Is Then" is a new collection by Vijay Seshadri, one of America's great poets and a Pulitzer Prize winner. When we spoke earlier this week, we asked him to read his poem "Robocall."
VIJAY SESHADRI: (Reading) Three or four brand-new ideas, not crisp or sensical but still helpful to me, slipped entirely from my mind when I ran to get the phone and heard, once again, the 1-800 voice of the one saying, if I am he or she or they, who are here when the last star hisses out, why am I talking to you? I was thinking of you this morning, but why you? (Speaking Spanish). Another day ruined by the question of being - when will they just let me sit under my guava tree, eating my guavas, thinking my quarantine thoughts, nursing my mortified body?
SIMON: That phrase, quarantine thoughts, hits us in a whole new way these days, doesn't it?
SESHADRI: Yeah, it sure does.
SIMON: Your poetry's so engaged with the world. Is it harder to write when we're living this way?
SESHADRI: I think my observations as a poet occur in between the activities of my life. There are always these sort of gaps through which things come into the deeper areas of my consciousness. So, no, I don't feel that it's that much more difficult. And, in fact, poet friends I've talked to find it easier to be away from the daily changes of actually being in the world and around in the world.
SIMON: We will explain for people who are just getting to know you that you were born in Bangalore, grew up in Columbus, Ohio. I gather your father was a chemist - professor of chemistry. What do you think made you a poet?
SESHADRI: I think a lot of it had to do with coming from one civilization to another, and also coming to America at a time when there wasn't much immigration into America. And we wound up in a situation of, essentially, you know, cultural, social, racial isolation. That isolation, I think, tended to throw me back on my imagination as a kid more than I otherwise would've been if I'd been, say, in India, you know? And so it was natural in a time before television took over in the way it has now that I would fill my isolation with reading a lot. And so all those things kind of became inevitable.
SIMON: Do we all find a way of expressing our poetry?
SESHADRI: Yeah, I think so. Absolutely. What we call poetry, I think, riddles and penetrates everybody's life, whether they realize it or not. And it's as simple as creating a narrative of the things you're doing in a day to something as complex as reconciling yourself to things like grief and things like devastation. I would appropriate all of that for the realm of poetry.
SIMON: I did want to wind up our time together getting you to read "Visiting San Francisco." This is a poem about a breakup, right?
SESHADRI: Yeah, it's a poem about trying much later to sort of reconcile a breakup and make it whole somehow.
(Reading) What can I say? What more can I say? How much more vulnerable can I be to persuade you now that I have persuaded myself? Why can't you just let it go? Well, at least I'm in San Francisco - San Francisco, where the homeless are most at home, crouching over their tucker bags under your pollarded trees because your beauty is as free to them as to the domiciled in their deadbolt domiciles. Your beauty is as free to the innocent as to the guilty. The fog has burned off. In a cheap and windy room on Russian Hill, a man on the run unwraps the bandages swaddling his new face, his reconstructed face, and looks in the mirror and sees the face of Humphrey Bogart. Only here could such a thing happen. It was really always you, San Francisco. Time will never darken my love for you, San Francisco.
SIMON: Vijay Seshadri - his new collection of poems "That Was Now, This Is Then" - thank you so much for being with us.
SESHADRI: Thank you for having me.
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