Interview with Ravi Shankar
Questions by Janice Weizman
Ravi Shankar wears many hats. Poet, teacher, essayist, and one of the founding editors of the online journal Drunken Boat, Shankar connects with the notion of creative expression in a range of forms.
He’s a Pushcart Prize-winning author, editor or publisher of eight published and forthcoming books and chapbooks of poetry and translation, including, with Priya Sarrukkai Chabria, Autobiography of a Goddess (Zubaan Books, 2015), a translation of the 8th century Tamil poet/saint, Andal; What Else Could it Be: Collaborations and Ekphrastics (Carolina Wren, 2015); Deepening Groove, which won the 2010 National Poetry Review book prize; and Instrumentality (2004), named a finalist for the 2005 Connecticut Book Award. Along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he was also the co-editor of W.W. Norton & Co.’s Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond (2008), called “a beautiful achievement for world literature” by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer.
Shankar is Poet-in-Residence and Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University, served as a visiting faculty member at Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta, Cyprus, and teaches in the first international MFA Program in City University of Hong Kong. He also taught writing at Columbia University, where he received his MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Poetry.
In 1999, he co-founded Drunken Boat, one of the first, and most innovative, online journals of writing and art. Editor Janice Weizman conducted this online interview on the vision behind Drunken Boat, and on Shankar’s take on issues of gender in writing and publishing.
Janice Weizman: How did you come to conceptualize and initiate Drunken Boat?
Ravi Shankar: Well, the apocryphal story, which I’ve told many times, is that the magazine began on a Brooklyn rooftop, which is true. I was just finishing up my graduate degree in Creative Writing from Columbia University and an old high school friend of mine, Mike Mills, had just finished up a graduate degree in Visual Arts, and we were at one of these hipster parties replete with dudes in mutton chop sideburns and trucker hats and their waif girlfriends, all sipping mint juleps from a mason jar, marveling at the impending sunset, when the conversation turned to what we were all planning to do. What began as a typical bemoaning session about how I wasn’t being published anywhere and how he wasn’t getting his work shown in any galleries suddenly turned into something more salubrious when I realized that I had bought an URL, DrunkenBoat.com, because of my love of Rimbaud, and that Mike had just mastered HTML in a web design course. We decided on the spot to put together a little zine, though I don’t think we even thought in those terms back then. Just a website where we could exhibit the work of the authors and artists we admired, just for a lark, but also as a subversive way to coopt the publishing process that had been shutting us out. And so we got to work, asking our professors and friends for artwork and poems, not really thinking too much about it, and we launched the first issue of Drunken Boat way back in 2000, a very turn-of-the-millennium kind of thing to do. Even at that time, we never suspected it would take off; it was just a project we were doing for kicks. It was only when we started getting responses to that first issue from places like the UK and Australia that we recognized what we just might have on our hands.
JW: Drunken Boat was one of the first literary magazines to appear on the internet. What made you choose the online format over print?
RS: Very simply, it was funding, or the lack thereof. When we started out, the overhead for creating a website was quite low. It still is if you can find someone to do the design. Because my collaborator came from the world of visual art and had some great web design ability, and I was able to do the editorial work for free, we didn’t have to pay for proofreading, design, layout and most importantly, printing perfect-bound letterpress versions of the journal. We also believed in the egalitarian distribution of art and it seemed likely that being online might help us reach more readers than we could by being in print. But there’s also another reason, which is just as crucial, and that is the work we were truly excited about—short films, web art, hypertext, sound art, digital animation—simply could not appear in print. What we sensed very early on was that a paradigm shift was underway, and even if we might not have articulated it in those terms back then, it was evident to us that we needed a new medium to countenance the innovative work we were encountering.
JW: As an editor, to what extent do you think that literary journals influence our current literary tastes and conversations?
RS: I think of the job of the editors of journals as similar to the way curators shape an exhibition in a gallery. We are providing a frame for some conversation to take place and I say that with full knowledge of Edgar Degas’ claim that “the frame is the pimp of painting.” That’s putting it crassly perhaps, but I think that in terms of what we value, literary journals add either consciously, or more often subconsciously, to what we value, to what our aesthetic sensibility at any given moment might be. When I lived in New York, I had a friend who was a talent scout for a major record label and he was continually going to punk rock shows in some derelict dive bar in the Lower East Side, for the very reason that he wanted to see what “the next big thing might be,” the sonic aesthetic impulse that was being generated at a grassroots level before it had been coopted, as he wanted no doubt to do, by the large hegemonic corporations. And I think literary journals serve a similar function; they allow for experimentation, play, discourse, and often times we are identified and aligned with the journals in which we publish.
