An Interview with Shankar Narayan Interviewed by Dujie Tahat, April 2018 · Seattle, WA
Lee Herrick, Fresno Poet Laureate Emeritus, describes Shankar Narayan’s poetry as “wholly original and loaded with compassion, intellect, and lyric interrogation… fiercely talented and equally humane.” A former fellow at Kundiman and at Hugo House, Narayan is winner of the 2017 Flyway Sweet Corn Poetry Prize, and his chapbook, Postcards From the New World, won the Paper Nautilus Debut Series chapbook prize. His work seeks to explore “identity, power, mythology, and technology in a world where the body is flung across borders yet possesses unrivaled power to transcend them.”
Narayan is a 4Culture grant recipient for Claiming Space, a project to lift the voices of writers of color, and draws strength from his global upbringing and his work as a civil rights attorney for the ACLU. In Seattle, he awakens to the wonders of Cascadia every day, but his heart yearns east to his other hometown, Delhi.
So, first things first, Shankar, from immigrant to immigrant, how disappointed were your parents when you told them that you were going to be a poet?
That’s funny. My parents were okay with it because I was also already a lawyer. Of course, my being a lawyer also didn’t necessarily thrill them until I’d been a lawyer for a while, because, in India, lawyers were people who set up desks on the grass outside the Supreme Court, and they just offer to write affidavits for people who can’t write as they’re going into the courts. So my parents didn’t think that that was a very prestigious thing, but they got used to it. I think they would rather have had me be a doctor or an engineer, like most Indian parents would like.
I think they’ve made their peace with that, and they’re happy that I’m doing what I’m doing. They’re slowly starting to understand writing and poetry as being an important part of my life. But it’s always an ongoing process with them. And of course, part of the challenge also is when you write about things that are very personal and involves family or the immigrant experience. In Indian culture, some of these things are really not talked about that much, and so that can be a source of friction. Your parents may not want you hanging out the family laundry in public.
Certainly that’s a phenomenon that extends beyond the immigrant experience, but I’ve experienced something similar. It feels almost like immigrants tend to write more personal narratives in reaction to that friction. The instinct of immigrant families is to be really private and to be closed, but then writers who come out of that put that out in the public—almost shamelessly so.
Maybe one explanation is that for immigrants, at least, the personal is always political. There’s not really a way to separate them. For me, I didn’t necessarily ask for this. I think nobody really wants their body to be the subject of political controversy, and yet the very presence of an immigrant body in a place where the prevailing narrative is that it doesn’t belong—it is a really explosive political thing. So in some ways, just being in a place—and surviving and persisting in a place—is an act of politics for an immigrant.
It always amazes me when writers, especially writers who are white, say, “Oh, you know, I don’t write about politics. I don’t write about that stuff. I keep it out of my writing.” I don’t think we’re really given that choice as immigrants because our entire personal stories are inherently political, just by the fact that we are immigrants.
Does every artist then have the obligation to be political? If you had your druthers, and you didn’t inherently have to write politically, would you not?
In an ideal world—which is not the one we’re in—everybody could write about what they wanted to write, and the choices of the immigrant writer wouldn’t be seen as inherently right or wrong. Part of that phenomenon is seeing the immigrant writer as a representative of all immigrants, or the Indian writer as representing all Indians, or the black writer, on and on.
There is certainly value and power in being able to free writers to write about what they want, and I certainly think that every writer should be able to write about what they want. I also think that, in a world full of power imbalances and where only certain people have the privilege to be able to write about certain things, this is a time when people who are on the advantaged side of that platform have to be aware of it. In some ways, I am. I’m a man. I live in America. I have access to all of these spaces where I can get messages. I think that it is certainly my obligation to write about things that aren’t being written about, and to bring issues to light that aren’t being written about, often because the subjects don’t have the privilege to do that.
Now of course you have to be really careful about that. You don’t want to be in a position where you’re usurping the voice of some other group or exploiting it. And I’ve seen plenty of examples of that as well—in some cases, by very well-meaning writers who wanted to do something good. Part of why they didn’t do it well was because they failed to work with the communities whose voice they were trying to lift. So I’m very conscious of the process mattering as much as the outcome.
I want to talk a little bit more about that process. In the Philippines, a lot of artists view themselves as cultural workers. That’s the framing around which they perceive their work, which I really love because there’s a lot of work that happens ahead of putting pen to paper, or paint to canvas or whatever. What does that work look like for you, day-in-day-out, before you ever arrive at the point that you want to write a poem?
