Rushi Vyas currently lives in Colorado where he teaches creative writing and is working toward an MFA at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He has a degree from the University of Michigan and is a medical school dropout. He serves as Managing Editor of Timber Journal and attended the 2017 Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. His writing has appeared in The Offing, The Journal, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and tap Magazine.
Interviewer (SD): I read your “Apollo 13” poem in Tinderbox Poetry Journal and this part below made me reconsider the particular tensions of my living in two places (black in a mostly white work/school world, and country in a city world).
This is how space reminds the boy that he lives two places
at once why later at karate class anxiety sidekicks his ribs
renders him airless when he cannot do the splits
The “splits” you mention took on another meaning for me also, making me think that when I’m in one of my worlds, I’ve been sidekicked airless, and have felt that I couldn’t do the split, meaning that maybe it’d be advantageous to completely assimilate to one world so I wouldn’t have to split. Is any of that relevant to your life at all? If so, how do you practice that type of flexibility needed to do the splits?
Rushi Vyas (RV): Your question is awesome. Thank you for being so kind and reading that poem so generously! What you are talking about is what I hope the poem expresses, or at least it is similar to what I was feeling when I wrote it. I feel and have felt the split in many ways: as an Indian-American brown boy raised in white suburbia, as a cis-hetero male who has always been interested in talking about “feelings,” and most recently as a writer in academia more concerned with poetry than (de)constructing academic arguments. In the poem, too, I am thinking about love and care; the splits that occur when we are torn between loving two entities who ask such different things of us in return. Maybe two parents who show love in very different ways. Maybe being torn between a lover and a disapproving family. To extend beyond people, the splits could be to love a country for the opportunities it has offered my family against my love for the people this country hurts the most.
So, yeah, quite relevant to me from a young age. On a physical level, I have never been able to do the splits! I can’t even touch my toes. My hamstrings have always been tight. But on an emotional level, developing this metaphorical flexibility was necessary to “succeed” in the world. As a kid and into my early twenties, I really wanted to assimilate into the white, suburban world I grew up in. I wanted to be one of the boys. “Flexibility” became a game of how I could best sneak into that world. I, for the most part, tried to distance the Indian elements of my home life from my interactions with the white world. But, inevitably, my skin would betray my non-whiteness no matter how often I would try to think of myself as white. If I could take advantage of my otherness—get away with things due to the smart Indian stereotype—I would. I would mock Indian accents and make fun of my brown skin before others had a chance to. It was a way of diffusing difference in many of my interactions. For the most part, this worked or felt like it did. But I was never my full self in that world. I kept secret much of what happened in my mind—the Sanskrit chants my mom taught me as a kid, the culture that was my heritage. I never learned my parents’ language. I most often feel “airless” when I return to the Indian community I grew up with. Whether it is for weddings of family friends or a temple ceremony, the airlessness is this insecurity and shame, not towards that culture, but this guilt I feel for once being ashamed of the Indian culture in my blood.
In my mid-twenties, I started working as a career counselor for college students. That work, coupled with “coming out of the closet” about practicing meditation out of the Indian tradition in which my mom raised me, helped me reorient my practice of flexibility. I don’t see it as a game of assimilation anymore, but more one of listening, deep listening. I still fail to practice this at an activism level, but on a day-to-day level, I try to listen to anyone I interact with, no matter which of the “worlds” that person inhabits. That one-to-one connection with any individual is something I strive to be one hundred percent honest in, however slippery and shape-shifting that honesty might feel. Assimilation is always a temptation and it still is, because, well, the idea of it is safe. Feeling “in,” even if it is temporary and illusory, is something I’ve always, embarrassingly, wanted. But it’s those contemplative chants my mother raised me with that ground me today. I’m less afraid to risk floating in the space between worlds. I still can’t do the splits, but I’m more comfortable hovering between the worlds. I don’t feel the need, as much, to lay a foundation in one or the other.
SD: Man, I really appreciate your thoughtful response, your honest and vulnerable response. I also wanted to ask you more about your writing specifically within poetry. I know you said you feel a split between academia and poetry, “..and most recently as a writer in academia more concerned with poetry than (de)constructing academic arguments.” That made me think of the times I struggle/have struggled when writing, and wondering Is this too black, too country, etc? So within the poetry realm, do you feel like you’re performing a type of splitting also? Do you feel like you’re writing under the white gaze, the male gaze, or any other gazes?