JW: One of the unique features of Drunken Boat is specific literary/artistic projects, which you call “folios”. Could you talk a little about what these are and how you select and produce them?
RS: Well, publishing online clearly is different than publishing in print, and as detailed, we were not interested in replicating the paradigm of the page, but rather hoped to take full advantage of what this new medium might allow. So while that points towards multimedia works of art, rhizomatic texts and collaborative literature, there’s also another aspect of publishing online that has made a lot of sense to us, which is the archival quality of being able to publish work without having some of the same limitations of space and medium that another kind of publication might have. This began in Drunken Boat#3, which included a lot of work from around the world and as we were curating it, it seemed clear that there was a focus on “ethnopoetics” in the broadest sense. And so we created a straightforward table of contents but also an alternate way to engage the content, which was through the use of an interactive map. That got us started on thinking about the kinds of different thematic selections we might make and so over the years, we have published them as folios. A few stand out for me from over the years—one is an audio interview with Norman Mailer, where we found old cassette tapes that his biographer had stored in a shoebox in his closet and digitized them; another was a folio in aphasia and the arts, which was born of the time I spent with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Meredith who after a stroke had become completely speechless, and we were able to focus not just on his work, but also on other artists who had suffered a similar condition, like the composer Maurice Ravel; yet another was on the OULIPO movement, that group of artists, writers and scientists (and today, even chefs, cartoonists and filmmakers!) who all worked under constraints of various kinds; we even did a folio on the Black Mountain School where an intrepid intern of ours unearthed some of Buckminster Fuller’s syllabi, a letter from Albert Einstein, and a slurry video of Charles Olson reciting from the Maximus poems; and finally, one of my recent favorite folios was one we did on “Exploration” in Drunken Boat#16, where we partnered with WNPR to do a radio broadcast and published pieces from Arctic, Amazon and deep-sea explorers.
JW: Drunken Boat clearly makes a point of engaging with issues of race and gender inequalities. What is your take on the VIDA statistics which show that literary journals consistently publish and review more work by men than by women?
RS: We are very committed to countering this trend, and in fact recently a former staffer of ours said that his friends thought that Drunken Boat was a “chick’s magazine,” which I found terribly pejorative, but also a source of pride. Indeed nearly all our editors are female and we have a special mission to publish underrepresented voices, which certainly include those of women. As for what I make about the VIDA statistic about leading journals publishing more men than women? Well I take a lot more umbrage at the statistics from the US Census Bureau that show clearly the gender pay gap, where women doing a similar job earn roughly 75% what a man would. Sexism exists on every level of our society and while we at Drunken Boat clearly and demonstrably are dedicated to overturning that bias, I think to fixate on the problems of a lack of publishing opportunities for women is perhaps to miss the larger point about ways in which a dominant male narrative is subtly encoded in many other arenas. For instance, I’m much more taken by Northeastern University Professor Benjamin Schmidt’s analysis of the nearly 14 million student reviews on the website RateMyProfessors.com, where male professors are much more likely to be described as “brilliant,” “intelligent” and “smart,” while their female counterparts are more likely to deemed “mean,” “harsh” and “annoying.” Societal stereotypes are manifest on many planes and so it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that it’s also true in publishing.
JW: What do you think about the claim that men who write are “privileged” because they are men?
RS: Having lived most of my life as a member of a minority in America, I have grown up attuned to this idea of privilege. Even keeping in mind the valuable statistics that organizations like VIDA have unearthed, it strikes me as reductive and woefully inadequate to make such an overarching claim as male writers are “privileged”. The matrix of privilege is multilayered and complex. I can still distinctly recall being in graduate school at Columbia University and sitting around a writing workshop where one of my female classmates, without any hint of irony or self-reflection, said about someone’s poem, “well, it reminds me of when we were all children and could ride bareback on a horse without a saddle.” Was she less “privileged” than I, who had never ridden a horse to that point in my life, might have been? And was I not “privileged” even to be able to be sitting around a conference table on the Upper West Side, with my belly full of sushi, debating the mechanisms of line-breaks? Was I not simultaneously “privileged” to be a member of the so-called “model-minority,” another blanket statement that does more harm than good (for as I always like to rebut, Cambodian and Laotian-Americans are among the poorest immigrant populations in the US), as well as “underprivileged” in light of the fact that years later just blocks away from where I once sat under a seal of three crowns and a school motto which proclaimed In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen (“In Thy light shall we see light”—whose thy? who is we?), I would be caught in a “stop-and-frisk,” arrested on an erroneous warrant and called a “sand nigger” by the NYPD? I am wary of generalization in writing and in thinking, ad therefore could not support any blanket claim of privilege.