A lot of it is about my lived experience. But I’m also lucky in that I have a day job where I advocate on behalf of a lot of different communities. It goes way back for me. In college I was certainly an activist. And then in law school, I did a lot of work in prisons. I not only represented people who were in prisons, but I led a group that brought together incarcerated individuals with people from the outside to essentially have a weekly discussion. I learned a tremendous amount about what happened behind those walls that was usually completely hidden—by design—from the rest of society. I was able to grasp a really deep pain and sorrow about the lives that were being thrown away and these incarceration settings. I would never purport to speak for those people, but certainly I think have the power to be able to raise up that what’s happening to them is at odds with our values. Just doing that work on a daily basis gives me at least some insight, and actually brings me in contact with those people.
Another example is in the work that I do now. I’m working on technology and liberty issues, which is the future of the world. Technologies are essentially being deployed in a way that differentially impacts communities of color. We’re often not the people that build them. We’re not consulted in how they’re built. They often incorporate biases that we’re on the wrong end of, and they often rely on historic data that we’re also on the wrong end of. These technologies are rolled out, and they have these hidden biases. Yet everyone thinks they’re neutral and that they’re going to solve the problems of our biased world. That’s a real challenge.
In my job nowadays, I come face to face with technological dystopia—whether it’s in the form of massive data hemorrhage or widespread surveillance or lack of checks and balances on government actors or the power of big tech. I filter all of those influences in terms of how they impact my own individual body and mind. You can get some really powerful writing out of that, but also just the process of building solidarity with groups. We do a fair bit of organizing around this work. It’s empowering to have those conversations.
I’d certainly have things to write about if I didn’t have my day job. But I’ve got a lot more because I do the work that I do. For me, these things are impossible to extricate from each other. The creative process is part of the process of living is part of the process of being an immigrant in America is part of the process of caring about justice in this place.
Maybe I’m asking the same question three times now but I’m curious, from your own perspective, what is the relationship between your politics and your poetics?
Oh boy. It’s really inextricable because I think my poetics are a different way to approach and process what happens to me in the world as I fight these various fights for a better world—for the people and the animals and the planet that are on the wrong end of those equations. I started writing because sometimes you just need an outlet. As it turns out, it’s really an effective way to process everything that’s happening. Your mind is wiser than you are. It’s able to make a lot of connections when you really let the brakes off—in ways that I don’t really often get to do in my day job. As a lawyer and advocate, you’re not allowed the freedom that you can take in the creative space to grapple with those issues. For me poetics is an act of surviving politics. You need that different space. When you’re able to engage creatively with these things it makes you a better advocate. Your brain just grows and yourself and your spirit just grows as well.
It helps you find yourself in your own feet in the struggle—which again goes back to survival, but it also goes back to a sort of self-actualization. There’s this Hindu concept of Moksha, and the idea is: you get closer and closer to liberation with every lifecycle. And, for me, poetics and the act of creating is one way that I make this life everything that I think it ought to be. I feel like I’m a lot of steps closer to liberation because I’m a poet.
Obviously for you, your identity is wrapped up in your politics, but do you think that it’s true or necessary for identity to inform poetics?
It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way for everybody. But then again, identity is crafted in so many different ways. I came to this country as an adult and nothing can really prepare you for the way the United States is. There’s deep structural racism and inequity here that’s really embedded in ways that are very different from any other society. India has virulent anti-blackness, for example. Dark skin color is really deprivileged. But the way that the power structure interacts with individual bias is very, very different from what it is over here. So, in some ways, the process of writing has allowed me to grapple with the differences.
My identity is as an Indian and my identity is as an American as well. There’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in not only identity but the trappings of identity. The process of developing identity is part of the stuff of what you create about.
In some ways your question has a chicken and egg problem embedded in it because what makes your identity if not your creative process? I can’t imagine extricating those two. At the same time, part of what we have in this society is an erasure of whiteness because it’s always the default. It’s not considered its own identity. It’s very interesting to think about a white person sitting down and starting to write. Maybe that person may think they’re not writing their identity, but of course they are because their identity is all around them. It just happens to be the dominant one in this society.
Part of the enterprise of survival and creation here is trying to become a whole person. As immigrants, we’re always in that struggle. We’re always told that we can only be one part. We are essentialized into the brown person in the room. For Asians, we’re all supposed to be the model minority. We are all tailed by all these stereotypes that follow us around about what we’re supposed to do and what we’re supposed to look like.
