Amit Majmudar has published fiction in The Kenyon Review and poetry in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. His first novel, Partitions, was published in 2011. He is also the author of two poetry collections, 0˚,0˚ and Heaven and Earth, which won the 2011 Donald Justice Prize. His essay “George Steiner and the Quest for Mystical Union” appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review.
KR: Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
AM: My essay is about George Steiner. It talks about how Steiner is a profoundly religious mind articulating ideas through the medium of secular literature, and how reading itself can be a mystical experience, albeit temporarily and on a smaller scale. The hardest part about writing the essay was getting the religious material into it in a way that wouldn’t turn off a secularized audience—not overstating things, not pushing the point.
KR: What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
AM: That I have a lot to learn yet!
KR: Apart from this one—can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
AM: I like Lapham’s Quarterly because it gathers interesting excerpts from several literary eras and languages, around a theme. You don’t come out of it feeling like you’ve wasted your time reading a bunch of early 21st century irony-loving mayflies.
KR: Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing
a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a man
becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write? Would you amend Larkin’s stages?
AM: This is one of those broad generalizations about poetry that fall apart when you look beyond the oeuvre of the poet doing the generalizing. Do we really think of Pope as having become “obsessed with an emotional concept” before writing his Essay on Man? Or Virgil going through that “first stage” before setting out to write his commissioned, didactic masterpiece on agriculture, the Georgics? As for the second stage, what about dramatic poems like those of Shakespeare? Shakespeare wrote his dramatic poems for people to watch and listen, not read. This was poetry that, unlike Larkin’s, was not meant for the page, however well it works on the page. And the third stage—this characterization of a poem as a “device” set off—is particularly 20th century, particularly odious: The imposition of the machine-metaphor on something with a heartbeat. I think Larkin is an excellent but limited poet; his three-stage model of poem-writing is, accordingly, excellent but limited.
KR: In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo on the practice of writing? What core beliefs do you have regarding literature and books?
AM: My credo comes from Eliot quoting the Upanishads in his notes to “What the Thunder Said”: Da, dayadhvam, damyata. Give, sympathize, control. That is both the art of life and the art of poetry. It seems fitting to me that they should be identical.
KR: Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
AM: I have not been fortunate enough to study literature formally or be mentored by anyone. That has its upsides and its downsides. My teachers have been dead poets, mostly, and no one dead poet in particular.