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Polemic, Prose Writer, Poet & Chef: An In-depth Interview With Anis Shivani

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Anis Shivani is the author, most recently, of My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012) and The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012). A novel, Karachi Raj, is forthcoming in 2014. Books in progress include a novel called Abruzzi, 1936, a poetry book called Empire, and a book of criticism called Plastic Realism: Neoliberal Discourse in New American Fiction. I talked with Shivani about his latest poetry collection, the state of poetry and the demise of the literary critic.

Loren Kleinman (LK): When did you decide to become a writer? And which genre do you prefer? Poetry or fiction?

Anis Shivani (AS): It would be easy to claim I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I knew shortly after college, but before that social science could easily have been the route I could have taken. Part of me always wanted to make an immediate difference, and so politics was attractive too. Art can seem like a frivolous enterprise, and I used to feel guilty because I wasn't doing something immediate to help people -- like feeding and teaching, that sort of basic thing, and animals too. Often anything besides alleviating immediate human suffering seems ridiculous, just vanity. In academia I could foresee endless petty politics which turned me off, so I tried to overcome my extroverted character and turned sharply inward. Like any other writer, I convinced myself that writing is permanent and that I was suited for it. I was actually expecting to find purity and innocence in the writing world. I doubt that even the cesspool of Washington politics is as corrupt and petty. So there you go, there's no getting away from pettiness, no matter which profession you choose.

LK: How would your peers or friends describe you in 10 words or less?

AS: Passionate is the word most commonly used by those who know me. I have always been passionate in my convictions and feelings, I spare nothing of my emotions, I don't believe in short-cuts or compromises, I am a perfectionist, and I expect the same of those who are closest to me. No half-hearted measures with me. At the same time I'm also thought to be very friendly and polite by anyone who knows me, gentle and romantic too, despite my Socratic side. I don't indulge in the collegiate type of argument anymore, it's a waste of time. It's better to concentrate on love and beauty.

LK: I'm still trying to decide if MFA programs benefit or minimize writing. At times, I feel they prey on writer's vulnerabilities in the sense that getting an MFA validates a writer's ability to write well. I think great writers are born out of great experiences. Experience is where you find your voice, and then comes the study of writing. In Against the Workshop, you provide a critique of twenty-first century literary production in America under the MFA/creative writing program system. Can you give readers an idea of why MFA programs might mass-produce writers, and how that's affecting our literary landscape? Are MFA programs overrated?

AS: I think MFA programs are an absolute disaster for writing. A whole class of generally overprivileged people (who typically accede to white bourgeois norms) are being taken from more productive scholarly pursuits (the humanities in general) and being validated as "writers," all the while discrediting any tendency that emerges outside the institutionalization. It's a corrupt monopoly. Big money is at stake, a vast bureaucratic apparatus is in place to weed out troublemakers at every level. In a recent article in Poets & Writers -- their MFA issue, although every issue could be called an MFA issue -- on the psychology of applying to MFA programs, George Saunders admits that "We [screeners] are looking for some hint of something very special that would make that person fun to work with" (emphasis mine). The MFA directors at the top programs interviewed for that article repeatedly emphasize that polish and accomplishment in the writing samples are not the main criteria. The idea is to take someone with an interesting personality and mold him or her into a future teacher, someone collegial and vivacious and eager to perpetuate the MFA credo. In that forum, as in other house organs, criticism is explicitly excluded from consideration of literary quality and publishability. Editors at the top houses always talk in vague terms about falling in love with books, with never the slightest hint of awareness of literary history. It's all about market-tested formulas for what sells to the least common denominator (though even in those terms the marketing strategy is a failure) and then eliciting that product from willing participants: indentured intellectual labor to perpetuate the myths of empire and exceptionalism. The trade journals are increasingly relying on simply advertising the writer's credentials -- Stegner, Iowa, Provincetown -- instead of applying any critical acumen to the work in question. It's a cesspool of corruption, nepotism, and dumbed-down idiocy that has pretty much destroyed literary culture. I don't know how we can produce anything worthwhile until this system goes into eclipse, but that's like asking for Homeland Security to go away. It's not going to happen.

