The PEN Ten: An Interview with Rushi Vyas
Rushi Vyas knows a thing or two about moving through grief. In When I Reach For Your Pulse (Four Way Books, 2023), his first collection of poems, Vyas examines his father’s suicide through the lenses of historical trauma, family dynamics, immigration, masculinity, abuse and of course, the lasting wounds of a self inflicted death, in a collection of stirring, courageous and deeply personal poems.
In conversation with Caits Meissner, PEN America’s director of Prison and Justice Writing, for this week’s PEN Ten, Vyas offers an intimate look at his process of writing, grappling with heavy subjects on the page, and the questions and associations of the role of “father” in the wake of a life changing experience of loss. (Amazon, Bookshop)
1. Rushi, when we met over lunch after a fellow poet made our acquaintance, and I remember you’re sharing the frame and context of the book you’d be working on, what became When I Reach For Your Pulse. Because the book revolves around grappling with your father’s suicide, I think about the complexity—the burden and challenge and maybe, in ways, gift—of having to share that story each time you share the news of this book. Talk to me about the texture of this, as it presents for you, if you would be so kind as to enlighten us.
I know many poets, particularly poets of color, grapple with feeling a pressure to “perform their trauma” after writing about difficult experiences. I anticipate that my feelings on this might change now that my book is in the world. But for now, I do see it more as a gift—even if it is a challenging one that demands energy, care, and attention. A day hasn’t passed since I found my Dad that I haven’t thought about him. Since his death is already close to my mind most days, sharing the story is a practice that works toward healing. And poetry helps me resist the illusory comfort of cliches, to expand my understanding beyond my specific situation, toward how the cultures we make foster an environment in which folks do not see another way out.
The poems teach me something new each time I read them. Consistent engagement with them—through writing, editing, publishing, and sharing—has led me to deeply value a collectivity that is contrary to the “American suburban” mindset I grew up with. I recently read alongside two poets in Aotearoa New Zealand—Emma Neale and Iona Winter—as part of a musical debut called “TwentyNineteen” by composer and musician Maddy Parkins-Craig. The piece is centered around working through depression and suicidality. We each expressed an anxiety around “dumping our pain” on others. But every time I have been self-conscious about being too intense, someone I don’t know speaks to me about their own experience. If poetry can begin to do that connective work off-the-page, it is worth it.
2. The question you will be asked millions of times, I am sure, is how writing this book helped you cope with trauma. Allow me to ask it from a different angle: did this book bring you in closer relationship with your father?
Through writing this book, I have become more invested in upending the repressive systems that enabled the worldview my father held until the end. That worldview is one common to “the American dream” adopted by many highly-educated immigrants whose migration was enabled by the Hart-Cellar Act—an extractive worldview shaped by the dominant forces of global capital in the wake of colonialism and imperialism. This book has helped me embrace the anger I have toward my Dad for what he did to the lives of my mother, sister, and me, while also deepening my understanding for what he feared and the type of love he felt he couldn’t afford to embrace because of the hostilities he felt in America. I know my father was tender with me when I was a child. I know he wanted what he thought was best for us. That is more than many other people have with their parents. I have begun to accept that the societal structures that enabled his abuse, could enable me and many other men to continue behaving similarly, often without knowing it, often in the name of “taking care of” or “knowing what’s best” for other family members under the “man of the house.” Coping with the trauma, honoring my father in his death, is about paying attention to how legacies of patriarchy, capital, and assimilation live within me. It is about untethering the assumptions and desires of life I absorbed through the suburban, American exceptionalist culture I grew up in. It is about asking every day, what can I relinquish?
“Coping with the trauma, honoring my father in his death, is about paying attention to how legacies of patriarchy, capital, and assimilation live within me.“
3. I happen to know you’ve just become a dad! I couldn’t help but lap up the natural metaphor in the arrival of literal babies coinciding with releasing this project into the world—circle of life turning points. How would you frame this book to your sons, and at what age? What would you hope they would learn from it?
Wow! What a big question. I was holding the twins the other day and thinking about how I might talk to them about their grandfather, their Bapu Ji. I don’t have a clue what age we will start talking about this. I do think I’ll frame the book as honestly as I can, that it was my attempt to learn how to live with some difficulties their grandfather had with living, and some tragedies and violences that we lived through. I hope that the book can show them a creative way of working through difficult life experiences, trying to learn how to live with difficult occurrences without grasping for the easiest, temporarily ameliorative explanation.