Constraint is an interesting concept when it comes to the idea of the immigrant. There are a lot of ways that that resonates—at an individual level, and structurally. In terms of craft, what’s your view of constraint around form specifically? What’s your relationship, as a poet and immigrant, to that constraint?
I do some form writing, but I’ve never loved it. And I think you’re right that there is a connection.
Going back to my life experience and forming my poetics, there were very specific ways in which my immigration status constrained me from doing a lot of things. From 1993 when I came to the U.S. to 2010 when I got a green card, I felt like I was always on thin ice. I still do. I don’t want to say that that’s gone—it’s just lessened in degree. But I felt that thin ice in every interaction. It was underlined by this idea that you could be packed up and funneled out of the country. So even if you got in a bar fight when the other person was being aggressive and rude and they were clearly wrong, you have to walk away from that. Any interaction that could escalate, you know you can’t engage. You have to think about every single thing you do. And that was a very constrained existence.
Maybe it’s for that reason that I really like to allow my poems to find their own forms. I don’t pretend to know what the form of a poem is when I’m writing. And my poems often change forms when I’m not satisfied. It’s what you might call a poem’s self-actualization. Is this the form the poem really wants to be in? It feels like trying to free the poem, so that it can communicate across constraints. I would rather the poem find what it wants itself to be.
It’s not that I don’t write in forms. I occasionally do. But the particular forms I choose are often the forms that have resonance for me across borders and boundaries, like ghazals. Ghazals are a good example. I love writing, not necessarily strict ghazals, but ghazals in the form. It’s a big part of my life just as popular entertainment. I listen to ghazals the way other people listen to pop songs. I love the poetry of them, and that informs my writing—it’s probably why I like to write in couplets a lot.
If self-actualization as a human is asking yourself a series of questions, are there a specific set of questions that you ask of the first or second draft of a poem?
There’s a complicated alchemy that goes into a poem that you get better at over time. It’s not because you’re a better poet with a capital P or a better writer with a capital W. It’s just because you know yourself better. And so to the extent that the poem is a manifestation of a collaboration between yourself and the world, you’re uncovering those things that make the poem work.
A lot of what I do is by feel. There are many ways to write about one thing. I often write poems about the same theme or sets of themes seen through different lenses or even seen through the same lens in a totally different form. And I don’t feel that I necessarily have to choose “the best poem” because there are many ways to say the same thing. But among the questions I ask myself: Is it all here? I decide what’s in and what’s out. And if I go back and it doesn’t feel right to me, and I feel like there’s something else that needs to be said, I will I will bring that in—maybe by even having another session where I generate more material to go back to the poem.
I ask also whether the poem sounds good. A lot of my work is driven by sound. I see it as sanding and smoothing, so I often read poems out loud. If I trip over a word or if I’m having trouble even after the third or fourth reading, I’ll just go back and change the line however I’m saying it rather than try to continue to force something.
I also think about the truth of the poem. Not whether it’s literally true or false, but really the underlying philosophy of it, and whether it feels true to my own spirit. And sometimes, I realize through that question that I wrote something that was actually at odds with what I intended to write. That can be illuminating—because often my intent really doesn’t matter. The poem is telling me something more true than what I had intended. That could be one result or, conversely, it could be that there is really a different poem to be written there, and so I’ll try to find that.
You’re a lawyer in your day job. Do your poems lay out an argument? What are you trying to do with them in a structural sense?
I fear I may have erred using the word intent in that last answer. It’s not necessarily that I go into writing with an intention. In fact, I think it’s important to strip that and let your pen flow. But necessarily what comes out is going to be a lot of things that I’m concerned with—including things from my day job and my life, things that worry me, things that I want to memorialize. There are a lot of different kinds of poems I write that bring in those pieces in different ways, but I’m not really putting them together with the intention of crafting an argument or even with an intention of creating a collection of poems around a certain set of things.
I do write series of poems. Sometimes, I’ll just spark my own creative process by deciding I’m going to take these five myths, these five technologies, and these five pieces of Hindu scripture, and I’m going to draw a random web between three sets of these things and I’m going to write about that. I’ve given myself an arc, but I haven’t predetermined what I’m actually going to write. I don’t see it necessarily as trying to put out arguments that support my work. But in practice, to the extent that being a poet is part of being this whole human being, my work and my poetry are inextricable.
Many people think of law as a word game—certainly the way laws are created and interpreted and maybe the entire body of jurisprudence. I think a similar thing can be said about poetry itself. How do you draw a connection between the two? Do you ever apply one kind of logic to the other?