LK: What's wrong with poetry today? Is there anything wrong? What is the literary community missing? What could save it?

AS: Nothing's wrong with poetry. Everything's wrong with the "poets" who come at it like a career, with a sense of instrumentality and pragmatism. Poetry comes from inspiration, experience, mysticism, vision, ecstasy, transcendence, clairvoyance, prophecy, apocalypticism, decadence, misery, eroticism, not from sitting in a classroom with your bourgeois concerns about sex and relationships, and giving it a semblance of art with the acquisition of "craft" taught by masters of the profession. You can learn this sort of skill at a writers conference or your nearest MFA program, but what they can't teach you is anything that goes into the creation of real poetry. So they all sound alike, interchangeable, and poetry, because of this monopoly of MFA programs, is nearly dead in this country. No one in the real world gives a damn about poetry, and that's as it should be, because of the abysmal narcissistic product coming out of the system. People go to these programs thinking that a few years of networking will make them into poets, and then live under the grand delusion, having been through the networking, that they have somehow become "poets," and that person X or person Y, without the equal privilege of having networked, is not only not a poet but beneath consideration. That's the kind of arrogance that substitutes for talent these days in the necrophilic poetry world. And why not, they have every reason to feel they've won the war. The boondoggle of contests is a case in point, it's often the gregarious pretty people with the most faith in the MFA theology who win major national contests. Or as Saunders candidly admitted it, they're the ones who are most fun to work with. That's all the system is doing, screening out and keeping away, while preparing and polishing future believers. This monopolistic system has become ruthlessly transparent about its exclusive practices. As a young person who wants to be a writer, the only daring thing you can do is to boycott and blacklist this corrupt system, which wants to make not a poet but a bureaucrat out of you, much as in the bad old days of Soviet social realism. You can learn everything you need to learn to be a writer on your own. You don't need them. Be free, save your money, and fight the good fight against these doctors of socialization.

LK: Let's talk about your latest poetry collection. What was the inspiration behind My Tranquil War? How many years did it take for you to complete the collection? What was your revision process like?

AS: My Tranquil War, because it was my first collection, took many years to write. I would say that most of the poems in it are from the mid-2000s, although some are from later than that and some go back before that. I was trying to find a voice that would capture the turmoil of that era, without indulging in didacticism or righteousness. None of us came out untouched from that period, none of us remained pure and innocent, and that was the real loss. I was overwhelmed by the sheer speed of events, the acceleration of time that seemed new. This sort of acceleration happens very rarely -- society can take only so much of it before it slows down again. There's a poem in the book about Abu Ghraib. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are very much a presence in that book, as is domestic oppression because of the new reach of empire. The challenge was, how to turn all this into poetry that lasted beyond the moment. I excluded maybe 10 poems for every one that I included, good poems that had appeared in good journals, so each poem in the book represents a bunch more in the same vein. I excluded a lot, but I don't revise my work extensively. If I don't like a poem, I just discard it and start a new one, rather than worry about revising a flawed one.

LK: You often take risks with fresh images and embed them in traditional poetic forms such as the sonnet, which make the surprising image stand out more, make it more lasting. Lines that resonate with me are from the poem "John Ashbery's Discovered Childhood" from your recent poetry collection My Tranquil War. It reads: "They've seen, in silent breakfast trays, evidence of a crime,/sunless and discreet, whose trail leads back to a hungry Christ." Should poets be concerned with taking more poetic risks? Why? So what?

AS: Of course poets should take more risks. Genres quickly congeal into convention and become useless for further discovery if one doesn't take risks. Aside from objectively situating one's own writing in wider literary history -- identifying trends and fashions that have outlived their time and those that still have something to give -- it's also important to question your own recent work and move on, even discard it when the time is right. I was more of a formalist when I began but that felt like a risk at a time when formal conventions were more often dismissed. I'm basically an experimentalist but I don't fit into any of the existing experimental conventions -- language poetry, or conceptualism -- so it's hard to classify me. I think risk consists in bringing the whole weight of the poetic tradition to the work you're doing rather than settling for an isolated ghetto -- even if the ghetto happens to be prestigious for the moment -- and standing guard against unwelcome intrusions. If a poem from the past is any good at all, it's always available for the next poet who comes along to do something interesting with it. A poet never runs out of resources to plunder. It's good to be 8 or 10 different poets over the course of one's career.

