Underworld Lit, Srikanth Reddy
Wave Books, 2020
2021 Griffin Poetry Prize • International Shortlist
The 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June
Srikanth Reddy’s previous book, Voyager, was named one of the best books of
poetry in 2011 by The New Yorker, The Believer, and National
Public Radio; his first collection, Facts for Visitors, received the
2005 Asian American Literary Award for Poetry. Reddy’s poetry and criticism have
appeared in Harper’s, The Guardian, The New York Times, Poetry,
and numerous other venues; his book of criticism, Changing Subjects:
Digressions in Modern American Poetry, was published in 2012.
A recipient of
fellowships from the Creative Capital Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation,
and the National Endowment for the Arts, he is currently professor of English
and Creative Writing at the University of Chicago.
Underworld Lit is very much constructed as a book-length project. How did
the project first present itself to you, and what did you learn through the
The book kind of happened by accident, beginning with the
(long-awaited) news that my wife, the poet Suzanne Buffam, was pregnant. Three
days later, I received a phone call from the health services at the university
where I work, informing me that I had cancer. So, as I’ve often said since
then, birth and death were suddenly in very close proximity in my life, and in
the most unexpected way. To make things even more surreal, it seems that my own
kind of cancer, a malignant melanoma, is extremely rare among people of Indian
descent. So things were feeling sort of freaky for a while there.
At the same time, I was teaching a class called “Readings in World
Literature,” and feeling sort of haunted by the common ‘set-piece’ in the epic
poetry of various cultures, where the poem’s protagonist has to descend into
the underworld and emerge, hopefully intact, with some sort of knowledge that
would help them on their way. So I began to think about my own
experience—birth, death, world lit—in terms of this kind of descent, but in a
comical sort of way. I hardly felt heroic during my own medical treatment, and
maybe even less so as I fumbled my way through parenting a newborn. So
slapstick, or at least some sort of droll satire, seemed like the right tone
for such dark material.
The book, I guess, began out of this midlife crisis on steroids. I
thought, why not write a sort of autofiction—but with the freedom to depart
from ‘reality’—as a diary of a bad year, told by an untenured junior faculty
member who’s dealing with fatherhood and his own medical treatment while
teaching a class called “Underworld Lit”? Now, with regard to the last part of
your question, what did I learn from this process, I can’t really say, but
that’s how the book sort of bubbled into existence!
exploration of form throughout this collection, what is it about the poem that
holds your attention? What is it about poetry that anchors your attention from
falling more fully into the lyric essay?
With the benefit of hindsight, I
think I can see now that the poem is ‘about’ formlessness in various
ways. There’s the dread of death, which is one’s passage from bodily form into
what looks like formlessness. My wife would explain to our daughter, when she
was a toddler, that we don’t disappear when we die, but we become other things,
like a star or a flower; that seemed to work, because those forms were legible
to Mira, but to me as an adult, I couldn’t imagine a form for myself if my
medical treatment failed. (Fortunately it didn’t, so I’m out of the woods now).
The prose poem, more than a lineated poem, dwells on the edge of form and
formlessness. You can’t discern a lyric form there, but it isn’t formless,
either. That’s why we call it a prose poem. There’s some deep form at
These issues of form and formlessness
surface in the book through the figure of the Rorschach inkblot, reincarnation,
translation, and various other topics. But in the end, I’m not sure what to
call the book itself—prose or poetry, or something else altogether. I guess
it’s just writing!
I’m curious about the shift in your work
from the more straightforward lyric to this hybrid of the lyric essay and
first-person confessional. Do you see this collection as an evolution away from
that prior mode, or simply an extension of your ongoing work?
I think probably I’ve felt uncertain about the poetic line as a
unit of literary composition for some time now. I mean, I deeply revere so much
lyric poetry, but I myself have trouble writing a line without feeling somehow
fraudulent. It feels so artificial, as a way of breaking language, which is of
course what makes it so beautiful and artifactual and resonant—but I myself
don’t feel capable of doing that to language with any confidence. (Of course,
some poets might also say that there’s nothing more natural than the line as a
unit of language and meaning, but I won’t even go into all that now). The main
thing, I’d say, is that I write in prose not because I feel like it’s the more
‘authentic’ form, but rather because it’s the only form that’s available to me
as a writer at the moment.