I think lawyers and poets do require a similar skill set. The more articulate and the more creative you are, the better poet and the better lawyer you’re going to be. There are very rigid ways to look at law, where there are statutes, and you’re supposed to stay within the bounds of those statutes and take that to the court, and if it’s not there, it’s not there, and if it is there, it is there—and someone’s going to uncover the objective truth. But for me, my favorite forms of lawyering are creative. You can draw more things out of those statutes. You can actually interpret the arc of them to stretch into the future that we don’t even know yet. I’m occasionally a litigator, but a lot of what I do is actually advocate to build structures of law for the future that will allow us to deploy technologies in ways that are fair, transparent, and accountable. That’s an exercise in creative thinking that’s really a lot of fun, that requires melding so many different things, that requires keeping a lot of things together in your head.
And it is true that less creative lawyers are just not as good lawyers. And I’ve actually seen law students I’ve worked with just be completely constrained by the extremely narrow legal education they’ve received. They think, “Okay, well the court said this about the Fourth Amendment, and therefore it’s over. We can’t do it.” And a creative lawyer would look at that and say, “Hey, here are these ways to try to move the doctrine forward. How do we get from here to there?” To do that, you need those synapses and neurons that are unconnected to start to connect with one another. You need to be articulate, and you need to be able to bring people along as well.
The other thing that is also important for me in poetry is although I’m I’m creating my works in solitary ways, I’m also using them to connect my experiences to the experiences of other people. And so building a poetry community has been one of the things that’s been really important to me about writing. Now that I have it, I can’t imagine life without it.
That rigidness of interpretation that you were talking about—the strict law school education—I think that’s related to something I’ve been thinking on a lot lately, about people who think they just don’t get poetry.
That’s a lot of people.
Right? I think a lot of that has to do with how words are just inherently imperfect. They’re imperfect containers, and they’re completely dependent on context. There is this backward-looking and forward-looking thing that’s happening, where words never do quite what they were intended to do. So it’s funny for me to hear people say things like, “Well, I just don’t get what it’s saying.”
As if as if there’s one answer. And I want to be clear, you don’t have to teach law that way—not to beat up on lawyers. Every field has these challenges just in different ways. I also work with a lot of technologists, and they have a lot of blind spots around values and ethics because we’re only just starting to incorporate those into a technologist curriculum. But I think we do ourselves a disservice when we when we try to make something so rigid that we can’t break out of the confines of that.
My law school education happily was not like that. I didn’t necessarily learn all that much black letter law. We didn’t go and study statutes of law. We mostly argued about the philosophy of law and what it ought to be. And actually, I think that served me pretty well. To pass the bar exam I had to take a separate Bar Course, you know, but on the whole, I think that’s a better deal because it allowed me my creative freedom. And it’s unfortunate when I see young lawyers that don’t have enough of that and feel like they’re just stuck in a box and can’t think beyond that.
What is the role of place in your work?
Boy, place is really central and foundational to my work. Every time I see one of those contests about the poetry of place, I don’t know what to send in. I could send in all of my work.
I think so much of my work is about this very strange idea of diaspora and how we are connected to all of these people that have come before us, and are still out there in different forms and ways. Again, going back to the immigrant body and whether the immigrant body should even exist in a particular place—how does this world and these rules around bodies, and rules around particular kinds of bodies, impact an individual. The very act of trying to live in two places.
There are immigrants who come here who just sever their ties to where they came from. And then there are immigrants who never really entirely come here. They know they’re going to go back, and they never really make that investment. I’m really a 50/50 person. And there are not that many of us. For me, I can be Indian in India and American in America. And that takes a lot. Part of my poetry is exploring how that is even a viable enterprise. Is it inevitably going to burn up the person who attempts it given the rules of the world that we have? And if you do it, how can you do it in a way that’s sustainable?
Also, there’s this amazing place we live, here in Cascadia. Delhi is an amazing and unusual place, and Cascadia is also an amazing and unusual place. I love both of them really, really deeply. I know both of them really deeply. They are so different from each other, so you can get a lot of really strong poetic energy out of the shared love—and the immense, intense differences—between these places.
On this idea of diaspora, I’m curious whether you view yourself as having no place, or all places, as yours? Or is it somewhere in between?
My nature is not to believe in borders.
I have always wanted to erase borders. Not just governmental borders but all kinds of borders. More recently, a lot of my work has focused on the borders between bodies—the borders we impose on ourselves in our interactions with other people. So for me, my spirit is certainly an all-places kind of spirit. It doesn’t mean that particular places aren’t more special to me, but I do think that it’s important for me to embrace everything because that universality is, again, one step closer to moksha.