LK: What is your favorite poem in your recent collection My Tranquil War? Why?

AS: I have a number of sentimental favorites in this collection, especially because it evolved over such a long period of time, about a decade, so all the ones I picked to be part of the collection stood out for very special reasons. I've done a lot of readings over the last year which gives me a chance to better understand these poems. "Dear President Bush" always goes over well in readings; it's not easy to humanize someone like Bush, but perhaps one reaches such a point in the enormity of evil that at some ridiculous level one begins to identify with the evildoer, becomes him in some ways, or else why would he have so much power over us? "Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital" is an enjoyable poem to read because of the sense of madness that comes across -- the madness not of the poet but of the society too quick to condemn any original mind in one's midst; poor Ezra wouldn't even get his feet off the ground in today's punitive culture, he was lucky to have lived when he did. I read "The Revolt of Islam" last month at a public library in Houston, and this poem represents a lifetime of frustration about how all political ideologies soon become vehicles for self-oppression -- using religion in the sense of political ideology here, of course.

LK: I consider you the last standing literary critic. What is the value of literary criticism? Why is discourse important? How can you convince writers and readers to pay attention to it?

AS: Literary criticism is in serious trouble. I had hopes early on that the internet would be a savior but lately the internet seems to be in serious decline and criticism is suffering as well. The old gatekeepers are making their presence felt in a big way again. It's all become a culture of self-promotion and pretending to be nice in order to promote your brand, which may not have a real intellectual foundation to rest on -- but it's difficult to tell the pseudo from the real with so much self-congratulation going on. Criticism requires someone to take the posture of an outsider; one may have the knowledge and skills of an insider, but to be a good critic one must come at a work of art from the outside. If the culture as a whole derides the very notion of objectivity and is hell-bent on promoting narrow political agendas, then of course criticism isn't taken seriously. The critic will come off as a clown, an insane person driven by jealousies and rage, because that is how to looks like to the real prisoners inside the cage. MFA culture has no place for literary criticism. How can you introduce that notion when you're supposed to take yourself as entirely self-contained, operating according to an autobiographical spirit all your own? Criticism would shred that notion in a minute. So we have ignorant people convinced that they're doing something new and interesting because they never learned to take criticism seriously. That's the loss when criticism is dead.

LK: Do you see yourself in any of your characters from your short stories? Who? Why?

AS: In my collection The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, from the story "The Abscess of the World," I suppose the naïveté of the lead character David -- a Princeton student who goes to South Asia on a mission to study native culture first-hand -- resonates with a side of me that used to dominate early on. I don't think I'm naïve in any sense of the word now but I used to be. I've become more innocent as time goes by -- as I'm sure every writer does -- because without that one cannot write interestingly about the world, one cannot be a cynic and get to the heart of things. But naïveté -- in the sense of giving too much credit to people's sense of integrity -- that's a different thing. In the collection Anatolia and Other Stories, there are a number of characters that reflect the sense of imprisonment I, and I'm sure many other artists and writers, felt during the last fifteen years or so, the sense of things closing in, confinement and oppression. I felt the same way as the Jewish merchant in the title story, "Anatolia," who is more patriotic than his Ottoman hosts themselves and who has his face rubbed in the dirt precisely for this sense of believing in the native ideology more than the natives themselves. I used to be a patriot too, but I have been permanently cured. As I think about this though, it occurs to me that there are no characters in any of my fiction that really come close to who I am. I do not write autobiographically. Certain characters may reflect aspects of my concerns at a given time, but there is nothing of my own personal life in any of my characters.

LK: Are there any new writers that have grasped your interest?