A friend of mine and brilliant scholar/healer named Huia Bramley, has posited a model for what they call “critical cultural recovery.” For Huia, this entails an active recovery and re-membering of stories from one’s ancestral past, along with stories of the lands that have shaped us. Huia’s model is rooted in an acknowledgment of indigenous pasts and the ravages of colonial violence that are ongoing today. How do we remember the past, keep cultural knowledge alive against pressures of erasure, and heal those parts of our culture that have been warped by trauma? I hope that this book can be one early step in our family’s untethering of inheritance—figuring out what to honor and what to let go of from our pasts. Since both of my children are assigned male at birth, I also hope that the book can open up conversations of how to be aware of the way people perceive them in the world, and to take responsibility in how we show up for each other and others with care and tenderness.
4. I took strong note of how “toxic”masculinity, as drawn by American idealism, appears across the book. The poem that dug into my heart the most was “Man of the House Falls in Obeisance to the Saint of the Otherwise Frugal,” which starts in childhood with the narrator adorning his mother’s secret jewelry, then learning about desire from cable porn, then the directive to not cry—to be a man—at father’s funeral, a fight and admonishment of mother… I mean, how we circle and circle this idea of being a man, and what it means, within this American context, juxtaposed against the immigrant family—all in a form of writing so routinely characterized as feminine! I’m curious about poetry as a form to address and begin to reconcile the problematic masculine—is it possible? Was it possible for you? Am I giving it too much credit to our form?!
Thank you for this generous and capacious reading of that poem. This poem is one that I think has quite a bit of what my teacher Roger Reeves would call “wobble.” What I mean by that is I think I was really risking something by revealing something that was such a secret, private ritual to me for so long, and that I might have used some “poetic language” to hide behind things I could have said in plainer speech. But, then again, one joy of poetry can be to find “unplain” ways to say things, to unlock polysemy. And I wanted this poem to have some lush turns of phrase.
I don’t know that this poem achieves a reconciliation of the problematic masculine. But it feels like a start, at least for me. It is a way for me to acknowledge the subconscious ways in which I have inherited a schema for how I should comport myself as “man of the house” after my father died. There is a paternalistic streak in me that is shrouded in an ethos of care when it comes to my family. This shows up in being overly concerned with the health of my mother and sister, and in feeling a sense of insecurity in having chosen to be a poet rather than a doctor or something with a stable income. I also have my partner to thank for this poem coming into shape. My partner Tessa is non-binary and has always supported me embracing the less “masculine” sides to myself, too. I have felt safe enough in our relationship to embrace so many aspects of myself that I pushed to the side in youth. Here, that “confession” of wearing all my mother’s jewelry is a way for me to say to those I grew up with that I’ve always performed a little more traditionally masculine than I actually am. And my guess and hope is that many of them also feel similarly. In this poem I am reclaiming disowned parts of myself and also admitting to ways in which my performed masculinity has failed and continues to fail others.
5. I often think of how we process pain, when ready to confront it, by “turning the crystal” and watching how the truth refracts light differently, turned this way, then that way. Here, in this book, you use poetry as both a confrontation and a soothing. There are many ways you “turn the crystal” through the forms in the book mirroring its concepts and content: Space and gaps and breathlessness indicate the loss of memory, leaps in understanding, the holes of grief. The repetition of words and revisiting poems under same titles points to psychic rumination in the face of the unanswerable. Rewriting the very same poem (the first in the book, “Effigy”) does this brilliantly—grasping, grasping. The use of prayer/chanting, a momentary remedy to that spinning, a meditation, a purposeful wielding of repetitive thought (Sanskrit also does so much work to place us contextually in your familial experience). Tell us about these form choices, and how you came to them—consciously or unconsciously, us poets love a good self surprise on the page!