Yet there are days when I feel like I have no place in the world, right? So there’s always that flipside of being in America and not being American enough—which manifests itself in all kinds of ways, over and on top of the usual racism that every person of color faces in this place. In India, of course, it’s the reverse. You’ve become Americanized by going to America, and you’re never going to be Indian enough. And, of course, who presumes to tell you that you’re more or less Indian? There are so many little ways in which that gets illustrated. A lot of my relatives live big city lives that are similar to big city lives anywhere, whichever border they are located across. And it’s not clear to me, talking to them, what makes them more or less Indian other than just physically being in that place—which is its own important and complicated thing.
There’s a lot there to unpack about that, but my dream is a borderless world where we’re free. And we don’t have to worry about whether you can come back if you cross.
How do you reconcile a borderless world with also drawing poetic energy from a particular region? What are some of the aspects of a region or a place that define it then?
I mean, these places have never been defined by borders. And the proof of that is just the fact that these borders haven’t always existed. These borders have moved around. We drew these lines—by we, I mean the people with the privilege and power to do so—and you can see immediately how arbitrary they are.
In India, someone drew the line of partition. People just fell on the wrong side of it, and huge numbers of people died just because that line was drawn. Over here, some of our states literally just look like squares—literally lines that take no account whatsoever of the natural body of the earth. And that’s a really unfortunate thing as well. That arbitrariness is certainly one reason why these political borders have always seemed questionable and fake to me. They never seemed like they were important to pay attention to, and certainly for me, it’s always been very random—like watching sporting events, for example. People cheering for a tennis player just because they happened to be an American tennis player as opposed to someone else. And then, how the rules change if that tennis player happens to be American and black—maybe the rules shift if they’re playing a white player. So that’s particularly interesting.
But for me the energy really is in the land, the people, the animals—whatever your view on whether the Earth has a spirit or soul—the planet and its features, Cascadia, the mountains that surround us, the trees, the sky. I like to take my motorcycle around on forest service roads and find really, really big trees. It’s an incredible thing to explore here and an incredible privilege. In fact, soon after I came back to writing a few years ago, I took a motorcycle ride up to Alaska, and I was able to really physically see so much of the entire Cascadia bioregion, just by riding from place to place, stopping wherever I felt like, and talking to people in those places. I was able to talk to first nations people on the Canadian side and Alaskan natives on the Alaskan side, and see the political contrasts of how they had been treated. All of those things enhance your understanding, and they give you a sense of the big picture and also give you power to speak about these things. So for me, it’s not as much about political boundaries as it is those beings that that live in those spaces—maybe to take it full circle.
We’re talking about place now and we started off talking about immigration, being an immigrant and the immigrant experience. There is a certain privilege in being able to choose the place that you end up. So what about this place made you decide that this was it?
I have a bilingual poem which goes back and forth between Qawwali, talking about someone making a pilgrimage to Mecca, asking the prophet to fill their bag, and interspersed English lines, and one of them is, “Perhaps this is why you loved the Cascades before you ever saw them.”
When I came to this place, it was just like a revelation of love that I’d always had. I thought, Wow, this is an incredible place. It was probably no more complicated than that. I just fell in love the moment I came here. I really love Cascadia. It’s an amazing place. It’s just beautiful and open. It felt like it connected with my soul in a way that it probably connects with a lot of people who choose to live here. And, there’s that drive to connect with nature. I’m a very outdoorsy person, and I’ve always been since I came to the U.S. I went to college in Maine—did a lot of hiking, climbing, canoeing, and all those things. And when I came out here, my eyes got really wide because there’s so much of that. But I think that also connects to my drive to preserve these things, and my alarm that they’re going away.
It’s probably also not unconnected to the fact that I come from a place where it’s difficult to take a breath. I can see how literally the act of breathing in Delhi is chopping years off the lives of my friends and my family—and in fact, probably in just the month I spend there every year, chopping years off my life as well. There’s a contrast there. And in some ways, the impulse to find a very different place is one reason I ended up here.
Thank you so much, Shankar. You’ve been so generous with your time. To close, do you have any upcoming work you can tell us about?
I would be very happy for folks to read my upcoming chapbook Postcards from the New World, from Paper Nautilus Press. It meditates on many of the themes that we’ve discussed. There’s going to be a launch reading at Hugo House on April 25th too, which will be a lot of fun. And then stay tuned for what looks like two upcoming collections: one is called Animal Border and one is called Circuit Breaker. I think they’re both going to be very interesting and very different from each other.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.