KR Conversations

Zilka Joseph

Zilka Joseph’s work has appeared in Review Americana, Gastronomica, Cutthroat, and in Cheers To Muses: Contemporary Works by Asian American Women. Her awards include a Hopwood, a Zell Fellowship, and her new chapbook What Dread has been nominated for a Pushcart prize. She works at the University of Michigan and is currently circulating a full length book of poems. She recently published two poems on KROnline.

Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?

I wrote “Death of a Frog” soon after I read an announcement about some newly discovered species. The fact that the creature was the only one of its kind and that it was dead, moved me profoundly. The word ‘maia’ in its name made me think of the Hindu concept of maya, and a number of myths flashed into my mind. Everything sort of flowed together. The poem expresses loss, and at the same time comments on the arbitrariness of things: who is chosen to live or die, be remembered or be erased, honored, saved, or (mis)represented. The part that I struggled with the most was the final form of the poem. I had it in two sections from the start but I needed something to tie them together. I finally realized that the sections would work well if they could be linked by the interpretations of maya. Seems so simple in hindsight!

The birth of “You, Without Shoes” happened when I was thinking of children playing in the mud. It became a collage of images of the monsoon in Kolkata, the silted banks of the Hoogly river where people bathe, and splintered memories of me as a child playing on the beach or digging for mussels on Shivaji Park beach in Mumbai. The feel of mud and the way it gives beneath your feet as well as how hard it is to wash it away quickly is a very tangible thing. That along with shoes and feet, became the metaphor in way for the past, for hard times, and a desire for escape, and its effects. The poem travels into the past and future, and weaves together dreams, yearning, alienation, flight, death, rebirth. This poem was a rare and precious gift because it came together quite quickly. I added a few more lines to sharpen the perspective of the ones “left behind”, the point of view, and that also allowed me to add context, bits of narrative to connect to, whereas before that it seemed to me to be a little too abstract, too distant.

What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?

That I am constantly learning and that there is no one way. Trusting my imagination and intuition. That understanding my own process is key, and observing how it changes and letting it change is really important too. Focusing on that light that comes on in my head when I’m ready to write, letting the poem go “where it has to go”, shielding it from the threat of becoming overly self conscious, and not letting the critical voice in too early. Not reading or revising the poem for a few days after its written, or for a few weeks even!

Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?

Sometimes I read NER, Ploughshares, Poetry, Rattle, Granta, Wasafiri, and Gastronomica–which is an exquisite food and culture journal. I look for work that resonates with me, surprises me, moves me, and makes me curious. I like to browse online too.

Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?

Perhaps there are poets whose processes are described here! To be so very sure of the process (or for that matter anything at all) limits the real work of the poet. No doubt though there may be some small part of what Larkin describes here that may be true to my process as well, but definitions like these make me suspicious –especially because there is the assumption that one size should fit all. Poetry is not a machine or “device” and that it should have such and such effect takes away from the fact that it is a living, breathing, unpredictable creature. It is the result of the most powerful rush of imagination. Only after that comes the slow forging of the raw words into a thing of beauty.

I see the process of writing more as a restless and difficult journey full of turning points. So many times I’m lost, so many times the ground beneath my feet shifts again and again –and my perspective changes. Perhaps “this shaking” is “what keeps me steady.” Because so much of the time I ask myself: who am I, where do I come from, and where am I going? I know for certain that in my search I will encounter Cavafy’s “Lestrygonians and the Cyclops, the fierce Poseidon” over and over and be afraid. Because I know I “carry them within my soul”, but still I “pray the road is long” and that it will indeed be a “beautiful voyage”. Whether I find Ithaca or not, or if Ithaca even really exists, is irrelevant.

In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?

This is tough! I’ll try. The metaphor of journey seems to permeate how I think about nearly everything. Most of my life I’ve lived in Kolkata, India, and my journey–my history, education, experiences and languages all begin there. I believe it is essential to explore Anglophone/world literature, literature in translation, religions, mythologies, folklore and cultures of the world. Also it is important to be aware of/informed about how the histories of and ideas developed by dominant nations and races have influenced (and continue to influence) the way the rest of world and its literatures is represented and read.

Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.

My grandmother and my mother both read to me when I was a child and they first got me hooked on books. Books, art, music, film, food have all played a huge part in my life and still do. Also, the world of nature and science–fauna, flora, space, continues to teach and fascinate me single every day. Both the above have been the greatest influences in my writing. Then my teacher, poet Mary Jo Firth Gillet, who during my early days as a writer in the US (with Springfed Arts-Metro Detroit Writers) first helped me gain critical insight into my poetry. And last but certainly far from the least, the poet who is a great believer in intuition, compassion, and the beauty and power of voice, Lorna Goodison.