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 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.


Meacham Highlight: Rebecca Makkai

by Lauren Staten—Every year, The Meacham Writers Workshop brings a weekend full of reading and critiquing to Chattanooga and some of its finest writers. Whether your work is in the midst of others, waiting for you to nervously clutch the paper and read it for the eager listeners, or whether you are in the body of those eager listeners, The Meacham Workshop is always rewarding. In the past, guests such as Ralph Burns, Ted Howard, and even Tim O’ Brien have been among those in the crowd as well as those who read their work. This year, Rebecca Makkai, the successful Chicago-based short story writer released her debut novel, and made a debut appearance at the Meacham Writer’s Workshop.

Makkai’s first book, The Borrower, was published in May, and those who attended the workshop in Chattanooga this weekend were granted the priveledge to hear her read several excerpts from this piece. Makkai also held conferences with students and guests, sharing advice and personal experience to writers of all levels. Many who met with her said Makkai gave extremely helpful information that was a fresh breath compared to what they knew and usually hear. Her approach is very different from most, which called for quite the publicity at the workshop this weekend. Her name has been repeated around campus and among those who prepared the events of the weekend, praising her work and anticipating reading more of her work.

Meacham Writers Workshop has met many great writers, published writers, as well as not-yet-published writers. It encourages practical steps and revision techniques for a writer to reach their potential, and allows the writers to get fresh and new opinions from other writers, including writers like Makkai. It is always gratifying to hear an author read his or her work aloud, as it captures the full affect of their work, and magnifies its’ beauty. For Makkai, awareness was raised on her debut novel, and for her as a writer. For Meacham-goers, Makkai breathed her wisdom and experience into their work, giving those of us whom are nervously clutching our paper in fear of reading it to the eager listeners, a final push to just go for it. After all, the worst circumstance would be that some great writer such as Ralph Burns, Ted Howard, Tim O’Brien, or Rebecca Makkai are lurking in the body of listeners. And really, how bad is that?

Album review: “Coexist” by the xx

by Lauren Staten—The common question, is there sound when a tree falls but no one is there to hear it, is answered by the unobvious duo of Romy Croft and Oliver Sim.

The XX released their second album, Coexist, on September 10th, and I’m one of the few who saw this tree falling.

This album was no surprise after the first, and no disappointment. Croft and Sim keep you hanging on to every word with their slow, minimalist approach. It’s easy to picture the two sitting in an all black room with their instruments, naked, raw, pale and intent on the unusual songs. As Sim says in one of the songs, it’s “the things that no one else says.” The etched mutterings of Croft and the smoother tones of Sim is a deadly combination.

It feels like wooden souls that are being carved out in front of the listener. Painful and torn, elegant and soft. They have ventured some since the first album, applying some modern undertones to their songs; using less xylophone. But it remains familiar to their common “Basic Space” tune.

The alternative artists created a sophisticated album that is timeless. An album containing tracks that can be used in so many places. Simply painful, yet effortless. Scenic sounding. Like when a tree falls and no one hears it.

This album has the potential to startle so many when they walk upon the strewn branches.