Vidyan Ravinthiran on being a poet

Posted by Vidyan Ravinthiran

“Do not be bullied into thinking there are certain things one must do, certain events one must attend, certain behaviours one must display to be a poet.”

Like many, I began writing poetry as a teenager. I was a great admirer of John Keats in particular, and tried to emulate his big ode structures – without too much success. At school we were studying different poets, Philip Larkin for instance, and I separated myself from this, insistent that what I read in my private time was real poetry. But Larkin also wants, on some level, to be Keats, and I think I took a fair bit from him too . . . I grew up in Leeds; my parents are Tamils from Sri Lanka, who sent me to elocution lessons, partly to correct a speech impediment, and partly to ‘correct’ my accent. As a result, I spent hours learning how to read verse out loud (you should always, my teacher told me, place a kind of syrupy lingering pause at the end of the line) and also watching the very movement of my tongue and teeth in the mirror as I shaped words. Now this fascination with sound and rhythm is at the heart of my verse and also the literary criticism I write – so I’m grateful for it, I won’t pretend to be agonized or exiled from a mother-language (whether that means the language of my parents, or the Leeds accent and idioms I would have had). Tamils in particular have a deep affection for English – an avid respect for it, which derives from colonialism – and I am blessed by that impure history.

As an undergraduate at Oxford, I entered a poetry competition for works of verse not exceeding 300 lines. I wrote a poem of precisely 300 lines, and was astonished when I didn’t win. I was running the university poetry society at this time, and believed I knew what it took to be a poet; this was all a necessary blow to my unwarranted self-esteem. It was at this point I realized it would be difficult. I went on to a Masters at Cambridge, but decided not to get so involved with the poetry community there until I knew what I was doing. I read a lot of verse, including contemporary verse, with a pencil in hand. I began to see where poems worked and where they didn’t.

I had two formative experiences with poetry magazines. First, I wrote a poem about a trip to the U.S where, in the aftermath of 9/11, I was interrogated (I shouldn’t exaggerate; there were daft accusations, but no waterboarding) at Immigration, and asked if I were a terrorist. It was a mad situation – I was carrying a number of books in my suitcase, one of them Ulysses, and the bloke picked it up, trying to make amiable chit-chat in the middle of this madness, and said “Joyce, he’s good, isn’t he?” I wrote a poem about this and submitted it and had a sympathetic rejection saying that even though these events may well have occurred, their presentation wasn’t convincing in the poem. This was a paradox which infuriated me at the time but which I have learned from. It was good advice. Then I sent a sequence of poems about a love-affair to Magma, which was being guest-edited by Roddy Lumsden. (They were unusual at this point in taking email submissions, which I found less terrifying than actually posting them off – more immediate.) He took one poem and asked if I’d like to put together a pamphlet with Tall Lighthouse. This became At Home or Nowhere, a phrase taken from the essayist William Hazlitt which I now sometimes wish I’d saved for my Collected, or something – I’m not good at titles and don’t expect I’ll ever come up with one better!

The pamphlet was published in 2008 and I began sending poems off to magazines in earnest. Sometimes I would write at great speed and really let the editors do the task for me, of locating the good poems and eliminating the bad. (You can spend ages retooling a poem and have it come to nothing, whereas a short lyric written in one burst may turn out to be the real thing – you never know.) When large publications like Poetry Review and the TLS took poems, these were extraordinary moments. I required their encouragement. But when I eventually came to put together for Bloodaxe Grun-tu-molani, my first collection, I rewrote and sometimes excluded poems picked up by magazines. I wanted to do things my way, and had, by that time, the confidence to do so. It’s vital for a poet to take the advice of their peers and submit themselves to criticism. The tricky thing is knowing when to hold your ground, and when to change things up. It’s rather easy, in a way, to be the person who’s either always stubborn, or a pushover. You have to walk the line between these positions.

I see myself as someone who occupies multiple positions – I’m Sri Lankan and English; I’m an academic, as well as a poet with no real interest in writing ostentatiously difficult or ‘academic’ poetry. (Sometimes it comes out that way without me knowing; my partner, Jenny, writes fiction, and at one point I told her the best way for her to edit me was to flag up absolutely every line which seemed confusing, and not to assume there was some secret poetic meaning which she simply didn’t understand.) I’ve been extremely fortunate in being funded at various points and in various ways to keep studying – I’ve had time to read, to write, to think. I now teach full-time at Harvard, but the poems nevertheless get written. I suppose I’ve also been fortunate in that I haven’t experienced writer’s block for any long unendurable stretch – the impulse always returns. I’ve written far too many poems as a result, many of them terrible and to be permanently quarantined within the ‘Not Yet’ folder on my computer. But I do enjoy writing. It is difficult and valuable and in touch with history and yet it is pleasurable and unalienated in a manner which separates it from ‘work’ – as society understands that phenomenon. Sometimes writing a poem exhausts me. Sometimes I come out of it with more energy than I went in with.

About Vidyan Ravinthiran

Vidyan Ravinthiran was born in Leeds, to Sri Lankan Tamils. His first book of poems, Grun-tu-molani (Bloodaxe Books, 2014), was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize and the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. His second, The Million-petalled Flower of Being Here (Bloodaxe Books, 2019) won a Northern Writers’ Award and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. It was shortlisted for the 2019 Forward Prize for Best Collection, the 2019 T.S. Eliot Prize and the 2021 Ledbury Munthe Poetry Prize for Second Collections. After teaching at the universities of Cambridge, Durham and Birmingham in the UK, he now teaches at Harvard in the US. He is the author of Elizabeth Bishop’s Prosaic (Bucknell, 2015), winner of both the University English Prize and the Warren-Brooks Award for Outstanding Literary Criticism. On top of his academic work, he writes literary journalism, and is represented as an author of fiction by the Wylie Agency.

My five tips for poets starting out

1. The most important thing is to have an absolute and insatiable fascination with language. And to pay attention.

2. There’s good and bad poetry, there are responsible and irresponsible writers, but if your whole position comes to depend on feeling that other people are in the wrong, you might wish to re-examine it.

3. Read what isn’t ‘relatable’ – stand up for your roots but go wary of tribes.

4. Don’t be bullied into thinking there are certain things one must do, certain events one must attend, certain behaviours one must display – to be a poet. You don’t have to, for example, become an networker and entrepreneur of yourself, if you don’t want to – by which I don’t mean to criticise poets who live differently to me – the trick is to, as the bonkers Victorian genius Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, ‘admire and do otherwise’. I, for example, review, and I co-edit an online magazine, Prac Crit – but one doesn’t have to involve oneself with book talk in this way.

5. Oh, and don’t worry too much about the small audience for poetry. Take it from me: you can get used to being part of a tiny, put-upon minority . . .