An interview with the poet Ravi Shankar

by Jessica Locke—I am not sure what I expected when I went into my interview with Ravi Shankar. Perhaps someone aloof, made arrogant from success and world knowledge. The individual that I had the pleasure of sitting down to speak with was both down to earth and knowledgeable. It was as if a good friend had travelled the world and come back to tell me about all he’d learned.

Ravi Shankar was raised in northern Virginia although he lived in South India as well during his 3rd and part of his 4th grade years in school. He says that it was “transformative” living in Virginia and being an outsider has had a large impact on his writing. Shankar did his undergraduate work at the University of Virginia and his MFA at Columbia University.

As a poet he has received several awards including a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. His poetry collection, Instrumentality, was also a finalist for the 2005 Connecticut Book Awards. He is the founder and executive director of the online journal Drunken Boat, one of the oldest online literary journals around. Through all of his writing and publishing, Ravi Shankar still finds time to teach at Central Connecticut State College and holds a position with the first international MFA program at City University of Hong Kong.

One of my leading questions when talking with Mr. Shankar was about how he got into online publishing. He shared with me that it was really only a project started for fun with friends. He purchased the URL drunkenboat.com because “it sounded cool” and proceeded to simply publish pieces written by friends. This was at the height of the dot com boom as he describes it and never expected it to go anywhere. However, the internet being what it is soon had the journal drawing in work from the UK and other places around the world.

The discussion regarding his personal success with online journals led me to ask about the state of online publishing and what it meant to print. He said just as television did not kill radio, neither would online publication do away with print. However, we did get to discuss the many possibilities that come with online publication such as sound and visual arts that are just not possible in a printed journal. During his presentation just an hour later I was privileged enough to be lead through some of the interactive art published in the Drunken Boat by Ravi Shankar himself.

Outside of the online publishing world, Shankar also does a lot of work with international literature; this is evidenced by the joint work with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal: Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. The Norton Anthology they edited together was spawned from the aftermath of September 11, 2001 in an attempt to heal some of the wounds left behind through showing the world a shared humanity including the Middle East. However, this is not his only multi-cultural work. He says that it is “paradoxical” being an Indian-American writer, yet the things that he is interested in, he feels are universal; things such as “the nature of reality” or “philosophical concepts.” Yet, Ravi Shankar also sees the good in his unique situation such as attending Asian-American writing workshops and sharing different views, which might not otherwise be seen, with other writers.

Having the opportunity to speak with such a successful writer was a true gift to me that I hope to share with others through my account. For my last inquiries I took the time to ask Mr. Shankar what advice he might give to upcoming writers. He responded that new writers should “Heed the rhino” and “Have thick skin” thus not giving up, although even established writers such as himself are still rejected 80 to 90 percent of the time. He also stressed the reciprocity of reading and writing, advising not to limit oneself and to read things one might not necessarily like.

When asked, he said that the most rewarding part of his career has been the people he has had the opportunity to meet, the students whose lives he has touched and the friendships he has made. He is in the process of a new book with the working title, What Else Could It Be, which I will be eagerly awaiting. Until then, I am glad to have met the poet, Ravi Shankar, an individual whom I believe has and will continue to have an impact on more than just those who pass through his classroom.

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