AS: I'm not sure if he qualifies as new, since he's been writing for a while, but Dave Brinks of New Orleans is one of our very best poets and deserves more critical attention. He's experimental and lyrical at the same time, in a way that I think very few poets have been able to pull off in recent years. I'm tremendously impressed by Rana Dasgupta's novel Solo, which I would rank as one of the very best of the last decade, the epitome of what the global novel should strive to be. Fady Joudah's two recent books, Alight and Textu, are both amazing; he's moving poetic discourse in an interesting direction, showing how political awareness can direct poetry without mangling quality. Each of Harvey Hix's books teaches me a lot, and I admired Nick Twemlow's recent award-winning book of poetry a great deal. These days I'm more likely to be impressed by a young poet than a fiction writer, for a number of reasons. At a reading last year in Chattanooga, I discovered Michael Joseph Walsh, Joe Hall, Kyle McCord, and Aubrey Lenahan for the first time, all fantastic poets in their own different ways -- and that was just one reading! So there are many many young writers doing really interesting work.

LK: What is the one book that you think everyone should read?

AS: That's difficult to answer. Books that have transformed me at different times in life include Robinson Crusoe, Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, Sentimental Education, An American Tragedy, 1984, Tristram Shandy, Midnight's Children, Harmonium, and The Waste Land. Let me go with Nabokov's Lolita. It's arguably the greatest book of the twentieth century, a no-holds-barred assault against everything bourgeois society holds dear to its heart. It teaches that language is victorious over every form of oppression, therefore we must each try to discover and shape our own verbal ingenuity against those who would rub us into nothing.

LK: What else do you love to do outside of writing? Do you have another passion?

AS: Lately I have become a passionate and very skilled chef and it seems to me there's no end to how good one can get in this area. It's tremendously fulfilling and has the same kind of excitement I felt in my early twenties discovering the great novels one after another. Great cuisines are the same way. I love to explore all the other arts, and I love to travel. I have been on some massive road trips across the country the last few years and have explored many of our great national parks. I love camping and hiking and being chased by bears. There's a good chance I'll die in a road accident if I keep this up, in which case there'll be one less literary critic to contend with.

LK: If you were stranded on a desert island, what writer (from the past) would you bring with you and why?

AS: If it were someone from the present I would pick Orhan Pamuk (although whether he would put up with me or not I don't know), because he's simply the nicest, kindest, all-around best human being I have met. He would make exciting discoveries on that island and populate the place with his imagination. He's the kind of person who makes you see the world in new ways, which is the whole point of art. If I were to pick someone from the past, I think Orwell's dialectical combativeness couldn't be beaten. It might not be fun to be stranded with him, but it would be incredibly lively. We would fight to a draw on patriotism.

LK: You're writing a collection of sonnets now. What's the title? What's the collection about?

AS: I've actually finished writing that collection. It's called Soraya, and it's a series of 100 sonnets, all very thickly layered and complexly connected with each other, so that it's possible to see it as one long poem, of course. I had tremendous fun writing the book last spring in a furious burst of activity. And everywhere I've read from it people have been pleased. It's purely focused on play of language. Of course I hope a larger meaning comes across despite the overt attention to language, but I just wanted to have a lot of fun with it and I wanted the reader to experience a tremendous sense of verbal energy and excitement, and to appreciate, therefore, the glimmers of transparency all the more when they emerged through the packed density of this kind of writing. Writing Soraya changed my poetry for good.

LK: Where do you see the literary community/landscape headed in the next five years?

AS: The good writers will keep doing their work regardless of the literary community/landscape, and who cares about that abstraction anyway? It's mostly a bunch of self-promoting mediocrities or else would they be part of the landscape? Dave Brinks will keep writing his great poetry, for example, and so will Ron Padgett and Jerome Rothenberg and Bernadette Mayer and Eileen Myles, and screw the landscape, whatever that means. The landscape will get worse though. It will get abysmal in the next five years. The big publishers exemplify the victorious religion of moronism. Amazon will continue its destructive behavior. Everything small and authentic and meaningful will get swallowed up in the big maw of self-promotion and brands based on nothing artistic. Literary critics will be tarred and feathered, people's conceptions about writing will get narrower and narrower, and yet the number of people undertaking writing will expand exponentially. But like I said, who cares? Those who need to write a certain way will find a way to keep writing and get their work into the hands of the right audience. That's always been the case and will remain so.