My experience of grief and trauma has been one of revisitation, confrontation, deepening and revision. At some point, through conversations with friends, I stopped shying away from the insistence of the book’s obsession, and instead saw that this insistence was the point. These poems have gone through so many drafts and iterations, so many different forms. In the time between the book being accepted for publication in late 2020 and into the final proof stages in late 2022, I decided to invite the repetition of these poems in. I have seen poets reuse the same title several times within a book, but usually the poems contain completely different language. There are probably other books that have done what I’ve done here with “Effigy,” and “When I Reach for Your Pulse,” but it felt true to the process of grief and poem-making to allow them in.
The poet and my teacher Ruth Ellen Kocher told me after one of my first poem publications that, “publication doesn’t mean the poem is done.” And that has always stuck with me. Bhanu Kapil says something similar, that the book is complete, but the work continues. Even with the book out now, I see that these poems would look different if I sat with them now. It felt more honest to allow a glimmer of that process into the book without overdoing it. It is exactly like that verb you use, “grasping, grasping.” In grief, we do grasp and grasp because there are no satisfying, conclusive explanations, especially in relation to suicide. But like scaling a cliff, we need to find a way forward, even if it means trying again and again to get one foothold.
“How do we remember the past, keep cultural knowledge alive against pressures of erasure, and heal those parts of our culture that have been warped by trauma?”
6. The poem “scaffold” stunned me with its crystal turns. Here you bring to your father’s suicide the beauty and drama of your partner’s passion: arias, opera. Story lines are referenced, and quotes appear with the now-signature Maggie Nelson attribute as a side bar on the page. The poem is a masterpiece, but selfishly here, I want to hear about creative partnership. How do you and your beloved influence one another creatively, while retaining autonomy? I think we under-sell the beauty of what that exchange can really look like when operating at its highest potential, which it seems to me, is in full effect in this poem.
Thanks for this reading, Caits. I’m learning about these poems through your questions. Tessa and I give each other quite a bit of autonomy, I think, and work to celebrate each other’s work. We aren’t one of those artistic couples that jumps to critique. It helps that we work in different forms (although Tessa recently wrote three poems that were set to music and they’re quite good!). That emphasis on celebrating each other’s work helps sustain a foundation of confidence to keep making. It felt really nice to invite Tessa’s research into this poem. It was the first time I wrote such direct memories of their own scholarly and artistic questioning. Back when they were in the midst of performing the opera referenced in the poem—Dialogues of the Carmelites by Poulenc—and writing a dissertation on Mother Marie who is one of the main characters, I didn’t think about our conversations as “writing material.” I was simply listening as a partner who wanted to help them through a challenging time in their artistic practice. That’s how I operate in most of my life. I don’t like to think of my relationships as material. And so I don’t often write down the brilliant things my friends and partner say because I am mainly concerned with being present with what they need to figure out. It’s reassuring to know, though, that when the time is right, those conversations, at least in part, can come back to me.
7. Speaking of scaffolding, in a teaching role Eduardo Coral years ago offered me that word as a way to reference poems (“scaffold poems”) that hold up other poems in the book— the ones that create texture and build up the book’s world, often shorter and/or not necessarily the most potent as stand alone pieces (you wouldn’t necessarily submit them to a journal, for example, but they are necessary to the foundation of the project). Does this resonate with you conceptually? Tell us about the process of choosing poems to include and strip away from the collection, which poems were anchors, which were scaffolds, and they work in tandem.
I’ve had teachers talk about the scaffolding of poems, too—the phrases, words, prepositions, intros, and images that help us get into a poem, but that ultimately don’t need to be there. I think that’s another reason I was drawn to that word. The scaffold helps us build, the scaffold can be used to kill, the scaffold falls away and lets a building (or poem) stand on its own. The easy answer to how I chose what would stay and go in this book is a lot of trial and error. There are many poems that were in earlier drafts of this book—drafts that were finalists for things—that are not here. There are also poems, such as “Scaffold,” that came a little bit later.
I don’t know that my process is one that follows logic as much as intuition and feeling. A teacher told me to think about the movement of the book as a symphony. What are the movements of book? (This is another gem from Ruth Ellen Kocher—check out her new book Godhouse). She offered in the early stages that the book might feel big like a symphony. And while I didn’t end up following a symphony, I did listen to Béla Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” over and over again while making this book. That piece has five movements that vary quite widely. There are similarities in “bigness” of the first and last movement though. Also, if you’re wondering, I’m not actually a classical music buff! It was just nice to listen to music without words on repeat while making these poems.