This weird psychological complex about lineation began, I think,
sometime after 9/11, oddly enough. Once the towers fell, and following the invasions
of Iraq and Afghanistan and all of the carnage and disaster that ensued, I
somehow found it impossible to write a line of poetry. I could write sentences
and paragraphs and prose poems and in any number of other ways, but lyric form
sort of felt beyond me, like I’d experienced a kind of aphasia. Looking back, I
can see that’s why I turned to literary erasure for my next book. I could make
poetry—even lineated poetry—by erasing, rather than writing, as a means
of producing language. But that’s a whole other story.
I’d like to write lineated poetry again someday, though, and I
think maybe translation might be a way to ease my way into that. Translating a
line of poetry feels much more achievable to me than writing a line of
poetry. Now I just have to figure out what to translate. Then someday, who
knows, maybe I’ll write a sonnet or something!
How did you first begin your work in translation, and
what do you feel this practice brings to your own writing? You suggest that
translation can act as a kind of prompt, but have you been aware of any deeper
translated little things here and there, but maybe it would be more interesting
to talk about how I came to the translation in this book. To make a short story
long, I’d been reading up on the underworlds of various cultures in different
places, including the internet, where I came across a terrific little website
called “hell online” or something like that. It’s full of information about the
Egyptian underworld, the Chinese underworld, and so on. And there I found
mention of a Chinese tale, about a minor local official who’s called down to
the underworld to answer for war crimes from a previous life. So then I had to
find that story—because in lots of ways I could identify with this character,
as someone who feels weirdly and deeply complicit in injustices that seem “far
away,” and I wanted to learn more about what happens in the old Chinese tale.
But when I found it in the university library, it was only translated into
French, which I can barely understand!
I decided to translate Chen’s tale into English, and the translation in Underworld
Lit is a slapstick version of that whole process. Obviously things go quite
a bit off the track. But that was the fun of it, and in the end, I included a
more ‘faithful’ translation in the back of the book. It’s really a great little
story, though I can’t claim to have done it poetic justice. In the end, I think
I learned to trust in error from the whole experience. It can produce the most
Do you find your reading literary works in languages
other than English to be wildly different? Does each language bring with it a
different element that catches your interest? Are there even structural
elements in another language that don’t appeal to you as much in English?
works in other languages is something I don’t do very much of—I mostly rely on
translations, for reading the K’iche Popol Vuh, or the Egyptian Amduat,
or the Chinese tale of Chen, for example. But I do love to compare the
transliterations of the original K’iche with the word-for-word translations
into English of, say, Allen Christenson. You can see some of the complexities
and impasses that a translator of classical Mayan poetry must face, and you can
also find some wonderful literary effects in those word-for-word translations
that get lost when the translation gets polished and packed into ‘presentable’
English. The serial repetition of K’iche word order, for example, feels so much
more elemental and unrelenting than an English translation of the Popol Vuh
can really convey—it’s like Gertrude Stein in places! And of course Chinese
word-order is very different from what we do with English—with all sorts of
beautiful and haunting consequences when you look at a word-for-word
translation of a Chinese text. The same could be said of so many different
languages and writing systems: hieroglyphics, cuneiform, there’s so much out there.
So finding some structural elements of poetry in other languages—especially
‘dead’ or endangered languages—can bring unexpected resources and devices into
one’s work in English, at least in my own experience, absolutely.
Have you been writing much in the way of poetry
since Underworld Lit was completed? What have you been working
haven’t written a word of poetry since I finished the book and launched it into
the Covoid. I’ve just been sort of vegetating under lockdown and trying to stay
on top of my inbox. People email a lot more when they have nowhere to go! But
I’m thinking toward a series of lectures about poetry for the Bagley Wright
series at Wave Books. It will be a series of talks about poetry as a technology
of feeling, with lectures on wonder from Homer to Ronald Johnson, on loneliness
in Japanese poets from Saigyo to Basho, and on devotion in the ghazal tradition
from Hafez to Ghalib. Now I just have to figure out what to say about all this!