RV: I am definitely affected by the gazes you talk about. It took me a long time to bring my “home” language(s) into poetry. I did not use Sanskrit or Gujarati (family languages) in poetry until a few years ago. I did not want to other myself. I wanted to write poetry like the mainstream (largely white) poets I had read. Until one of my teachers, Ruth Ellen Kocher, noticed my self-censorship it hadn’t even crossed my mind to bring in all this other language I had. For some reason, I wanted to fit into that cliche, austere, contemplative mode of writing I came to see as poetry. I still, admittedly, do love what a lot of that work has to offer. But there is so much out there. Layli Long Soldier’s latest book Whereas is mind-blowing. Solmaz Sharif’s Look. Rajiv Mohabir’s The Cowherd’s Son. There are so many poets writing with such rich, cross-cultural language that I feel so grateful to be writing right now. I have so many models to navigate out of the white gaze I was so conditioned to think and write from.
Another gaze that I am hyper-aware of is the hetero-cis-male gaze. I hope to avoid writing from that, and it is constantly something I am thinking about. Or rather, if any writing does come through that gaze, how can I critique the history of violence associated with it and deviate from/disrupt that energy. Some of my favorite poets, ones that I am learning from right now, have some cringe-worthy poems that unconsciously operate from the male gaze that reduces women to thoughtless objects of desire. Patriarchy enables this, but so does the guise of “poetry” or the “poetic image.” It is difficult to read those moments, to see “heroes” write such trite, reductive lines. Even if I get really good at writing poetry—the syntax, the image, the sound—that isn’t all the work of a writer. I write to learn about myself. I write to grow and challenge myself to get better. I never want to be one of those poets that ends up unconsciously writing under a gaze I’ve been conditioned into. I know that it will happen, but that’s why I look to my community of peers to check me, to help me see my own blind spots and grow out of them.
Right now, a lot of my writing is primarily in English. Sometimes, Gujarati words, Sanskrit chants, or cross-linguistic neologism from my house will enter into the poem. I’m less worried now about writing something that is “too-brown” since it seems so important to brown up the writing world. But I am worried about subconsciously trying to appeal to the white other I grew up imagining myself to be. I am worried about moments when my male privilege rears its pimpled head. There’s no way but to write through it. I just get other eyes on it and meditate on work before I publish it.
SD: Yes! I appreciate you being aware of the many ways your male privilege will show up and you finding strategies within your community to check it. It’s something I have to keep working on too, checking my male privileges. Your response also reminds me of something Toni Morrison said about her work refusing the need to respond every minute to the white gaze. I also noticed your use of your “home” languages in your poem “Attachment,” also in Tinderbox. I liked your use of those languages because I don’t know those languages, and it made me slow down and try to pronounce the words, to feel them in my mouth. And then because it’s easy, I put them in Google translate, and it had no answers for me, only the same phrase in English. Google called me out on my laziness. So I asked my friend, Swarandeep, if he’d help translate it for me (he hasn’t time yet). Which I should’ve done in the first place, go to an actual person. So I love that your poetry encouraged me to connect with another community. My last question is big (or not), and I ask it because you put “home” in quotes, and it’s something I think about often, so what is home to you and why did you put in quotes?
RV: I think part of why I put it in quotes is indicative of where I am as a writer right now. I am still writing towards my voice, or writing through the many voices I find in myself. Home, in the context of me as a writer right now, is a slippery concept. I use quotes as a placeholder when I don’t quite know the word I’m looking for. Here “home” is the closest approximation I can make to what I am talking about. Usually, when we think about a native tongue, we assume the speaker is familiar, at least intuitively, with all aspects of that language—grammar, usage, idiom, pronunciation, and meaning. For me, Sanskrit and Gujarati undoubtedly influence my consciousness and way of being in the world, but I don’t speak them fluently. I don’t have the semantics down. I’d make a shitty translator. In “Attachment” the child does not understand the language either. Sound is privileged. My mom would teach my sister and I these slokas, but never the translation or meaning. These languages feel like part of my “home” but only the sonic element of them. That’s why I hesitate to say home without quotations. I can’t claim the languages like they claim me. The boy in that poem is like me, arrested and seduced by the sound. The gift of not learning direct translation has been the freedom to imbue these songs with a meaning symbolically relevant to me. I think it’s why I gravitate towards instrumental music more than music with lyrics. I can “interpret” (there they are again) modulations in pitch and rhythm in ways that my body and life feel them. There is a freedom in that that words often restrict since the semantic element is privileged. That’s not to hate on semantics. I love words and that’s why I’m writing poetry. But I often find home in something a little freer than a specific, tethered geographical place—sound and the people I’m connected to through it.