I also relied on editors—friends, and then my press editors Martha Rhodes, Hannah Matheson, Sally Ball—to suggest which poems might not belong. For a while, I think I had a number of poems that provided, at least in my mind, relief to the main content of the book. Ultimately, I think those poems were just trying to lessen the intensity of the book without actually adding many overtones to the main themes. Maybe a lot of those poems will find life in a new manuscript, but I haven’t quite wrapped my head around that yet.
8. I’m still stuck on scaffold! One of those repeating words of yours. Here, the ending couplet in the poem “Double Split:”
Across the globe, a monk leaps from a mountain / to return as rain. The prayer’s scaffold falls.
There is a dance in this book between the use of religion and spirituality, and the shortcomings. How are poems like and not like prayers?
I’ll approach this question through the “Morning Chant” poems which use “prayers” or meditative verses from a chant to frame the poems. These are presented un-translated, or rather mis-translated, because I want to frame how prayers are more about sound than meaning for the speaker. There are often assumptions about the form of “prayer” that don’t really inform my engagement with it. Usually when we talk about prayer, we assume there is some sort of invocation, maybe some confession, followed by a request or wish that the supplicant wishes would be fulfilled. For this book, the prayers which appear in Sanskrit are sonic buoys that help orient the speaker(s) as they orbit grief. In my own spiritual practice, prayers are not so much about asking for anything or wishing anything will be fulfilled. Instead, they are more about framing the way I perceive the world, reminding me to stay supple and open to what experience can teach us.
I guess I see prayers as phenomenological tools rather than religious ones. The line that you quote, as I re-read it in this context, contains a couple different valences. When the prayer’s scaffold falls, the prayer itself might collapse. Or, perhaps the prayer itself will stand as all the fortifications around it fall. As I re-encounter the work now, I think that might be what the poem was trying to teach me. I used to attach some sort of purity to the prayers my mother taught me, some sort of austere meditativeness. Maybe this poem was trying to teach me that even as I confront mortality, I can let go of any notions of “purity” of trying to “be good.” Maybe? This is why I love poems. They come from me, but they have a lot to teach me even, like with this poem, six years after I write them.
“In my own spiritual practice, prayers are not so much about asking for anything or wishing anything will be fulfilled. Instead, they are more about framing the way I perceive the world, reminding me to stay supple and open to what experience can teach us. “
9. In Suicide Note in absentia, which appears across the book in 3 parts, you engage a chilling embodiment of your father’s voice, his childhood disappointments, his rage, his abuse of your mother, his shame. I am particularly struck by this line, crossed out, which so simply and effectively communicates the mind of a manipulator and their inability to wrestle with the impact of their abuse:
I slammed the door behind me and watched you blacken your own eye with your own fist.
I found this sequence profoundly moving, and it almost felt dangerous to me, slipping into this mind state. I held my breath while reading. Can you talk a bit about this sequence of poems, how you approached it, what courage it took to invent with the aid of a troubled and spotty history?
This sequence emerged as one long poem when I spent a weekend alone in the mountains and woods in Nederland, CO. Over the course of two days, the only writing I did was for this poem and it happened in between walks through the aspens, pines, and snow. I needed to attempt to approach something in my father’s voice, even if this poem doesn’t embody the materiality of his voice. I didn’t quite know if it would work or if it would ever be read by someone other than me. But, I don’t think my father wanted to be how he was. In the last year of his life, I don’t think he was able to realize what he had done or was doing to us all. It is a cliché to say “hurt people, hurt people,” but when they grow up in a culture that admonishes open communication or admitting when you might need help, it can be true. I also want to clarify that when I say, “culture” I do not mean Indian-American culture alone. Many of the same issues of patriarchy, stigma, and abuse are pervasive in dominant white cultures, too, though it looks different. By culture, I mean what Pierre Bordieau called the “habitus” or collection of behavioral norms that so many of us grow up amidst in the US.