JW: It’s been said that the mechanisms of sexism in the literary community are subtle, in the sense that no editor consciously declines a work because it’s written by a woman. If this is so, how do you understand the workings of gender inequality in publishing?
RS: Only a few editors, like Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, are willing to be brave enough to risk going full douchebag (everybody knows you never go full douchebag!) in making the claim, “The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books….while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.” That’s not a subtle statement, but I think in its bluntness illuminates what might more subtly exist—women have less buying power than men, earn less wages according to the gender gap, and the insidious attraction of wealth to itself means that male writers will propagate themselves. Additionally, if there are more male editors in the industry then there’s perhaps an unconscious bias towards more masculine subjects, the way Hollywood is dominated by explosions, car chases, and scantily-clad actresses sent out to pasture when their first wrinkle appears, primarily because those in positions of power, including directors, producers and heads of film companies are primarily male. It’s a self-propagating phenomenon, a perversion of the Darwinian ideal of “survival of the fittest” (Darwin who, by the way, was an unreconstructed racist, who wrote, among other things, “[a]t some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”), and it’s not surprising to me that the bias that exists in larger society also exists in publishing.
JW: To what extent does the gender of the writer influence the writing?
RS: I think gender obviously influences writing, because we’ve all been acculturated a certain way on the basis of our gender and sexuality. It’s a fact that men are taught and treated a different way than women, just as there are biological differences between genders that it would be rash to dismiss. I can only imagine that having a menstrual cycle and the capacity to carry a child to term in pregnancy would have some effect on the way we see the world and perhaps more importantly, on the way the world sees us. But I also truly believe that the imagination is a democratic republic, born of what Wallace Stevens wrote, the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is, and in its pure inflections has the capacity—not the obligation or even the predilection, mind you—of being without age, gender, race or class.
JW: Do you believe that writers are capable of inhabiting the consciousness of the opposite sex fully enough to write authentically?
RS: Yes, just as I believe in empathy as one of the greatest and most necessary principles of which we, as a species, are capable. An ineluctable reciprocity of attention and innate sense of shared humanness marks those few books by male authors which persuasively taken on female characters. For me these include such classics as Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but also more contemporary novels such as Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Jim Harrison’s Dalva, Peter Høeg’s Smila’s Sense of Snow, Norman Rush’s Mating, Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, and even Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha come to mind as books where a male writer takes on a female perspective with authenticity and grace. And on the other side, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. It’s telling as I think about this that so many fewer women writers spring immediately to mind, which indicates to me that there is perhaps a greater barrier or more self-reflection necessary for a woman to colonize the mind of a man than vice-versa. But absolutely, I think that art transcends gender and that it is possible to inhabit the consciousness of someone else with authenticity. Why we might choose to do so is fodder for another discussion.
JW: Does life imitate art or does art imitate life?
RS: Just as I’m wary of generalization, I’m a little suspect of either/or propositions, simply because I think the relationship between art and life is highly symbiotic. There are certain modes of literature, most notably social realism, where the purpose seems to be to describe and to articulate to oneself what life is like, espoused in part by Henry James who claimed, “the art of the novel is a direct impression of life” and perhaps further developed by someone like Jonathan Franzen; but then again there’s a great anti-mimetic tradition that can be traced back to Aristophanes and finds embodiment in Oscar Wilde’s assertion that, “the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.” Personally I think it happens both ways, but I must admit that I’m fascinated by how certain aspects of science or speculative fiction have predicted phenomena that have come true. Like Ray Bradbury describing little seashells or thimble radios in Fahrenheit 451 which presage the use of ear buds, Aldous Huxley’s description of soma in Brave New World which seems the goal of many pharmaceutical companies, or H.G. Wells’ short story “The Land Ironclads” which augured the use of tanks as military weapons. What’s truly terrifying is how certain dystopian visions like George Orwell’s in 1984 have come true as we move closer and closer to being a surveillance state. So I think art is infinitely adaptable, predictive but also representational, and that making, but also engaging with it can teach us what it means and what it will continue to mean to be human.