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The story behind a poem associated with 9/11
ONE of the poems the American public might commonly associate with 9/11 was ironically, not written after the terror attacks. Pulitzer Prize winner Vijay Seshadri was actually thinking of a close family friend whom he heard had just been diagnosed with cancer, and it triggered memories of US President John F Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
"The poem Disappearances is about, among many other things, the intersection of public and private memory, and it revolves around the Kennedy assassination. I was a child (of course) and was playing with the children of the woman (who speaks in the poem) - I always called her Mrs Chess, but her first name was Nancy. They were our neighbours in Columbus, Ohio," relates Mr Seshadri.
He wrote the poem in the summer of 2001, and had sent it to The New Yorker, where he'd once worked as editor. "They published it immediately in the aftermath of the attack because the death of President Kennedy was the one event in recent American history comparable, in the nature of the impact it had on the country, to 9/11," reckons the poet, who'd been born in Bangalore, India but had grown up in the United States since he was five years old.
He understands the legitimacy of the magazine's decision, but the only thing that bothered him is that people would think he wrote it in response to 9/11. "I don't think I could have written a poem in response to 9/11 to save my life. I was just too shocked," Mr Seshadri recounted in a previous interview he did with Poets and Writers magazine.
His poems tend towards subjects that he has deep knowledge of, he explains.
"You have to get to the root of something to write a poem, and that takes time, familiarity, and immersion, and deep rather than superficial knowledge. I've written poems that use knowledge I've just discovered, but that knowledge is a trigger for something else, and the trigger is unexpected and is not a product of forethought or research."
Since 9/11, Mr Seshadri has seen terror move people away from thinking about the causes of political conflict to dealing with the consequences of political decisions that in some cases they themselves - in the West, anyway - undertook, and went bad.
"I think before 9/11, we were much more willing to think that political solutions were available to deal with the problems that lead to the creation of terrorists, and argue about the ways in which we, in America, might have been implicated. We were in a position to address the causes, and at least willing to discuss them," he explains.
Now, the country has fallen into the war mentality, Mr Seshadri laments. "And that is going to be hard to get out of . . . I don't quite know how it's changed us deeply but it's certainly altered the surfaces of American life."
Terror hasn't impacted literary journalism though as much as the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) movement, he believes.
Mr Seshadri won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his poetry book 3 Sections.
"And the spectre of global warming has had a more enduring effect on the American literary mind in the past decade or so than the war on terror," he adds.
- Vijay Seshadri will be participating in three Singapore Writers Festival events: Crossing Boundaries II (reading) on Nov 12, 2.30pm; Dislocation and Cultural Identity in Transition (panel), Nov 12, 5.30pm, and A Poetic Pursuit Called Fishing on Nov 13, 5.30pm. All at The Arts House. For more information about tickets, please go to www.singaporewritersfestival.com