I didn’t grow up with many family stories from the past. I think my mom is a natural storyteller, but the dynamics of the house stifled her ability to tell us stories about her family. What I used for this poem was glimmers that I did know about. I knew some stories about my birth and my sister’s birth. I knew that my grandmother (Moti Mummy) locked my father in a room to study when he was young. I knew a few details about my parents’ wedding, and some difficulties they encountered when living in Detroit. I knew the architecture of our house and those last few days for my father. I worked with those scraps. The strikethrough choice came in edits. I was not trying to show my father’s manipulation as a consciously malicious thing, but something that he knew at a bodily level, but couldn’t reconcile with the image he held of himself as a healer. I needed to try and let him have a voice, because ultimately, though he made our lives hell, he suffered.
This might be a stretch, but how do we treat and understand abusers in a culture of abolition? I see my father’s story as a tragedy, not because of his end, but because of how he lived—trapped in his own delusions to the point that he continually hurt those he loved. The most difficult part of this poem was sharing it with my mother, giving her the opportunity to decide whether this would see the light of day or not. And she wanted it in the world. We spent so much of our lives hiding the truth. I hope the truth is liberating karmically for my father as much as it is for us.
10. Okay, this question is about the notes! They are so generous, looping us into the Sanskrit words that appear and their meanings, rightfully attributing inspiration poets whose lines you borrowed into the text, and most joyously for me, the explanation of Newton’s laws of motion and their influence on the work. These notes tell a whole story of their own, operate as secret keys and teach the reader in more direct language than the poems that come before. It’s almost as if you do not want to repeat the mistake of the father not leaving a note when he disappears—forgive me for making this leap, it might seem crass or indelicate—a beautiful movement towards the kind of transparency you were disallowed. Am I inventing? Can you share about choosing to illuminate us this way?
The short answer is that I love when I read books with capacious notes or annotated bibliographies. I love seeing the thought and process that goes into how other poets make their poems. While I enjoy a beautiful, mysterious, well-crafted poem, learning more about what goes into the making of a poem only deepens my enjoyment. Also, I want this book to be read by folks who aren’t poets (as well as poets, too!), and to provide some footholds so that people can begin to embrace the strangeness of language in poetry. Notes can give some of those people that I know who don’t live with any interest in art an opportunity to see more legibly how poems are made. That’s my hope.
I do think you are onto something in that there is also an impulse toward a transparency or radical honesty that I was disallowed growing up. Some folks say that folks who grow up in households with an abusive parent, or in which they need to play a peace-keeping role can tend to be “over-sharers.” Maybe I’m just oversharing through the notes and in these responses! But I’d rather tend toward over-sharing than under-sharing. I’d rather tend toward more understanding than less. There is a lot in the book still that I chose not to translate or explain or share. But the notes give interested readers other places to explore.
11. Bonus. I am choosing one of our standard PEN Ten questions, because I am very curious to know your thoughts, my friend: If you could claim any writer(s) from the past as part of your own literary tradition, who would you claim?
Hmm… this is ever-evolving. And as someone who reads so many contemporary writers, my mind goes to those who are living and actively writing! But if we go with the past, the first name is actually Hermann Hesse, which is interesting in that his work would probably be considered pretty orientalist today. I might not be a writer today if it weren’t for my 20-23-year-old self reading almost everything he wrote. In particular, I think about his writings into depression, suicidality, and the madness of Euro-societal life. I am thinking now of one of his novellas, Klein und Wagner, which slogs through a dreary first few chapters to offer an active, heartbreaking imagining of the last moments of a character who dies by suicide. It was one of the first pieces of writing I read that went there. And it did so in a way that offered me one way of imagining my father’s last moments and a way to trek through the mare of grief.
Rushi Vyas was born in Toledo, Ohio. He is co-author of the chapbook Between Us, Not Half a Saint (GASHER Press, 2021) with Rajiv Mohabir, and his poem “Morning Chant: Scatter” was republished as a broadside by the Center for Book Arts. He earned his MFA from the University of Colorado-Boulder and his BS from the University of Michigan. His poems have been published in Adroit Journal, The Georgia Review, Indiana Review, Landfall (NZ), The Offing, The Spinoff (NZ), Tin House, and elsewhere. He has worked as a career counselor, curriculum developer, editor, and facilitator. In 2019, Rushi moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Ōtepoti Dunedin, Aotearoa New Zealand, where he currently lives, writes, and teaches.